We had been to Italy several times as ‘vacationers’ (Lake Como, Rome, Sorrento, Cinque Terre, Ancona), but as full-time travelers, we wanted to experience Italy in a lesser-known city – so we decided to spend a month in Lecce, Italy. We stayed inside the Old Town walls where Roman ruins have been unearthed and opulent Baroque architecture is the standard. During our time in Lecce, we ate our way through the unique regional cuisine, took a day trip to Gallipoli and were joined for a week by friends from the States. Since our time in Lecce, we have returned to Italy to meet up with family in Rome.
Capital City: Rome
Country Population: 61 Million
A Slow Boat to Laos or Mekong River Cruise
Once it was decided that we would take the slow boat to Laos, we still had to decide which boat we wanted to take: the public slow boat to Laos or a Mekong River Cruise to Laos. The public boat option better aligned with our travel style; not only are we budget-minded, but we appreciate the challenge of deciphering processes and schedules in foreign languages. However, this time around we weren’t feeling up to the task. Blame it on the stifling heat, the negative public boat reviews or simply the desire to feel a little spoiled, we uncharacteristically opted for a Laos Mekong River Cruise. We booked our 2-day Laos slow boat with Mekong Smile – and let them sort all the various details of getting us from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang.
Getting from Chiang Rai to Laos
Although the boat ride is often referred to as the ‘slow boat from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang’ the boat does not depart from Chiang Rai, Thailand; the Mekong River slow boats to Luang Prabang leave from Huay Xai, a border town in Laos that is 65 miles east of Chiang Rai. There is public transport between the two cities, but rather than organize a Chiang Rai to Huay Xai bus, Mekong Smile hired a personal driver to transport us from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong – where we would cross the border from Thailand into Laos.
Our driver promptly arrived at dawn. He spoke English, but we mostly rode in silence, watching as the towns and villages we passed stirred from their slumber. On porches, men lit small fires for the women to prepare breakfast. Monks walked barefoot through the towns collecting alms. And, later, children dressed in uniforms walked along the roadside to school. We followed a meandering river past an empty floating market and traveled through the countryside, which was an endless landscape of patterned rice fields, interrupted only by an occasional karst mountain protruding from the farmland.
Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos Border Crossing
After an hour and 45 minutes, we arrived at the Chiang Khong Border Crossing. The station was eerily vacant; at the early hour, we were the sole travelers crossing from Thailand into Laos. Our driver escorted us to an officer who collected our departure cards and branded our passports with the all-important exit stamp, then handed us tickets for the bus to the Huay Xai border crossing in Laos, pointing us in the right direction through the empty building.
We boarded a bus and, with only one other passenger, we crossed the Friendship Bridge into Laos and the Huay Xai Immigration Office. The Mekong Smile Cruise owner and guide – Mr. Pheng and Choy – were awaiting our arrival. Together with the forms they had prepared, we handed our passports and $35 USD (each) to an officer manning the ‘Visa On Arrival’ booth. While we waited for approval, we met the four other passengers on our Laos Mekong River Cruise and exchanged the remainder of our Thai Baht to Laotian Kip. Once we were officially permitted to enter the country, we bid farewell to Mr. Pheng. Choy led us to a van that would quickly take us to the docks to board the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Our journey so far – from Chiang Rai to Huay Xai – had taken less than three hours.