Getting anywhere in Southeast Asia was never meant to be easy, unless you want to spend an extortionate amount of money and fly everywhere. After five amazing days in Chiang Mai it was time to move on and see some more of the world. I wanted to go to Laos to visit the plain of jars and looked into flights, buses and trains, but the cheapest and most recommended way to get from Chiang Mai to Lung Prabang was to go by boat. There are two types of boat rides available, the fast boat that fits anywhere from 5-10 people and will get there with in a few hours, speeding down the Mekon River hanging on for dear life. The slow boat is described as a long scenic ride through the heart of the jungle, taking in some breath taking views and stopping at a quite village to enjoy the local food. Sounds good right?.
On the 6th of September I was up and packed by 7am to take my mini van and get on the boat. The van turned up closer to 8am and a flock of Germans greeted me as I got in. We went to pick up a girl I had met the day before, then were on our way to Chiang Rai where we were to stay at a hotel for a night before yet another 7am start. The bus ride was long but made far more pleasant by my iPod. We stopped off to see a golden temple which was well worth the time in the hot sun, and a quick ice cream that helped cool us all down.
The van drive took around 6 hours with two stop off’s before we reached our hotel. By this time we all just wanted a good shower, something to eat and sleep. The hotel owner greeted us and made sure we knew what the plan for the next day was. He told us about the border crossing, what to expect and he exchanged money for most of the group. The owner was a very friendly man who made us all feel welcome, which took our attention away from the fact that the place was a dive. The walls were dirty, the floors had not seen a vacuum in years, our shower was one step away from throwing mud at us and the water made our hair smell. The night there was spent dodging bed bugs and ignoring the squeaking of the fan. The next morning we all met for breakfast and to be taken in the back of a pickup (called a song tow) to the border. The crossing was easy and only took a couple of hours. We were all given stickers for the coach on the other side and got collected by a tour guide who booked us all into his hotel for a nice extra cost.
A short coach ride later and we reached our boat, everyone stocked up on supplies from a local corner shop. It’s hard to work out how much you are spending when the money goes to thousands and you are paying 5000 for a roll or 20,000 for some cigarettes. After only a week away from England paying in such high bills was very traumatic although the exchange rate made it only a few pence. After loading up it was time to get on the slow boat and head through Laos.
The boat was a simple Longtail boat with enough space for a few hundred people. There were two rows of seats and as I was travelling through low season there were plenty of spare seats that reclined back to make the ride more comfortable. As promised the ride had amazing views of the jungle, some caves, waterfalls and lots of debris floating past. The ride lasted around 6 hours and then we stopped at a small village on the river. From there we were taken to our hotel which had a nice river view and shared rooms for around 200 baht a night. This hotel was somewhat nicer than the place I had stayed at the night before, but it still had a bug problem and some issues with the power in the room. The main problem with this place was the rip off prices. Dinner cost about what you pay for a nice meal in the UK but it consisted of rice and chicken that had seen better days but it was breakfast that had us all walking away in disgust. I had a roll with jam and butter, advertised as 5000kip and a coffee at 15000. Not to bad by English standards. As it turned out the roll was 5000 alone, the jam an extra 5000 and the butter an extra 5000 on top of that. Ok so thats only £1.50 but I could not call myself British if I did not moan about the fact that in the menu said ‘ roll with jam and butter 5000kp’. After over paying for the coffee and water I refused to pay the extra for the jam and left to get back to the boat.
Day 3 of my long ride from Chiang Mai to Laos and it was back on the boat for the remaining 6 hour ride. Bored of the views, I took the chance to catch up on the sleep I had not gotten the night before.
When I finally arrived at Lung Prabang we were greeted by a service charge of £2 for getting a taxi as the boat drops you off a good 40 minute walk from the main town. I got a taxi with 4 of the Germans I had met the night before as my friend had booked a more expensive hotel. It’s easy to forget that other people may not be on the tight budget that you are. Unfortunately the hotel the Germans had booked cost $15 a night, which was also well out of my price range.
A panicked booking.com search later and I had found a hostel within a few minutes walk that was only $5 a night, had great reviews and I have to say, a much better atmosphere.
If I can take anything away from this experience it was that I was not a big fan of Laos, never trust a German and plan things ahead. Luckily for me Laos ended up being one of the best experiences of my life.