A Mekong River “Slow Boat” Trip to Luang Prabang

by Nancy Zaffaro

There are some wonderful, luxurious cruises you can take on the Mekong River, or you can take one, as I did, that was wonderful, yes—but hardly luxurious. On this trip we traveled by “slow boat” in Laos from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, spending one night in Pak Beng.

Popular with budget travelers and backpackers, we had a great time and I wouldn’t have missed it.

The Mekong River stretches some 2,700 miles, beginning in the Lasagongma Spring in Mount Guozongmucha in the Tibetan Plateau and emptying in the Mekong Delta, into South China Sea in Vietnam. It’s the world’s 12th longest river and flows through China, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. Throughout, it’s a means of food, shelter, livelihood and culture for many of the some 60 million people who live near its shores.

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A merry group of eight women, including myself, with every decade represented from our 20’s through our 70’s, traveled together.

It’s true none of us really knew what we were in for, other than that it was popular with backpackers and was not expensive. (Okay, it was “dirt cheap.”)  We knew the boats all left around 8:00 in the morning. We got there about an hour early and people were already milling around and loading onto boats. Apparently, you just kind of got on any boat you wanted or were pointed to, one of many boats in the long procession.

The boat dock at Huay Xai.

The boat dock at Huay Xai.

To get here, we had driven the day before from Mai Sai, Thailand, crossing into Laos at Chiang Khong, and from there, to Huay Xai, a scenic trip of about two hours.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring Huay Xai, a town that thrives  mostly on the tourist boat traffic. Our hotel, the Houaysay Hotel and Restaurant, was comfortable enough and had a great restaurant with a large riverfront deck. Before dinner, I climbed the stairway up to Vat Chome Khaou Maniratn, a temple and monastery with a beautiful view of the town below.

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I have to include this sign, but to be fair, women were not barred from the temple or the monastery grounds—I’m pretty sure the building on which this was posted was a residence for the monks or novices.

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At the boat the next morning, we held our little tickets in hand and what we thought were seat numbers…meant nothing.  The Captain (and porter) helped load our baggage and we found seats.

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Which seemed to be seats from car vans. Most, but not all of the seats were nailed to the floor.

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In the end, there were about 60 of us on the boat. It was clear there would be no cocktails on the deck at 4:00 p.m. But there was beer. Luckily. Lots of beer. Luckily.

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Nor was there food available on the boat. Luckily, we got that memo and came prepared with water, sandwiches and lots of snacks. A few people weren’t so lucky, but everyone shared.

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The party atmosphere was a hoot. We spoke with Americans, South Americans, Europeans, and of course, those ubiquitous world travelers and party animals, Australians. (We’re showing the sole of this gent’s shoe because it had a built-in bottle opener. Everyone should have one.)

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And the scenery really was beautiful.

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DSCN5599 (640x480)We passed villages, grazing water buffalo, and every variety of house boat and fishing boat we could imagine.

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Late afternoon, we pulled into Pak Beng, where the boats pretty much all pull in for the night. Dealing with multiple boats arriving at once, finding our baggage, refusing help from the many men and boys wanting to act as porters, and climbing the steep concrete stairs up to the edge of town was all a bit chaotic.

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By the time we gathered, there were only a few drivers still around, and dusk was settling in. We hired a pickup and we all piled in. It wasn’t a long ride, but it was uphill, so that worked out just fine.

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Unfortunately at the hotel though, the power had gone out. In fact, the power was out in the whole town, and apparently this happened most days around this time, because everyone was checking into the hotels at the same time, flipping on light switches, fans and air conditioners. So the power goes out. The hotel folks are running around, giving us candles, and so we checked into our rooms and gathered outside for dinner.

We make our way down the hill again with our little flashlights, and wasn’t hard to find the center of everything—a restaurant, one restaurant, that was powered by generator and open for business.

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Yes, it was time for a drink.

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And another Beerlao too, please.

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The food took a long time to get to us, but given that these people were feeding the entire town, that was fine. And when it did arrive, it was all really good, and I’m not just saying that because we were hungry. The food throughout Southeast Asia is truly wonderful.

Back in our rooms, the power was on, the rooms were cooler, and we settled in because we had to get up early to do it again in the morning.

We knew the routine; after a quick breakfast, we bought provisions from the shops on the main drag, and headed to down to the docks.


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There was no effort to get on the same boat; once again, we just boarded, careful that our luggage remained on the same boat. We shared our boat with a lot of the same people, with new folks thrown into the mix as well. Once again, the atmosphere was just very fun.

The ride this second day was different. We stopped three or four times, pulling onto the beaches of several villages. We stopped for villagers.

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And we stopped for monks, the villagers moving immediately to graciously give the monks the best seats up front.

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We also stopped to load and unload supplies. Those van seats? Those came on and off, on and off, seemingly not belonging to any particular boat, but interchangeable depending on the cargo needs.

Sometimes it was just the children who came down to meet the boats, and sometimes it seemed it was the whole village.

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We arrived in Luang Prabang early afternoon, got settled into our hotel,  the lovely Luang Prabang Legend Hotel, and the trip—and adventures—continued.

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DSCN5390 (640x442)FOR MORE:

  • There are a few ways to make this trip. You can take a private boat cruise (I didn’t travel with this company, but take a look; luangsay.com). You can take one of the speed boats. Personally, these looked  really small and really noisy; they’re said to be absolutely body jarring, but they make the trip in about 6 or 7 hours. You can take one of the “slow boats,” which we took. The trip lasts about 12 to 14 hours. We had a great time. Apparently, these vary and outfitters are available that provide more amenities than we had. Again, I don’t have experience with these, but it’s another option to look into; www.nagiofmekong.com. We took the budget version of this trip, at a cost of about $30.00. Here’s more information, https://www.mekongsmilecruise.com/information/huay-xai-travel-guide/huay-xai-to-luang-prabang/

-All photos by Nancy Zaffaro.

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Byron Johnson July 3, 2020 - 10:53 am

Yes, it is a wonderful cruise. So enjoyable I have made it twice and I am always afraid my second trip somewhere will be a disappointment, which it was not. By all means I recommend opting up a class from the author’s experience to a boat that has booths and food is served. It ran me around $100 for passage. Food was excellent and the beer was cold, but having a booth and table gave me somewhere to write comfortably, stretch out, or even better, attempt to be one of the first to board as there are 2 lounge style bed/bench seats, one on the starboard and one on the port up front and just behind the Pilot’s cabin, where it is much easier to be a photographer and an observer (but more difficult to be a writer). On my second trip, I chose to stay at one of the nicer hotels a short ride upriver from the landing. There were white tablecloths, a pool, excellent service, food and accommodations. On my first trip I stayed in town but it was a bit of disappointment. There were motorcycles whizzing past the room’s front door at all hours of the night and there is no such thing as a sidewalk. Open the door, take a step or two and you were in their path. If traveling on a budget, it is not a bad idea to pack your own pillowcase, if you catch my drift.

As a side note, do take your time and explore Luang Prabang and the area for a week or two. The peninsula is easily explored on foot and bicycles, tuktuks and motorcycles are inexpensive. Luang Prabang is magical.

Nancy Zaffaro July 3, 2020 - 3:18 pm

Yay you, Byron. The step up would have been the way to go, and worth the small amount of extra money. The back-packer version I took was $30 for the two days; but that’s what we heard about and no regrets. You are oh so right too about Luang Prabang being a magical city!


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