Taking The Slow Boat To Laos: Drugs, Jail, and a Mutiny!

“Oh my gosh, guys! We have to get mushroom shakes for breakfast tomorrow morning!!!”

I turn my head around; it’s the same Aussie girl who managed to introduce herself to the older British couple by dropping the word ‘shit’ in her greeting. She has now moved on to broadcasting all the cheap drugs she plans on consuming in Southeast Asia.

“And the pizzaaaas! If you ask for a ‘happy pizza’ they’ll give you one that has marijuana. Isn’t that awesooome?!”

I roll my eyes at Sam. Is this who I have for company on the 2 day boat journey to Luang Prabang? It looks like I might because she gets in the same minivan we’re already on. Crap!

“Aww, guys,” she yells out the door, “I really hope we’re on the same boat! I’m gonna be so SOOOOO sad if we aren’t!”

Then turning to us offering an explanation, “we spent all night getting drunk together. They’re my new friends!”

“No, seriously guys! You have to be on the same boat! They have beer – we can drink the whole way theeere!!!!”

Oh, gosh. What am I in for?

While the 3 day journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang was incredibly scenic, it also proved to be slow torture in many ways. My trip involved sleeping in a former prison, eating recycled leftovers, and getting tangled up in a mutiny just when I was a few kilometres from reaching Luang Prabang. It seems misadventures along the Mekong River are a bit of an ongoing theme for me…

For anyone considering taking the slow boat to Laos, I’ll recount the events from my journey and I seriously hope you have a better one.

Over-the counter drugs and a pink jail

(Day 1: Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong)

Our van picked us up (only) 45 minutes behind schedule and we crammed ourselves in. Having done the journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai twice before, I knew I was in for a vomit-inducing journey so I proceeded to pass out for the next 3 hours with a little help from dimenhydrinate. (Anti-nausea pills for the win!)

By the time I woke up, we had reached the White Temple for a 20 minute break and a whirlwind tour at one of the most unusual temples in Southeast Asia.

Snap! Snap! Snap! And back in the van.

I was more alert for the next three hours that followed on our journey to the Thai-Lao border. During this part of the drive the roads got narrower, the towns fewer in between, and the transportation switched from cars and scooters to scooters and farming equipment.

By 5 p.m. we were pulling in to our accommodations for the evening – this came in the form of a former prison…painting pink to add a bit of cheer? Hmm, this wasn’t in the brochure, yet oddly enough, it wasn’t my first time staying at a former prison turned hotel.

Dinner that evening consisted of chicken soup (read: murky water with a floating carcass) and a small bowl of rice, which wouldn’t be enough to fill a cavity. A trip to 7 Eleven ensued (I may eat like a baby elephant, but I also have Sam the Giant to feed). This was followed by a sleep deprived night on a mattress that was surely carved out of wood.

Not quite the leisurely trip we were promised

(Day 2: Chiang Khong to Pakbeng)

Cold and showerless I made my way down for breakfast at 6:00 a.m. I was greeted with a buffet of instant coffee, overcooked rice floating in water, and boiled cabbage with mystery proteins (eggs? pork?) in it. The Dutch girl seated next to me looked at my plate with disgust. “You must eat something”, an older British couple urged her and they then gave her one of their own teabags so that at least she’d have something to drink.

About an hour behind schedule, we finally hopped in the minivan that would drive us to the border. We were stamped out of Thailand, driven a few hundred meters to the Laos border, and then began the process of getting a visa on arrival. Word to the wise: get your Laos visa before coming here or make sure you are one of the very first people there because it is absolute madness.

I managed to be one of the first 5 people in line, but within minutes there were upwards of 100 people waiting to be processed. There was confusion as to where to get the forms, local ‘guides’ were bribing the officers into processing their customers’ passports first, and it was absolute chaos at the visa pick-up line where the clerk was holding up random passports and asking “Is this you? Is this you? Is this you?” to the growing mob surrounding her window.

From there it was another drive to the pier where we arrived to a boat that was already packed full of strangers. How was this possible if we were the first of our 3 minivan entourage to cross the border?! We were clearly just ‘filler’, which meant we got the crap seats facing sideways. The barriers meant we couldn’t really enjoy the view, so the next 7 hours were spent eating, reading and napping. Not quite what I had envisioned when I signed up for this ‘scenic’ slow boat to Laos.

When we finally reached Pakbeng that evening, our hotel forgot to pick our group up from the pier, and none of the drivers seemed too interested in taking us since they were working on commission for other hotels. In the end we had to walk uphill into town with all of our luggage in tow.

Our hotel hardly resembled the photos we had been shown. Instead, we had a flimsy mattress with protruding springs, and a shower that let out a small trickle of icy water. This being our second night without a shower, Sam decided to brave the water anyway, upon which time the water mysteriously cut out in the room – no water to brush out teeth in the sink, no water to flush the toilet, and no water to wash those stinky armpits.

A mutiny on the shores of the Mekong

(Day 3: Pakbeng to Luang Prabang – sort of)

Determined to not get stuck with crappy seats for another day in a row, Sam and I were out of the hotel by 6:30 a.m. We ate a quick breakfast, stocked up on French baked goods for the journey, and raced downhill with our packs. Success! A handful of travellers had already arrived to secure their seats, but we were still early enough to snag forward-facing seats near the front of the boat.

Let me shock you here and say that I honestly did enjoy the final day of the slow boat to Laos. The landscape changed from lush jungles with palm trees and draping vines, to autumn foliage with specks of red. The sun was shining into the boat, and it was easy to love slowly drifting down the Mekong with a good book in hand. Every so often small bamboo settlements would appear on the hillside, and we would stop to drop off supplies and pick up locals heading into Luang Prabang. I even saw the occasional elephant grazing near the banks of the river – it was bliss. But that would change once we neared our final destination.

About 10 kilometres outside of Luang Prabang, the captain pulled over announcing this was the final stop. We would have to take a tuk-tuk to make the rest of our way into town. Locals and foreigners who had read up about the trip knew better than that.

The first clue to the scam was that the locals weren’t getting off the boat. If this was the final stop, why weren’t they moving?

We turned to a local woman seated with us, “Last stop? Luang Prabang?”

She grinned at us and signalled that the boat would continue on into town.

We then turned to the captain who tried to hide his grin, but the cat was out of the bag.

Even though we had paid for a boat ride all the way to Luang Prabang, we were being dropped off here so that we’d have to pay the local drivers to take us the rest of the way into town.

“No-no-nooooh, ha! Take us to Luang Prabang!”

Our new leader addressed the captain asking him to take us all the way as had been agreed, but the captain just kept smirking and staring awkwardly at us and then at his crew.

“We know you’re going the rest of the way! The locals on the boat told us so and we paid for tickets the full way. We are not getting off the boat, so let’s go to Luang Prabang.”

By now everyone on the boat was getting quite rowdy. There was chanting, clapping, and lots of hollering in a myriad of languages. The two leaders who were fighting for our cause started untying the boat and throwing off the plank that had been set up to let passengers off in a muddy shore (there wasn’t even a pier). Browse the forums on Lonely Planet or read the reviews on TripAdvisor and you’ll come across many tales of disgruntled passengers who also felt cheated by similar experiences.

That’s when the yelling in Lao begin. First the captain at the locals and then the locals at the captain.  It seemed that now that we had caught on to his trick, the locals would have to get off as well. He would not be continuing on with a boatful of foreigners all the way into town. The locals fought him but eventually they were forced off with their bundles. And still we stayed on the boat for another 30 minutes out of principle.

A local who spoke English was brought to try and end the dispute. He first tried to argue that there was no pier in town, and then he started saying that there was a UNESCO rule prohibiting boats from going any further into town (a complete lie considering we would later see these very boats by the handful offering rides to foreigners on the town’s shores).

During this time locals on the shores began to mock us, “You stay here! You sleep here all night,” and a Frenchman tried to lighten the mood by singing “Should I stay or should I go? Should I stay or should I go? If I go there will be troubleeee…”

Eventually the captain and his crew began unloading our luggage and throwing it on the banks, at which point I felt this was a lost cause.

I would later bump into some of the passengers around town and learn that a group of them had stayed on for an additional hour, however, in the end it was to no avail.

After getting off the boat, I carried my pack up the ‘new pier’s’  extremely steep sandy embankment and paid the 20,000 kip (or $2.50 USD) per person for a ride into town. (Yes, it’s cheap, but it’s also quadruple the going rate if you happen to catch the ride a few meters down on the main road.)

Of course, Ms. Shroom Shakes was already in the back of the truck, so I got to listen to her conversation for the ride in.

“Yeah, we found a place to smoke opium last night but then we were freaking out because one of the guys got really sick. Shit, man! That sucked…”

I echoed her feeling about the whole trip.

I know what some of you are probably thinking…

$2.50? Why did you even bother?

I’ve asked myself the same thing.

On the one hand, by dropping people off 10 kilometres out of town and forcing them to hire a driver into town, jobs are being created for locals. $2.50 is a small price to pay to give someone a job and stimulate the local economy.

On the other hand, deceiving paying passengers and dropping them off on a muddy bank in the outskirts of town when they’ve paid for a boat ride to Luang Prabang isn’t very honest. Our local sources in town explained that as little as a year ago the slow boat used to travel all the way into Luang Prabang, however, several months ago the captains started dropping foreigners off in the outskirts of town and this became the new norm. No one challenged it (perhaps out of ignorance or perhaps because the fare to town was such a trivial sum), so now it’s standard practice.

At the end of the day, most foreigners can easily cough up the $2.50 it takes to get into town, however, it bothered me that this money fuelled dishonesty.  

Tips for anyone considering taking the slow boat to Laos:

– Bring a cushion. Some of the boats have been ‘updated’ and the wooden benches have been replaced with old car seats / bus seats, but there’s still a chance you may end up sitting on a wooden bench for 9 hours.

Dress in layers. I was wearing a hoodie, a fleece, socks and sandals (classy, I know), and I was still shivering when we set off in the morning. Don’t underestimate the temperatures in Southeast Asia. It will warm up later in the day, but it’s best to be prepared until then.

Bring something to keep yourself entertained. Books, an iPod stocked with your favourite music, a deck of playing cards, a journal to write or doodle in. The landscapes are hypnotizing, but you’ll want a break sooner of later.

Arrive early for a chance at a good seat. You may not be able to get a good seat on the first day, but if you get up early on day 2 of the boat journey and make it down to the pier at least 1 hour in advance, you should be able to snag first pick.

Stock up on snacks. Anyone who tells you there is no food on the boat is lying to you, however, I will say that there isn’t a lot of variety. You can get hot tea and coffee, ramen noodles in a cup, chips, cookies, light snacks and beer. You certainly won’t go hungry, but it’s worth picking up some sandwiches, baked goods, and maybe even some fruit before you hop on board.

It might be worth going for a mid-level package. I booked the regular budget tour: 2,400 baht with 2 nights accommodations included. It’s the same tour they sell at every tourist agency in Chiang Mai, but if I had to do it again, I would be willing to dish out double in order to have a more comfortable trip.

Have you taken the slow boat to Laos?

What was your experience like?

Would you recommend it?