Getting There – Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong

During our first visit to Chiang Mai several years ago, I looked at a trip along the Mekong river to Laos but there never seemed enough time and it looked complicated. Although it required a bit of research and planning the trip which we took with Nagi of the Mekong was easy and wonderful. Funny Bruce and I seem to gravitate towards boat trips and places with a view of the sea!

Our recent cruise in Myanmar – Mandalay to Bagan.

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We caught a green bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong on the Thai/Laos border which took about 5 hours with stops to pick up and drop off passengers. The bus is very nice, the same as we recently took to Chiang Rai. The ‘V’ ones are very comfortable with air-conditioning which sometimes works too well – it was 14 degrees at one stage so it pays to take a jumper (the only time you will use it in September!)

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We were dropped off in the main street in Chiang Khong and were quickly picked up by some eager tuk-tuk drivers who piled our luggage into the lovely transport and sped off to our accommodation.

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Chiang Khong is a lovely little town on the Thai side of the Mekong. It was nice to arrive early afternoon so we spent some time walking the streets and little alley ways – mind you there wasn’t anyone around. It was so hot – anyone with any sense was having a siesta and conserving energy!

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It didn’t take us too long to find an air-conditioned restaurant to have a late lunch and a cold beer- and some thoughtful quotes!

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On the way home I spotted another temple so we had to stop and have a look although it was probably 40 degrees…sorry Bruce it might be different to the last ones we visited in Chiang Mai!…and it was.

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The Riverside hotel on the banks of the river Mekong where we stayed was perfect and the owners were so helpful and friendly. The boat cruise company, Nagi of the Mekong, left all the immigration papers we needed to complete with the hotel. All we needed to do was a have a spare passport photo and $30 US each to pay for the Lao visas. Very easy for us!

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It is strange that you can be in one country and look over the river to another, see the buildings and temples and even hear their evening music – sure there was a bit of karaoke!

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We were picked up in the morning and driven across the new Thai-Laos friendship bridge about 10 km away where we went through the immigration process of departing Thailand, boarding a mini bus, driven about 1 km across a bridge and then going through the immigration process on the Laos side.  After some initial questioning about when we were returning and grumbling a bit the Thai immigration officer was surprised when I pointed out that we had a 6 month multiple entry Thai visa – not sure that he had seen one before as they are relatively new. Anyway he gave us a big grin and thumbs up! Sorry wasn’t allowed to take any photos and didn’t want to upset anyone!

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Visa and passports stamped..the process is well organised although I was pleased that we were told what to do by the cruise guide because it takes away any uncertainties and stress. We then boarded another minivan and were driven to Houi Xai pier (Laos side of Mekong just opposite where our hotel was the night before!) and boarded the boat with only another 7 passengers..lovely!

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Mekong Cruise Day One – Houi Xai to Pak Beng (150 km; 7 hours with a village stop).

The boat run by Nagi of the Mekong is a 42 m long wooden boat – the same as you see all along the Mekong. It can carry up to 25 passengers and has a kitchen section at the back where the engine room also is. The lunches that came out of the kitchen each day were delicious!

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Bruce having a chat with a work colleague, just as we boarded the boat! The signal died not long after as we went out of Thailand.

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The captain was very skilled to be able to manouver such a long boat through the consistent current and random rock bars. Apparently the river was relatively low but still flowing very strongly. I think there are some sleeper boats but not sure anymore as I don’t think you can take a boat further onto Vientiane anymore as there is a dam built.

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We passed a couple other tourist boats and a few local transport type barges. We also saw quite a few fast boats which carry about 5/6 passengers and do the 2 day trip in 7 hours! You can understand why the reviews say they are dangerous. The driver always wears a helmet and occasionally the passengers! A quick way to get from one place to another if you are prepared to take your life in your hands I think! I don’t think I would be able to walk after a trip like that pounding on the river.

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We stopped at a village for a walk around. The kids were all asking for bon-bons, french for sweets. They are very poor and have just recently got electricity.  There was rice drying on tarps outside the bamboo homes and a collection area to receive donations for a school building.

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We visited a little temple with a monk reciting prayers and Bruce had a chat through the guide. The ‘book/text’ was handwritten, script goes left to right and it is written in an Indian language -Pali- an ancient Indian language. I think some are written in Pali and some in Sanskrit.

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We arrived at the village of Pak Beng at about 5pm and were eagerly awaited by some young men who carried our luggage up a steep hill to our accommodation – for a small fee. Another hotel room with shutters which opened overlooking the activity of the Mekong below.

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Pak Beng is built up the side of a hill. We went for a walk to the top of the village which is pretty much made up of one or two streets. We were surprised to see a couple of boat loads of backpackers disembark and disappear into various backpaker guesthouses. The village certainly caters to the tourist stop over route. There was lots of building going on and a few restaurants. We enjoyed a delicious Indian meal. The room was comfortable but no aircon and although provided with a mossie net we used our thermo cell just to be safe!

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Mekong Cruise Day Two – Pak Beng to Luang Prabang (180 km; 8 hours with some stops)

The boys who carried our luggage yesterday have been outside our room since 6am this morning, so we enjoyed their services again! Boarded the boat and set off on day two. Lovely cruising through mountainous scenery. I tried to do some sketching but too busy staring out into space and taking photos to concentrate. It is interesting to see the little huts up the side of steep hillsides with nothing else in sight. Also nice to see fisherman and their ingenious ways to catch fish!

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Besides the villages we stopped at the place looks very remote and uninhabited but I’m sure there are lots of things going on up in those mountains!…even people panning for gold…..

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I asked the guide about the different villages we stop at. Apparently we stop at different ones depending on the time and some are more welcoming than others.

The next village we stopped at was certainly set up to cater for tourists. It was a textile villages with everyone (the women) working on looms and making lovely silk and cotton scarves. When we arrived they had all their works out on display eager for a sale…the lines of little stalls and displays were never ending. mekong-trip-3596

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I felt sorry for them so we couldn’t help buy more than we really wanted but then just before we left another boat of tourists rocked up so I shouldn’t have felt sorry. I’m sure they get some regular sales! Still I have a collection of lovely scarves.

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The men weren’t as visible as the ladies but some were looking after the children and others creating different things.

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Some girls from our boat bought lollies for all the village kids which caused great excitement and a bit of chaos! The store owner had to get all the kids organised and lined them up to receive their treats. She would have made a good school teacher! A good day for her selling out of lollies! Not sure how good it is for their teeth if all the visitors buy lollies but I have to admit it was lovely to see the kids who are so cute.

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Back onto the boat with another 50 or so photos to download! Next stop was at the famous Pak Ou cave which is inside the base of a towering limestone cliff. It has been a location of pilgrimage and worship for Buddhists for the past 500 years and believed to be the home of the river spirits. The two caves are actually Tham Ting (lower cave) and Tham Theung (upper cave) and house a collection of over 4,000 Buddhist statues and figurines. The icons have been left there by people for hundreds of years.

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We continued 25 km to our destination of Luang Prabang and said our goodbyes to everyone..lugged our luggage up a very steep flight of steps..where are the lovely helpers when you need them! The steps are very new as I’ve read that it used to be a very muddy and slippery bank so I was thankful for that!

We all piled into minivans which were organised for us and everyone was dropped off to the various accommodation we had booked.

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It was a wonderful few days exploring the Mekong which is 4000 km long and the 12th longest river in the world! This massive chocolate coloured river cuts through beautiful forested hillsides and mountains and supplies the country with irrigation, fisheries, power generation and transportation for the country.