I came to Southeast Asia for two reasons: surfing, and scuba diving. But, totally unexpectedly, the highlight of my trip so far has been a two-day slow boat cruise down the Mekong River, from Thailand to the center of Laos.
It all started with a trip to Chiang Mai. (I went at the recommendation of pretty much everyone I've ever met who has been to Thailand -- though honestly, I kind of wished I'd spent more time in Krabi. Two or three days in Chiang Mai is plenty.) On my fourth day in the city, I noticed some posters for a "slowboat cruise" to Luang Prabang, Laos.
It looked super cool.
Except when I Googled the trip back at my hotel, I found travel blogger after travel blogger who had a horrible experience on the public slowboat. Apparently, it's a cold, crowded, loud, miserable experience.
But I couldn't shake the feeling that this was something I wanted to do.In a last-ditch effort to make this work, I Googled "luxury Mekong slow boat." (For context, "luxurious" is pretty much the last word anyone would ever use to describe me.)
That's how I found Mekong Smile Cruise, an affordable luxury that provides a much better experience than the public boat.
What public boat, shoestring budget travelers saved in dollars (or pounds, or Euros), they paid in noise, crowds, time, excursions, and discomfort.
But with Mekong Smile Cruises, for $140, you get a hotel pickup from Chiang Khong (and possibly Chiang Rai -- but that's, like, two hours away, so it might be extra). The driver will take you to the border crossing and "guide" you through the first section (Thai border control and Friendship Bridge bus ticket).
Once you cross the Friendship Bridge, your guide for the next two days will walk you through the Laos border crossing. I'm a pretty experienced traveler, but border crossings can definitely be hectic -- so I secretly appreciated the hand-holding. And I totally got through the line faster because of it.
(Word to the wise: bring USD. It costs $35 or 2,000 Thai baht -- that's, like, $57.)
(Another word to the wise: the border crossing city, Huay Xai, is also the location of the famous gibbon ziplining experience -- lots of people take an eight-hour bus ride from Luang Prabang for this experience, so if you want to zipline, now is the time.)
At the border, I met up with the six other passengers on my boat. I knew my Smile Cruise would be nice, but I had no idea how educational it would be. With only a few other passengers on the boat, I had plenty of time I to with my guide, Sai, (I learned so much that I'm writing a whole blog post about it) while lounging in the sun beds in the front of the boat.
A few hours into our cruise, we stopped for our first excursion: a trip to a hill tribe village in Huay Palam. It was way cooler than any cultural experience I had in Chaing Mai. In Chiang Mai, I felt like the "hill tribes" existed solely to sell stuff to tourists. But in Laos, on the Mekong, hours from the nearest town, the people in the villages were simply living.
When we arrived, they didn't try to sell us anything. Sai asked one of the men if he could buy a small bag of rice to feed his chickens... and the man said no. "This rice is only for my family," he said in the local dialect.
As we walked through the village, Sai -- who, by the way, deserves a HUGE raise! he's SO honest, authentic, and amazing! -- explained why it is so hard for children from the hill tribes to get a secondary school education (all the secondary schools are in the city; children would have to leave home, and the only place they could afford to live in the city is with the monks, meaning no girls can pursue higher education); the differences between animism and buddhism; and the methods the hill tribes use to procure food their families. I even learned that hill tribe villagers build their own guns -- using bird droppings to make gun powder, and metal from Vietnam War bombs for the barrel.
It was a totally real and authentic glance into these people's lives.
As we were heading back to the boat, we saw several village children running to the river with plastic bags. I had no idea what they were for, or what the children were smiling so excitedly about... until they inflated the bags, tied them around their arms and waists, and used them as make-your-own floaties!
I know I've often said that money totally buys happiness (if you know how to spend it), rich people are happier than poor people, and children who live on dirt floors are miserable compared to kids with paved floors. But. I've also said that mindfulness, playfulness and creativity will increase your happiness -- like, a lot! And it was awesome to see these kids having so much fun, with such limited resources.
Back on the boat, we enjoyed fresh-cooked Lao cuisine and amazing Mekong views for the rest of the afternoon, until sunset, when we arrived in Pakbeng, a small town that features two upscale hotels, several guest houses, and a few restaurants, for the night.
Because we were on a private boat, we arrived about half an hour before the public boat. This meant we got first pick of guest houses -- and better prices. A couple who arrived twenty minutes after me paid about twice the price I did. (Which, to be fair, was still basically $25 instead of $13.)
Arrival in Pakbeng.
Pakbeng's "night life" consists mainly of the Happy Bar, where you can order alcohol and other substances. I did not imbibe, consume, or inhale anything that would make me “happy,” but I did enjoy conversations with other travelers over music and flashing lights.
The next morning, I paid a visit to Pakbeng’s morning market (it opens at 5am) before getting back on the Smile boat.
Gerbil for breakfast, anyone?
Local women keeping warm by a morning bonfire.
The morning air was chilly, but there were several blankets on the boat to keep us warm.
Cruising comfortably down the river, we observed jungle, rain forest (according to my guide, there is a difference), farmland and wildlife, before stopping at a second hill tribe village. We were lucky enough to stumble upon a wedding party!
When a table of men invited me to sit with them and drink what looked like blood, I became so distracted that I walked right into a hanging meat carcass. I think it’s safe to say I left an impression...
Back on the boat, I had the most delicious rice and curry of my whole trip. More views, more water buffalo. Other bloggers had said to bring magazines or books for the ride, but I didn't end up doing any reading. There was too much to see.
Our second stop of the day was at the Pak Ou Caves. These caves are accessible only by boat, and contain thousands of Buddha statues. If you don’t have a headlamp or flashlight, you can make a small donation to rent one at the entrance of the second cave. You will most likely see a few monks at the caves, as this is an important religious site for them.
From there, it was only one hour to Luang Prabang. We arrived in time for me to watch the sunset from Phu Si Hill -- along with about 100 other tourists! Still, the view was worth the crowd. I could see not only the sunset over the Mekong, but also a 360-degree view of the city. It was immediately clear why it is a World Heritage site.
From Luang Prabang, you can catch a flight back to Chiang Mai, Bangkok, or another destination. Or, if you have more time, head south to Vang Vieng, for one of the most scenic and unforgettable drives you will ever experience.
Two takeaways here:
1) Do the river cruise.
2) I kept an open mind and a flexible schedule -- so I ended up having an adventure I never knew I wanted, and it was a defining part of my three-month trip.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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