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  • Writer's pictureJoanna

Rite of Passage or Nightmare?

Updated: Jan 18

When I had first mentioned that I was going to travel from Thailand to Laos, many people inquired as to whether or not I was going to take the slow boat?

The slow boat?

Ummmm... well... yes... of course I was.

The bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong
Me on the bus!

Next project: Find out what exactly the slow boat was!!!!

Well, find out, I most certainly did.

Extensive research into what the slow boat was and where to catch it then began. Basically, eliminating any romantic or idealistic notion about this vessel, the slow boat is a slow water taxi which provides a transportation service between Thailand and Laos via the mighty Mekong River. It's a big, long wooden river boat that departs daily from the Laos border (the small village of Huay Xai) and travels for 2 days (very slowly... hence the name) along the river and into the outskirts of Luang Prabang.


Did I mention it was slow?

Some travellers consider it a rite of passage, while others label it as a sheer nightmare. It seemed interesting enough and as soon as I read about it, I was all in for the experience.

I chose to view it as a rite of passage and couldn't see anything at all which might prove to interfere with that perspective. I was actually looking forward to the voyage. It would be a good time to relax, get some writing done and enjoy some of the Laos landscape.

And yes, there was supposed to be a bathroom onboard.

What could possibly go wrong?



I had made inquiries at the Chiang Rai HappyNest hostel, but they only offered a set tour package. Now don't get me wrong... there is nothing wrong with a tour every now and then, but when you sign up for a tour, you have to play by their rules only... and you are tied to a specific schedule. I didn't want that schedule. I wanted two nights in Pak Beng, as opposed to the one that the tour was offering. The staff at my hostel evidently knew nothing about the excursion, apart from collecting the fees, as their eyes glazed over completely when I threw out my plans and suggestions. 

"I'd like 2 nights in Pak Beng."

"No. One only."

"But I'd like two."

"No... one."

"I need two."


"Can I pay a little extra and stay for two?"


Pak Beng is a small village approximately half way between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. This is the halfway point for the slow boat and all passengers are required to spend the evening there. 

Our conversation seemed to go round and round and round like a round robin until I finally made the decision to tackle the passage on my own. I was up for the challenge of figuring it all out and I was more than certain it would be significantly cheaper done my way.

I was right.

Early in the morning, I caught the bus from Chiang Rai to the border, a small town called Chiang Khong. Our means of transportation was a tired fossil of a bus that left every hour, on the hour. I sat at the very back bench of the bus with a couple I met, Jessie and John. They were lovely and the back seemed the best option to avoid being squished into a small seat with a stranger. We discussed our travels, past and future, and speculated how old our bus was. We settled on the late 60's or early 70's, based on the oblong shape of the door windows.

The bus filled to capacity quickly and with full capacity came a massive amount of bags & bundles and packs & parcels.

The bus driver seemed to take a liking to us and kept popping in the back door to speak to us. Naturally, he spoke Thai... and of course, we spoke no Thai... at all... Not a single word. It was genuinely a very interesting, very one-sided conversation. There he would stand, directly in front of the three of us, spouting out a very elaborate story about ... something... and then he would dissolve into fits of laughter. We would laugh too... but the more we laughed, the more he was encouraged to continue with his entertaining narrative.

... and he kept coming back to tell us more.

There were many baffled side glances between the three of us. "Do you know what he's on about?"

Whatever it was, it was quite a comical topic, as he cracked himself up on more than one occasion.

The roads were decent, but for a significant amount of time, we appeared to be on the wrong side of the road and on a peculiar angel. We arrived though. Unscathed.

For an additional charge, the bus dropped us off right at the border crossing and from there, we were then left to our own devices. It was a pretty simple process, but as per the norm, everything could have been taken care of at one window, but instead was divided up between numerous check points and staff members.

There were five of us in total; myself, Jessie and John and another couple from Calgary, Terry and Kevin. We were all required to have a passport photo and to fill out a form with the usual useless immigration information; where we were staying in Laos, phone numbers, addresses, where we had come from, phone numbers, addresses... All of it highly irrelevant information and a complete waste of time. But... nonetheless... mandatory.

There were two windows and the small crew of us stood in line at window number one, our passports and completed border forms in hand.

One man was working the first window. As each of us approached, he took our passports, our photos and our forms. He then directed each of us to line up in front of window number two, directly beside window number one. We did what we were told and diligently stood there, patiently awaiting further instruction.

As soon as he'd finished with all five of us and we had all completed window number one, he moved his chair over to window number two and proceeded to return our passports to us. It was an odd, convoluted process.

Window number three, we each flashed our stamped passport at a grumpy border guard and advanced along to window number four where we paid an obligatory $40US to enter Laos.

ALL of it could have been done at one window... but who am I to judge?

We had arrived in Laos!

A small pick up truck shuttled the group of us into the tiny village of Huay Xia.

I'd chosen a guesthouse named, 'Somewhere Over the River,' for its evident similarity to a famous Wizard of Oz song. Turns out this dive was absolutely nothing like a rainbow. It was quite a large room... but very plain, with dirty walls and bright tile flooring. A light and weather-beaten blanket covered the lumpy mattress. There was a used bar of soap on top of the electrical outlet and I would hazard a guess that the bathroom had never seen a thorough cleaning. There was no toilet paper to be found, so I was happy I'd stashed a bunch in the bottom of my pack. With a name like 'Somewhere Over the River,' I was mistaken in thinking my window might overlook the mighty Mekong. I was not too delighted to discover my panoramic view of a backyard brimming with garbage. 

"The dreams that you dare to dream really don't come true..." 🎶

Huay Xia was a quaint little stopover. After we'd all settled into our accommodations, we all met at "BarHow?" for some dinner & drinks. Afterwards, we found a rooftop bar to enjoy the peacefulness of the beautiful sunset and take in the cool Mekong river breeze.

I think all of us were very excited for the following day. Jessie and John were headed to do the zip-lining, Gibbon experience, while Terry, Kevin and I were off on Day One of our slow boat adventure.

Day 1 on the slow boat...

  • Weather condition: Sunny

  • Wind chill: Close to zero / Light river breeze

  • Excitement level: High

We were all delivered to the slow boat pier quite early in the morning. My guesthouse had made me a (stale) sandwich and I'd picked up a few other snacks in town. I'd read online that it was advisable to get to the boat as early as possible in order to secure a good seat, but upon arrival, seats were all assigned. I ran into Terry and Kevin as soon as I stepped onto the boat. My seat was not far from where they were seated and I ended up moving up to where they were when the seating pandemonium began. Being at the front of the boat was a prime location. The back seats were confined to an area with hardly any windows and the insufferably loud sounds of the boat engine.

There were so many people. I couldn't actually imagine more people getting on the boat, but somehow they just kept loading. It was like herding cattle! The boat was set to leave at 9:30AM... but at 10:15AM, they were still loading passengers in. I would hazard a guess at approximately 150 people onboard, including crew. The first passengers had their luggage stored underneath the boat, but as soon as that was full, packs were just piled in the middle of the front end, in an anarchic heap.

The boat winded its way along the Mekong, navigating the rapids and rocks, and some very narrow passages. We spent the majority of the journey with our feet dangling over the edge , watching the jagged rock formations, the various farm animals and the lush entangled landscape go by. There was an abnormal amount of garbage floating along or accumulating onshore, which led me to look more into the troubled state of this monumental river. The Mekong suffers greatly from overfishing, deforestation, plastic pollution and the insidious impacts of a changing climate.

It got a bit chilly every now and then, but nothing unbearable. All of my luggage was stored below, so I couldn't have grabbed a jacket or sweater if I wanted. In addition to simple facilities onboard, there was also a small canteen, selling water, beer and assorted snacks. Everything was fine. I couldn't quite understand why some people considered this experience a nightmare. 

Seemed ok to me.

The company was terrific. The sun was shining. The views were impressive. The seats weren't the most comfortable seats I've ever sat on, but there was plenty of room to switch positions and move around. There were loads of photo opportunities and we all took full advantage of the scope.

It was fun, actually... in a quite refreshing style.

We arrived in Pak Beng later that afternoon and everyone was happy to finally be back on land again. The pier was busting with locals looking to fill up their guest houses with weary travelers. I had pre-booked, but realized upon arrival that I really didn't need to have done so. Actually, had I not, I would have saved myself a bit of money. Paying at the pier was a fraction of the cost of advance booking online.

It still wasn't too much and my room was far superior to my previous accommodation. I met up with Kevin and Terry for dinner in a local restaurant that evening, along with a German gentleman, Peter, and a couple from Ontario, Sue and Tony.

Doing it all on my own, I was set to spend two nights in Pak Beng so that I could visit the Mekong Elephant Sanctuary the following day. 

That is another blog though... for now, we skip ahead to...

Day 2 on the slow boat...

  • Weather condition: Overcast

  • Wind chill: Extreme

  • Excitement level: Rock bottom

Day One on the slow boat proved to be rite of passage, whereas Day Two kindly provided the nightmare aspect of the journey I'd frequently read about.

Ahhh... the torment...

As usual, knowing the lay of the land from our previous journey, a small crew of us arrived early enough to secure a good seat at the front of the boat. Those seats were deemed first rate. You could move around a little bit more and you could dangle your feet overboard. There was ample room to stretch out and it was, overall, more of a pleasant environment than being confined to the agonizing and cramped car seats located in the middle and the back of the boat.

We knew. We definitely knew best.

Due to our early arrival, our luggage was thrown below again and inaccessible until the end of the day. Gone.

We hadn't been on the river for 1 minute when we regretted ALL of our decisions.

It was freezing. 


With nothing to cover up besides the poor decisions we'd made while dressing ourselves in the morning, it was insufferable. The wind was so intense that the sand from the side banks of the river whipped through the boat, incessantly slapping our eyes and further emphasizing our Mekong misery. Karma. Our eagerness and punctuality had completely betrayed us. The front of the boat was the worst place to be, as it was more open and exposed to the elements. Those who had slept in, enjoyed breakfast and took their sweet time boarding were lucky enough to receive seats at the back of the boat, removed from the Baltic blasts and sand storms.

Whereas there had been approximately 150 on the boat from our initial journey, the capacity was far exceeded for this passage. 

The staff members provided some blankets and sheets to those of us that literally begged for them, and all too quickly, our sailing scene began to look more and more like a refugee boat than an enjoyable cruise. We desperately tried to put down the side skirts and the ripped curtains, but they just flapped in the wind, proving counterproductive.

I sat next to Maia and Dawson, a couple who had also been at the Elephant Sanctuary, and Volkan, a Turkish man, who was SO kind to lend me a small airline blanket he'd liberated from Turkish airlines. Maia and I shared the covering of a thin blanket and it managed to provide some warmth, which was much appreciated.

Had I read anywhere that it was cold on the boat? Anywhere???


I was in Southeast Asia. It wasn't supposed to be cold.

As full as we were, the boat continuously pulled over to either pick up or drop off locals from isolated villages. 

The hours crept by.

All EIGHT AND A HALF of them.

There was not one moment where we were spared the horror of the bleak conditions. The icy grip of the Mekong river wind held strong.

I spent the journey hunched over, rocking back and forth, my body desperately trying to protect itself from the frosty temperature. I'm surprised my muscles didn't go into full spasm.

In an attempt to make the time go by faster, I started making up little games to amuse myself. I would measure distance between landmarks on Google Maps... and then try to guess how much time it would take to get from one to another. 

It was a much better waste of time than bothering my new friends.

"What time is it?"


"What time is it now?"


"What time is it now?"


Maia had been telling us about the dangers of the 'fast boat,' which apparently whipped down the river at an alarming speed, causing much chaos and even death... but it was looking like a pretty good option. On more than one occasion, I suggested crossing the jungle mountains instead of remaining on the boat.

At 4;15pm, we finally pulled into the pier of Luang Prabang. As we stepped off the boat, I had to retrain my legs how to walk again, as they'd seized up from the long, tense journey.

I officially have river-related post traumatic stress disorder.

Potamophobia is the irrational fear of rivers. I think I have that too now.

It's going to be a LONG time before I set foot on another river boat...

Never, ever... ever again... Never.

You know... we could have taken a mini van...


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