Two Day River Trip to Luang Prabang

2009/01/27: The Wreck of Slow Boat No. 34
Somehow that doesn’t quite have the right ring for a rousing Stan Rogers ballad. It was an adventure, nonetheless.

We handed in our Thai departure cards before crossing the Mekong in something like a motorized canoe, and got our Lao visas on the other shore. We were guided through these procedures at first by Noom’s sister (from the guest house) and a person from the boat company on the Lao side. This was not unwelcome help, as we’re still rookies.

We boarded “Slow” Boat No.34 as per our tickets, for what I had imagined would be a leisurely two day glide to Luang Prabang. There was a more upmarket-looking crowd boarding a posher-looking boat, but we fitted in reasonably with our boatload – even if we sported fewer tattoos and piercings than most. Our bikes went onto the roof with the rice sacks.

I had no idea a “slow” boat would travel this fast! Our GPS showed us moving at 2530+ kmh, and any landings necessarily involved a sweeping turn to point upstream and carefully ferry to shore. The water must have been boiling along at over 10 kmh, with huge eddies , standing waves, and 30 cm drops around jagged shelves of sandstone. I guess my image of the Mekong was from pictures of the delta, but the river here travels through steep-sided valleys. I don’t think the villages along the way have road access, and villagers fish, grow veggies, and graze a few Brahman cattle or water buffalo. Perhaps “slow boat” is a relative term, because another travel option is the long-tail speed boat, a narrow motorized canoe, travels at speeds that require the driver (and often passengers) to wear a motorbike helmet with visor.

I had had more stomach problems in the morning, so I was dozing when Chris and others shouted a warning. We went aground at speed, lurching to a halt with the bow up a sandy beach, having grazed a ridge of jagged sandstone. This was not a small boat. There must have been nearly 100 of us who disembarked, and all luggage was passed out of the hold to lighten the load.

After some consideration by the captain, the boat was floated again. Ropes were thrown, long poles used as levers, and a united nations of strong arms pushed. An hour or so later, the verdict was that the hull was intact, the engine OK, but the rudder was broken. There were rumours of a replacement boat arriving in a few hours, but this meant we were now unable to reach the more major village with guest houses that had been planned for the overnight stop.

The boats have no lights and the river is too treacherous to navigate by night. We would be spending the night at a tiny village, either sleeping aboard the boat or bivouacing on shore. It did not bode well that the 15 or so local Lao passengers had all been whisked away by locals in speed boats.

Three local visitors at crash site; each carries a large cutting implement (see lady at far left)

A replacement boat came, and baggage, bikes and passengers transferred. As we pulled up at the village, there was a welcoming committee of kids excitedly running, waving, and shouting sabbadee! Those who opted to sleep aboard rearranged benches and luggage, Chris and I slept on the boat, with our tent as a mozzy net. We are packed into too many small bags to move easily away from our bikes.

Crash site; note fast moving water and rocks at left side of picture.

2009/01/28: On to Luang Prabang
In the morning the original boat appeared with rudder repaired, an we shifted all our belongings again. Once the fog had lifted, we travelled the two hours to Muang Pakbeng, where we were meant to have spent the night, and changed boats yet again for Luang Prabang, with uninspiring reassurances that we’d make it before nightfall.

We did arrive at LP just before sunset, though, and after reassembling to wheeled mode we bought a map of town, found a guest house, washed clothing, and went to bed very stiff from two days on a crowded boat.

2009/01/29: in Luang Prabang
This morning Chris adjusted my gears and I test rode my bike and gave great approval. We’ve just gone trough a triage of gear with a new discussion of each item, and mailed parcels home. The hunt for a Lao road map has been fruitless, but our route north is pretty simple, so we should be OK. Tomorrow we’ll start cycling north to the Chinese border at Boten. The new terrain looks much hillier than the plains of Thailand.


P.S. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and we found the ethnic museum quite special. The town has a mixture of traditional Laos and 19th century colonial buildings.  We did not enjoy being on the “Lonely Planet Road” during the boat trip, however, and are keen to get cycling again.

5 responses to “Two Day River Trip to Luang Prabang

  1. Hi guys, Following along with great interest. You caught my curiosity this time: what gear got sent home?Having things settle into their place in panniers always takes time. I have a set of Beckman expedition panniers, with all sorts of compartments to order things. My 1st trip was riding hime frmo Inuvik. I was almost paralyzed packing at first, and it took ~ 3 weeks for things to find their place.Selamat jalan, Gregg

  2. Oh, I don’t know, Margo, I don’t think Stan would mind, any good shipwreck would do:A short cut down the Mekong On the Slow Boat 34.They loaded bikes up on the roof And Margo on the floorTen score, or so, more passengers. But the weather it was fineThe skipper didn’t see the Plimsol LineThe GPS was lurching, The trees were rushing by.With standing waves and jagged rocks T’was bound to go awry.She crashed upon the sandBut the tourists did proclaim That the Slow Boat 34 ‘d rise again!They shoved and pushed her off But the rudder, it was broke(n)They had to get another boat The tourists were outspoke(n)The journey was completed Without another hitchFor M&C t’was just a minor glitch…Rise again, Rise againThat her name not be lost to the knowledge of menThose who loved her best And were with her til the end Will make the Slow Boat 34 Rise Again…

  3. Hi Gregg, Of bike gadgets,we only sent back the second pump, a few reedundant hexes, ans small tools for repairing broken spectacles.We sent back the not great bike shorts for shorter distance use, and some funky techy insoles that took uo roo much rooom in mike bike shoes. The only “souvenirs” I usually allow myself to buy is local folk music CDs, because they are small to carry and we like to be able to put them with ur slides shows. But I like sewing, so the other luxury we sent back was two bits of carefully chosen traditional local fabric, one for me and one for our daughter. I wouldn’t have bought these is we’d had to carry them any distance! That was an alloance to longer term travel.Things are finding their places in the bags, but we still carry all cold weather and camping stuff as we are heading north into winter. Cheers, Margo

  4. Ni Hao Pat,Thank you for that!Poor Stan must be rolling over in his grave!Margo

  5. Pingback: Index for Bangkok to Paris 2009 « candmwanderings

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