The Slow Boat: a long but picturesque journey
Despite swarms of back-packers flocking to Southeast Asia every year, Laos remains one of the least travelled destinations in the region. We were intrigued by the path less travelled and wanted to see for ourselves if this country was drastically different from the likes of Thailand and Cambodia.
Getting there on a budget wasn’t easy. While some of you may find it boring to read about how we physically got from one place to another, to us it was an adventure and one we would remember for a long time!
From Chiang Mai, Thailand we took a very nice VIP bus to Chiang Rai, Thailand. The bus was very comfortable with only about 24 seats, all of them super wide, reclining and even with foot rests. We were given a bottle of water, a pack of cookies and a towelette to refresh ourselves during the three hour journey.
Chiang Rai is on the way to the Thai-Lao border and we wanted to stay there for one night so that we could visit the famous White Temple (or Wat Rong Khun). The temple was in fact magnificent, but as with anything impressive in Thailand, it was swarmed with tourists, making the visit a little less pleasant.
We wanted to get to Laos while spending as little money as possible, so we did a lot of research and decided to travel hack this thing! After staying one night in Chiang Rai, we boarded a public bus at 6:30 am the next morning for a mere 65 baht (or CAD $2.45) per person to take us to the “junction”, which is basically an intersection of the roads very close to the Thai-Lao border. After an hour and a half journey, we were dropped off at the junction and boarded a tuk tuk standing nearby for 50 baht (or CAD $1.90) per person to take us to the actual border crossing.
Once there, we got our exit stamps out of Thailand and paid 25 baht (or CAD $0.95) per person for a bus to literally take us a few hundred meters across the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos. At the Lao immigration, we paid for our entrance visas and got a shared tuk tuk for 100 baht (or CAD $3.75) per person to take us to the boat pier.
At the pier, we bought tickets for a slow boat to take us all the way down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang for 210,000 Lao kip (or CAD $34.50) per person. So in total, the entire journey from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos cost us about CAD $44 per person versus flying (about CAD $190 at the least per person).
The slow boat from the outside looked like a really long shack. On the inside it wasn’t much better. Old car seats were crammed one after another and weren’t even secured to the floor! There was a small and dirty washroom with just a porcelain hole in the ground and a bucket full of water from the river for flushing. There was a lady selling really expensive water, pop and beer on board, but besides that there was no food. We knew about the lack of food, so we stocked up before boarding.
We basically spent two full days travelling on the boat like that, stopping at a tiny city called Pakbeng to sleep overnight in a hotel room. The sole purpose of that city was to provide lodging and food for the slow boat travelers, so there was literally nothing else. The boat itself was quite breezy, so we weren’t hot at all. But in the morning and in the late afternoon when the sun was quite low, we had to draw the curtains to avoid being sunburnt.
It was picturesque cruising down the Mekong River and as soon as we saw the hilly landscape of Laos, we understood that building roads or railways would be very challenging in this country. That’s why the Mekong River provides a great alternative, even though the boat ride is very slow. We spotted many water buffalo and cows along the shores. Every now and then we could see houses built on the slopes of the hills in the distance. The boat would stop every two hours or so at an inconspicuous beach to drop off or pick up a few locals. Although it was a very long and at times boring journey, it provided us with a unique perspective on the Lao countryside and way of living.
Luang Prabang: a laid-back city with a European feel
Luang Prabang is a city in the northern part of Laos. The entire city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Overall, we enjoyed staying there because it’s a very small city and it felt very safe. We could walk the entire length of the city in under an hour at a leisurely pace, so there was no need to take any tuk tuks. The city has a European feel to it with the Mekong River and a small side river called Nam Khan running through it. European cafes full of French tourists line the main street. Laos used to be a French colony, so French people feel very comfortable visiting Luang Prabang. But as a result, the city is full of pricey restaurants, European food and expensive hotels.
We found a really cool bar called Utopia which was overlooking the Nam Khan river. The bar had cushions all over the floor where you can just lie for hours, sipping a drink and admiring the view, reading a book or taking a nap. They also had tasty wood-fired pizzas that we enjoyed since we were kind of getting tired of our rice and noodle diet.
Luang Prabang was also full of temples that were slightly different from the ones you would see in Thailand. The Lao temples were adorned with tiny pieces of glass making up mosaics and telling the various stories from the Ramayana. Thai temples were also predominantly gold, while Lao temples looked like they were made out of wood and had more brown tones to it. But we didn’t focus too much on the temples because we’ve seen too many in Thailand already!
Due to the great number of temples, there are many monks in Luang Prabang. We witnessed an ancient tradition of Alms Giving, which occurs early in the morning at sunrise. Local people gather in front of the main temple in Luang Prabang and give rice to the monks as a way to attract good karma to themselves. Unfortunately, the Alms Giving Ceremony has become very touristy with people crowding the streets and taking pictures of the monks using flash (since it’s still quite dark outside). As a result, the ceremony doesn’t have the spiritual feel that we were hoping to experience.
Just as the landscape along our Mekong River journey was picturesque, so was the landscape around Luang Prabang. We visited the Kuang Si waterfall and the jungle around it, which was very beautiful and quite unique. The area around the Kuang Si waterfall had many small waterfalls that were kind of like stairs, flowing from the large waterfall all the way down along the jungle. We hiked to the very top of the waterfall and it was very challenging as we literally had to climb on top of slippery, mossy rocks and hang on to tree roots for balance.
Growing rice: a step back into the simpler life
The highlight of our trip to Luang Prabang was visiting a rice farm that aims to showcase how rice was grown back when no machines were available. We fully participated in all thirteen stages of the rice-growing process, from ploughing the land using a water buffalo named Rudolph, to planting the rice in the muddy fields, cutting the rice and tying it into bundles, shaking the bundles to get the kernels out, packing, sifting, grinding and cooking the rice.
Standing in the middle of the rice field was very refreshing. It was a nice change from the city life that we experienced so far. I quite enjoyed getting dirty in the mud, walking behind Rudolph and yelling at him to make a turn. There was something so simple and pure about the whole experience and it made me want to experience farm living again at some time in the future.
The farm we visited also had a little garden where various fruits and vegetables were grown. This organic produce was then used to make us one delicious feast of a lunch as we sat overlooking the farmland. Did I mention that the rice was delicious? The rice in Lao cuisine tends to be of the sticky variety, which means it’s a lot more moist and flavourful than the rice you would eat in Thailand. The variety of desserts that could be made with sticky rice and the number of baked goods made out of rice flour is impressive!
Vientiane: a busy city with a French influence
We ended up flying to the capital city of Vientiane and we spent only one night there. But we found two days and one night just enough time to explore the city.
We thought that Luang Prabang felt a little inauthentic and fake at times due to its UNESCO protection status and the fact that everything was catered to European tourists. So Vientiane was definitely the complete opposite of Luang Prabang. It was busy with people and tuk tuks, restaurants varied from large establishments to a hole in the wall, and it felt a lot more like a real Lao city.
Besides more temples that we weren’t keen on seeing, we visited the Patuxai Monument in Vientiane, which is basically a large arch that reminded us of the Arc de Triumph in Paris, France.
We also took a public bus (travel hacking again!) to a nearby Buddha Park. The park had many sculptures built under Hindu and Buddhist influence, and was interesting to explore. We climbed to the top of something that looked like a giant pumpkin with a mouth and took pictures with a gigantic reclining Buddha statue. Then we relaxed in one of the wooden houses overlooking a grassy piece of land as cows fed nearby.
The verdict: a path less travelled worth visiting
While there may not be dozens of attractions in Laos, the country is definitely worth visiting. From the hilly landscapes, to the Mekong River, from the charming city of Luang Prabang, to the strange Buddha Park in Vientiane – Laos remains an under-discovered gem in Southeast Asia.