How To Travel Through Laos
The most popular way to get from the Northern Thai border into Laos is to take a slow boat down the Mekong River. The public boats seat around 50 people, are fitted with chairs ripped out of old cars, and don’t even have the luxury of drinking water.
Another way to go is the speed boat. But judging by the looks of fear on the passengers’ faces, and the fact that the drivers wear motorcycle helmets, I’ll pass.
We opted for a two day cruise. It was a little bit pricier than the public boat but we definitely recommend it. Surrounded by the stunning scenery it went far too quickly.
Home For Two Days
The boat was newly fitted with benches, cushions and blankets – it can get very cold in the windy mornings! There were only 12 passengers in total, 3 crew, and a very friendly guide named San. We set off from Huay Xai and marvelled at the scenery for hours, taking countless pictures of water buffalo, fishermen, lushious mountains, desserted beaches and primitive wooden huts.
The Uplander Village
Our first stop was at a local uplander village – the highlight of the trip! One of the better-off villages with electricity and satellite TV’s, they were still extremely isolated. We were the first tourists they had ever seen and they didn’t know how to react. They were confused by waves and spoke no English. I tried the traditional Laos greeting, placing my hands together in front of my chest – to “nop” – and spoke the only word I knew, “sabaidee”. They hesitantly responded. But walking around inspecting their village still felt like a human zoo.
That was until one member of our group, Phill, who I cannot thank enough for making this such a memorable experience, brought out a pack of pens and handed them out to the eager children. He knelt down in the dirt and drew a sun. He then gestured from the picture to the children to the ground and soon had them copying his sun. They drew a flower, a smiling face, a tree, and then Phill wrote his name.
“Phill,” he said slowly pointing at his name. He repeated it pointing at himself.
One of the older girls, maybe 8-years-old, copied him. Phill clapped and smiled then gestured for her to write her name. She wrote in the curly Laos script but was too shy to speak it.
Finally, what will never fail to amaze me, Phill taught the children to play tic-tac-toe without speaking a word of the same language. I went completely snap-happy throughout the whole process, documenting every move. We showed the children the photos of themselves and their reactions were priceless. They laughed and pointed or smiled, almost embarrassed, and hid behind their hands.
The best advice I can give to anyone going to such a remote village is to take something with you to break the ice. A bag of pens, some hair bands or sweets – it won’t seem much to you but they’ll never forget it.
The Other Village
The next day we stopped off at a village that could not have been more different; another group of tourists was just leaving. Again we were greeted at the boat by a group of children, but this time they weren’t curious or shy. They were holding bracelets in front of your face, repeating “please” over and over again. If you said “no, thank you” they would counter with “yes, thank you?” It was interesting to see what English they’d learned out of necessity.
Lao Lao Whisky
It was a village known for traditionally producing Lao Lao whisky, which is sold everywhere as their cheapest spirit. The contraption was set up, boiling water (leeches and all), whisky dripping from a barrel into a bottle. We were given some of the fresh, unflavoured whisky to try. I don’t think I can say anything positive about it – it truly burned the whole way down. It’s a good job they sweeten it before selling it!
The women wove scarves on their hand-made looms and had them displayed on the floor to sell. “Madame, please,” they called as I walked past, unable to look them in the eye. One lady with exceptional English showed off the different materials she used. A couple of people in our group got their money out and then had to decide who to give it to – who looked like they needed it most. As soon as they bought one scarf it only made the locals push harder for another sale.
Our guide explained that they sold the scarves very cheap and traders would take them to the markets for a profit. I’d always felt sympathy for the poor traders at the markets but that made me see them in a new light. Now I saw them taking advantage of those even worse off.
There was a sign that read “Model Village”, a label they had been rewarded for being drug-free. However, it did make you wonder how much of a model this village was. How much was staged?
Arriving At Luang Prabang
The boat took us on to our final stop in Luang Prabang. All the public boats stop at the same place just outside of town. There they kick off all the foreigners, who are forced to buy bus tickets to take them the rest of the way. Don’t try and argue either or you’ll literally be dragged off. A final bonus of our tour were the pre-booked minivans that took us straight to our hostels.
If you’re going to Northern Laos, the Mekong cruise is a must! And I’m recommending Mekong Smile Cruise to anyone who’ll listen.