Slow Means Slow: Thailand to Laos on the Mekong

There are myriad ways to get from Thailand to Laos. Routes that make use of paved roads and cheap, shared minivans. Buses that will take you from one country to the next in the quickest, most geographically logical way possible. Up-and-over flights for those who are sensible, pressed for time, and perhaps a bit more affluent than your typical backpacker. And then, there are ways that are a bit too long, perhaps a bit tedious, but hopefully more enlightening than boring in the end — sort of like this blog post.

So, can you guess which of these methods Hayley and I chose to get ourselves into Laos?

Slow, slow, slow your boat.

Our decision was made while strolling the streets of Pai the other night, and was spurred by the fact that we still have no idea what we’re doing, here.

Jess: “Hey, look over there. That sign says they’re a slow boat to Laos that we can take from Pai. How were we planning on getting to Laos, anyway?”

Hayley: “Dunno. Hadn’t thought about it.”

Jess: “Should we just book this boat? I mean, it leaves right from where we are.”

Hayley: “I’m not bothered what we do.”

And so we bought our tickets, with no idea that we were signing on for. Because as enchanting and whimsical as “slow boat up the Mekong” sounds, here’s what it actually entails.

Driving

This is not our actual minivan out of Pai – unfortunately I don’t have a picture of that one, because it was far too dark when we finally boarded it. But this is a very similar set-up to what we had. See the guy standing on top of the van? He’s bungee-cording everyone’s luggage down onto the roof.

The river crossing from Thailand into Laos, it turns out, is not actually done anywhere near Pai. Instead, it’s an exasperating business conducted in the town of Chiang Khong, a good six to seven hours south of Pai. Inexplicably, daily minivans out of Pai leave at 8:00 pm. Which means that, after spending the late hours of the night descending through Pai’s 762 mountain cuves (with a Thai driver who looks about 16 and seems to have his heart set on a career in NASCAR), you arrive in Chiang Khong around 3:00 am. You’re then deposited into a dingy guest house and told to be ready to leave for the boat at 8:00 the following morning.

Waiting

First view of the Mekong, 13 hours after leaving Pai. It only gets slower from here…

You arrive at the edge of the Mekong unceremoniously, along with a dozen other backpackers from your guest house, in the back of a pick-up truck. And then you wait. You re-apply sunscreen. You dip several times into the reserve of snack foods you’ve purchased for the boat. Laos, you quickly learn, often means a lot of idle time.

Sitting

Our new home away from home.

Eventually, very small wooden boats shuttle you across the Mekong, about four at a time. Two minutes after the boat’s motors are first fired up, you’re in Laos, filling out paperwork and looking over your shoulder at Thailand. Another two hours of waiting and you finally board the boat you’ll be spending the next two days on.

Now, I often throw out the term “slow-boat” in situations that have nothing to do with boating. Usually, it’s the phrase I use to tell postal workers that I want packages sent the cheapest way possible. But I’d never really considered the true implications of the term. So let me just make a statement that is only comically obvious to me now: “slow boat” literally means you are stuck on boat, moving incredibly slowly, for seemingly infinite stretches of time.

And this is not a tourist boat. You are sitting on wooden benches. You are stopping at random villages every few hours so that locals, who actually use this temperamental vessel as public transportation, can get off. You are completely exposed to whatever’s outside, be it extreme sun, or rain, or mosquitos, or dragon flies that zip inside just to show off the fact that they’re moving far, far faster than you are. There is limited luggage storage. There are squat-toilets that must be hovered over while the boat lurches to and fro on the river currents. And there are often so many people aboard that the boat starts cutting through the water at a 45-degree angle, allowing you to dip your arm over the side and nearly skim the water’s surface with your fingertips.

This is my new definition of “crowded.”

The first day, this goes on for seven hours. You become extremely knowledgeable about the personal lives and ambitions and musical tastes of every single person on board. You try in vain to get comfortable enough to sleep. And you do absolutely endless amounts of…

Staring

Waning daylight on the Mekong

More than the chance to bond at length with total strangers, beyond even the inherent cool factor of being able to start stories with “When I was on the slow boat up the Mekong coming into Laos,” the biggest draw of this method of transportation is the scenery. You spend nearly every daylight hour with nothing to look at but the forests of Thailand on your left and the fishing villages of Laos, nestled in sloping jungle, on your right. You start to see so much green that you can soon spot the infinite subtle variations in hue between the leaves, the grass, the palm fronds. You stop being startled when water buffalo lumber into the river to bathe off the starboard side. You wonder at how patient, or simply habituated, local fishermen must be, and at the simple but solid engineering behind their nets, attached to rocky outcroppings with arched bamboo poles. It’s as if you’re suddenly watching the world in Wonka Vision.

Fisherman on the Mekong. I just now noticed the little kid off to the side — probably a future fisherman, himself.

Killing Time

The slow boat stops, at the end of its first day, in the Laotian town of Pak Beng. There’s nothing much in Pak Beng besides one bar and an endless array of guest houses — fitting for a town whose very existence is dependent on one-night tourist stop-overs. Every slow boat on the Mekong must stop at Pak Beng because of the rudimentary nature of the entire operation: the boat has no new-fangled navigation system, no fancy tools to measure wind or water or distance. It doesn’t even have lights. It has one guy standing at a steering wheel that could have been ripped from the Titanic, and that’s about it. So before it gets too dark, the slow boat gets itself to the dock. You spend the night in Pak Beng, curse your boredom, and happily eat your words the next morning upon waking up to views like this:

Morning mist on the Mekong

Sitting/Staring 

Village life on the Mekong

Repeat as before, this time for nine hours. Day two is when the boredom really starts to sink in; the novelty of the first day is quickly overshadowed by the tedium of the second. The jungle all starts to look the same, and you yank out your camera at the first sight of anything that’s any color besides green. The water buffalo start to annoy you, because they’re enjoying a dip in the cool (if dirty-looking) water while you peel your sweaty legs off a varnished wooden bench. You start to hear people all around you saying, “I know I shouldn’t be thinking this, because I know I’m so fortunate to actually be doing this, but God am I bored. When are we getting off this thing?”

Fortunately, about halfway through day two, the scenery becomes a little more interesting. The colorful fishing villages increase in size and frequency, and as you pass each one, seemingly every kid in town scampers down to the riverbank to stare at your boat in curiosity. You start to realize that the passing of this excruciatingly lethargic craft, this floating box of humidity and discomfort, is probably the most exciting thing that these kids see each day. You are instantaneously humbled to your core.

Official greeters on the Mekong

And, finally,

Rejoicing

Because it may be dark, you may be sweaty and smelly and aching, but after two days and 16 floating hours, you’ve finally made it Luang Prabang. There will be crepes to eat, country roads to cycle, and elephants to feed. But first, there will be rest. There will be bottles of Beer Lao around communal tables, and detailed retellings, commiserating, with fellow passengers. There will be acknowledgements that you’ve just experienced an incredible journey together, one that will take on an eternal, mythic status in your memories. And there will be laughing agreements that you know you’d probably never put yourself through it all again.

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6 thoughts on “Slow Means Slow: Thailand to Laos on the Mekong

  1. I can’t say I envy this leg of your journey, friend! The only slow boat I enjoy is called the Frying Pan.

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