The legendary slow boat. Love it or loath it, all SEA travellers have their tales to tell. Most seem to loath the boat but to love moaning about it. We spent some days agonizing over whether to give it a go. Virtually everyone crossing from north Thailand into Laos takes it. Each morning the boat, with its cargo of 100 or more sunburnt farang, embarks on the two-day journey from the border at Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, tourist mecca. Here are our 12 reasons not to take it.
1. Every single passenger aboard our bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong (the Thai side of the border) were headed for the slow boat. Each had bought the transport package in Chiang Mai, and carried a booklet of coupons for each leg of their journey from the Chiang Mai departure to arrival in Luang Prabang 3 days later. When we told them we were NOT taking the slow boat and explained the alternative route we devised, they questioned us in awe and wonder about our independent adventure (which, in all honesty, wasn’t even that adventurous).
2. Upon arrival at the border we checked in right away to whatever guesthouse we pleased. They had to stand around in the throngs of people pouring off minibuses all over town, waving coupons and awaiting their lodging placement.
3. After a leisurely rest, we passed by our guesthouse restaurant, where the slow-boaters queued with their coupons for a mass-produced meal at the appointed time. We wandered about town for a bit, watched local families run remote-control car races on the riverbank, then settled in at an adorable local shop for a fantastic bowl of noodles.
4. Ditto for breakfast, except instead of a noodle shop we chose a lovely spot by the river with the nicest Thai women imaginable. We already have a breakfast date next time we’re in Chiang Khong.
5. As I headed out to the bank and pharmacy, dozens of slow-boaters sat and waited in the courtyard for their transport. When I returned, they were being herded, cattle style, onto cramped minibuses to the immigration office.
6. When we arrived in Huay Xai, on the Laos side of the river, the slow-boaters were still there, still waiting. Only this time it wasn’t just the slow-boaters from our guesthouse, it was slow-boaters from all guesthouses. Each had to wear a little sticker badge indicating the tour operator they had purchased from. When we got through, they were still waiting.
7. Tour operators and border officials continually came up to us, reminding us to put on our badges, instructing us where to go, demanding our passports, trying to shuffle us around. It felt so good each time to inform them that we were not with the slow boat.
8. We wandered into town and found a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the bus station, explaining that we wanted to go to Luang Nam Tha. We were almost there when he came to a screeching halt on the side of the road, flagged down a bus, pushed us aboard and tossed our packs in behind us before we could protest. For two hours or so we bumped along (in a very spacious and comfortable air-con bus), reveling in the fact that we had no idea where we were headed, speculating about all of the exciting possibilities.
9. Sometime about 3 hours in, we made it to our intended destination. The driver made sure we knew to get off and asked for our fare – $2 each.
10. We spent a glorious day riding bikes around the incredibly accessible countryside, through tiny villages, to waterfalls, while the cattle – ahem, the slow-boaters – were still stuck on the boat.
11. We spent another glorious day doing the same thing in Nong Khiaw.
12. We took a stunningly beautiful boat ride, complete with stops and walks through villages, from Nong Khiaw down to Luang Prabang, arriving only 2 days later than the slow-boaters, and with a far better experience of Laos.