My introduction to Laos couldn't have been nicer. Maybe we should always be introduced while slowly floating down a river in a long wooden boat with a cool river breeze coming in. I think we would all have more friends.
Update to my "Favorite Modes of Travel" list if you're keeping track at home.... A large motorized longboat down a major river has moved up to number four.
The boat was long and narrow. Roughly the size of the interior of an airplane, maybe a little wider. It was all wooden and colorful. There was a canopy overhead to provide shade from the intense river sun, but the sides were open with long curtains as protection from the rain. The seats were old car seats that now had a new home on the water. They are not bolted down so you have to be careful when getting up and down not to flip them over. There's a captain with an old school pirate ship steering wheel up front and a little shop selling noodles and beer in the back. There's also a restroom and a smoking area in the far back. It was quite the ship for the two day journey. And after we waited an extra half hour for the captain to wake up from his nap, we were off on the Mekong River.
We set out from Huay Xai, Laos, right on the Thai border, and ended in Luang Prabang, the fourth biggest city in Laos. For those two days on the river there is not much to do. There's no in flight movie, wifi, or lunch breaks. The boat moved slow and steady down the river, only stopping to pick up or drop off locals at seemingly random spots along the river bank or when the captain had to use the restroom - apparently no one else is capable of steering the boat down the wide river. It was really very peaceful though. I read, wrote, chatted with other travelers, and snacked. I would look up every once in a while after forgetting I was floating down the Mekong through the rural mountains and farmlands of Laos. I was happily surprised at the amazing scenery around me every time. There were large water buffalo hanging out on the river banks or a small village with houses perched on the mountainside or steep mountains coming right up from the river covered from head to toe in lush, green vegetation. It rained a couple of times but the only time I ever got wet was when a rogue wave came out of nowhere and gave me and a couple others a wake up splash. It was a great way to take your time getting somewhere.
The two day river trip took a break for the night in Pak Beng. It is a small town that seems like it's only there to function as the halfway break point between Thailand and Luang Prabang. Maybe it used to have a different purpose, but now the only two streets of the town are lined with guesthouses and restaurants for tourists. As the boat pulls in you can see the locals lining up at the pier ready to sell you a room or snacks. I grabbed my bag and dashed through them, looking straight ahead the whole time. Don't make eye contact and definitely don't speak to any of them. At that point they will all just converge on you until you can't breath. Much better to get away and walk around town on your own time looking for a place. There are always plenty of beds available. Worst case, I have a hammock.
I had dinner with a couple of friends from the boat at a really good Indian restaurant and then we ventured to Happy Bar. If you are looking for Happy Bar while in Pak Beng, just follow the reggae music and green, yellow, and red color scheme. You will be welcomed with a free shot of Laos whiskey and a smile. We played Jenga and opted for a hookah - although we chose apple flavored tobacco and decided against the "happy" flavored. They had an entire happy smoking section. This might explain why their service was pretty slow, but damn it they were cheerful. I enjoyed a couple Beerlao and went to bed early. It was going to be a long, hard day on the river tomorrow after all.