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Boat from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

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Slowboat from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang: Apparently toothpicks are a tool?

*UPDATE: Apparently there was a dam built and as of November 2013, this boat trip is no longer an option.*

One of the reasons we had ended up on the Nagi of Mekong from Thailand into Laos was because we had read some fairly dreadful stories about the public ferries – Both down the Mekong as well as just in general. And I wasn’t overly stoked when we were taking one from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang – we had power in numbers for a cheaper (10,000 kip less), quicker (3 hours), more comfortable (a seat made of more than a 2×8 plank) ride in a private minibus. But the managed democracy of our group won out and we were taking the “cultural route” that was supposed to take an estimated to take 6-9 hours putting us into town after sundown.

The public slowboat process doesn’t exactly seem complicated – the locals fill a boat up beyond max capacity and send it along it’s way. If another boat’s needed, they fill that beyond max capacity and begin loading a third boat… So as we stood on the dock waiting to load onto the second slowboat ferry going to Luang Prabang for the day, we watched as the captain of the first slowboat gestured and casually yelled at the already cramped passengers to pack in even closer so three more people could hop on. Everyone shared aggravated and nervous smiles and moved on down, losing whatever little room they already had. The captain tossed the additional three bags loosely on top of the existing pile and they pushed off from shore as the next slowboat rolled up to start loading the second ferry.

All 23 of us had packed in, knee to knee and shoulder-to-shoulder, when two more backpackers came wandering down the stairs (“dock”). The captain began to motion for all of us to move down and make some more room. When everyone refused to move, his rolly-polly wife got involved, basically screaming at us in Lao. The whole time, we were apologizing to the poor Aussie couple that was trying to get on, but their tone and looks let us know that they understood and didn’t want to get on that boat as much as we didn’t want to give up our inches of space. Some German guy in the back began to yell back at her switching between English and quickly-spit German – basically telling her nobody could understand a word she was saying. This all went down for a few minutes before both the captain and his wife essentially threw up their hands, untied the boat, and we cast off.

30 minutes into the ride, I felt like I had already spent at least six hours on the most uncomfortable church pew imaginable  Other than our group’s main advocate for this ferry, we were all stewing in misery. The German’s included. I was already angry enough when the engine just cut out and we began to drift sideways down the river, eventually coasting to the eastern bank as everyone traded nervous glances. (Break-downs are apparently part of the reason for the unknown time-frame for how long the trip is going to take.) The captain casually made his way back to the engine, smacked it with a wrench a bunch of times, exchanged toothpicks with his wife (for who-knows-what) and after about 15 minutes or so of work, the engine started humming again.

Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang Laos

We got about another 30 minutes downriver when the engine cut out for the second time, this time, causing us to drift into the west bank along a huge horseshoe bend. The captain grabbed his wrench and toothpicks and again made his way to the engine ‘room.’ I couldn’t take it anymore – I hopped into the knee-deep water and made my way back to my backpack, digging out whatever soft item I think to use for an ass-cushion. As I walked into the bushes along shore (for, ya know…), everyone else seemed to follow my lead and hustle off the boat as well taking whatever reprieve they could get. I look back and take this second breakdown as a Godsend – I got an ass cushion, stretched out, and relieved myself. I still wasn’t happy for most of the ride, but I felt better than I did during the first hour and a half. And 30 minutes later, I guess the toothpicks worked and the engine magically kicked to life and we loaded back up.

Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang Laos

And there we sat for the next 7 hours – reading and just looking out at the scenery. Once and a while, we’d all have to shift and simultaneously brace as we hit an unusually big rapid, but overall, it was just uneventful after the second breakdown. It was a frustrating trip for me – Not just because of how long and uncomfortable it was, but because of the lack of space to move around and take pictures. Each way I turned, I felt like I was knocking into someone so for a lot of the trip, I didn’t even bother. Which is unfortunate because it is beautiful. 

Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang Laos

If you’re reading this wondering how to get from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang, I guess my advice would depend on money and time. And even then, it would depend on a few more things. The way I look at it, if there’s a group of you (or you are not concerned with money), get in the private minibus. Again, for the six of us, it would have been cheaper, more comfortable, we would have been in Luang Prabang before lunch, the road follows the river for a lot of the time so you get the same scenery, and you have more flexibility for stops with a private driver. If you are strapped for every penny you have (or are traveling solo or as a couple), I guess the slowboat could be the way to go – just be prepared to be uncomfortable, have an unknown timetable, and bring an ass cushion. I have no idea what the bus situation is, but in our case, a minibus would have definitely been the smart idea.

Oh, and be prepared to spend 6-9 hours in a dehydrated fear of drinking any water on a bathroom-less boat.

An advocate in our group for this slowboat ride said, “Well, you’ll never forget this part of the trip,” which is completely true. But for me, it was far from a highlight of the three weeks.

Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang Laos

*UPDATE: Apparently there was a dam built and as of November 2013, this boat trip is no longer an option.*

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