A slow boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xia with a stop in Pak Beng

We arrived at the pier at 8 am after an early pick up from our guesthouse. The pier has moved from being in the town area to about 7 km out of town and this is a fair distance in a tuk tuk. There were about 12 travelling foreigners and the balance (about 40) were locals for whom this is their only means of transport up and down the river.

There were bags and boxes of groceries as well as a couple of motorbikes and bicycles. The seating is car seats on frames – not bolted down so movable to accommodate their needs. There was a small bar counter where soft drinks, chips, noodles etc but it is wise to being your own food and drinks as not all boats are equally equipped. The boats work on a rotational basis (as the buses from Vientiane) so there is no knowing which boat you will get.

As I said, the residents rely on the river to get supplies to and from their homes on the river and the price they pay on the boat is understandably less than the tourists pay. The boat makes various stops at random places at the passengers’ request. At these stops generally the family would be there to meet the person getting off the boat to help with carrying the goods from town. There was a young girl who could not have been more than 8 years old who mesmerized me she had a serious face and she had obviously been sent on a mission to stock up for the family.

I was astonished at the level of pollution in the river – mainly plastic in various forms from bags to bottles (loads of them) – in an area where the tap water is not potable everyone does drink bottles water and it is evident that these just get discarded at will. I initially suspected that us “dreaded foreigners” were largely to blame but was shocked at the ease at which the locals on the boat threw their garbage overboard into the river – from food to plastic bags and bottles.

Ivan has been doing a lot of reading on the Mekong (pun intended) and I am sure that in the not too distant future these kind of trips will become less accessible or in fact possible.

The maps of the dams (left) and the railway (right).

There are 31 dams either under construction or completed along the Mekong River and its tributaries. These are being built for hydroelectric power. 20 of these are in China (Upper Mekong) which obviously affects the flow further down river in Laos where 9 will be built and the last 2 will be in Cambodia. The residents rely on the river as mentioned for transport but also for food and I can only imagine the impact these dams will have on their livelihood. As well as the dams, there is also a high speed train being built between China and Thailand and this traverses Laos and we saw evidence of this construction as well.

After a leisurely day (9 hours) on the river we docked in Pak Beng. We had pre-booked our accommodation and to our surprise there was a driver waiting at the pier for us amongst the number of others who were offering accommodation at the numerous guesthouses at Pak Beng (a lot of the foreigners who use the boat don’t pre-book and manage to get accommodation easily).

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We were impressed with our accommodation – Sanctuary Pak Beng – it is on the banks of the river with a serene setting and a welcome touch of luxury in this remote area. They sponsor an elephant sanctuary and over breakfast we were treated to watching the elephants being brought down to the opposite riverbank for a swim.

We set off again at 8:30 the next morning on a different boat – we had stocked up on baguettes and cheese as well as fruit and cold drink/water, which was just as well as this particular boat did not have any on sale. This boat had a different configuration and we had a “booth” with a table which was really handy.

Today the river widened significantly and from about an hour from Huay Xia we were crossing between Thailand and Laos across the river constantly as the border is the middle of the river. It was interesting to see the marked difference between the river banks with structural banks and flood prevention on the Thai side and nothing on the Laos side.

Thailand on the left and Laos on the right taken at the same place on the river.

Another long, relaxing day on the river ended in Huay Xia on the Thai border.

When we got off at the pier there were a number of tuk tuks touting for business. We asked about getting to the office where we had prearranged our transfer to Chiang Mai the next day as we had to pay them and get our tickets – the driver simply said he would take us to “town” – together with a number of the foreigners that had been on our boat – we paid our exorbitant fee and set off – we stopped 3 minutes later and we all sat in anticipation of getting going again – this was it! We were in town! We could have walked in the same time!

We initially couldn’t find our the agent and asked at another company who told us the agent was closed but they could arrange the transfer at double to cost! Fortunately Ivan went walkabout and did find our agent who sorted everything out for the next day and arranged a tuk tuk for us to our hotel as well.

We had opted to stay in Huay Xia rather than cross the border that evening and stay in Chiang Khong (Thailand). We once again had a fantastic room overlooking the Mekong and watched our last Laos sunset over the river from the balcony of our room.

Lovely view from our room across to Thailand over the river.

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Spoiled for choice at dinner!

We were collected in the morning and headed to the border and our trip across to Thailand. Our driver dropped us at the Laos border and after we cleared passport control we boarded a shuttle bus across the Friendship Bridge – literally “no mans land” bridge across the Mekong. We then entered Thailand and were met by our driver and headed for Chiang Mai.

The friendship bridge seen from the River.

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