Among the more popular ways to travel from Thailand to Laos is to cross the Mekong river (and border) at Chiang Khong, then take a two day boat ride down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. River trips have always been pleasing to me, so I also chose this route as well. It was highly recommended.
One past the soulless border town of Huay Xai and its need to rip me off, I was instantly taken by Laos. Since it is the low season, there was one passenger boat a day heading down the Mekong, but it was still devoid of many people; all of us were tourists. The boat was a collection of car seats nailed to some boards which were easy to rearrange for optimal socialization. I shared the boat with Marian and Blancdine from Pai as well as a few others that I'd befriended at the port, including the awesome Diogo from Portugal. I would travel off and on with these three for the next three weeks. The scenery in Northwestern Laos was comprised of forested hills, seemingly untouched save a few huts. It was a rainy day, but the hills still appeared lush and gorgeous.
The first day was quite short, only six hours. We stopped for the night at Pak Beng, a tiny village that had endless guesthouses and restaurants to cater to the tourists stopping overnight. The rooms were cheap, everyone seemed intent on selling us drugs. Most of us passed on this temptation. Each restaurant ushered the crowds with free shots of whiskey. The town was quite pleasant, so it confused me that the locals felt that it couldn't be enjoyed sober. We still took our free shots though...they were free. The waiter plopped down a big bottle of Lao Lao, the local rice whiskey, imploring us to drink all we wanted. Four shots later, we were all blind drunk; thankfully, we didn't go blind: it was terrible. The alcohol content neared 100%. After I vomited out the window, I decided it would be wise to go to sleep and never touch the stuff again.
The second day was even more incredible, the hills had become towering green karsts, rising out right from the ocean. The rain had cleared, leaving only clear blue skies. Unfortunately, everyone seemed hung over; the lao lao left few untouched. It was also less comfortable. We switched to another boat that was fancier, but the seats did not move around, so social interactions were much more difficult. It felt more like a long smooth bus ride for the second leg. The spectacular scenery just passed by; most of us read, missing the random flocks of water buffalo bathing in the river. Eight hours after we left, the boat pulled into Luang Prabang, which stuck out, being the only town of any size we'd seen for the whole trip.
I would recommend the boat trip to anyone. The scenery could not be beat. It was much smoother and comfortable than taking a boat through the winding, bumpy roads of Northern Laos. I've heard rumors that the boats often get quite cramped during the high season, but we avoided such a fate. At one time, this was the only way the locals traveled: reliable roads being a recent development in this part of the world. Now, it is mainly a tourist attraction, a taste of the Laos of old. It's a shame though, I can't imagine a better way to travel.