The Slow Boat Down the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos – Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos

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After rounding out our travels in Thailand in the northern city of Chiang Rai, we boarded a local bus for Chiang Kong – the Thai side of the border with Laos, separated from Huay Xai on the other side by just a narrow stretch of the Mekong River. We knew Laos would be more primitive than Thailand with less Western conveniences, so with that in mind, we took the opportunity to hit up the local 7-11 store one final time before departing for Laos.

Next, we headed down to the river for the quick longtail ride across to Huay Xai on the Laotian side. After getting a visa and clearing immigration at the riverside office, we stopped by the tiny duty free shop and bought a small bottle of vodka to take on our two day slow boat trip down the Mekong River.

Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos.Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos.
Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos.30-Mar-2012 15:43
 

Then, we checked in at a nice local hotel with a view over the river and set out to explore Huay Xai. While a small town, we were still able to get everything done that we needed to, including picking up a local SIM card for my phone.

Our hotel room with a view over the Mekong in Huay Xai, Laos.Our hotel room with a view over the Mekong in Huay Xai, Laos.
Our hotel room with a view over the Mekong in Huay Xai, Laos.30-Mar-2012 16:24
 

Finally, we ended our day with a cold and tasty Beerlao overlooking the river before grabbing dinner and getting to bed early in preparation for our slow boat journey down the Mekong the following day.

Our first delicious Beerlao beer, overlooking a hazy sunset.Our first delicious Beerlao beer, overlooking a hazy sunset.
Our first delicious Beerlao beer, overlooking a hazy sunset.30-Mar-2012 18:34
 

Before heading to Laos, we had heard a lot of different reports from other travelers that had taken the slow boat to Luang Prabang. Some people told us it was their favorite experience in Southeast Asia. Others said it was boring and a waste of time. Many told us to show up early in order to secure a seat and avoid having to crowd around the rattling engine.

Which boat!? Slow boats lining the banks of the Mekong.Which boat!? Slow boats lining the banks of the Mekong.
Which boat!? Slow boats lining the banks of the Mekong.31-Mar-2012 10:38
 

In order to beat the crowds, we got an early start and headed down to the departure area for the boats on the north side of town. Upon arrival, it took a while to figure out which boat was the one we needed. It turned out we were way too early – in fact we were the first to arrive. Needless to say, we secured a couple good seats.

The surprisingly spacious slow boat.The surprisingly spacious slow boat.
The surprisingly spacious slow boat.31-Mar-2012 13:02
 

Eventually, some other passengers started trickling in. We met a couple nice guys from Canada that would become our friends for the 2-day long journey to Luang Prabang.

After waiting more than four long hours, our boat finally pushed off and started the long journey downriver. It turned out the boat was far from capacity that day and only about two-thirds full. I guess we hadn’t considered the fact that it was no longer peak season and there were less travelers than usual.

Relax and float downstream...Relax and float downstream...
Relax and float downstream...31-Mar-2012 17:01
 

In addition to being the low season, it was also the time of year when many local farmers slash and burn the hillsides in anticipation of the new planting season. So much of this activity takes place that a permanent haze covers the region, obscuring the horizon and turning the sun into nothing more than a strange orange glowing ball you can actually stare at with your bare eyes.

Horrible smoke and haze from slash and burn farming.Horrible smoke and haze from slash and burn farming.
Horrible smoke and haze from slash and burn farming.31-Mar-2012 15:33
 

As we floated down the Mekong, we could actually see, smell, and even feel the results of the slash and burn farming. Our boat passed hills ablaze in fire, passing through thick smoke, with ash raining down on us.

It certainly wasn’t the most scenic way to take in the Mekong. Still, we were able to catch an interesting glimpse of the rustic Laotian countryside, passing tiny villages of thatched huts.

A typical riverside village.A typical riverside village.
A typical riverside village.01-Apr-2012 13:21
 

Along the river’s banks, locals thrashed rice, washed their clothes, and took baths. Many of the villages are only accessible by river and without electricity or any of the modern conveniences we all take for granted.

After a full day maneuvering downriver, we pulled into little Pakbeng – the halfway point and our stop for the night.

Pakbeng - the halfway point and overnight stop.Pakbeng - the halfway point and overnight stop.
Pakbeng - the halfway point and overnight stop.01-Apr-2012 10:27
 

Just as we rushed to be first on the boat that morning, we rushed to be first off and secure a nice guesthouse for the night. We walked uphill through the town until we stumbled upon Monsovanh Guesthouse and found an ensuite room for just US$10.

Central Pakbeng.Central Pakbeng.
Central Pakbeng.01-Apr-2012 08:18
 

Pakbeng turned out to be a delightful little town. After exploring the full length of it, we settled on dinner at Hassan, where we enjoyed an amazing Indian meal. We thought about going out to drink at the “only bar in town”, but after passing several shady characters hanging out on the dark main street that whispered “opium, hash, yaba (crystal meth)?” we decided to pack it in and head back to the guesthouse.

So close, yet so far away...So close, yet so far away...
So close, yet so far away...31-Mar-2012 21:29
 

The next morning we decided we weren’t going to make the same mistake as the first day and took our time getting down to the boat. Instead of the same large, spacious boat we had taken to Pakbeng the day before, we were greeted by a much smaller boat at the dock. Luckily, there was still plenty of space, and after stowing our bags we found our way to a couple seats and settled in for the ride.

Heather on board for day 2.Heather on board for day 2.
Heather on board for day 2.01-Apr-2012 09:10
 

A light rain had fallen the previous night, which helped clear some of the thick slash and burn haze. For the first time in days, the sun was actually shining like normal instead like a strange orange blog faintly glowing through the smoky sky.

Better views under less hazy skies.Better views under less hazy skies.
Better views under less hazy skies.01-Apr-2012 14:25
 

We passed more quaint riverside villages, soaking in the tranquil scenes.

Girls collecting grasshoppers (food in these parts!) in bamboo poles.Girls collecting grasshoppers (food in these parts!) in bamboo poles.
Girls collecting grasshoppers (food in these parts!) in bamboo poles.01-Apr-2012 13:54
 

In parts, the river was narrow and moving fairly fast. We were glad we were in a smaller boat.

The Mekong - rocky, narrow, and a little swift in parts.The Mekong - rocky, narrow, and a little swift in parts.
The Mekong - rocky, narrow, and a little swift in parts.01-Apr-2012 10:31
 

At one point, we crossed paths with the “fast boat” – a speedboat which makes the same journey that we were spending two full days on in a grand total of seven hours. Sadly, these speedboats have a terrible safety record and – while fast – choosing this option is dangerous and uncomfortable. We were glad we had chosen the slow boat instead of being packed into the tiny speedboat passing by us.

The suicidal fast boat.The suicidal fast boat.
The suicidal fast boat.01-Apr-2012 10:18
 

As twilight approached we slowly started noticing more signs of civilization. Luang Prabang, the “big city” in Northern Laos (population: 50,000), and our final destination was crawling into view.

Passing the Pak Ou Caves, 25km from Luang Prabang.Passing the Pak Ou Caves, 25km from Luang Prabang.
Passing the Pak Ou Caves, 25km from Luang Prabang.01-Apr-2012 17:51
 

After two full days on the boat, we were glad the journey was drawing to a close, but still enjoyed our time on the slow boat. While opinion seems to be split on this travel option in Laos, we felt it was a fun and interesting way to explore the Mekong.

30 thoughts on “The Slow Boat Down the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos – Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos

  1. giselleandcody

    Thanks so much for this write up on the slow boat experience. We are in Chiang Mai right now and are deciding on how to get to Laos. We have done the mini-van to Vientiane many times and your post helps calm our nerves about about the slow boat. Thanks!!

    Reply
    1. Erik Post author

      Give it a shot! It’s really not that bad…I think it might have improved over the past few years. We really enjoyed the slow boat =)

      Reply
  2. Martin

    Great info thanks
    I have spare time end of April start of May 2014. Has anyone done this trip at this time of the year?
    Is it too hot and smokey?
    Keep posting info
    Thanks again
    Martin

    Reply
    1. Madhu Bhattacharya

      We did the same boat trip in 1st week of May last year and it wasn’t that hot. Just remember to buy water bottles even though you can buy in the boat but they are over priced.

      Reply
  3. theacidburn

    Hi Erik!!
    Thanks for write this experience.
    I assume you went to Huay Xai on your own, not in a organize travel through a travel agency. Am I right?
    In this case, could you give some information about the prices?
    How much did you pay for the Bus Chiang Mai – Chiang Khong?
    And for the hotel in Huay Xai?
    And finally, how much did you pay por the slow boat trip?
    Thank you so much.
    I am living in Chiang Mai for a while and I need to go to Laos to get another Visa this week. I am planning to do this trip and I would like to do by my own, not through a travel agency in Chiang Mai. But the travel agency ask for us just 1.500 thb and I dont know if is cheaper if you do on your own.

    Reply
  4. Louise Morresey

    Hi Erik,
    Thoroughly enjoyed your write up, what is your opinion on the reverse trip, we are thinking of doing this in May/June 2014.
    Regards,
    Louise

    Reply
    1. Erik Post author

      Thanks, Louise! Really shouldn’t matter which direction you head – I would still recommend this from Laos to Thailand. I’ve heard the reverse journey can be a little slower, since you are fighting the river’s current, but I believe it is still two days. Have a great time!

      Reply
  5. K

    Hi Erik,

    I’m planning a journey from Luang Prabang to Huy Xai. Is it similar to what you mention here? Which dock/pier would I go to?

    Do you know if it departs 5 days a week? I saw the Luang Say cruises, but they are quite pricey.

    Also, would you have to bring your own food with you abroad?

    Best,
    K

    Reply
  6. Larissa

    We just did this journey a couple of days ago, there is now a brand new bridge across the river from Chiang Khong to Laos so you get driven across by bus. We did a package tour from Chiang Mai, minivan, hotel at Chiang Khong and delivered to bus, a bit complicated but just follow instructions, they have it all well organised. There are cushions for sale at various places, admittedly nobody told us to buy them but the photos showed wooden seats and people were buying cushions, but you don’t need to, the boats have old car seats ! It got cold on the boat especially in the morning but we travelled in winter ( Jan ). There were a lot swirling rapids on the river, very impressive. Yes its a long journey, a bit repetitive at times, but its cool to watch the landscape go past and changing, and there is a bar on board selling plenty of beer. If you have a friendly crowd it could be fun, there were people playing guitars and making new friends. Yes it is a worthwhile experience !

    Reply
  7. Larissa

    In reply to the question about bringing your own food, if you do this trip through a company like we did, they organise a packed lunch for you. I think the guesthouse we stayed at was Namkhong, it was very good and efficiently run, they organised visas too ( overnight ). Also when you stop over at Pak Beng, heaps of places there sell food, baguettes or fried rice and the hostel you stay in will most likely sell you a packed lunch for the day. On board there is only drinks and packet chips.

    Reply
  8. Mike

    Just got back from doing the slow boat from Huay Xai to Louang Prabang. We went through a travel agency. It was 4600 Baht per person but that includes hot meals on the boat both days at lunch. BeerLao was 40 Baht on the boat but hot coffee and tea was included. There were only 5 of us on a boat that could have seated 48 if packed in like sardines on the public boats for 1500 Baht. Our crew included our cook, river captain, and our English speaking tour guide nemed Kah. The departure point was moved several miles from the new Thai-Lao bridge. Also the arrival point leaves you a 30 minute bus ride from Louang Prabang. Louang Prabang is like Chiangmai was 40 years ago. Get up before 6 am to watch the Buddhist monks taking food and money as they pass through the same route in the old town every morning. It’s over a little after 7am so don’t be late.

    Reply
    1. Erik Post author

      Thanks, Mike – sounds like you had a great journey. Luang Prabang definitely is a charming town, and a much different pace than neighboring Thailand.

      Reply
  9. Susan

    Great trip report, Eric. Does anyone know how hot/cold does it get on this boat trip at the end of November, beginning of December? If we have 2 mid-size pieces of luggage, is there enough room for them? Someone suggested that this boat trip is mostly for backpackers. Thanks.

    Reply
  10. gdfxx

    This question is for Larissa – if you are still reading this blog. You mentioned that ” We did a package tour from Chiang Mai, minivan, hotel at Chiang Khong and delivered to bus, a bit complicated but just follow instructions, they have it all well organized”. Could you tell me who arranged the package as we plan to do the same thing in November. It seems that you were pleased with the arrangements. Thanks.

    Reply
  11. Marco

    Hey, fellow blogger. I just came across your blog. Really inspirational! Interesting to see how similar the river looks in the north of Laos. I looked into options for a boat tour between Luang Praban and Vientiane, which is the less inhabited area. Since there are no more tours for some reason, I bought one of the wooden long tail boats together with a friend and we paddled it down to the Xayaburi dam, which was still under construction. After the dam we made it all the way to Vientiane, eventually. The Mekong truly is an amazing experience! http://www.lostinadventures.com/2015/02/mekong-boat-trip-from-luang-prabang-to-vientiane-days-1-to-3.html

    Reply
  12. Kris

    We are thinking of doing this trip in January. Posts sound good but we don’t have time to stay in Laos. What is the best way to return to Thailand? Does an organized trip include a return?

    Reply

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