I bought a ticket for the two-day trip down the Mekhong to Luang Prabang.
The nickname for this cruise is “The Euro Disney Jungle Ride”. The “slowboat” fare to Luang Prebang is $15, but I worried about whether or not I was making the right decision. Not about the price, but the comfort. Various reports had filtered back through the backpacker network describing the voyage as two days of overcrowded pure hell, though other had called it a necessary voyage in order to earn your backpacker stripes. I was hopeful that there would be fewer travelers than usual, this being the slow season and all.
And as it turned out, I was wrong.
First, however, I had to get out of Thailand.
The guesthouses in this town have the border crossing routine down to a science. First, they charge you double the going rate for a box lunch (fried rice, fresh fruit and drinking water). They then baby-sit you across the river and hand you over to the Lao border guys.
The Lao border officials are friendly enough, but they wouldn’t stamp my passport until I had passed the SARS test. A group of face-masked Lao nurses took my temperature by holding an instant thermometer up to my sweaty forehead. I passed, with a temperature of 37.5 so they gave me a yellow paper slip with which to prove my innocence. The Lao guys smiled, stamped my passport and I was loaded onto a ferry with 50 other travelers when 25 would have been just about right.
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Before we could depart, we were all shaken down by an alleged Lao government official who took $1.00 each from us for “insurance”. I then signed a semi-official looking form, which asked for my name, nationality and age.
I noticed that I was the oldest insured person on the boat.
The boat ride was pleasant enough, though the seats made the trip a bit arduous. I can only imagine that church pews must be similar. I would have preferred more padding, I am all gut and no butt.
My fellow passengers were the typical bunch of backpackers; mostly Europeans but with a few Aussies and Kiwis thrown in solely for amusement purposes. After and hour or so of sightseeing, we decided that it was cocktail hour and dipped into the shipboard canteen of cold Beer Lao. For slightly less than a dollar, one can buy a cold 650 ml. bottle of Beer Lao, the finest beer in Asia.
I had two.
We cruised down the Mekhong. On either side, the mountains are steep all the way down to the river. They are heavily forested with teak, coconut and wild banana. I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, though I did spot some young wild elephants who refused to stand still for autographs. Now and then we would see some raggedy-ass domestic cattle or the occasional water buffalo. Sometimes we saw a gillnet fisherman or gold panner. Not all the passengers aboard were backpackers, we had a handful of Lao folk along and occasionally would drop one or two at some unmarked village along the way.
Towards nightfall, the boat stopped at Pakbeng, a small village perched on the side of a steep hill. Pakbeng has boomed overnight ‘gold rush style’, and the prices are similarly geared for foolish foreigners. I didn’t want to schlep any further up the steep hill than I had to, so I checked into the first (and most expensive) place in town. My room was $5.00 and I felt somewhat embarrassed, since most of the others had taken more modest rooms elsewhere at 1/3 that price.
The next morning, we all walked down to the boat, the packs were stowed on the roof and by some miracle we left on time. I am now in the lovely town of Luang Prebang. The “Merry Guesthouse” (not listed in LP but across from #80 in the LP guide) is quite lovely and overlooks a river. The room rate is $2.50 a night.
My fan room is clean with a nice hot shower but it has only one gecko.