I crossed the border into Laos, pockets full of Kip, a heart full of adventurous spirit, and a lust for a slow boat ride down the long long Mekong river. Fortunately the small village in Laos that I found myself in, Huay Xai, was right on the banks of that very river, and they have a variety of boats that don’t get any faster than pretty slow. I went to the counter, bought my ticket, counted my expenditure to see if I’d saved money compared to buying the whole thing in one go as a tour (I had, about twenty quid, well done me), then went to buy supplies for the trip. A slow boat is two solid days on the river, so a reasonable amount of beer and food is required. I tried to make sure I was ready, and then got on the boat
It was a pretty beautiful boat ride, but there wasn’t a huge amount to do. It was a little bit cramped, and the Laotian boat people got a little bit miffed when I tried to climb around the outside ledges of the boat, potentially questioning what the publicity would be like surrounding an Englishman getting chewed up by the boat engines which were, by the way, almost deafening. But other than that, it was everything you could want out of a slow boat ride. There were sensible people at the front, talking about life and travels and books and culture, and there were young people at the back, getting drunk and singing. I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to be, and nipped back and forth between the two until I was a bit too drunk for the sober people and a bit too sober for the drunk people. A poor decision, and a life lesson about hedging your bets
We spent the night in Pakbeng, a small village whose main purpose appeared to be to cater for the tourists coming down in slow boats. Our boat driver tried to sell us all rooms in a hotel, which I instantly wrote off as an overpriced scam. Upon arrival I realised that it was actually quite late, I had no idea where I was, no internet access, and nowhere to go, and I quickly changed my mind, telling the boat driver that maybe I would like to buy a room after all.
A large group of us went out for dinner, and I went on to spend the night exploring the town, which seemed to be partially under construction, making friends with stray dogs, and refusing repeated offers of opium from the hotel manager/boat man. It was a pretty alright night.
The next day we were up bright and early on the boat. It was beautiful again, but the sights were very similar to the day before. It’s a shame how quickly you can get used to amazing things, but what can you do. Just give up I guess.
6 hours later we were in Luang Prabang. Or, rather, we were about 3 miles from Luang Prabang, in a ‘port’ that seemed to exist purely to fund the local tuk tuk economy, as travellers found themselves in the hot hot afternoon with a choice between a three wheeler taxi or an hour walk to the town. After using my well-honed negotiation tactics to haggle the price down by about £1, we got ourselves a lift into town, with a plan to find a hostel to stay in the night. Or at least, that was my plan. Everyone else had booked in advance, because they were organised.
I’d always considered organisation a highly overrated skill, and it may have been this attitude that led to many friends assuming I would get arrested or become impoverished on at least one point on my travels. However, as I walked around the many hostels in Luang Prabang, finding all the reasonable places taken and all the ones with vacancies suspicious looking, I started to wonder whether I was missing a trick with my attitude to being organised.
Don’t worry, I didn’t decide to suddenly change my life and start booking flights and hostels more than a day beforehand. I did consider it for a second though. Just briefly.
I found a hostel down the river from a few people who I’d met on the slow boat; Derek and Sara who I’d go on to spend the following two weeks travelling with, and resolved to move to the hostel that they had booked into as soon as I could. It had breakfast included, and towels. My hostel had doors which wouldn’t lock, a suspicious looking Laotian with a pet monkey that never left the hostel, and people that snored at floor shaking amplitudes. I probably did too, to be fair, but at least I didn’t keep me up.
In Luang Prabang there are a few things that are worth doing. You can go to the Kuang Si Waterfalls and swim and take photos. You can go and sort out your visa at Vietnam. You can go to the markets and eat some local food. You can buy opium from nearly every tuk tuk driver in the town. And you can go and learn how to forge a knife with a local blacksmith. I tried to stick to the more wholesome of these activities, avoiding the shady drug dealing drivers where possible, starting with the Vietnamese visa, followed by food and waterfalls and food and blacksmithing.
Whilst sorting out my visa for Vietnam I met Margaux, a French physiotherapist who was travelling around South East Asia, potentially after having just finished her studies. After trying and failing to speak French to her, she joined me walking back to town, and quickly joined the gang as a future traveler of Laos, alongside Derek and Sara, Lucy, Matthew, and Matthias, all from the slow boat and staying at a nearby hostel. We went on to meet Amy, who didn’t join the gang, but suspiciously kept on popping up at every town we went to.
We stayed in Luang Prabang for about 3 days, which is honestly about enough time to see everything there is to see and enjoy a bit of the culture. It’s a pretty town, but it’s somewhere you can kind of get stuck, and the people that do can be a bit worrying; a young lad called Luke, and his songs about ladyboys and opium were enough to reassure it us that it was probably time to move on. Eventually the 7 of us got a minibus down to Vang Vieng; the famous river rapids party town of Laos.