Experiencing the slow boat from Thailand to Laos

Neil the Northern Irishman always wore a green cap.


He boarded the minibus, with a clinking plastic bag bulging with Chang beer bottles, and a toothy grin on his face. It was 9am. He excitedly introduced himself to Cindy, myself, and the driver in his thick Irish drawl. These three days could be pretty entertaining, I thought to myself. He cracked a beer, took a seat, and starting running through his plans for Laos.

We were beginning our transit from Chiang Mai in Thailand’s far north, through Laotian border control, ending in Luang Prabang, Laos. A well-known pilgrimage for the adventurous (or budget-conscious) backpacker who wants to do the border crossing the scenic way. We chose the three day slow boat, the cheapest, and, my god, the slowest way to do this crossing.

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Waking up early to see the monks of Laos

davThe slow boat collided softly with the tyres bound to the ferry port at Luang Prabang, and the tourist horde disembarked, stretching and yawning. Caramel waves chased each other down the Mekong like energetic children playing tip. Luang Prabang old town was pretty, neat and straight. Quaint guesthouses and corner stores were splashed in creamy yellow paint, proudly exhibiting small green gardens, urns of tiny fish and lacquered wooden signposts. The clean, empty streets were deafening with silence, palm trees vaulted from sidewalks, narrow cobbled alleys oozed invitations to explore.

I was immobilized by a bout of gastro for a day, but soon felt well enough to wander the city. Cindy and I walked around the many colourful monasteries, with their tall pointed roofs and monks on laundry duty hanging up fluoro orange robes to dry in the heat. Streets packed with restaurants baked under the sun by day, and blossomed with Hmong tribal night markets after dark. The riverfront boasted tree-shaded cafes, with timber balconies lined up along the Mekong.

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Hurry makes worry (backpacker logic)

It takes the patience of a street-performing human statue to travel through Laos. The slow boat from Pak Beng at the Thai-Laos border to Luang Prabang was, as promised, slow. Tourist laden, fifty meters long, and with an ear-splitting truck engine thundering away just metres behind my ear, it chugged meticulously down the caramel brown Mekong river for two days. If you’re told the boat leaves at 9, be prepared for a 10:30 departure. Patience in Laos.

The distance between Luang Prabang and Phongsavan looked negligent on the map, but a slithering serpent of a road connected the two cities, coiling and hairpinning along the shoulder of rolling green mountains. The driver was in a hurry. The minivan’s bald tyres screeched in protest and my stomach lurched like it had been lassoed and tightened. Nevertheless, the ride took the entire day.

The buses leave hours after the scheduled time and the Internet connections are glacial. Just gotta be patient or you’ll stress out too much.

Jeff once told me he had met a German in Thailand, settled into the life of a long term traveller, lingering in his hotel, in no rush to do anything. He declared to Jeff that his goal for the day was to cut his toenails; he never got around to it. When asked why, he replied “hurry makes worry”.

Hurry makes worry; poor English but fine advice.