Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Slowboat versus Speedboat

The slowboat currently costs 85.000 kip from Louang Prabang to Pakbeng, and the same amount from Pakbeng to Houay Xai

The slowboats leave from the boat pier behind the Royal Museum at about 08:30.

Commonly known as the “backpacker express” they take one day for each leg, depending on time of year (dry or wet season) and whether upstream or downstream each leg takes 7-11 hours. Occasionally the total journey can take more than two days upstream in the dry season.

If you get the slowboat from Pakbeng to Houay Xai you will have to stay in Laos overnight as slowboats hardly ever dock before the border crossing closes.

The boats are often crowded and uncomfortable, standards vary and they are all full of other ‘farang’.
You may be on a different boat on day two from the one you travelled on in day one even if you buy a combined ticket all the way from louang Prabang to Houay Xai.

“The boat was already over-full and struggling when we picked up an extra 7 westerners and backpacks. The journey had been slow because the boat was already overloaded before the additional passengers, we were running late and it was beginning to get dark. Just as we came out of a set of rapids, the engine failed, the water pump stopped working and the boat began to sink. We paddled to the bank and managed to get ourselves and our backpacks out before the boat sank. Within 15 minutess it was pitch black. We did managed to bail the boat out and salvage it but resigned ourselves to a night in the jungle on the river bank”

However the scenery is good, you get the chance to talk to other people and are not contributing to some of the ecological pollution of the speed boats.

The speedboat cost 150,000 kip from Louang Prabang to Pakbeng, and the same from Pakbeng to Houay Xai.

They leave Louang Prabang from the speedboat station 7kms north of the citynear the northern bus station. They start to leave at 08:30 and get in to Houyxai around 15:00 – 16:00 with ample time to cross the border.

You will be equipped with a motorcycle helmet, lifejacket and should take earplugs with you.

Many people say the speedboats should be avoided for some of the reasons below.

They are extremely cramped, very very noisy and it can be cold

“These boats are small, so that you have to sit on the floor of the boat; imagine trying to sit in (not on) a milkcrate, with your legs packed in and your chin resting on your knees - well, not so much resting as crushed up against it”

“Imagine the world's loudest chainsaw. Imagine putting it right next to your ear. Then imagine running the chainsaw for 6 straight hours”

"They are a menace to those living by the river and the wild life. Also with logs etc, brought down by the river in the rainy season, they can be dangerous."

“My fillings fell out, my ears became joined at the back of my head, the driver was high (on something) I needed my hips and knees replaced I also had bruises on my arse that had to be seen to be believed (not that I showed anybody), and I have been obliged to wear a hearing aid ever since. In one very short sentence you would have to be completely nuts to even think about taking the speedboat.”

However some people prefer them and like the sense of adventure they bring and sometimes if short of time or at the end of your visa you may have no other alternative.

(All quotes Lonely Planet Thorn Tree)

Houay Xai - food and accommodation

Looks like I will be staying the night here as the slow boats don't reach Houay Xai until after the border crossing shuts (deliberately or otherwise).

The settlement of Houay XaiI , sandwiched between the Mekong and a range of hills, is a popular border crossing with Thailand . Thirty-day Thai visas are available on arrival in Chiang Khong on the Thai side.

Once you're across the Mekong and past immigration (daily 8:00-17.30), you can get one of the regular buses to Chiang Rai (2-3hr) or Chiang Mai (5-6hr).

Houay Xai's only real sight is hilltop Wat Chom Khao Manilat , boasting a tall, Shan-style building of picturesquely weathered teakwood, now used as a classroom for novice monks.

Thaveesinh Guesthouse seems to have all the amenities and sells boat and bus tickets. Also worth a look might be Friendship Guesthouse with its rooftop balcony.

The no-frills Mouang Neua restaurant dishes out decent Lao and Chinese meals - the vegetable omelette is good. The lively Nutpop, a few blocks north, does stir-fry dishes to order, cold beer and delicious fruit smoothies, while nearby Ban Midtapab offers excellent fish and views across the Mekong.

The Riverside restaurant is located looking out over the river. The setting is pleasant and they serve traditional Lao dishes as well as the usual fried rice and noodle favourites. Their Sindad, a Lao favourite, a type of soup/grilled meat do it yourself barbecue at the table comes recommended.