A slow boat down the Mekong

We decided that rather than fly from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos we would take the two-day boat ride from Huay Xai in Laos, a distance of 320km.

Getting to Huay Xai involved a 10 hour van ride (with several stops) which detoured to Mae Sai, the northern most town in Thailand that is situated on the border with Myanmar. In fact, the immigration and customs checkpoint is at the end of the main street. After Mae Sai we headed across to the ‘Golden Triangle’ where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all converge. We eventually spent the night  in Chiang Khong on the Thai side of the Mekong River.

An early start was required to get us through immigration and to our boat in time for the 10am departure. The border crossing did not open until 7:30am and in true Cliff and Ruth style we managed to get there a little early. Once our departure formalities were completed we boarded a bus that transported us across the ‘Friendship Bridge’ to the Lao border post. Being early had its advantages on this side. Rather the usual crowd of 200+ waiting for their Visa to be processed we had the ‘visa on arrival’ office to ourselves – it was a very quick and painless exercise. The immigration officer was bemused by our New Zealand passport but after a quick conference in the office someone seemed to be familiar with our strange document and all was well. Then it was onto the Mekong for a great two day experience.

The White Temple at Chiang Rai was one of the stranger places that we have visited. The work of local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat is was dazzling to say the least – we though that it would be a great template for President Trump when he remodels the White House – plenty of glitz.


The Golden Triangle. Picture taken from Thailand – Myanmar on the left – Laos on the right
Everthing you ever need to know about opium could be found at the ‘Opium Museum up at ‘The Triangle’. There were plenty of police checkpoints along the surrounding roads to catch those attempting to smuggle drugs or immigrants into Thailand.
The early bird gets into Laos with little hassle.
Ours was the one with the four white posts – none looked like particularly sturdy craft.


Not long into the journey we got our first taste of how varied the river was – plenty of rocks and even ‘white water’ to negotiate the ‘sturdy’ craft through – the further we went the more dramtic the rocks and fast water comibnation became. I mentioned to Ruth that I hoped the motor did not cut out.
We stopped off to visit one of the many hill tribe villages that are dotted along about a 200km stretch of the river. It felt very intrusive and just plain wrong. These were subsistence farmers barely feeding their families.
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Pakbeng, our overnight destination, was the only town en-route and had a distinctly ‘frontier’ feel to it.
Winter in Northern Laos has meant a very cool and misty start to the day – combined with the boat generated breeze that made for a bone chilling few hours as the boat windows are sans any covering. As soon as the sun burns off the mist the temperature rapidly climbs into the high 20s low 30s. Pakbeng clings to the hillside above the fast flowing Mekong.
A couple of Elephants were enjoying the cool morning across river from Pakbeng.
The river flows are surprisingly strong in many places – the beaches and rocks that were visible are below river level during the rainy season – roughly 15 metres higher than shown in this image.
There was always some form of activity whether onshore or in the river…
we wondered as to how many lives the river claims each year – the local dugout canoes were either paddled or powered by a small two stroke engine with little freeboard.
or there were the speedboats powered by V8 engines that roared past us. The driver usually wore a crash helmet (the passengers did not).  This skipper obviously had superior boat handling skills and did not need the head protection. The passengers do what they can to thwart the early morning chill – compounded when you are belting along at over 30knots.
There were lots of brightly covered slower boats that were often moored in the remotest of locations.
The boat often felt as though it was going to smash into the large rocks that in places almost blocked the river but at the last minute the skipper always avoided that ‘Titanic moment’.
The impressive limestone cliffs at the convergence of the Mekong and Pak Ou rivers
Early morning on departure day – Chiang Khong, Thailand
Arriving in Luang Prabang late afternoon.

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