Well, here it is finally: the picturesque little Asian town we’ve all been waiting for. Luang Prabang is just the right size—big enough to offer some sophistication and small enough that locals and travellers alike can (and do) still drive bicycles down the main road. Not just any old bicycles, mind you, but those iconic ones you might have associated with a leafy Vietnamese boulevard thirty years ago: long handlebars curving upwards, wire mesh basket mounted in the front and often a family member or two double riding.
The low-key streets are lined with two-storey buildings in rows, with storefronts and cafes on the bottom and colourful shuttered windows on top. Every morning at dawn, hundreds of monks from a nearby Buddhist temple stroll past the lane that our guesthouse fronts, barefoot and saffron-clad, collecting alms offered by the many local residents kneeling on the sidewalk. The French influence is evident everywhere, from the architecture to the fresh baguettes to the good wines found easily in restaurants throughout the old part of the city.
You have to love a place where the beer is sold mainly in quarts for $1 each. BeerLao, it’s called here, and Mark and I have gone from sharing one each day to managing one each.
Even the night market here operates at a pace that seems lethargic next to those in Thailand—plenty of room for everyone, prices that are only slightly inflated, merchants who are relaxed and approachable, and the whole thing packs up by 10 p.m. The streets are clean, the sewers are covered, the spa services are cheap and the people are warm and genuine.
Possibly the reason for all of this is that Laos is only just emerging from its reputation as a destination best left to intrepid travellers willing to brave all-too-likely air and road accidents to get here and prepared to live with scarce health care, endemic malaria, sketchy food hygiene and highway bandits once they arrive.
When you get here the way we did—via slow boat from the Thai border—it seems truly amazing that this town exists at all. The slow boat trip takes 16 hours and is done over two days, since the boats don’t use lights and can’t travel overnight. During the first long eight-hour day of motoring down the Mekong, we saw scarcely any signs of life at all—just the odd tiny village here and there tucked into the abundant greenery, really no more than a scattering of greying, thatch-roofed bamboo shacks on stilts with laundry drying in the sun. The second day was more of the same. The scenery was absolutely spectacular, with mountains in many shades of green for backdrop and then sandbars, rocky cliffs and limestone karsts closer up, with the occasional group of three or four water buffalo or collection of small naked children bathing.
But enough of the romance. I suspect another reason this place is as yet so unspoiled by tourism is that it’s bloody difficult to get here. There are several choices, but none are particularly appealing. From Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, the only airline we could have flown with is Laos Airlines, which is famous for poor maintenance and fatal mishaps. There was no bus going here from Thailand, and there are no trains at all. (From a different part of Thailand in the northeast, it is possible to cross into Laos via the Friendship Bridge at Vientiane, but then you’re still nine hours away by bus from Luang Prabang.) For us, the only credible choice was the slow boat, which travels some 300 kilometres down the Mekong from the Thailand-Laos border to Luang Prabang.
At first, the slow boat seems a straightforward enough option. Agents in both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai sell package tickets that include a Thai minivan to the border town of Chiang Khong, the ferry crossing to Huay Xai, which is the Lao town on the other side of the river, and slow boat tickets from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. The package includes a boxed lunch for the first day.
What it doesn’t include: overnight guesthouse accommodation in Pakbeng—the Lao town at the midway point of the slowboat trip—or any meals after the boxed lunch. Once you’re in Laos, you’re on your own.
Our trip began a few days ago in Chiang Rai, when a driver picked us up from our hotel at 6:30 a.m. for the trip to border at Chiang Khong. We were surprised that he seemed to have no tickets or any kind of documentation for us, but he indicated that he would deliver us to someone else in Chiang Khong who would see us through the next step. The two-hour journey was completely uneventful, with everyone far too tired from the 5:45 a.m. wake-up to chat or observe all the dogs lying around on the white line down the middle of the highway. Both kids were asleep for most of the trip.
Arriving in Chiang Khong, we were still a bit sleepy and surprised when our driver told us to carry our bags up a steep set of concrete steps to a restaurant across the street from the immigration office, where apparently a woman would have instructions for us on what to do next. Without giving us tickets, paperwork or advice of any kind, he drove off.
The woman running the restaurant handed us immigration and visa application forms together with a list of visa prices for various nationalities. The list was a black-and-white, dog-eared photocopy that appeared to bear a stamp of approval from the Laos government.
Canadians do for some reason have to pay quite a bit more than other nationalities for a Lao visa: $42 compared to about $30 for Americans. But I wasn’t expecting (or budgeting for) the $70 that appeared on her list. Neither Mark nor I understood, either, why we should be applying and paying for Lao visas on the Thai side of the border. The woman spoke limited English—just slightly better than our pretty much non-existent Thai—so we were communicating mainly through gestures, facial expressions and one-word sentences. I started suspecting a visa scam right away, but it was unclear to us whether or not we were stuck with this woman and her system because of our package deal. We started filling in all the forms, but as soon as mine were finished, I ran across the street and got in line at the departures window at the Thai immigration building. I asked the official there whether or not we could get visas on the Laos side, and if so, how much they should cost. He told me we could indeed get them on the other side for $30 to $40.
I told the customs officer about the little scheme going on across the street, then went back and told Mark as well. We let the woman know that we’d be getting our visas ourselves on the other side, and proceeded down the hill towards the river with our bags.
Now when I say “with our bags,” it’s interesting to understand what I mean by that. Back in Chiang Mai, Mark decided one day to stack up all the books we’ve been lugging around so we could get a fun visual of just how much we’re carrying and why it’s all so heavy. The leaning tower of books was a good four feet tall. It was smaller before Charlotte arrived, but we had asked her to bring a number of books from home and when she arrived, we still had not finished with the ones we had planned on giving away. Here's a look at what we've got:
If there was ever a time to travel light, it was probably this trip down the Mekong. But there we were, carrying between the five of us two children’s backpacks, two enormous adult backpacks, two cross-body bags containing the laptop, camera and other essentials, Chloe’s purse, two cloth bags with snacks and water for the trip, and Charlotte’s bags, which consisted of one large wheeled suitcase, a smaller wheeled suitcase, a daypack and a purse.
We lugged this all down to the visa office where I’d made my initial inquiry so that we could get stamped out of Thailand. The first four of us had no problems, but there seemed to be a snag with Charlotte’s paperwork—something to do with an incomplete departure card. Rather than explaining the problem to her and handling it right away, the official merely put her passport aside and moved on to deal with the people in line behind her. From where we stood, sweating and sagging under the weight of our ridiculous backpacks, we could see crowds of people boarding ferries. The minutes ticked by. Finally the woman from the restaurant, who was still with us despite our lack of interest in her visa scam, intervened to ask what the problem was. The departure card matter got sorted out, and the official gave the woman quite an irate speech. We could only guess (and hope) that it related to the visa business.
Paperwork complete, we trundled with our heaps of baggage down to the sand to board the ferry. The “ferry” was actually little more than a rundown wooden boat with rickety slats of wood to sit on, accommodating maybe 20 people at a time. We were feeling sheepish about our masses of baggage until we saw somebody get on after us with a bicycle. By now the woman from the restaurant had handed us off to a man named Mr. Sai (who for the next hour or so was known to us only as the man in the blue and orange jacket). Having met us, Mr. Blue-and-Orange Jacket then stepped off our boat and told us to look for him on the other side.
After the 10-minute crossing, we were greeted on the other side by a woman wearing a face mask and scanning all arriving passengers for fever. Passing the test, we dumped our bags in a pile on the dirt road and joined a swarm of people to apply for our Lao visas and get through passport control.
Getting the visas was chaotic and time-consuming, but there were no hitches and no scams. We paid our $42 (times five), waited at the next window to show our duly stamped passports, and moved back out onto the road to stand with our bags. That was when we finally began to wonder where the man in the blue and orange coat had got to. There we were, standing at the edge of Laos, with visas but without local currency or boat tickets or any knowledge of where to board the slow boat or what we should do if the man in the blue coat had bailed on us.
After we’d been standing there a good long while looking lost and increasingly annoyed (thinking we’d also been scammed by the agency we’d bought the slow boat tickets from), someone else’s guide asked what group we were with. We were forced to admit, sheepishly, that we actually had no idea: we were with the man in the blue and orange coat. He asked what agency we’d booked with in Chiang Rai. We took out our receipt only to find that while it was full of details about our trip and its associated costs, it was a generic receipt with no letterhead or logo to indicate where we’d obtained it—and we couldn’t remember the name of the agency, either.
The other group’s guide helpfully ran off with the receipt, saying he would show it around to see whether or not any other trip representatives might have some idea where it had come from. He reappeared 10 minutes later to tell us he had not been able to find anything out. Just a few moments short of despair, we spotted him: the man in the blue and orange coat, getting off an incoming ferry with another gaggle of travellers. This time when he came our way, we sucked him straight into our little vortex and asked his name (which is how we came to know that he went by Mr. Sai). But this was to be a short-lived victory, since about five minutes later he handed us off to someone else—a man in a blue-and-white-striped polo shirt—who told us to walk up the street and around the corner and get in the idling songthaew.
We hoisted our many bags into the back of the songthaew (these ubiquitous vehicles are essentially converted pick-up trucks kitted out with two long benches lining the back, and operate as taxis for larger groups) and climbed in, still with no tickets and never to see Mr. Sai again. We got dropped off at a riverside restaurant about 10 minutes away, where we had to surrender our passports yet again, this time to the man in the blue-and-white-striped polo shirt. He informed all of the travellers sitting in the restaurant that we would shortly get our passports back with tickets and would be leaving at 11:30 a.m.
And that’s pretty much the way it happened, actually. We never did get the promised box lunch, so we were happy to have packed our own bread, butter, cookies and Pringles. We even managed to get reasonably good seats on the boat, thanks to our divide-and-conquer strategy—I boarded the boat as quickly as possible with Charlotte, the children and all the small bags while Mark took the big bags on one by one without having to worry about scoring a seat. The boat left more or less on time at 11:45 a.m. By then we’d been up for six hours already and were still looking seven more in a crowded slow boat. These boats can take some 90 passengers, and ours was nearly at capacity. Among them was a group of about eight backpackers who looked to be between the ages of maybe 18 and 22 and who were clearly planning a party: they boarded carrying a case of 24 BeerLaos and a bottle of Lao whiskey, set themselves up in a circle on the floor near the back of the boat, and immediately started playing some combination of a card/drinking game that seemed to require the whole group to stand up periodically and perform the chicken dance. Needless to say, we were happy to be sitting near the front.
I would like to say the next seven hours passed uneventfully other than occasional uprisings from the chicken dance group, but they didn’t. In the first place, it had been a rainy day from the outset and the rain continued off and on all day, sometimes changing to dramatic, heavy downpours that made it difficult to see more than a foot or two ahead. Secondly, we developed engine trouble about six hours into the trip, just an hour before dusk.
We first knew something was up when we noticed some activity near the front of the boat. The driver was shouting at the boat boy, and both of them were looking at the back of the boat. We deduced that the engine water coolant was no longer coming out of the back, a fact which had gone unnoticed for a while as the driver, who was also the mechanic, was busy taking us down the river. Now he needed to find somewhere to moor the boat in the 10-knot current so he could tend to the engine, which was overheating.
He found a small alcove, ducked in and anchored the boat. Then he ran to the back of the boat, turned the engine off, and proceeded to take apart the hose that runs from the water pump into the engine. Something had been clogging it. He pulled out the clog, and tried to start the engine, but the battery was dead. The sun was going down and we were still an hour or two from our destination.
Not in the slightest perturbed by this development, the driver took the belt off the water pump, put a rope around the main engine pulley, and used it to start the engine. He then manually put the water pump belt back on the main pulley, very carefully, while the engine was running. For those having problems visualizing all these engine parts, the upshot of it is that he could easily have got his fingers caught under the belt, which would almost certainly have resulted in the loss of a digit or possibly the entire hand. But he managed it unscathed, so we were back in action.
We set off again, completing the final half-hour of the trip in total darkness. It’s hard to imagine anyone being thrilled to arrive at Pakbeng, where we were scheduled to stop for the night, but we were overjoyed to be getting off the boat. Pakbeng is a tiny village with maybe one street where there is only electricity from 6 to 10 p.m., and finding a guesthouse is notoriously a matter of choosing the “least worst” option. But before we could even hit the pavement, we had to make our way from the harbour to the road, swatting away swarms of hotel touts. We exited the boat by walking a six-foot-long plank over water, carrying all of our bags, and then found ourselves on a steep, muddy hill leading up to the town. We had to forage for flashlights to pick our way up the hill safely until we found a set of concrete stairs. At the top of the stairs, we continued until it appeared that we’d made it into the town. Then we set down our bags and set up a plan: Mark and Ciaran would wait with the bags while Patti, Charlotte and Ciaran went off, flashlights in hand, in search of a reasonably clean guesthouse.
The first two we inquired at were booked full, likely because thanks to the engine trouble, we were the last slow boat to arrive that day. At the second one, the owner suggested we try his sister’s place instead, and offered to escort us to it. Not seeing many other viable options, we agreed. As luck would have it, it was basic but clean, and we decided it would do for the night. We made the most of the remaining hours of electricity, fitting in dinner and hot showers before the power went out. Over two big BeerLaos and some Indian food, we marvelled over what a completely ridiculous day we’d survived. I think the word “ridiculous” came up in conversation about 26 times.
We were back on the boat by 8:30 a.m. the following day, and arrived in Luang Prabang by 4:30 p.m. as scheduled. The trip was long and uncomfortable thanks to the hard bench seats, but nothing went wrong; bored with scenery by now, the kids devoted themselves to books and video games, only occasionally breaking into sparring matches with each other.
We were exceedingly grateful to arrive in daylight and to have reserved a hotel room in advance, so our introduction to Luang Prabang was stress-free: we hired a songthaew to deliver us to our guesthouse, and it didn’t take us long to be showered and ready to toast our arrival. We found a pizzeria (The Pizza Luang Prabang), where we discovered the $1 BeerLao quarts. There were tables out on the sidewalk, so we moved a few together and made ourselves at home. Sitting there at our candlelit table on the sidewalk, watching the people go by and enjoying my tall, cold, cheap BeerLao—along with the mellow atmosphere and utterly charming streetscape—I decided Luang Prabang had certainly been worth the effort.