After purchasing our ticket, we boarded the narrow boat. It was twice as long as a school bus, and the seats were pulled from cars. We joined a mix of tourists and locals travelling up river. Although possible to go by bus, travelling by boat allowed us to see a part of the Laotian countryside and is a more direct route. More importantly, we wanted to see as much of the Mekong in this area before the remainder of the dams are build forever changing this eco system. The boat fought the downstream current the whole way. At best we moved 20 KPH, although through strong current areas we barely moved at one kilometer per hour. We passed under five bridges that were in the process of being constructed. Most locals have spent years ferrying across, the bridges would be a big change for movement of supplies from one side of the river to the other. It took us 10 hours to go 125km up river.
I spent time looking at life along the river. A few domesticated elephants came to riverside for a bath or to drink. Small herds of water buffalo or oxen cooled themselves in the river. Fishermen checked their nets. Women washed clothes. Children played naked in the river.
Riverside in the upper Mekong differed greatly from our experience in the Mekong Delta. In the Mekong Delta, all life extended right down to the river and over it, whereas in the upper Mekong was at least a 100 meters up the valley wall away from the river’s edge. The Mekong Delta was a great plane with the average height being 0.8 meters above sea level. In Northern Laos, the river cut through stone making a shallow valley climbing gently from 300 meters above sea level in Luang Prabang to 400 meters above sea level in Huay Xay 250 km away. The mountains extended beyond the valley walls. Lush rainforests with patches of clear cutting made the hillsides look like a green quilt shirt. Huge rocks with intermittent beaches extended the entire trip upriver. The beaches were made from centuries of silt and sand deposits. Consequently, there were periodic riverside vegetable gardens. More frequently the beaches were either harbors for riverboat-houses, pastures for the animals, soccer fields for children, or parking lots for small fishing skiffs. Each rock outcropping had bamboo poles lodged in rocks holding nest or fishing traps. Houses and villages were infrequent.
After Pak Beng, there were quite a few outposts of people panning for gold.
The boat stopped at various locations along the way, pulling up to a beach, rock outcropping, or another boat for people to hop on and off.
I saw little to no wildlife along the river. There were no egrets or herons. I only saw one small group of swifts. I heard two songbirds only.
Our journey upstream was interrupted by a large BANG and CLING CLANG CLUNK. Our engine broke. The boat limped to the side of the river. Most of us disembarked and stood on the beach, while the boat’s mechanic banged away in the engine room. Standing in the shade of the rainforest, riverside, was more than pleasant. Although it was slightly unnerving to consider the options if the mechanic didn’t fix the boat. There was no town or road nearby. We were in a very remote location. A slight breeze kept it cool, while the cicadas and insects roared. Fortunately, the mechanic got things going again after a 45 minute delay.
The town of Pak Beng was our half way point on our way to Huay Xia. Most of the town near the boat landing are guesthouses with services catering to people passing up or down the river to larger cities. However in the early morning, traditional non-tourist based life still flourished. The early market was full of people selling their garden vegetables.
I learned from one of our drivers in Luang Prabang that monasteries all over Laos serve as a way to educate their youth. Youths vie to get into them from the rural parts of Laos because either no school exists, or they are too poor to send their children to school. The monasteries take in students as young as eight. In richer areas like Luang Prabang, the schools flourish and can afford to take in more students. For example in the Tak Bat ceremony I participated in, there were nearly 45 students. However in these smaller more impoverished communities they only have room for one or two students. Most young men in Laos, according to our driver, spend time in the monastery. He was in a monastery for a few week after his mother died.
Monks learn and are required to regular upkeep of the monastery. They also participate in a wide array of ceremonies. In Wat Xieng Thong, we saw four novices participate in a drum ceremony (about the ceremony click here). For 15 minutes, these student used gongs, drums, and thimbles to get their groove on. As they played, they rotated instruments without missing a beat.
Our journey from Pak Beng to the border took a little over 9 hours. We hustled into a songthaew with other tourists to exit the Lao border, paying an extra few bucks for after hour crossing. A short shuttle ride took us across the bridge to the Thai border, and then we shared the expense of a mini-van to Chiang Rai Thailand.
How we did it
Boat tickets north to Huay Xia were purchased at the morning of departure from the boat station located 10 minutes out of town (past the airport). The sign says 50% reduced price for kids under 10, but they’ll still charge full price if your kid will use their own seat. We had to argue this. showing a passport to get the discount posted on the sign. We tried to buy tickets a few days earlier on our way to Pak Ou; however ticketing only happens in the morning. And even though the workers was there resting in his car, the TV was on, and the doors were open, they would not sell tickets in advance (insisting the office was closed for the day). We bought both legs of the trip (Luang Prahbang –> Pak Beng and Pak Beng –> Huay Xai) from the ticket office. The boat was not full going North, but we arrived early anyway. The boat was 75% of capacity with nearly half the people on board being tourists going north. (Cost=110,000Kp per person, per leg).
Accommodations in Pak Beng were easy to find. There were plenty of options with people meeting us at the boat asking if we wanted accommodations.
A different boat took us on the second leg of the the trip. We arrived after 5pm, caught a tuk-tuk to the border. After 4pm the border agent charges 10,000KP per crossing. The space in between passport control must be traversed by shuttle bus, for which they charge another 10,000KP per person.
(There is an international bus that run from the Laotian side of the border to Chiang Rai, but service stops at 5pm cost=60,000kp. We missed this).
Two options existed on the Thai side. Stay in the border town for the night until the cheaper red bus was available or get a minivan to Chaing Rai 2500 Baht per van). The minivan dropped us off at the Chaing Rai Bus Station.