Asia/Pacific Eating Abroad Laos

Cruising Down the Mekong River – A Tale of Two Slow-Boats

May 8, 2018
Slow-boats on the Mekong River

One of the most popular journeys in South East Asia must be the slow-boat cruise down the Mekong River from Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang. It’s a well-worn route, often described with such romanticism that it would be difficult to resist. We fell for it, and you would too if you had also read half the articles we did. With the luxury of time on our hands, the idea of spending two days crawling down the Mekong River, absorbing tranquil scenes from a rustic but comfortable slow-boat seemed just lovely. We thought it would be a great way to switch off and just relax as we had a few weeks of long, action-packed days full of exploring up to that point!

There are two options when it comes to cruising along the Mekong; you can take the much cheaper public boat, or splurge a little to go with a private company. It took us all of five seconds to come to the conclusion that the private boat option was the one for us. And a mere five minutes to find three companies which seemed suitable, but this is where our trip got a lot harder to plan. The usual journey takes two days with an overnight stay at Pakbeng, the small village halfway. Our complication was that we wanted to stay two nights instead of one, and no private company could accommodate that on their schedule. So the plan was to brave it with the public boat, but we also ended up taking a private slow-boat; this is what happened…

View from Mekong River slow-boat

Public Slow-Boat from Huay Xai to Pakbeng

After a lot of deliberation, a lot of reading, and a lot of mental preparation, we decided we would take the public slow-boat. We convinced each other that it would be a straight forward process, not as terrible as we thought, and of course, we’d be saving ourselves quite a bit of money. Safe to say, we convinced ourselves into our worst nightmare! We decided to pay a bit more for a transfer with one of the many travel agencies in Chiang Rai to get us from there to the border and onto the boat as we were a tad nervous about not making it in time. This was supposed to make our journey smoother, but in reality, it slowed down the process and meant we (and the rest of our equally frustrated group) were the last on the boat and got the dregs of the seats…. So much for those reserved seats they kept promising us when we were all getting miffed at the constant waiting around!

Our boat had around 150 people on it, and over 100 of them were set on getting mightily drunk for the entire eight hour journey – can you imagine the carnage that ensued? The one squat toilet was not a pretty sight, people were clambering over the pile of bags dumped in the back, and the bar even ran out of beer, twice! At one stage, a certain someone and I ended up looking after a guy who, in his drunken state, had gone down to the engine-room in search of the toilet and came back with two very nasty burns on his hands and legs. And I think this was all in the first five hours… I know many people have done this journey with absolutely no issues at all so perhaps it was just a bit of bad luck coupled with the busy time of year, who knows! What we were certain, was that we would not be repeating it on the way down to Luang Prabang…

Cramped conditions on public slow-boat

Tips for taking the public slow-boat

  • Do not bother booking a transfer and just do it yourself!
  • We heard that the boats leave anytime from 9-11am; ours left around 11am but it pays to get there early to nab a seat near the front to avoid the louder and fumier back end of the boat.
  • If you are leaving from Chiang Rai: book a taxi (1,500 baht) or take the public bus (50 baht) and aim to leave by 6am. This will take 2-2.5 hours and get you to the Friendship Bridge in Chiang Khong, where you go through Immigration.
  • Getting your visa: make sure you have a passport photo and US cash on hand, fill in the form then get in line… you will hand over your passport, form and photos in one booth then wait to pay and receive your passport back in the second booth. It seemed the standard price was US$30 but it does depend on your nationality. Once you’ve got your visa, head through passport control, then grab one of the many tuk tuks already waiting outside to head to the pier.
  • Getting your tickets: each leg of the journey costs 110,000LAK (approximately £10), we bought one leg but I think most buy both the Huay Xai – Pakbeng and Pakbeng – Luang Prabang journeys together.
  • Getting on the boat: this was one of the few times during our South East Asia trip that I really wished I had a backpack because the path down to the boat was steep and once on the boat, they had crammed in so many seats that the only way to get my bag to the luggage area was for a certain someone to hoist it over his shoulder and lug it back there… not a pleasant start to the journey!
  • Finding a seat: the boats are all kitted out with old car seats, some are much nicer than others and none are fixed to the boat so they move around a bit. Despite what some people may be told (our group was constantly spun this line though none of us believed it), there are no reserved seats so it really pays to get on the boat as early as possible.
  • Food and drinks: there is a small bar selling beer and snacks with a surcharge for the convenience, otherwise you can bring your own.
  • Accommodation in Pakbeng: the village has a raft of budget guesthouse options, but if you want a good night’s sleep in comfortable surroundings, then I would recommend booking a room at Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge from £60/night which includes dinner and breakfast.

View of the Mekong River from Pakbeng village

Private Slow-Boat from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang

When we finally reached the safety and calm of Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge, a certain someone told me that there was absolutely no way anyone could get him back on that boat in two days time for the second leg to Luang Prabang. Sometimes I like to push his buttons and argue for the more budget-friendly option, but after that journey from hell, this was no time to jest! Overland transport is really not an option as the roads are terrible and indirect, so we turned back to the boat options… the first thing that came to mind was the speedboat. We had read a lot about it being extremely unsafe, but the GM at Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge said he had done it many times and assured us it was fine, just not very comfortable. We seriously considered it but luckily did not have to take the risk because we managed to get on a private slow-boat.

We contacted all the private companies again, and Nagi of Mekong happened to have space for two more on a boat due to leave the day we planned to depart. Such a relief. The private slow-boats are a lot smaller and far more comfortable; we were told that our boat could fit up to 30 people which would have been a squeeze but for 13, it was perfectly relaxed and roomy. We got on board to find the seats (still recycled car seats) set up in booths with tables in the middle, a few recliners at the front of the boat, tea and coffee set up at the back, and a clean toilet. It couldn’t be more different to our previous experience and we were actually able to sit back, relax and just watch the quiet world of the Mekong drift by… We would highly recommend this option for an altogether more comfortable and enjoyable journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang!

Onboard a private slow-boat cruise on Mekong River

Tips for taking a private slow-boat cruise

  • Booking a private cruise: we found four companies who provide a two day cruise service; Shompoo Cruises, Mekong Smile, Nagi of Mekong, and Luang Say Cruise. The first three are all priced from £100-150/pp with basic one-night accommodation in Pakbeng (most also offer upgrades to nicer accommodation such as Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge), while the Luang Say Cruise is significantly more expensive at around $250/pp which includes one-night accommodation at their Lodge in Pakbeng.
  • For our one day journey with Nagi of Mekong, we paid around £80/pp which included a transfer to our hotel in Luang Prabang.
  • Food and drinks: all the cruises provide a buffet lunch onboard and we were impressed with the simple but fresh and filling offering of rice, curry, vegetables, and fruit. Tea, coffee and bottled water were also readily available and there was a small bar onboard if you wanted to buy beer and snacks.
  • Sightseeing stops: it seems all the cruises make stops at local villages each day for ‘a glimpse of authentic village life’ but in reality, we found them a little intrusive and awkward. We were bombarded with women and children selling souvenirs, and then interrupted kids at school… this kind of tourism is not our thing at all and we hope that these cruise companies consider alternative ways of supporting these villages. We also stopped at Pak Ou Caves just before arriving in Luang Prabang which I did find interesting; the two caves are filled with hundreds of Buddha figures in various shapes and sizes.
  • Accommodation in Luang Prabang: this Unesco World Heritage town is filled to the brim with accommodation options for all budgets, but if you’re in the mood for luxury, we would recommend you book a suite at the serene Luang Say Residence!

Buddha figures at Pak Ou Caves

If you’re looking for more Laos travel inspiration, check out my other posts…

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