The Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos (Mar 3-4)

On the morning of my trip into Laos, I got up at 4:45 (after having less than 5 hours of sleep), packed up my stuff, and went downstairs for breakfast. I only took two pancakes and two bananas, but as soon as I took the first bite of a pancake, I started heating up and felt like I was going to throw up again. I kept forcing myself to eat because I didn’t want to be rude, especially since the hostel owner had gotten up at 5am to prepare everything for me. It was definitely a struggle, and I had to keep taking bites with coffee just so that I could get it down. We left at about 5:50 and the hostel owner drove me to the bus station so that I could catch the first bus to the Laos border at 6am. She gave me a big hug and sent me on my way – she was so sweet! I got on the bus, which only had one empty seat left (it seemed like there was a big group of people travelling together), and paid 100 baht ($4.36) for my trip to the border (just outside the city of Chiang Khong). The process was actually a lot more straightforward than what I was expecting! The price of that bus is actually 65 baht per person, but then they normally drop us off at a tuk tuk station and we would have to pay for a tuk tuk to go the rest of the way to the border. Because there were so many of us in the bus, they just charged us 100 baht each and took us straight to the border, which saved us one step. When we got to the border, we had to use our departure cards to leave Thailand (which they give you with your arrival card when you get INTO Thailand, so it’s important to keep it safe). Lucky for me, most of the people had lost their departure cards and therefore had to fill out new ones, so I was able to go straight to custom control without a lineup. Then I had to pay to take a bus across Friendship Bridge, which would bring me to Laos customs. The ticket only cost 25 baht ($1.09) and then the stand also exchanged Thai baht into Lao kip. However, normally the ticket is 20 baht but because it was before 8:30 (and therefore outside of office hours), I had to pay 5 baht extra.

I decided to exchange a bit of baht into kip, just so that I’d have some money on the other side of the border. We had to wait for less than five minutes and then everyone boarded the bus, which took us across the bridge. Then, we had to fill out two forms to apply for the Laos Visa-on-Arrival. I was so happy that I got on the first bus across the bridge because the line kept getting longer and longer. I filled out both of the forms (one for a Visa application, and one was an arrival/departure card) and found a passport picture stored deep in my backpack (which I had actually forgotten about, but luckily I travel prepared!). I then stood in the first line to hand in my passport, forms, and picture, and then I had to go into the second line, where they would get us to pay for the visa in order to get our passports back. As a Canadian citizen, I had to pay $43 US ($58.86AUD) so I gave $103 and got three 20s back. I then took those 20s to the currency exchange so that I could get more kip, because I realised that I’d use all of the kip I had to buy my boat ticket. I stood in line, finally got to the front, and she said that she wouldn’t take my money because there was a stamp on it. I was so mad because I had already stood in line for awhile, plus I was tired and still feeling sick, and I tried to explain that I had gotten the bills from the visa booth. She told me to go back there and return when I had new 20’s. Livid, I walked back to the visa counter and cut in front of the extremely long line to explain, and the man easily exchanged my bills. I went back to the currency exchange, waited in line once again, and she REALLY examined the bills. She pointed out a crease down the middle of one of the bills and said that she’d only exchange two of the 20s. Whatever. I couldn’t be bothered anymore – I was too sick and too tired to care (Note: the currency exchange in Luang Prabang exchanged this bill easily.. this lady was just being difficult). I got my money and went to the ticket booth to buy my ticket for the slow boat. There are two options to get into Laos – the first is to take a bus and the second is to take a slow boat (which is two 7-8 hour days). I had been trying to book a ticket beforehand so that I’d have proof that I’d be leaving Thailand but when I asked a company about it (Mekong Smile Cruises), they quoted me $700USD because as of March 1st, it was “low season” so if 6 people joined, they’d lower the price down to $130 per person! I said absolutely not, and decided that I’d just play it by ear when I got there. I’m extremely glad I made that decision as well because I was able to do it A LOT cheaper on my own (about $28USD!). I had read that the boat left at either 10:30 or 11, but was surprised to see the sign that said it left at 11:30.

It was only 9am so I’d have a lot of time to kill! I walked to the booth to buy boat tickets, which would cost 210,000 kip ($34.57). However, even though the signs said 210,000, they charged me 270,000 kip ($43.47) to include the tuktuk. I knew that this was a legitimate charge because I read that you have to take a tuktuk to the Thailand border, a bus across the bridge to the Laos border, then a tuktuk to the slowboat. I paid and then they gave me a badge to wear around my neck, which I would later exchange for the boat ticket.

About 7 of us got in the back of a songthaew and they drove us to a shop, which would be our only opportunity to buy food and water for the day (luck was on my side!). They also said that we could book accommodation and buy SIM cards if we wanted. It almost seemed like a tour company because they were only selling rooms for one type of accommodation, so I went on my phone and found my own place. Before my trip, I was told not to book anything in advance and instead walk past all of the people when I arrive, tell them I have a reservation, and then just show up to a hotel because they would charge you a lot less. However, I still wasn’t feeling very well and just wanted a piece of mind that I’d have a room with a bed and bathroom when I arrived. I honestly wasn’t even sure if spending 7.5 hours on a boat that day was a smart idea, but I just wanted to get to Luang Prabang because I’d have four nights there and could find a clinic if I needed. I booked a room on Agoda at BKC Villa 2 with my own queen-sized bed, a river view, and my own bathroom for a whopping $17.90, which was cheaper than some of the dorm rooms I stayed at in Taiwan, and almost half the amount of staying in a dorm room in Australia! After booking my room, I found some water and soup crackers for 20,000 kip ($3.22), as well as a sandwich for 15,000 kip ($2.42) in hopes that I’d eventually want to eat it. Just before 10:30, they drove us to the slow boat, where we had to wait to get our tickets, and then could board the boat. They said that day, we only needed to SHOW our tickets to the driver because we’d need to keep the tickets for tomorrow or we wouldn’t be able to get onto that boat.

We were able to board the boat, which was set up the same way that an airplane might be set up, with a set of three seats on both sides. They were actually wooden benches (which looked like pews) with cushions on each spot, and papers with numbers on each cushion. We all had numbers on our tickets, and I was assigned to a middle seat but luckily a couple wanted to sit together, so I traded and got an aisle seat.

There were over 100 people on the boat (my seat number was 95), and it nearly filled up. We hadn’t even left yet and my butt was already hurting, so I wasn’t sure how I’d survive the 7.5-hour trip. Luckily when we left, one person on my bench went to one of the empty benches at the back of the boat, and about an hour later, her boyfriend followed suit. Therefore, I got an entire bench to myself for the rest of the trip, so I was able to shift as many times as I wanted! By that time, my appetite actually came back so I was able to eat my sandwich and didn’t even end up feeling sick afterwards! The trip was really relaxing and I spent the time going from blog-writing to doing crosswords to just listening to music and taking pictures.

They said that we wouldn’t arrive until 7pm, but we ended up getting to Pakbeng right after 6. There was a huge crowd of people waiting, and many were trying to sell rooms to their establishments.

To get off, we had to balance along a metre-long board. Then, a bunch of kids crowded around and kept pointing to my bag. I wasn’t sure if they were asking for food, or offering to carry it for me, but I just kept saying no since it was the only water and food I had. I saw a sign for my accommodation held by a boy who wouldn’t have been older than 12, so he walked me to where the guesthouse was, which was only about three minutes up the hill and was likely the first hotel on the road, which was nice! They didn’t even ask for my passport or my name when I got there – they just gave me a key and pointed to my room.

I’ve never been more excited to shower and go to bed! However, I figured I should probably eat something, so I went across the street to Pakbeng Guesthouse, ordered fried rice with chicken for 25,000 kip ($4.03), and then went back to my room to shower and go to bed.

On Monday morning, I woke up after a long 9.5-hour snooze and packed up my stuff before going across the street to get some coffee and a sandwich for that day.

The boat was meant to leave at 9am and we wouldn’t arrive in Luang Prabang until about 4pm, so we were in for another long boat ride. I got to the boat at about 10 minutes to 9 and by that time, half of the boat was already full. The full part of the boat had tables, so all that was left in the back of the boat were seats that literally seemed to be taken out of multiple cars (and therefore reclined!), so they were set up two by two down the middle of the boat and along the sides. I grabbed one of the seats along the side right before the huge 10+ group of British people (who spent the entire boatride drinking the day before) came and took all of the remaining seats. Unlike the day before, there wasn’t any room to spread out so I was confined to my one seat and the girl beside me seemed to take not only her own part of the seat but also part of mine (for no reason other than not seeming to realise that there were two separate seats). Anyway, I just put my earphones in to tune everything out, and kept myself busy for the next seven hours.

Again, it went by quite fast and we arrived in Luang Prabang at about 4:30pm. They dropped us off quite far out of the city so we had to grab all of our stuff, go up a whole bunch of stairs to get to the road, and pay 20,000 kip ($3.22) per person to get a tuktuk to the city centre, which was about 10 kilometres away. Luckily, I got on one of the first ones (since the majority of the people who were on the boat seemed to be travelling with tour groups, so they had to get sorted out first) so I arrived in the city centre just after 5pm. However, I’ll save Luang Prabang for another post. Love always

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