Cruising the Mighty Mekong








All aboard…

This will be my last post on my trip to Laos. It’s also fitting that this post is about the Mekong River. This mighty river is the lifeline of Laos, contributing to it’s agriculture, hydropower, travel and trade. Starting in the Tibetan plateau and running through 6 countries, the Mekong River empties into the South China Sea covering a distance of 4,350 km.

In the Laotian language, Mekong translates to Mother of Waters. This name is apt, as the country depends heavily on the Mekong for most of it’s resources. The Mekong starts high up in the Tibetan plateau as the Lancang River. It flows through Yunnan province until it comes to the intersection of the China, Myanmar and Laos borders. It then flows southwest forming the border between Myanmar and Laos until it comes to the intersection of the Myanmar, Thailand and Laos borders, also notoriously known as the Golden Triangle. It then flows southeast forming the border between Thailand and Laos, and past Huay Xai, where this story begins…

For thousands of years, the Mekong has been the main route for traders travelling from China to the kingdoms of Indochina. Taking the slow boat cruise from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang relives how people have been sailing the treacherous waters of this river from ancient times until now.

My journey starts with a morning pickup from my Huay Xai hotel to the slow boat pier. It’s only a short ride of 5 minutes before reaching the pier. Porters helped to carry my luggage on board the boat.
I chose to take the private slow boat cruise instead of the public boat. If you can afford it, take the private cruise. The public boat is the smaller one on the left. It’s a no frills, cram as many passengers type of ferry service.

Onboard

Very soon, the other passengers boarded the boat and we set off for the more than 300 km journey down river towards Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos. Although the boat can take up to 40 passengers, we set off with only 17 of us onboard. So there was plenty of space for us to choose our favorite spots.

I got to board the boat early as I was the only passenger joining from Huay Xai. The rest of the passengers were joining from Chiangrai, and they had to cross the border into Laos first. As you can see, the private boat has better, more comfortable seats and is more spacious.
This map on the back of the boat shows the route that we will take from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. It will take us 2 days and a night to get there.
The captain in charge of our slow boat. He owns and operates the boat, while the cruise company contracts his services. I can’t help but stare at his steering wheel. It’s actually salvaged from some old Honda truck.
The boat comes with a bar with free flow of coffee, tea and water. Alcohol and soft drinks can be purchased for a fee.
There are chairs out in the front of the boat where you can sit and enjoy the cool breeze and sunshine.
Part of the roof can also be drawn back for a more open experience.
Lunch is provided for both days of the cruise and it’s a really sumptuous one. We all went back for second and third helpings.

The slow boat cruise is really a relaxing way to journey after all the excitement from ziplining during the Gibbon Experience, and the uncomfortable bus ride from Luang Prabang. The Mekong River in the mountains of Laos is characterized by fast flowing waters and many scattered rocks and rapids. Our cruise guide was telling us that a boat captain here needs 6 years of piloting to have enough experience to navigate the river. Between the dry and raining seasons, the water level in the river rises and falls by more than 10m. So the river conditions change throughout the year, and a boat captain has to know where the rocks are to avoid hitting them.

While our boat captain worried about how to safely guide the boat through the river, we went about relaxing, having tea and watching the countryside pass by. I guess this is the kind of vacation everyone dreams about.

River Scenery

A fisherman pulling in his catch.
We passed by Hmong tribe villages like this all the time. Some were small and primitive, while others like this one looked more prosperous.
Buffalos can be seen gathering by the shores of the Mekong to drink and soak in it’s waters. Some looked to be from nearby villages, but a lot of them seemed to be wild.
Curious children playing by the river stopped to watch as we passed by.
These 2 boys looked so contrasting as they watched us. I wondered if they are brothers? One choosing monkhood while the other chose to work on the family farm? Who knows what stories they have to tell.
Near Luang Prabang, we could see the Chinese built railway that will connect Kunming in China’s Yunnan province to Luang Prabang and Vientiane. From Vientiane, the railway connects to Bangkok in Thailand. It’s scheduled to be completed in 2021. I guess Laos will be getting more crowded by then, but it also brings up the possibility of going to China and Laos by rail from Thailand.
A very alpine looking scene as the Mekong winds it’s way through mountains separating Thailand from Laos.
The Mekong River in Laos runs through mountainous terrain. Submerged rocks and rapids are common and I must give the captain credit for being able to steer such a long boat through the rapids.

Pakbeng

The slow boat takes 2 days and a night to travel to Luang Prabang. It doesn’t matter if it’s the public or private slow boats, all of them will stop at Pakbeng for the night. Pakbeng is situated midway between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang, and serves as a convenient rest stop for travellers. Most people will spend only a night here and continue their journey again the next morning.

My first sight of Pakbeng as we rounded a bend in the Mekong. A new hotel on the left on a hill have been built, while the rest of the village is further downstream.

Your stay in Pakbeng is not included in the slow boat ticket, and it’s up to you what type of lodgings you would like to stay at. For the private boat, they can help you book the lodging, but I found that I got better prices booking the hotel online myself. I decided to book one of the better hotels in Pakbeng. I do consider it expensive just to stay for a night, but after reading reviews of the cheaper hostels I think I made the right choice to splurge on what was to be my last couple of nights in Laos.

This is the public pier in Pakbeng. All the slow boats will stop here to drop and pickup passengers. If you book the cheap hostels, you will have to drag your own luggage up the road to your hostel. The private boats do offer you the option to leave your big baggage on their boat, and bring only a small bag for the night. Some of the upscale hotels will send a tuk tuk to pickup their guests. Luckily for me and some of the other passengers that were staying at the same hotel, we got dropped off at the hotel’s private pier first.
We reached Pakbeng by 5.00pm on the first day. It’s a small village and I found some time to walk to the main street for a look see. There’s really not much to see here. Rows of guesthouses line this street up from the pier waiting for the daily influx of slow boat travelers to come in.
A street vendor was busy cooking dinner for the coming horde of hungry travellers that will be disembarking from the slow boats.
After about half an hour of walking around Pakbeng, I decided to go back to my hotel and have my dinner there. There’s really not much to do here unless you are interested in trekking the nearby mountains. Sunset here is beautiful though with the Mekong River coming in from the west.
There is an elephant park directly opposite Pakbeng.

If you can, book a hotel that is on the banks of the river, and facing the opposite bank. There are only 2-3 such hotels and they charge a premium for it. Because, every morning at around 7.00am, the elephants from the Mekong Elephant Park will come down to the river bank for their morning exercise together with their trainers.

Some tourist do stay a day to visit the elephant camp. If you want to do that, you have to negotiate with the slow boat captains on cutting down your fare, since they will be going on the second part of the journey short of passengers.

Having my breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant while watching elephants bathe by the banks of the Mekong River, how exotic can that be?
We had to be at the public pier by 8.00am and the hotel provided a complimentary tuk tuk transport for that. I guess that paying for a more expensive lodging does have it’s advantages. As we pull away from the pier, I must say I won’t miss Pakbeng that much.
The rising Sun hidden behind morning mist gives an ethereal look as we continued our journey to Luang Prabang.

Map of Pakbeng

Land Tours

Besides just lazing around on the boat and stuffing our mouths with food, there are several stops along the way where we were able to gain more insight into the villages along the river and visit some tourist attractions. This is one of the advantages of the private cruises. The public boats don’t stop unless there are locals getting on or off at some village, and even then you can’t get off since the boat isn’t going to hang around waiting for you.

Most of the private cruise companies will have some form of social tourism where they support one of the river villages and tourists like us can donate clothes or stationary supplies to the local school.

Hmong Village

One of the stops on our first day of the cruise was a Hmong tribe village where the cruise company does some social tourism. The boat basically stops on the sand bank and we had to walk up the hill to where the village was. The river bank was sandy just like a beach. The sand is sediment carried down from the Tibetan Plateau and deposited along the way as the river slows down.
We were surrounded by children trying to sell souvenirs. This is quite prevalent in most underdeveloped countries, children being used to pull at the heart strings of tourists.
This boy was leaning on a tree and watching the commotion created by our visit.
You may not like Donald Trump, but everyone loves US dollars.

Your old clothes may not spark much joy in you, but it definitely brought much joy to these villagers. Bags of clothes were brought in by some of the passengers and distributed. I, myself had brought a load of stationary and books for the local school.
Clothes hanging out to dry after washing. I realized that for these villagers, their clothes must have been mostly donated by tourists like us.
We visited one of the homes in the village and could see how simple their lodgings were. Food was stored and cooked in the same room where they slept. The floor was the dirt of the ground and the only modern luxury they had was electricity for lights and maybe a television set.

Lao Lao Village

This village was our last stop just before reaching Luang Prabang, and was really prosperous compared to the first village that we visited. It looked more like a small town with concrete buildings and a nice temple. Their claim to fame is their specialty of brewing the local rice wine, which is called Lao Lao, or Laos whiskey.

Famous for their brewing of Laos whiskey. It’s actually made from fermenting glutinous rice. It’s almost similar to Chinese rice wine (白酒) in taste and look, but has a lower alcohol content.
The most potent of whiskies. I have seen these in Vietnam before, and it’s sold as a medicinal wine. Definitely not for the faint hearted.
Jars of fermenting glutinous rice in the backyard of the shop. The hygiene level definitely looks iffy but I guess alcohol kills all germs.

Pak Ou Cave

Pak Ou Cave is located not far from Luang Prabang and it can actually be visited from Luang Prabang itself in a day tour.

Across from Pak Ou Cave is the mouth of the Nam Ou River which I’m told is where the cave gets it’s name from. More limestone mountains line the shores of the river, making for an impressive sight.
The entrance of Pak Ou is a cave can be seen in the limestone cliffs beside the Mekong River. It can only be reached by boat.
Stairs lead up to the lower cave from the boat dock. There are also markings on the rocks indicating the flood level of the river during some of the most intense years. In case you are wondering, the river has flooded until above the white balcony at the top of the stairs before.
Pak Ou cave is well known because of the thousands of Buddha statues that are inside the cave.
There are over 4,000 statues of Buddha in the cave. It’s said that these were left behind by residents of Luang Prabang for hundreds of years. When a family replaces the old statue on their altar with a new one, it’s considered disrespectful to throw the old statue away. Instead they are placed here.
From the lower cave, stairs lead up to the upper cave. It’s a short climb, but it did leave me breathless by the time I reached the top.
The upper cave has a doorway into the cave. I’m not sure why this cave is so special that it needs to be locked.
The upper cave is at the end of a long passage, and there are no lights inside. Bring along a torchlight or use the torch on your smartphone if you want to explore inside.
There are a couple of small chambers where you will see more Buddha statues.

After the visit to the Pak Ou Cave and Lao Lao village, we proceeded to Luang Prabang and arrived just before 5.00pm. For the public slow boats and some of the private boats, they have to stop at the slow boat jetty which is located around 10 km outside Luang Prabang and take a tuk tuk into town. The private boats will usually arrange a pickup service as part of their package. Lucky for me, the company that I booked with is allowed to dock their boat in Luang Prabang itself, which does save a lot of travel time.

Luang Prabang is the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Laos, and do read my previous post on what to do and see here.

My journey on the Mekong ends here. But the Mekong River continues southwards from Luang Prabang, meeting again with the border of Thailand. It then forms the border between Thailand and Laos, flowing past Vientiane, capital of Laos, until it enters Cambodia. In Cambodia, the Mekong forms part of the unique ecology of Tonle Sap Lake. It then flows past Phnom Penh into Vietnam, south of Ho Chi Minh City, where it’s enormous Mekong Delta empties out into the South China Sea.


Booking Your Slow Boat Cruise

There are several companies running the private slow boat cruises in both directions; upriver from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, or downriver from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. I think most of them offer about the same level of service, so the choice of cruise company really depends on your preferences and budget.

Some of them may not operate everyday during the low season and won’t guarantee departure until they get enough passengers to fill the boat. Based on online reviews, these cruise companies can sail with 6 passengers onboard, even though the boat can take up to 40 passengers. If there are too few passengers, the cruise company may ask you to top up a supplement to guarantee departure.

The price is not exactly economical, but I do find that it’s value for what I get. I paid USD 155 for my cruise from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Most of the cruise companies are charging in the same range and prices do change depending on whether it’s upstream or downstream, high or low season. This price doesn’t include your 1 night stay in Pakbeng, so you do have to factor that cost into your budget. But you can always stay in a cheap hostel in Pakbeng so that you can budget more for the cruise.

I booked my ticket online. Most of them have an office in Luang Prabang where you can book your tickets if you don’t feel safe buying online. Some of them also offer last minute discounts if you go to their office to book a cruise for the next day, if they are trying to fill up their seats.

Listed below are some of the more popular cruise companies recommended by travelers on TripAdvsior:

Luangsay. For the ultimate in luxury Mekong cruises, this is the only choice. Prices range from USD 350 to USD 650 per person depending on season and direction. But for this price, it includes the one night stay at their luxury lodge in Pakbeng and all meals.

Shompoo. One of the mid range priced cruise companies. I decided to choose them based on their responsiveness and availability of travel dates. Prices range from USD 130 to USD 155. This includes 2 lunches, pickup from and to your hotel at both Huay Xai and Luang Prabang.

Mekong Smile. This was my initial choice as their prices are slightly cheaper at around USD125. But they were not able to confirm my cruise date due to lack of passengers.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Cruising the Mighty Mekong

  1. What an exotic adventure you had! Never did I realise the allure of a river route until reading your post. Lovely pictures and hope I can travel like that one day.

  2. That river cruise you took sounds like a really special experience. I love how, from your description, everything seemed to slow down in this part of the Mekong, a feeling that reminds me of my short stay in Luang Prabang. It was calm and peaceful, such a rarity in a fast-paced world we live in today.

    1. Yup. You really feel like you are passing each day so leisurely and without any worries. I guess that’s why some of the people who travel here never leave and decide to stay.

    1. I have done a short river cruise in HCMC before, but the Mekong in Laos is totally different. It’s so turbulent with rapids in some places compared to the slow and serene portion in HCMC.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s