During the bus journey, which was totally fine though a far cry from the VIP greenbuses to which I'd become accustomed, I began to feel a little unwell. I deteriorated as we took the tuk tuk from the bus stop at Chiang Khong and crossed the border into the northern Lao province of Bokeo via a rather unnecessary but mandatory bus that took us across no-man's land at an additional cost of a few baht.
By the time we left the tuk tuk that took us to the centre of Huay Xui from the border, I was ready for bed. My first night was at the Daauw Home guesthouse of Project Kajsiab, an initiative started by a European lady and her Lao husband to empower local women. In the morning, we collected our things and headed into town to assess the slow boat situation down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang, as I was feeling a bit improved. After breakfast though, it was clear that we wouldn't make the boat that day, as it was scheduled to depart at 10.30 (in reality, you're lucky if you've set off by midday). So we had another day in Huay Xui and a chance to get our own back on the local kids who were already getting into the spirit of Sonkran (or Pi Mai in Laos). A couple of water guns later and we were good to go.
That night we stayed in the best guesthouse in Huay Xui: B.A.P guesthouse on the main drag, which is run by a lady in her 60s or 70s affectionately known as Mama. Stay with her and she'll see you right, as long as you take over the odd cup of coffee to a table of punters when she asks you, and nod, smile and tut at the appropriate moments during her long and amusing stories about ungrateful and/or stupid tourists. She's been doing this since the border was right by her house in Huay Xui town, and her sister does the restaurant, which is by the way where you'll get the cheapest chicken fried rice in town (probably) and a slightly more interesting than a sandwich packed lunch for the boat.
Mama arranged our boat tickets and tuk tuk transfer to the pier for us at the fair price of 180,000 kip the day before departure and we set off with her driver at gone 10.30am (despite originally being told that 10.30am was when the boat would actually leave).
Our seats had been reserved together on the boat, and the tuk tuk driver provided us with our seat allocations, so after cramming in with the rest of the westerners and waiting an hour and a half for people to get on, get off, switch boats and generally faff to an obscene degree, we finally set sail downstream.
6 hours flew by surprisingly fast. We got chatting to the self-appointed boat jokers, 2 unlikely travel companions from Norway named Jonas and Hans, who had spent copious amounts on an ice box filled with Beerlao for the journey; we played cards, swapped music tips and checked out the famously picturesque scenery, punctuated by the occasional semi-naked local child and fisherman.
Our arrival in Pak Beng was expected and we were greeted by several guesthouse touts on the pier. Basically a town for people passing through, it took 2 minutes to stroll the main drag, passing street vendors plus Indian, traditional Lao and Western food joints along the way.
There are a couple of local specialities it seems: Marijuana and Whisky Lao are never far from people's minds, and you can't walk 5 metres without being offered one or the other. We thoroughly confused everyone by refusing both.
The second leg of the trip, which is meant to be the longer one, passed equally painlessly, and we disembarked at the bottom of a steep climb up the shore to the road to Luang Prabang. The tuk tuks that wait there to take you to the centre require a ticket that you buy from the office just there. It seems to be a set price, and after a couple of days of travel we were keen to get to a guesthouse so were pretty much first in line.
We hadn't booked anywhere, not knowing when we'd arrive and having been told that it was low season and no big deal booking ahead, which with hindsight was perhaps slightly misleading since it was Pi Mai and alot of places were already full by the time we came to enquire. But we ended up taking the last room at Nasmir guesthouse, just off the main road that runs parallel to the Mekong East-West through town and near to a great little restaurant called Delilahs (try the traditional Lao farmers breakfast of vegetable omelette with sticky rice and super spicy aubergine dip, or their top rated green curry - both DELISH).
Of course, we quickly bumped into the boat crowd again, the next day in fact, at the covered food stalls by the temple in the centre, and headed off to Kuangsi waterfall with 2 Belgian girls and a Spanish guy in a tuk tuk.
The place was HEAVING. Pi Mai holiday week for the locals meant everyone had had the same idea of piling over to the waterfall for a dip and some beers. The experience left alot to be desired for our party and 3 of us made a break for it hiking up past the main waterfall site and into the forest for the view. There wasn't much to see, but at least we were away from all the other humans.
Meanwhile, the infamous Luang Prabang soakathon had begun in earnest, and our tuk tuk (along with us inside it) was thoroughly drenched by locals lying in wait at the side of the road to 'wish us happy new year'. And this continued solidly without let up or pause for breath for the duration of our stay. There was nowhere to hide, no point showering, changing clothes or drying out at all; we were soaked through from the moment we stepped outside in the morning until we dried ourselves off in the public toilet at the bus station before boarding the VIP sleeper to Vientiane. VIP is overstating it a bit, but more on that in the next installment...