Taking the slow boat down the Mekong from Thailand to Luang Prabang is the preferred way for travellers to get into Laos. It takes about 16 hours spread over two days, but that’s two days you spend on a boat rather than on a bus or at airport customs. And so I left Thailand behind after nearly three weeks – including a full one spent in Chiang Mai – headed for Laos.
I chose to travel with an organised tour that left from Chiang Mai and first stopped in Chiang Rai for a quick visit of its White Temple, Wat Rong Khun.
A privately owned temple, it’s reknowned for its completely wacky exterior. This stuff looks like it’s straight out of Alice in Wonderland. It’s a huge space albeit with a small temple: the surrounding garden includes a pond, a bridge whose sides are intricately carved and topped with rather scary-looking statues, overlooking a pit of begging hands and skulls – all this all white and silver. It’s a sight that’s hard to do justice in words. It’s just mental, if I’m honest.
I wasn’t able to take photos inside, but the walls of the temple are covered with a painting which I interpreted as representing God, heaven (praying Thais floating on lovely purple cloudy volutes) and hell: a fiery land that contained Kung Fu Panda, Michael Jackson, mobile phones, Pikachu, Neo from The Matrix, Elvis Presley and more… All evil things, I suppose.
Once again, mental.
A riverside house in Chiang Khong
After spending the night in the banal town of Chiang Khong, we headed to immigration. A $30 visa on arrival later, we boarded the slow boat and set off for seven hours on the Mekong. All I can really say about the river is that it’s got a strong current, is very brown and damn long.
The first night we spent in Pakbeng, a small town that seemed to pretty much live off the traffic it gets from the slow boats. Every other house on the main road was a guesthouse; every other one was a restaurant or little food shop. Like everywhere in Asia, it seems, there were plenty of people waiting for us on arrival to offer tuk-tuk rides, cheap rooms and the like. The like being weed and opium, this time: turns out Pakbeng is at the heart of a large drug-production area, with drugs being transported down the Mekong from Myanmar into Pakbeng to get to Laos and the rest of south-east Asia. How picturesque.
‘Taste my wife’s cooking and you’ll understand why I married her’
We did survive the night (in spite of a late night encounter with a snake) and boarded back the second day. But it was a smaller, less comfortable boat for that second leg of the journey – logic, eh. It was long. Really long. And yet, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. The view of the Mekong’s banks, the surrounding hills and forests, the villages and fishermen is spectacular. Plus, two days of relative calm and doing nothing can be most welcome while travelling. It proved the perfect setting for me to finish reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the millionth time.
Then we arrived in Luang Prabang and w o w. What a beauty of a town. More about it, its nearby waterfall and its sunset in the next post…