Posted by: Anna | June 7, 2011

Slow Boat to Huey Xai

We decided to explore the North of Laos a little, further extending our time here and pushing back our flight yet again. Thankfully Laos Airlines is extremely flexible. Luang Prabang has allowed us to be soft, spoiled travelers. We can have any Western food we want, nothing is far away (if you do need to travel further, you can always hire a tuk tuk or a bicycle), there is a spa on every corner, our hotel had good AC and a soft comfy bed…in short, it was rather like being home (substitute bicycle for car, add tasty grilled chicken and papaya salad, and divide all prices by 5).

Heading to the North is going to be more of an adventure again – it’s much more rural and developing, as opposed to the tourist mecca that is Luang Prabang. To get there, you can either take a bus (no AC, on potholed mountain roads) for hours (it takes around 13) or you can take the two day slow boat. The slow boat cruises up the Mekong, slowly, through lush green jungle. We decided on the slow boat.

On the river, it passes other slow boats, kids fishing on the river, tiny villages, and women doing their washing. The Mekong is a major river; it serves as the artery of the region encompassing Northern Thailand, Southern China, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Life revolves around the river in many ways, with a great deal of the population and the food coming from the Mekong. If you had asked me before we arrived in Southeast Asia to tell you something, anything about the Mekong, I’m not sure I could have offered much more than – it’s in Asia. Again, I am struck by how European-centric my foreign knowledge is, and how very, very little I know about the rest of the world.

Yesterday, in the drizzling rain, we walked ten minutes to the boat dock with our backpacks and plenty of food (nutella, peanut butter and banana sandwiches – seemed unlikely to give us food poisoning) and water. We made the treacherous climb down the rocky hill, crossed a rickety plank, and were the first passengers on the boat. We sat down in the “soft seats “(they look like the back seats of a 1992 minivan) and stowed our bags under our feet.

Tommy lounging in his soft seat. We ended up picking up a row of seats and turning them around, making ourselves a little area of four seats where we coul prop up our legs and play gin easily.

As soon as we were settled, the rain started in earnest; although we had boarded the boat early, we were happy to have missed the rain. Strangely, as people boarded the boat, every Laos that would walk past us would smile and bow slightly to me. I have no idea why – I am no visiting dignitary or anyone special….Tommy didn’t get any bows. I guess they can spot his lack of dignitary-ness a mile away. The boat has a mixture of Laos and foreign passengers, although we don’t mix. Somehow, the seating is clearly segregated. Our boat has all French passengers except us and the Laos. All the Laos sat in the front of the boat, and all the tourists in the back. We pulled out the muffins we had bought last night for breakfast at a “French” bakery (nevermind that you rarely see a muffin in France); this bakery makes delicious muffins! We had also gotten a cut-up pineapple for 5000 Kip (about 65 cents) – it was sweet and juicy. A good breakfast and a good start to our adventure.

Right on time, the boat set off. The drizzling rain picked up, making the views very stunning with rain softening the edges of the rocks jutting up on either side of the river, and painting everything a soft, dull green. Tommy and I smiled at each other, happy with our choice to take the slow boat.

This was the view from the boat. The jungle is shrouded in clouds.

We had asked to see the boat before we booked our tickets. This boat wasn’t the same one as the one we had seen, but it seemed the same for all practical purposes. This was true, except for the bathrooms. The one we looked at had two western toilets. Our boat had one squatter….with clothes lines and the boat staff’s underwear drying on the clotheslines. Bucket flush squatter does not equal Western toilet, but hey, no big deal…I can handle it. Tommy could care less. I only wish I’d worn my skirt instead of my pants (for future reference, it’s much easier to use a squatter in a skirt than pants).

Tommy and I had decided on a two day gin tournament, keeping score. We spent the day alternately reading, playing gin, staring at the scenery, and napping. Not a bad way to travel – not exactly a destination in and of itself, but it beats the bus any day. At the end of day one, we were practically tied, each winning exactly the same number of games. At the end of day two, I had won by 18 points. We had played 78 games, each winning 39.

For lunch (there is no food on the boat, and it doesn’t stop except to drop off random packages to villages), we had our nutella, peanut butter, and banana baguettes. We also had a bag of sticky rice (you can easily eat it with your fingers), some fruit, and some extra cake. We also had bought a bottle of Lao Lao (illegal Laos whiskey) for 15,000 Kip (slightly less than $2) – it was about a 1.5 liter bottle. We decided to save the Lao Lao for day two.

I wish we were faster with the camera – as we went along, we saw groups of Laos children, some naked, some in underwear, swimming on the bank of the river. When we would cruise by, they would start waving and wiggling-dancing on the shore. Then the most bold would decide to show off with a backflip, quickly followed by the others. Very, very cute.

Around 6:15 PM, only 45 minutes late, we pulled into Pakbeng, where we had to spend the night. As soon as the boat docks, touts leap aboard – “guest house? very cheap, only 40,000 Kip ($5)” We insisted we had a reservation, and after being asked at least twenty times each if we wanted to go to this guesthouse or that one, we managed to make the somewhat precarious climb up the stone hill. I had researched and identified the most highly recommended guesthouse in town; we headed up the road, hoping to find it and hoping they weren’t full. Easy as could be – we found it right away and they not only weren’t full – we were their first customers of the day. They only have seven rooms, each very clean with a fan (no AC) and en-suite bathroom. Same price as all the hawkers on the boat dock, too.

Pakbeng (the town where you must spend the night) is known as a spot where travelers get their bags stolen from their rooms, so we were happy to have a pretty secure seeming locking door and a pretty upstanding seeming guesthouse owner. We put our things down and went to fill out the mandatory government registration (foreigners must be registered with the government at every stop). She offered to make us breakfast and lunch, and we placed our order for sandwiches for the next day.

We were off to explore town (using the term loosely – it’s essentially a collection of guesthouses, restaurants, and snack shops for tourists). Exploring took about five minutes, and we ended up at the Hive Bar. Billed as “The Only Bar in Town”, we were lured in by American music and no other options…it was actually kind of a cool little spot, with really nice owners. We had a couple beers and told stories about high school and junior high (would you believe that we still have stories from junior high that we haven’t already heard…or maybe we’ve forgotten?). It was around 8 PM by then, so we headed off to find dinner and crawl into bed to watch a movie (party animals – that’s us). Walking by restaurants, we started to see something I had read about, but not seen yet – “happy” foods (pancakes made with marijuana). Strange to see that on a menu.

Well, I guess we'll drink here. This was a highly effective form of advertising.

Anyway, we decided to eat a small place with two adorable little girls. They had a sheet of stickers, which they used to stick all over us and the only other patrons, two young British girls. A little girl from across the street came over to play too, and she joined in the sticker moving game. Her dad called her, and she quickly grabbed the biggest sticker from my arm and made a run for it. The littlest girl saw her, and immediately started screaming bloody murder. The dad hustled her out of there. About two minutes later, she was back with the sticker. It was just like a scene you would see anywhere – I assume the dad realized she snatched the sticker, and made her return it. They were the dinner show. We left their mother with a book (from Big Brother Mouse) for them. She thanked us and told us giving her the book would bring me good luck. I think I got more pleasure from that $1.50 than from any other $1.50 I can remember. We crawled into bed under our mosquito net and watched a movie until we fell asleep.

Day two: we are on a different boat. Apparently, the boats are in a rotation system to drive the tourists on this route. It’s like Christmas since we will overpay for beer and sodas on the boat, plus so many of us will take the boat because it’s pleasant. Typically, the tourists are pretty rowdy – drinking and smoking and PDA, although our boat doesn’t really have that vibe. Day two’s boat has wooden tables and benches instead of van seats (advantage: table, disadvantage: no cushy seats). The day is sunny, and it’s amazing how different that makes the jungle look.

This was the view on day two - much sunnier, and much, much hotter.

Day two was much like the first day, only hotter and not quite as scenic. There is one guy on our boat (an older American guy, from New York) who spent the day watching the scenery and sketching. He is even better at nothing than us; we ended up talking with him for a while right before we arrived. We arrived, right on time, in the border town Huey Xie (border of Laos and Thailand). Overall, the slow boat was a a very pleasant experience – much better than a bus any day.



  1. We’re doing this tomorrow, thanks for the recent update, can you please let us know the name of the guesthouse in Pakbeng, we could use a decent place. thanks

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