Once I had been granted my Laos visa at the border crossing in Huay Xai, I made my way up the large hill leading to the main part of town in search of transportation to Luang Prabang.
I was still trying to decide how I wanted to travel, as I’d heard equally good and bad things about both the slow boat and the bus. There were advantages to both forms of travel, but what I was more concerned with were the disadvantages. My choices consisted of 2 days on a slow-moving boat or anywhere from 8-11 hours on a bus… I never did get the same answer for that one which was a little disconcerting to be honest, and might have had something to do with my overall choice.
Shockingly, in the end I booked a seat on the next slow-boat, which leaves around 11 every day, and grabbed some food for the 5 hour trip to our first nights stop in Pak Beng. At the pier there are lines of boats tied up, and they look deceptively narrow for the amount of people they’re able to hold, but boy do they pack the people and luggage in. My boat was so full they were tying bags, bikes, and sacks of produce onto the roof.
I’d love to tell you that this boat trip consisted of the most amazing 5 hours of my life, but I can’t. While there is no lack of scenery on board with beautiful mountains, fields, and small villages along both sides of the river, 5 hours on a boat with little to no entertainment gets boring as soon as the views around you become normal. This takes up about an hour of your journey… maybe two if you’re easily fascinated by the same sights over and over again. After that not even quality conversation can keep you from realizing how bored you are, as it will keep coming up in the conversations with the people around you.
I was happy to reach Pak Beng, but this happiness was quickly squashed as I was soon packed onto the tiny floating dock, and again into a small truck as the 160 or so of us all searched for somewhere to stay for the night, and the guesthouse representatives greedily snatched up as many willing takers as they could find. Now Pak Beng isn’t a horrible place to spend the night, it’s just small. In fact I’d go so far to say that if you took it off the slow-boat route and placed it somewhere else in Laos, it might be an intriguing place to visit. Unfortunately the constant influx of tourists, who never stay more than a night, has made it feel less inviting as there doesn’t seem to be as much hospitality or warmth in the people living here. By no means was anyone outright rude to me during my stay, but they also weren’t very friendly.
We had all been told to be at the boat around 9:00 to secure a good seat on the boat, so I woke up with plenty of time to spare and checked out of my guesthouse. On my way to the dock I stopped to buy some food for the journey and proceeded along towards the boat. It was already packed full of people, as everyone had gotten up early in fear of being left if they had slept in. It was going to be a 6 hour journey to Luang Prabang, and this leg of the trip was even more boring than the first day. I had eaten all of my food by about halfway through the trip and mentally gave myself a hard time about it for the remainder of the journey as I was hungry due to sheer boredom.
When I could, I slept, but I was always disappointed when the length of my nap was shorter than I had hoped it was. The end of this journey couldn’t come soon enough, so when we were told we had reached Luang Prabang, I might have actually cheered out-loud due to the excitement I was experiencing. From the boat I could see a long, steep bamboo staircase, and wondered why there wasn’t a building in sight. Since my bag had been piled in the back, I waited for everyone else to get off before I retrieved it and climbed the bamboo stairwell to the top.
Apparently we weren’t actually in Luang Prabang, but 20km outside of town. It was the most blatant tourism scam I had ever seen, with a newly constructed building housing 2 men at a desk selling non-negotiable 20,000 kip per person tickets for one of the dozens of tuk tuks waiting just across the street.
I had been looking forward to the view of Luang Prabang welcoming me at the end of the journey, and was incredibly disappointed with what greed had done to the tourism industry. They were more interested in making money than offering tourists the best their city had to offer. We could all see them smiling from their seats, knowing that they had scammed us, and poor us, stranded 20km outside of town knew we had been scammed, as it was too far for us to walk with our heavy packs. It was a brilliant business move, as I’m smart enough to recognize that from the 2 boats full of people who had arrived, they made a cool 6,400,000 kip from the roughly 320 of us that were forced to pay them for additional transportation.
As I rode on the back of the tuk tuk with the 9 other people they had crammed in, I felt so upset about the entire experience that I remember thinking how in Thailand they at least had the decency to con you in more clever and less obvious ways. I missed those sorts of cons now, as this one had actually managed to make me angry. It was an emotion I hadn’t felt once since I had started traveling, and here it was surfacing when what I should have been feeling was excitement. Laos was not impressing me thus far, and the these two days only reinforced the fears I had before leaving Thailand.
April 24 Total: 85,000 kip, $35 & 1,140 Baht or $85 for my Laos visa, ferry, 2 day slow-boat, food, drinks, and accommodation
April 25 Total: 146,000 kip & 160 baht or $24.52 for food, drinks, tuk tuk scam and accommodation