I found myself buying a one way ticket to the Thai border on a whim. Pai was a disappointment, leaving me itching to get off the beaten path and as far away from hippy tourists as possible.
Early in the morning, I made my way to the center of Pai to catch a van that would take me to Chiang Khong, a town right on the border of Thailand and Laos. I quickly became friends with another girl heading that way and was happy to have a travel companion for this adventure since I had absolutely no idea what I was doing (typical, really). We climbed into a van and set off for the treacherous mountain roads.
We made a quick stop in Chiang Mai, where we had a chance to stretch our legs and buy a few snacks before getting into another van that took us the rest of the way to Chiang Khong. I didn’t realize how far we actually were from the border, but it ended up taking over 8 hours to get there. However, with views of rice paddies, mountains and beautiful Thai countryside along the way, it was hard to complain.
Eventually, around 5:30 pm, we reached Chiang Khong. By this point we were starving and set off to find some food in town. However, we found the whole town was basically shut down, except for a 7-Eleven and one restaurant on the banks of the Mekong. It took awhile to get our food, but it was delicious and incredibly cheap, just about $2.50 for an entire meal! After dinner, we made our way back to the guesthouse we were staying at for the night, which was a bit disappointing to say the least. The bed was gross, bugs were everywhere and the shower was a bucket. A literal bucket. But at that point we were so tired, we could only laugh at the situation and try our best to get some rest.
After an uncomfortable night, we woke up early for breakfast before getting into a pickup truck that drove us to the border, stopping on the way to feed some ducks in a pond for some reason. We had to go through immigration twice, once on the Thai side of the border and again on the Laos side. We showed our passports, paid our fees and boarded a bus that drove us across the Mekong River, the border between Thailand and Laos. Once on the Laos side of the Mekong, we got in line again to show our passports and get our visas. It took a little while and quite a bit of confusion (just like any border crossing), but eventually we got our visas and boarded yet another bus, which took us to the banks of the Mekong.
Once we arrived at the river, we stocked up on some snacks and beer and boarded the long boat that we would be spending the next two days on. The boat was equipped with ancient seats recycled from a van, but was cozy in a way. We cracked open some cheap Beer Lao and sat back for a relaxing (and very slow) journey down the Mekong.
I don’t say this lightly, but floating down the Mekong was one of the most unique, amazing and overall best experiences of my life. While there were several tourists on board, there were also many locals who invited us to share lunch with them as we floated past villages and spotted wild elephants on the banks of the river. People played card games and music while sipping cold beers to pass the time as we made our way down the river towards Luang Prabang.
Around 5:30pm, we made it Pak Beng, a small town on the banks of the Mekong where we spent the night. It’s an interesting little town built up to accommodate visitors making their way down the river. There’s one paved street lined with guesthouses, restaurants and shops, but this street abruptly ends and gives way to huts on the hillside where to locals live. We got off the boat and found a man who offered to drive us to a guesthouse in the back of his truck. Although it sounds sketchy, this guesthouse turned out to be pretty nice with clean beds and a shower. After a delicious dinner in town, we had an early night to get some rest before continuing our trip down the river.
The next morning we had breakfast at the guesthouse before heading down to the bank of the river where we boarded the long boat for the second day of our journey. Fortunately, this time we were able to grab some great seats with a table, which were much more comfortable than the recycled van seats! Much like the first day, day two consisted of snacks, beer and passing the time with books, music and card games as stunning scenery drifted past us. We waved to other boats floating by and occasionally made stops at villages along the way to let locals get on and off, which always seemed to be a community event with everyone coming out of their homes to greet the boat.
After two days on the boat, we finally approached our final destination, the city of Luang Prabang. Floating down the Mekong was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life and I was feeling renewed and excited about being in a place that felt authentic and not entirely overrun by Westerners. I felt like my adventure in Laos was just beginning and I was so excited to spend a few days exploring Luang Prabang, a town I admittedly knew very little about.