The day started early. 7am breakfast and 8am shuttle to the border where we get our Laos visa and hop on our slow boat. No one really knew how long the first day trip was going to be or what to expect. Some of us were told 8 hour, 6hrs or 5. A few in our group had hit a bar and drank quite late – which I think made for a difficult first day on the river.
The border process was fairly confusing while extremely simple. As usual one window serviced about 100 travelers in a small confined space. We all handed them our passport and 15 mins later they held our up one by one and we paid the appropriate fee and move on. Apparently the Laos government likes the Swiss most of all as they had no Visa fee. The Canadians had the most at $42. US – $35. The only currency they accepted was USD – still not sure why that is. Maybe it is the easiest to handle?
We were told no food and beer on the boat, so better buy it all now in the market we were waiting at. Some of us even prepared ahead and purchased sitting pillows for 10,000 kip ($1US) as who knew the conditions. After another tuk-tuk ride to the dock we received our boat tickets. By this time it was about 12noon and the party had already started. Everyone had beers in a bag and once we all found our assigned seats never really sat in them anyway. I ended up sitting on the side of the boat or in back the whole time. It was a social playground. Everyone was drinking beers, laughing, chatting and having a good time on the Mekong River. The boat was a long vessel with seating that looks to have been upgraded a few years back. The seats were similar to airline seats and reclined all the way forward and back. Due to the high season traffic there was a 2nd boat that mostly had the local families and older travelers. Our boat was the party boat.
As we floated along the Laos landscape, I could see villages, fisherman and kids playing in the river. It was a beautiful sunny day and the weather was warm yet the breeze was cool and comfortable. I had a nice conversation with Sascha from Switzerland as we had many similarities. He was also traveling alone through SE Asia.
By the time we reached Pakbeng all of us on the boat were good friends and felt a part of our “gang”. Pakbeng is a very small village which derives its lifestyle solely from the daily slowboat traffic. The accommodations were actually quite nice and clean. I had hot water and the bed was very soft and comfortable. All of this for just around $8US.
I was having a beer on the steps of a Indian place and one of our groups walked by and invited me to dinner. We took up a huge table and spent the night telling stories, philosophizing and laughing. The business owners gifted us a bottle of rice wine liquor that I expect they make themselves and was quite tasty (and strong). The walk back to the hotel was dark and quite. Laos seems to be more of a family centered country, not at all like the party central Thai neighbor to the south. It was nice to have some peace and quiet for once.