Meandering down the Mekong

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Crossing over to Laos from Chiang Khong in northern Thailand is pretty painless. It’s a popular border crossing, and you will see a lot of foreigners. In fact, mainly foreigners. It’s just a matter of queuing (and sometimes pushing and shuffling a little), paying for the visa, then crossing the river, and you’re in Laos. The visa fee will depend on your nationality. As an Australian it is US$30. If you’re Canadian, it’s US$42. American? US$35. As a Swiss? No visa required. I still wonder how they determine the visa fees. Sometimes the officers would hold up the US dollar bills and examine them, as if to check if they are counterfeits. I mean, really, if it was that easy.

Friends have told me Laos is like Thailand 30 years ago. Well, I wouldn’t know what Thailand was like 30 years ago, but once you step into Laos, it is certainly like going back in time. The pace is distinctly slower too, which I absolutely do not mind.

The 2-day boat ride that a friend has recommended starts here at the Huay Xai (Lao border). There are basically three ways to meander down the Mekong from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. You could take one of the public slow boats, which is popular amongst backpackers. It’s cheap, but it’s cheap for a reason – it’s crowded, you have to bring your own food and water, and there are no stops. And of course, it’s slow. Another way is the speed boat, which is speedy, and takes 6-7 hours instead of two days. Drawback? You will be wearing a helmet and sitting uncomfortably for hours.

So, middle of the road it is. The cruise turned out to be great. There were only a dozen of us on board so we had a lot of room to spread out. Food, non-alcoholic drinks and the overnight accommodation were included. We had a guide, and we made a few stops on the way. It was relaxing and quiet, a great way to start your trip in Laos, and definitely a highlight.

The scenery is pretty, and on the way you see local kids playing, people repairing boats, cattle, goats, water buffalos, an odd elephant or two, fishermen, hill tribe villages. It is very quiet and pleasant. I expected to see more “action” on the Mekong, but then after reading a bit about Laos, I realised that it only has 6.8 million people, and for a country this size, that’s not a lot of people. And the fact that agriculture remains a major source of income for roughly 80% of the population explains why there is not much “action” in the form of commerce and trading along the river banks.

The Nagi of Mekong river cruise is indeed a great way to experience the Mekong, and I highly recommend this mode of transport, rather than a flight or an overnight bus.