The idea of being stuck on a slow boat for three days didn’t appeal to me when I first heard about it. After months of people recommending the tour in Laos, I finally decided to give it a try while I was still in SE Asia.
It turns out that the “three-day” tour was one day of travel just get to get to Laos, and the slow boat itself was only two days. The price of the tour, leaving from Chiang Mai, was $50. I’d heard it was considerably cheaper to simply book each part of the tour on my own, so I chose that option.
Getting to Laos
The following morning, I got up with the dawn to catch the 6 AM bus to the Laos border. Characteristic of Thailand, the 6 AM bus didn’t leave, so I got the 6:30 bus instead. It took an hour to get to the border, or rather almost to the border. We were dropped off 3 miles away, and had to pay for a taxi for the last bit.
Actually, nearly every step of the journey was full of scams. Rather than bore you will all those details, read here about how I survived the scams in SE Asia.
Breakfast in Huay Xai
The pier for the slow boat is located in the border village of Huay Xai, but not near the border crossing. You have to take another taxi another half-hour to the dock. I arrived just before 10 AM and bought my ticket for 100,000 kip (roughly $12.20). The cruise was scheduled to leave at 10, but they weren’t even loading yet, and said it would be some time yet before leaving, so I set off to find breakfast and lunch.
The final street before the pier is lined with cafes all selling basically the exact same food. The choices were mostly fried rice, sandwiches, fruit smoothies and Laos coffee. I got all four for under $5, ate half the rice, and packed the rest away for the cruise.
Day One on the Slow Boat
It was still the New Year’s holiday in Laos, and both tourists and locals were coming for the festivities. The Mekong river remains one of the primary modes of transportation across Laos, with most of the country covered in jungles which make smooth highways impossible. As such, there was some worry that the boats would be full, but I got my seat. Turns out there were two boats, both filled to capacity. I had a seat in the front of the first boat, just a few feet away from the captain in his white shirt and trousers. Surrounding me were a few locals, and travelers from all over the world. There was a couple from Spain, another from Argentina, a guy from Japan, etc. A couple minutes before noon, two hours after the scheduled departure, we pushed away from the dock and were on our way.
For some reason it took me a few minutes to get oriented. I had the distinct feeling we were traveling north, with Thailand on our left. I distinctly remember the boat taking off in that direction, and I must have just missed it when we turned around.
I suppose my fear of boredom was completely unfounded for the slow boat, even if it was for two days. The cruise started off really slow, and there wasn’t a lot of socializing between strangers. Yet at no point was the adventure uneventful.
The day had started out cloudy. Not an hour into the cruise, it started to rain. Luckily, the boat was equipped with plastic tarps to drop down the sides to keep us dry, which we pulled down. However, after a few minutes, a lady from the back of the boat (possibly a crew member) came to the front and pulled up the tarps, subjecting us once again to the freezing rain. She went back to her dry spot at the back of the boat, and I immediately dropped the tarps back in place. Fifteen minutes later she returned to roll them up. This continued for about an hour, until she finally gave up and allowed us to stay dry. It might have been about the most exciting thing that happened on the boat that day.
Otherwise, it was hour after hour (six to be exact) of absolutely stunning scenery passing by. What’s more, there was hardly a moment of the cruise when there weren’t some fauna visible on the banks of the Mekong or on the slopes of the valley. Water buffalo were the most common, but there were also cows, horses and even elephants. I also saw a bunch of other animals which I wasn’t able to name. Next time I’m bringing a zoom lens and looking them up afterwards.
The scenery itself was epic. Even though it was all essentially the same, it was beautiful the entire way. I couldn’t stop marveling at how dense the jungle was. Laos is certainly a country of raw, pristine beauty.
Throughout the day, we stopped several times along the way. Each time, a local or two would jump off, and sometimes some would board. Once we unloaded several cases of beer. Sometimes we would see a few huts on stilts dotting the side of the river; other times there was simply thick jungle that the locals would disappear into.
Spending the night at Pakbeng
The only real “village” between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang is the settlement of Pakbeng. It’s not much more than a single street lined with guesthouses and restaurants. From what I could tell, there wasn’t much difference from one to the next.
I passed up the first several accommodations, preferring to find one a little further away from the pier and thus perhaps less liable to a scam. The first room I found was $10 for two people, and looked clean enough. The mattresses were thick (a rarity in SE Asia), the shower was clean, there was good air conditioning and I didn’t see any mosquitoes in the room (they were all in the bathroom, which was fine). I found another guy from the boat to split the room with, and then headed out for dinner.
I saw a place in town serving pizzas, and they had great ratings on Google and Tripadvisor. I decided to give them a try, but it turned out they had run out of pizza! I ended up getting another plate of fried rice with cashews, although this one was considerably spicier.
The next morning I was up at 8, which unfortunately was long after I supposedly should have gotten up. The boat wasn’t leaving until 9:30, but by the time I had finished my shower, dressed and left the guesthouse a few minutes later, all the restaurants had stopped serving breakfast. I finally managed to find one which had enough food left for one person, and I happily accepted. A basic English breakfast for $4. As cheap as that sounds, I was quickly finding that food prices were considerably higher than in Thailand. I picked up a sandwich, a couple liters of water and some chips, and boarded my boat.
Day Two on the Slow Boat
Before we left from the pier, one of the guesthouse managers came down to the boat to demand that two of the travelers pay them something like $30 for losing the room key. The guests insisted that they had left the key at reception. It escalated until the lady went to go get the local constable, a man who looked like a rent-a-cop who had just gotten out of bed, at which point the travelers relented and paid the woman.
The second day was much like the first in terms of the scenery, but the trip was far more enjoyable. First of all, the sun was out. As much as I enjoy the rain, it’s hard to get good photos when your camera is getting wet and you’re hiding behind the tarps. It was also a bit warmer, which wasn’t necessarily better in my opinion.
The best part about day two was everyone had loosened up, and we spent the day meeting and talking with each other. I made good friends with the amicable South African Fuaad, the three British and Irish girls Freya, Niamh and Jess, and several more.
At one point, Fuaad introduced a game from South Africa called Controversial Questions. Each person would ask a question on a touchy subject, like “Do you agree with abortion?” and you could only answer with a “yes” or “no.” Talk about a difficult game! I’ll admit I killed the game when I asked the question “Do you believe in past lives?” and everyone wanted to clarify the answers.
Another activity we engaged on was a massage snake. I don’t remember who started the first massage, but I promptly began giving that masseuse a massage. Shortly after that, someone began giving me one, and the snake continued to get longer. After awhile, I went to the “tail” of the snake to demonstrate a Thai massage, and each person had to try replicating it on the person in front of them.
The only other activity of note was when I found a gap in the chairs, where I could hang my legs off the side of the boat in the water. I stayed there for nearly half an hour, with different friends joining me, until that crabby lady from the previous day finally saw me and ran up to the front of the boat to grab onto my shirt, talking rapidly in Laotian. She continued to hold on to me, making it difficult to get off the side of the boat, and still didn’t let go until I was on my way back to my seat. It was the last time she interfered with our journey.
Arriving in Luang Prabang
We arrived at the pier in Luang Prabang at 4:15. From there, we had to get one final taxi into town (perhaps you read that post on scams). Unfortunately, one of my new friends had left her bag on the other slow boat, and I opted to wait with them. It took nearly an hour for it to arrive. Seems they had more stops along the way to swap locals at, or perhaps they got stuck, as someone joked.
We finally got into town and went our separate ways to our guesthouses. The slow boat adventure was over, but the rest of my travels in Laos were just getting started. Stay tuned for my next post on the amazing waterfall in Luang Prabang and sunset at the temple.
Slow Boat Cruise Summary
In the end, I saved nearly $20 (1/3 the tour price) by booking every leg of my journey on my own as I went. It might have been a little more work than getting the tour, but I usually choose the budget option.
Overall, I absolutely loved the slow boat down the Mekong. So much so that I’m already planning on when I can do it again, and who I can take with me. I wonder if the boats will still be the same ramshackle bucket of bolts, or if they will have upgraded their services.
Would you take the tour now, or do you want to wait until it’s a nicer experience?
Planning to visit Laos?
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.