Posted by: Larzizou | March 2, 2009

Mekong Cruise, Thailand and Laos

There aren’t many ways to cross over from Chiang Mai to Laos, especially on a budget. And I am traveling on a budget. The three days / two nights ride n’ cruise on the Mekong sounds like a good if economic idea. Only, when it’s too good to be true, it’s not good or not true. Or neither.

Eight pm : a comfortable air-conditioned van picks us up at Lai Thai, our guesthouse, Mike, my newfound travel pal, and I are ready to rumble. It’s only a four hours ride to our first stop, Chiang Khong, at the Thai side of the border, where we will sleep, before boarding on pirogues and crossing over to Laos (the pirogue element makes me feel I am in a Tintin comic book).

That’s the plan. The plan that does not materialize (I should be used to it by now, but for some reason, I am not). En route, we stop at a Seven Eleven (the largest convenience store chain in Thailand)  to use the bathroom and buy snacks.

I am not making a statement that Thailand is backward computer-wise, but this is what you can find today, in a Seven Eleven lost in the middle of nowhere : floppy disks. Maybe because supplies take more time to get there and get sold.

Philippe est un gros débilax froudjibax et il le sait. [Edit: that’s what happen whe you let your 16 year old brother Remouz use your computer]


Obviously, magazines can be found as well. Granted, ignorant farang (foreigners) like us cannot read much more than the eloquent English scriptures on the cover (“Pimp your girlfriend”, “54 Sex Truths”, etc) ; that’s why FHM and Maxim speak a universal language. Bikini language.


Odd to me is the fact that they keep sweeping baby towels in a refrigerated area. Is it not ?


Once we are ready to take off, from Seven Eleven…we don’t : we have to wait for two extra passengers, coming from Pai (a 3h drive from Chiang Mai). We are talked into almost believing that they will meet us in 15 minutes. 15 minutes that translate into three actual hours. [Needless to point that I am having the worst seat, the van is overpacked, billions of mosquitoes prevent you from using the toilets and  I cannot sleep]

We get to Chiang Khong at 3am.

Two options: we wait until seven on the shore; or rent a “room”, 50 bahts (approx. 1€) each. Not being cheapskate, we pay.

For that…


A coffin-sized “room”. Mike snuggling in our love nest (right after we killed a cockroach larger than my longest finger).

Check out is visibly at 10AM. But we won’t get that much sleep. We are to wake up and leave at 6am, we have a long day tomorrow.


Our bathroom. I’d rather not use it. Alas, I cannot start the day without showering.


Well, I won’t have the chance to use it since nobody wakes us up in the morning and when we get to the meeting point 50 meters away from our “hotel”, it seems everybody has left. Way to go.

Somehow, another pickup is arranged and we are brought to the Indo-China gate.

I like that board.


Quick exit from Thailand. Boarding on these lengthy pirogues (and getting our shoes covered in mud). Entering Laos. All that within 90 minutes.


We don’t really make friends on the pirogue. Passed “hello”, people seem not to notice us (will that ever stop?). The crossing only lasts 3 minutes anyway.


So it’s only Mike and I. The cream of the cream. The top of the creeps. The cops of the Kong.


Waiting to enter Laos, it seems the organisers have completely forgotten us, and we have to get ourselves all the forms and fill the applications alone to get in. We cut the line in a very admirable and French way. Nobody notices anyway, it’s anarchy down there, before the immigration officer parlor, where little-men-not-to-be-trusted exchange currencies, hand out papers and direct you to lines you don’t want to stand behind.

We finally get our stamp and realize that the two days “cruise” might be unpleasant (add dirt to humidity to 100+ people trying to embark on a 20m long boat to…). The speedboat  (“only” 8 hours) is not an option (for our lust for life minds) as numerous deaths have been reported upon collision with floating objects (of which the Mekong is full). We inquire at the closest tourist office information point how much it would cost us to take a bus or van instead but it is much more than what we can do. We are trapped.

Below, first glimpse of Lao.


As we buy pillows to sit on, sandwiches and drinks, and exchange money at even lower rates (that is, worst) than at the border, we contemplate the brown Mekong water and grey sky with skepticism. What did we get ourselves into ? Hundreds of us are waiting on the shore, with angst or bitterness. Or sandwiches.


Finally, the few hundreds of us get onboard, heavily loaded, on the few different boats. My wheeled suitcase is of no use, neither on the mud, neither on the wooden plank we daftly reach the boat from (and I almost fall in the Mekong from).

Below, the barge layout. Two types of sits: (1) EXTREMELY narrow wooden planks (only half your ass cheeks can rest on them) EXTREMELY close to the row before you, forcing an upright position or (2) softer sits visibly taken away from cars, of which there are no more than a dozen. Not to split, we sit on the planks. Big mistake.

The heat makes everybody eager to live. Nothing happens. More people come to the boat. Many of them cannot sit on the already full planks/cars sits and must sit either on chairs brought to that effect, at the back of the boat close to the noisy machinery or simply on the ground. Not cool.

As more and more people grow impatient and the situation becomes unbearable, after an hour of obedient wait, a mutiny erupts. Not from the crew: from the passengers, screaming “one more boat, one more boat…”. A boat that never comes. Probably wary that the situation deteriorates, the crew makes it so that the motor miraculously hums and slowly draws us into new wet territories. Allelujah!


Our second first impression is not one of bewilderment: brown water, grey sky…


You can read happiness on Mike’s face…


…and I find other sources of entertainment; learning Spanish reading Borges in Lao makes sense to me at this point in time.


The weather somehow gets better with time.

As we inquire with several members of the crew how long it will take to our first stop, various cruising time are given to us, ranging from 5 to 8 hours. If you are still wondering why we are on this boat, (1) flying cost 10 times as much and (2) at least we have a (not necessarily good) story to tell now.


Mike looking away, as if he saw more than brown and green. This somehow reminds me of the first leg of my trip, the overland portion over southern Africa. Observing wild landscapes through the truck windows only withheld my attention for a few days; days after which the luxurious flora became mere grass, oddly-shaped acacias became anonymous trees and colorful sideways shops became one-in-a-million Coke selling points. Mark Twain.

Look how close is the older women sitting behind him.


The more I am looking at this picture and the less I understand what I am trying to accomplish. If you have any clue, please share.


What we see through the windows – hour after hour.


Unknown to us, carrying passengers from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang is not the only function of the vessel. We are also carrying supplies to otherwise hardly reachable villages. We stop maybe 5-8 times, for a total of 2h or more. As we are prone to being annoyed under the circumstances – we are !


And getting it.


Below is a picture you can safely click on.


And it only seems like water and more water, hour after hour…


Thank g.od, at 7pm, after over 9h cruising, time to stop for the night, at Pakbeng. At the very moment we step out of the boat, a hoard of guesthouse managers approches us with (allegedly) representative pictures of what’s on offer. They all seem alike though and as I don’t want to rely either on them or my Lonely Planet guide alone and first come best served is often the prevailing rule in these part of the touristy world, I expeditiously husk myself from the boat to investigate the rooms by myself. I get back to the boat to help Mike with the luggage, pay a few kips (Laos currency) a young boy to carry my suitcase to the paved road and we check in. We only have a few hours before the light is turned off. Current is obviously limited. As night falls, we quickly realize Pakbeng is a ghost city, probably only able to sustain a living to its inhabitants from passengers en route to Luang Prabang/Chiang Khong proceeds.


Only one main avenue in Pakbeng, filled with guesthouses of equally daunting comfort and two dozens of restaurant. All of them seem to offer the same type of food. Local food. As a restauranteur sabaidee us (“sabaidee” means hello in Lao), solicits our purses and we decline, he shouts in reply “f**** you“. Charming city.


Other restauranteurs, slightly less disdainful, use inventivity and their language skills for greetings. Remains of the French protectorat in Lao can still be found.

Kopchai = thanks. As people are very polite here (with the notable exception of the restauranteur referred to above), you will always hear “kopchai la-lay” (thanks very much).


Walking in Havaianas flip flops will not do me good for the second time (first time: when drunk I ripped off my toe nail  on the concrete ground in Koh Tao) : I tackle cow shit. Cleaning will take me a good 15 minutes (Mike won’t stop from laughing for 3min straight). Lesson learned.


What were the odds ? These three boys, met on the boat, with whom we share dinner, we born and raised in the same suburban city I was, and attended the same middle school I attended. Coincidental, but not the first occurence though. In Koh Tao, I met a guy who went to the same college as me, and in Buenos Aires, another guy who attended the same law school as I did. Such is life.

In the background (on the poster on the wall), the most beautiful women Lao boasts. These beer lao calendars can be found in almost every restaurant around. The national pride.


The morning after pill, although we would rather drown in the Mekong than spend another 9h stuck in the boat, we cannot : too many people are looking after us. The now temptative option to reach Luang Prabang on a speedboat in 3h will not be lifted. Below, one of these speedboats.


As I like to recall Mike, “that crossing…nobody will take it away from you“. He still wants to kill me for planning this crossover.

First manoeuver in the morning to leave Pakbeng : un-parking. The guy shows dexterity.



Jean Galfione style.


The boat is slightly different from the one we cruised on yesterday, but not better. Wiser, we manage to wake up early and morph into animals, ignoring any surrounding living specy, to propel ourselves to the coveted soft sits. We get two of them, although not next to each other. I get to sit next to an American old lady who sold everything to travel until money becomes an issue. Right now, her bad breath and willingness to talk at greath length are my most pressing issues.


The second day is more pleasant bearable. Not thanks to better weather conditions, but a general feeling of relief depletes the tension built in the past 36h. A solid night of sleep may also be germane.


Blue sky, nothing but blue sky. I climb on top of the boat, Tom Sawyer style, thinking tanning may be appropriate. But I painfully discover that a tinfoil-covered boat-top along with Lao sun makes it impossible.


Again, trying to find other forms of entertainment. We very seldom cross other vessels paths. I make sure they will not forget/forgive us.


A tyrant.


Everybody is much more active today, planning ahead for the activities in Luang Prabang and whatnot after. People now speak to each other and help each other. A general feeling of friendliness has almost emerged in the boat.

I believe the strongest force sparking these behaviors is the consciousness that all is almost over soon.


Four Israelis. Like many Israelis done with the army, they travel for a few months. I remember the girl with the blue shirt to be shy, silent and suffer from terrible breath. Maybe she knew it was in her interest not to speak.


Last shot of the Mekong.


Last shots taken from the boat…


The end of a long long trip – with flamboyant style. More explanations regarding  why I am traveling with Mike may be helpful.

Long story short, I first met Mike 10 years ago in summer camp ; then haven’t seen him for years and years; then randomly ran into him in a club in Paris last year ; then randomly ran into him in Bali two months ago (picture) and we exchanged email adresses ; then not-so-randomly ran into him in Koh Tao where we separately planned to be a few weeks ago. Then we figured out we had about the same time to cover the same grounds in South East Asia, and engineered a common path when we met up in Chiang Mai.

This is how I am stuck with this blue-eyed, purple-wearing impulsive brat speaking with a raucous voice for a while.


…and here we are again. Ten of us (6 Frenchmen, 4 Israelis and one annoying Canadian) in a long tuk tuk, the driver trying to swindle us into an overpriced excentral guesthouse. But we won’t fall. We are with the barato-king Israelis.


This post is dedicated to Thomas Denizwater who tragically died undertaking the same Mekong endeavor a few years ago. May he find peace in the Thai jungle where his ashes have been dispersed.



  1. mais finalement, est-ce que quelqu’un le lit, ton blog?

    • Même principe que : pas fait pour être lu ou suivi mais pour la beauté du geste.

  2. Hiya,
    Came across your blog while reminiscing about my around the world trip last year. Some parts of our trip have been scarily similar! I also did the Matopos walking tour with Andy in Zimbabwe. And saw the same village of long-necked women in Chiang Mai, down to the same pictures. Strange! But wanted to say hi and wish I was travelling too!

  3. […] our unique endeavor on the mighty Mekong (see her), we (me + Mike) deserve a good rest. Fate has it that we are welcome in Luang Prabang (we […]

  4. Chiang Mai Thailand travel guide and Chiang Mai Hotels Reservation featuring up-to-date information on attractions, hotels, restaurants, nightlife, travel tips and more.

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