Thanks for this very informative post! I am in Chiang Mai right now, trying to decide how to get to Luang Prabang and weighing the pros and cons of slow boat vs flying there... your article helped me make the decision for the boat. Plus the info on the hotel in Pak Beng is very helpful.
One of the best ways to slow down your pace of life is to literally take a slower form of travel—like the long boats of the Mekong River in Laos.
A two-day voyage from Huay Xai, Laos to the more popular destination of Luang Prabang takes about seven hours each day and affords stunning views of one of the least traveled areas of the world. Along the way, you’ll experience majestic granite slabs protruding from the Mekong, water buffalo sunbathing on sand banks, kids running up and down the shore, and stretches of time when only one or two people can be spotted in the dense vegetation.
This was one of the greatest adventures that I’ve ever taken, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s traveling to Southeast Asia. Want to make the trek? Here are my suggestions to ensure you slow boat like a champ.
The long boats depart from Huay Xai, Laos. To get there, head up to Chiang Khong, Thailand via a chartered bus from more-frequented Chiang Mai. The bus will take you to the dock, where you will “depart” Thailand and canoe across the Mekong to go through customs in Huay Xai.
You will need to purchase a visa at the immigration point (which is basically a small booth in a small hut at the riverside). For Americans, the 30-day visa costs $35 USD in cash. Make sure that your passport has at least six months validity remaining and that you have two small passport-size photographs to hand over with your application.
Pick the Right Seat
When I arrived at the pier for our long boat’s early morning departure, I walked around and realized that some long boats had plush luxury seats, some hard benches, and some had no seats at all. I climbed the steep dirt staircase to the ticket office and declared that I wanted boat #43, the nicest of the lot. The jaded woman behind the counter responded, “Number 74.” After paying her about $30 USD, I clamored down to boat #74 to see the very dreaded outcome: wooden seats.
When you’re planning to sit for two days on a crowded boat, please be kind to your rear. A friend had tipped me off about purchasing cushions for $1 each near the docking station, and it turns out this piece of advice was a lifesaver. Do yourself a favor and buy two.
There should be no window versus aisle debate on a long boat—it’s window all the way. You’ll want to gaze out at the scenery, rest your head on the edge, and have no obstruction as you snap pictures. Snag somewhere between the middle and the front of the boat to avoid being near the bathroom in the rear.
Make Friends, Bring Cards
I’ll be honest: As gorgeous as the river is, you will be on a boat for two days with not much to do but watch the scenery roll by. But, there are people all around you, so break out your cards and make new friends! There’s a tiny bar in the back of the boat that sells Beerlao (the ubiquitous beer in Laos)—make use of it and start a United Nations Poker Tournament. We had representatives from Argentina, Spain, the UK, Canada, Germany, France, and, of course, yours truly from America. Although the scenery was my favorite part of the trip, the friends I made were a very close second.
Overnight in Pakbeng
During your journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, you spend one overnight stop in the tiny river town of Pakbeng, which sits where the Mekong meets the smaller Nam Beng River. When you arrive, be warned: It is a mad dash to get bags out from under the boat, and local village boys will try to snag them and lead you to the guest house that pays them. Keep your eye on your bag and try to grab it first.
Luckily, I was able to get to mine, and ventured towards Bounmee Guest House, which Lonely Planet describes as having “bamboo and wood rooms with private hot water bathrooms.” Upon seeing my room, I had a panic attack. The bright blue room had hand and footprints all over the walls, cobwebs covering the ceiling, dirty sheets, and one bed skewed halfway into the bathroom. And then I saw it, written on the wall in black letters: “Lee Rivers Survived One Night Here.” I was out of there in about 30 seconds. I don’t know Lee Rivers, but clearly I’m not as brave (or stupid) as him.
Save yourself the scare and spend your evening in the only semi-luxury hotel in town. For $35 USD, the Phetsokxai Hotel will provide a beautiful room with a big queen bed, double locks, a hot shower, and breakfast in the morning.
Get to Know Laos
Known as the kip, the Laotian currency runs in the tens of thousands to the dollar. One of my biggest regrets from my time in Laos was having no idea what the currency conversion was—at one point, I believe I paid 35,000 kip for a pen. Do yourself a favor and have a better understanding of what the exchange rate is, which today is about $1 to 8,000 kip.
Instead of exchanging your leftover currency back when you depart Laos, donate it to help identify and destroy undetonated landmines, which are still devastating the countryside of Laos from the Vietnam War. (For more information on this, watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode on Laos.)
It’s also important to know how to say “thank you,” no matter where you are traveling. The Laotians say “khàwp ja̖i lãi lãi,” or rather kop jay la-laiiiiiiii, holding out the last syllable. It’s a joy to say and translates to “thank you very much!”
Long boating down the Mekong is a serene, quiet, and otherworldly experience—one that I fear soon will vanish because of plans to meet power generation demands with large-scale hydropower plants that would dam up more than half the river’s length. My point: If you’re hoping to go, get there sooner rather than later. The Laos we see 10 years from now may be quite different than the peaceful beauty she is today.