A trip down the Mekong River, in Laos, from Houay Xai to Luang Prabang
I was very relaxed as the long, narrow boat cruised down the Mekong River, for two days, from Houay Xai to Luang Prabang. It was quiet except for the constant, rhythmic whine of the boat’s engines. Had it not been for the stunning scenery and interacting with the other tourists on the boat, I could easily have been rocked to sleep as the boat glided down the placid river. We rocked from side to side, occasionally, as the boat’s driver navigated around rocks protruding up from the water.
I didn’t see a lot of other boats except for an occasional speedboat that whizzed by or a much larger and longer commercial boat carrying cargo – usually huge rice sacks. I felt like we were alone on the river. I got a kick out of the speedboats. The driver would be wearing a helmet but not the passengers. Hmm, I wonder what the driver knew that his passengers didn’t? Much of what I read said to beware of the speedboats. 'Don’t take them' was the advice because they could be dangerous. They’re small. Everyone appears to have a seat; however, they’re totally exposed to the elements. I couldn’t tell if they had seatbelts. After taking the trip, I can understand the concern. The river seems very low and there are a number of rocks rising up from the water – some of which are small and some large. However, it only takes hitting one, especially at the speed they’re moving, for passengers to be hurt. I was really surprised at how many speedboats there were. Khamlar, our guide, indicated they make the trip between Houay Xai and Luang Prabang in just six hours compared to two full days for the slow boats. I don’t think I would take anything other than the slow boat. It was relaxing, comfortable (cushioned seats plus you can get up and walk around unlike the speedboats) and just a lot of fun.
As we got deeper into Laos, I noticed that the brush and tree lined hillsides climb steeply away from each side of the river. The hills are completely covered with vegetation in a jungle-like environment. We pass small villages where bamboo huts made of woven thatched palm climb the steep hillside or line the top of a ridge partway up the hill. Children play down by the river. Men tend to their boats that are anchored by the edge of the water. Women wash their clothes and their children.
We pass herds of water buffalo grazing by the river’s edge. The Mekong is the water source for many. Occasionally, a pack of goats climb the steep hill from the sandy banks. Throughout the trip, the rock formations were intriguing to say the least. There were layers of rocks many of which were resting at quite an angle. They reminded me of the Vazquez Rocks area in Southern California, which I rode past heading out to Death Valley many times when I was younger. Some of the rocks looked like someone had scooped up wet sand on the beach and then let it drip from their hands. We passed sandy beaches with beautiful fine sand. Some of the sandbars dropped off into a steep, almost vertical embankment down to the river.
I’ve wanted to take the two-day trip down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang for a couple of years now. It sounded interesting and something that was just totally different. The number of travelers crossing the border with me into Laos was proof that it was very popular. I never realized how easy it is to do.
Laos has been gaining on the travel radar for a number of years now. I had never been there. I figured I would travel through Thailand and then cross into Laos at the northern Thai city of Chiang Khong and then take the two-day slow boat (as it’s called) to Luang Prabang. The UNESCO World Heritage City is one of the hottest in SE Asia to visit.
I had researched the trip a few years ago so I already had some knowledge about it. Just like everything in the travel world, things are changing and with travelers now going to virtually all corners of the globe, lodging opportunities are increasing and transportation to these remote areas is becoming easier all the time. During my recent research, I found the number of options had increased. Among the slow boat options there was a cheap option, a couple of mid-range ones and then a really expensive one which was about 500 USD. I decided to go with Nagi of Mekong (one of the mid-range ones) for a total cost of 5,200 Thai baht (about 160 USD) including the single supplement cost of 600 baht. I was very satisfied with the Nagi tour. They made things fun, enjoyable and easy to do. After picking me up at my hotel in Chiang Khong, they guided me through the immigration processes for both countries and at the end delivered me to my hotel in Luang Prabang. The tour included a delicious Lao lunch each day and a stay at a nice guesthouse the middle night of the trip.
After clearing Laos immigration, I stopped at an ATM to get some Lao Kip. A million Kip is the limit you can pull from the ATM (about 125 USD). Next, we boarded a couple of vans and headed for the boat. During this time, I met the other passengers that I would spend the next two days with. If first impressions were any indication, I knew I would have a great time.
All of the boats appeared to be fairly similar. Our boat was long and somewhat narrow. There were a number of open-air sections from bow to stern – the helm for steering the boat, an area for all of the passenger bags, an area for standing with cushioned seats on each side, next were tables on each side with more cushioned seats, an open area with a few tables for coffee/tea and later where lunch was served, a small bar area, a decent bathroom with western-style toilet and lastly the crews’ section – the kitchen and probably their sleeping quarters.
For the first hour after leaving Houay Xai, Thailand was on our right and Laos was on the left as the river follows the border between the two countries. Soon we leave Thailand and come to a Laos customs stop for boats. The father gets out and handles everything. It doesn’t even impact us as we wait about 15 minutes in the boat.
Soon, we’re back on the river heading downstream. The men take turns at the helm steering the boat and tend to any of the other boat duties. The wife/daughter prepares a delicious Lao lunch with pork yellow curry with potatoes, steamed rice, deep-fried chicken strips and a couple of salads. Each day she fixed a delicious, but not spicy, lunch that everyone seemed to enjoy.
There were nineteen onboard including the three family members who own and operate the boat (a husband and wife and her father), the Nagi of Mekong tour guide, Khamlar (a 31 year old Lao man, originally from Vientiane, who speaks decent English and is very nice) and then 15 passengers from the USA, Canada, England, Wales, France and Holland. The first day, we only had fourteen passengers. Before getting on the boat the second morning, a gentleman from Wales asked Khamlar if he could join us. He was on one of the cheap boats the first day. He indicated there were about a hundred passengers on board (same size boat as we were on). It was noisy. They didn’t stop anywhere nor did they provide lunch. It was not an enjoyable experience he indicated.
The interaction among the passengers, on our boat, was fantastic. Everyone just seemed to really click and get along well with each other. The ages ranged from the 20s to the 60s. Throughout the two days, I spent time taking photos, taking in the gorgeous scenery, chatting and getting to know the other travelers – the whole time I was as relaxed as I could be – just having a great time.
By mid-afternoon, we were slowing and then pulling into a sandy area. A small gangplank was laid down for us to exit the boat on. After walking up the short but steep embankment, we approach a small village of huts supported by bamboo with woven, thatched palm sides and roofs, where children played, baby pigs sniffed the ground for their next meal, a woman breast fed her baby, young girls carried packets of firewood on their backs from the local hills, a woman continued to shoe a rooster off her tarp of drying rice and young men navigated a tractor down a dirt road. As Khamlar explained the village life to us, the local children gathered around one of the young men in our group because he had a bag of candy. As he handed each a piece of candy, they looked at each other and slightly giggled; however, they kept their eyes focused on him. You could tell they wanted more. They were very polite – not begging as one might expect of a child. By the time we left, it was almost like the Pied Piper as the kids followed him down to the sand alongside the boat.
Shortly after 5 pm on the first day, we came to the small Laotian town of Pakbeng. It’s nothing more than a stop along the river, for tourists doing the Houay Xai – Luang Prabang trip, with a number of guesthouses and restaurants. The tourists arrive in the late afternoon and then depart early the next morning. After getting off our boat, I walked up a fairly steep incline for about 5 minutes to get to the area where the guesthouses and restaurants are located – all on the one street that goes through town. As I sat and enjoyed a cold beer at the DP Guesthouse where I was staying, I watched the travelers lumbering up the street either heading to their guesthouse for the one night or else looking for one. Our tour guide, Khamlar, told us the next morning, there were 20 to 30 people that could not find a room so they ended up sleeping on their boats.
Our group stayed in two different guesthouses in Pakbeng. Those of us (mostly the older ones) staying at the DP Guesthouse, which had just been renovated several months ago and was in very good condition for being in such a small town, had a few beers at the guesthouse and then dinner across the narrow, main street at an open air Indian restaurant. After a couple of hours of stimulating conversation, a few more beers and a delicious meal, we decided to turn in because the next day was an early 7 am start.
After a quick breakfast on day two, I carried my backpack back down the road to the small beach area where all the boats were moored. A small campfire was being used by one group of boat owners to cook their breakfast. As we passed by, they offered us some Lao whiskey, homemade of course. I think most of us passed on it. It was a little too early to get started. We hopped on board our boat and were off downstream.
It was another nice, relaxing day – people were playing cards, reading books on their tablets, chatting with others or just taking in the stunning scenery. We passed waterfalls and after another delicious Lao lunch, we stopped at the Pak Ou Caves – two caves embedded into the side of a huge limestone kharst. There were steep steps getting to the smaller of the two caves. The larger one had a number of Buddha images inside. After touring through the caves, we climbed aboard our boat. Within an hour, we were banking on the river’s edge in Luang Prabang for another climb up a steep embankment (this one had stairs) to the waiting vans that would deliver each of us to our guesthouse for the evening.
I must say that I had one of the most enjoyable times in all of my traveling. I would just like to say “thanks” to all of those onboard for a totally awesome time. What really made the two-day trip so special was how well all the passengers got along, the tour guide, Khamlar, and the incredibly delicious Lao lunches we had each day. It was spectacular.
If you’re thinking of taking the two-day trip between Houay Xai and Luang Prabang on the Mekong River, consider Nagi of Mekong. You can reach Mr. Adisak Star at his e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org or their website nagiofmekong.com. Each time I e-mailed Adisak prior to our boat trip, I received a reply promptly, in excellent English with all of my questions answered. And you don’t pay until you’re on board the boat.
I liked the following things about Nagi of Mekong
They picked me up at my hotel in Chiang Khong, Thailand and drove me to the Thai immigration building
They took my bags directly from my hotel to the boat so I didn’t have to carry them through Thai and Laos customs
They guided me through the immigration process on both the Thai side and Laos side answering all of my questions
They drove us to the boat which was docked in Houay Xai on the Laos side
They provided a delicious Lao lunch on board the boat each day
The price included the guesthouse in Pakbeng. I stayed at DP Guesthouse which I thought was very good for such a small Lao town
Delivery to my guesthouse in Luang Prabang at the end of the boat trip
A very knowledgeable and friendly guide (Khamlar) who speaks pretty good English