Long and slow
The Huay Xai border crossing is one of many crossings into Laos from Thailand and many visitors choose this particular one when entering Laos due to its proximity to Chiang Mai and the rest of northern Thailand. After arriving in Huay Xai, the vast majority of travellers choose to hop on a slowboat down river to Pak Beng for a connection the next day to Luang Prabang. I recently attempted an upriver route to Xieng Kok in order to visit towns such as Muang Long and Muang Sing without the need to backtrack. Needless to say, it was a memorable experience.
Despite what most guidebooks say, there are no fast boats from Huay Xai to Xieng Kok and no regular slow boat services. Instead, if you want to search for a fast boat, the best place to head to is Ban Mom, a two-hour songthaew ride away along a paved road on the border of Burma. Fantastic! Fast boats from Ban Mom to Xieng Kok! Well, no. There used to be and there may well be one day in the future, but as of now, there are no fast boats between Ban Mom and Xieng Kok and vice versa, even if you want to charter one. Why not? The explanations we received varied from Burmese criminals shooting at boats to Chinese pirates raiding boats and killing passengers. Fastboat drivers are genuinely afraid to head upriver, even when offered exorbitant amounts of cash.
I only found this out once in Ban Mom, and since the only bus back to Huay Xai had departed, I was forced to find a “guesthouse” to stay in for the night before deciding what to do next. I arrived at the boat dock the next morning at 07:00 on the advice of the local policeman who thought there would be a slowboat coming past for sure at that time. The immigration officer at the dock reckoned on a 14:00 passing. Either way, it required a wait at the dock.
As 11:30 rolled around and after going loopy with boredom, a slowboat happened to pull into shore and I negotiated a fare up river: 250,000 kip for a seven-hour ride on a cargo boat sounded expensive, but it was nothing compared to what a fast boat would cost. As I boarded the boat, I soon realised that this was no ordinary slowboat bedecked with aeroplane seats, toilets, beer fridge and snack bar… No, this was a buffalo boat. A boat stuffed to the brim with 54 agitated buffaloes all primed for a fight — they did not want to be tied up.
As it turned out, they kicked, moaned and gouged the whole way upriver. As the sun started setting on the Mekong, I knew we were close to Xieng Kok because I had it mapped out on my fancy smartphone. I reckoned 30 minutes and we would be pulling alongside and I’d be able to disembark this bovine cargo boat and have a good old fashioned cold bucket shower. But it wasn’t to be. The boat pulled alongside a heavily forested section of river and the crew jumped off to tie the boat up. It seemed permanent. Did they expect us to climb through the forest to a road to find transport to town? Was there some issue with the boat? Did someone need to go to the toilet? As it turns out, the crew thought it was about time to have some dinner and get some rest in order to be well-prepared for the next leg of their journey up river and into China. I was merely a passenger and their real reason for being out here was to deliver their prized buffaloes upriver.
Out came a pile of food, a mosquito net, a couple of mats and some sheets, but it was so blisteringly hot on that boat that no additional bedding was required. And then we tried to sleep. But it was impossible as the cargo was restless ALL NIGHT. The buffaloes kicked, shrieked, battled each other and generally made such a fuss that no one got more than a couple of hours sleep.
And the tiny insects on the boat were a nightmare. The beasts attract flies and midges by the swarm and no mosquito net can protect against all of them. At 06:00 the boat captain kicked me as he fired up the boat’s engine and proceeded to head up river. Tired and sore, I arrived in Xieng Kok almost a full 48 hours after arriving in Huay Xai.
The Mekong between Huay Xai and Xieng Kok has always been a wild place, where transport connections have been sketchy at best. If you’re contemplating taking this route when travelling through Laos, just be aware that it may well add a few extra days onto your journey and most of that time you will be waiting either on or for a boat. Also be aware that there may well be armed criminals on the river. We did see two armed men on the banks of the river trying to flag our boat down but the driver kept on driving. The scenery along this section of the Mekong is stunning. Ancient grass-hut villages, glorious golden stupas and the odd armed man who might just want to hop on board. This is untouched Laos at its very best, and very worst.
Adam gave up a corporate career in 2009 and left Australia for the hustle and bustle of Southeast Asia. He now lives in Indonesia.
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