Part of me was dreading the two day slowboat down the Mekong, but not a big enough part for it to let it deter me from the experience. All I can say is I’m extremely glad I didn’t let the horror stories I’d heard of being cramped on a smelly boat for two days put me off because it was a brilliant trip. Yes the second day was fairly painful but it was generally two days of hanging out with a bunch of cool people and drinking beerlao.
We were just starting to think the boat was getting quite full with approximately 100 people when a busload of around another 100 climbed aboard. The reviews I read that tell you to get there early were definitely right – the unlucky people to get to the boat last ended up either sitting in the aisles or crammed up around the noisy, stinking engine at the back. We got a boat with old car seats stuffed in for both days of the journey (you stop overnight in a small village that exists purely for the tourists coming down the Mekong) but some of the other boats were just filled with wooden pews. Because it was a bit of a free for all anyway everyone swapped seats and places throughout the journey and it was no problem for me to have a kip on the floor under everyone’s feet to ease some of the pain.
Unfortunately by the end of the second day I was so stiff the 50 or so steep stairs up to the top seemed impossible. After a mixture of bum shuffling and being supported by fellow travellers finally an Argentinian hero called Agustin came to my rescue and piggy backed me up the remaining steepest steps. It was a massive team effort getting me and all our stuff off the boat and it retrospect I should have just asked a handful of the more than willing boat sharers to carry me up in my wheelchair. Unfortunately I was too embarrassed to ask for help but I think I’ve learnt my lesson. If you’re wondering where my wheelchair resided for the entirety of the stuffed boat trip the answer would be balancing precariously on the roof… something I think will come to be known as ‘Laos style’. We met some really cool people on the boat who we continued to see around Luang Prabang for the next couple of days, including at the only ‘nightclub’ in town – ‘The Bowling Alley’, which turns out is in fact just a bowling alley stuffed full of the Mekong boat tourists.
Getting to the border from Chiang Mai turned out to be pretty simple, although a lot of bag moving hard work for Steph. We took a ‘Green Bus’ from Chiang Mai and broke up our stay in Chiang Rai. The only thing we saw here was The White Palace – a weird, macabre, ‘Disney does temples’ modern interpretation of Buddhist architecture. The place even had a hanging Batman and Gollum head?!
Finding out how to get from Chiang Rai to Laos proved to be a little bit more difficult but still not impossible. Because the Friendship Bridge has now made the original boat crossing redundant a lot of the information online is now out of date. What we did was jump on a bus from Chiang Rai’s bus terminal 2 to Bokeo – Which finishes at Huay Xai where the Mekong Boat starts. The last bus leaves at 3.30pm and arrives at the border at about 6.30pm. Although no one at the bus station seemed to know what time the border closed it appears to be open in the morning, then from mid afternoon to 10pm. The bus waits for you to check out of Thailand, drives you across the bridge then waits for you to check in to Laos – a slow process even with only 10 of us doing it, then finally drops you at an out of town bus station where tuktuk drivers are waiting to take you to your hostel. In the morning down to the Mekong boat where you can easily buy tickets on the day. Turn up before 10.30 with snacks ready but don’t expect the 11am boat to leave until gone 12pm.
The whole trip left us fairly exhausted. It involved climbing on and off several forms of transport – coaches, tuktuks, minivans, boats and up stairs and hills as well as lugging all our stuff around and on and off these things. Mobilising with our stuff is definitely the most challenging aspect of travelling with a wheelchair because it not only impinges on my ability to wheel myself but Steph’s ability to help me too.