I have been longing to take this unique journey up the Mekong River for some years now and finally got around to it. The scenery is tremendous and I can think of no better way to see it than moving along at a leisurely pace on the slow boat.
|Getting on the boat at Luang Prabang
The trip takes 2 days plus which was the major factor the times before I thought of taking this journey but decided not to. It is much quicker to hop on a plane but where is the fun that?. I am so glad I did the trip this time , it turned out really well. The first day is about 8 hours on the boat from Luang Prabang to the small village of Pak Beng. The boat docks there and you find a guesthouse (there are plenty) for the night. Day 2 is again about 8 hours on the boat, arriving at Huay Xai, Laos at about 5 PM. Huay Xai is directly across from Chiang Khong, Thailand and close to the bridge where you can clear immigration and crossover to Thailand.
The best scenery is from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng on day one, where the mountains are more dramatic. The boat is long and narrow with open sides for good viewing. The ride is surprisingly stable even with a few rapids along the way.. The seating was comfy on day 1 with wooden benches with cushions on them. Day 2 was a different boat and the seating was on seats taken from a bus or van, not as comfy but there was a small table at most seats which can be useful.
It is easy to move around on the boat and you can read and even write, which is great with all that time. You also have time to get to know your fellow travelers if you so choose. I would say there were roughly 50 passengers, about half foreigners and half Lao. The only bit of excitement was the few times we would make a very quick stop to pick up or drop off Lao people along the way. This was usually at some random looking sandbar with no sign of civilization in sight, though I imagine a small village was close by.
|Gulliano playing a few tunes
On day 2 I was sat next to a delightful, Italian man, Gulliano. He was in his 70’s and very well traveled. He wasn’t on our first day of travel which surprised me a little.. I was even more surprised when he told me how long he had stayed in Pak Beng, about 3 weeks! He said it was a great little place to just hang out and relax. He had stayed there many times before and would have stayed even longer but the ATM was not working there.
My hats off to the boat pilots who did a great job. The Mekong is a powerful beast and there are plenty of rocks cropping out of it all along the way.. If there are a lot of rocks just above the surface no doubt there are plenty just below the surface but we cane through unscathed. Both days the pilots were at the helm pretty much the entire trip, men of steel.
Depending how the journey goes it can be a little iffy whether you can make it across the border into Thailand at the end of day 2 in Huay Xai, as the immigration closes around 8 PM. I jumped in a jumbo with a bunch of other slow boat people heading to the bridge to clear Laos immigration. I only saw Huay Xai briefly as we breezed through it on the way to the border. It looked like a pleasant place, geared for the foreign travelers. I had an added incentive to get over to Thailand as my Laos visa was expiring that day and I would have had to pay a small fine if I didn’t make it out. All went well at the border, and I made to Chiang Khong in time for dinner.
There are also other river options that I saw in passing. One was a bigger boat with accommodation on board and all. I imagine it is quite pricey but looked really appealing. Another option is the fast boat which I do not at all recommend. These boats were rocketing up and down the river with the driver actually wearing a crash helmet. They can make the trip in one day if all goes well but the chance of crashing is high and even if you don’t, I cannot imagine it being very enjoyable. If you have the chance and a bit time to take in the scenery, definitely take the slow boat.
You can see my full photo album here.
I booked the trip through the hotel I stayed at in Luang Prabang, Moonlight Champa Riverview (recommended). A tuk tuk came to pick me up around 7:15 AM and took me to the slow boat pier which is several kms outside the city. The boat ticket office opens around 8 AM, the cost for the boat ticket from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng is 110,000. You could do all this yourself but it was more convenient to get the hotel to make the booking.
On day two you get on the boat from Pak Beng to Huay Xay around 8 AM. This one you pay for on the boat, it is also 110,000.
There are drinks such as pop, bottled water, beer and instant coffee available on the boat at reasonable prices. There is not much for food options, only light snacks and cup noodle. In Pak Beng you can grab a good dinner the first night and plenty of time for a decent breakfast the next morning as you only need to be on boat by 8 AM.
We landed in Huay Xai around 5 PM and made our way quickly to immigration. Once clearing Laos immigration, you have to wait for the bus to take you across the bridge for a small fee. It was a good 20 or 30 minutes wait for the bus. Cleared Thai immigration around 7 PM I got a 30 day Thai visa on arrival. There is another bit of wait for the shared truck into the nearby town Chiang Khong to find accommodation for the night. I got dropped by a riverside guesthouse which was quite alright and only 350 baht. I would have preferred to continue on to Chiang Rai for the night but no public transport is running this late. The next morning I caught the lovely Green Bus to Chiang Rai (with a VIP seat bitches), only 179 baht.