During our two-day Mekong slow boat cruise from Thailand to Laos, I found myself hypnotized by the waveless muddy waters and mountain jungles, and discovered that a slow boat rocks you to sleep just as good as any hammock. Here’s an entry on a journey into the green heart of Laos.
Laos is the kind of place where the journey matters as much as the destination. In a country where so many places are still only accessible by foot or by boat, it seemed like we would miss out on so much if we flew straight in. So, we decided to take the Mekong River, the only major highway to speak of in Laos.
The Mekong River is the lifeblood of the nation, enabling trade, transportation, and cultural exchange with neighboring China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In the Lao language, Me Khoong means “Mother River,” underscoring the centrality of this waterway in Laotian life. The Mekong River weaves through impenetrable jungle mountainsides in the north and flows placidly past the plains and plateaus of the south before rushing over incredible stony waterfalls near the 4000 Islands on the border to Cambodia.
The most popular Mekong River slow boat route is from the Thai-Lao border crossing at Chiang Khong, Thailand and Huay Xai, Laos, to Luang Prabang in north-central Laos, and vice versa.
Slow Boat to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai
There are several slow boat operators that ferry passengers between the Thai-Lao border crossing at Huay Xai and the city of Luang Prabang. The trip takes two days, with a stop in Pakbeng overnight. There are two options: local slow boats and tourist-oriented premium Mekong slow boat cruises.
Local Mekong Slow Boats
From what we heard, the local slow boats live up to their name: they are really, really slow because they make numerous stops along the river to pick up more passengers. Amenities are said to be scarce on board, and the seats uncomfortable – if you’re lucky enough to get one, since the boats are usually packed to the brim with passengers and goods. The local slow boats can’t be booked in advance, and can fill up during holidays and the high season. In short, the local option is certainly the more authentic one, since this is the way that Lao travel, and it comes at a fraction of the price of the tourist boats.
Premium Mekong Slow Boat Cruises
But we wanted to experience the tranquility of the Mekong and were willing to pay more to have more space and amenities on board during our two-day journey from the Thai-Lao border at Chiang Khong/Huay Xai to the Laos’s Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage city of temples. This turned out to be the right decision, and our Mekong slow boat cruise was the highlight of our trip to Southeast Asia.
We traveled with Shompoo Cruises, and I was very satisfied with the entire experience, from beginning to end. Luxury travelers can go with Luang Say, but I thought our Shompoo slow boat was pretty luxurious itself:
The price with Shompoo during the high season (2016-2017) was $165 per person. This may seem high, but it included a pick up at the Thai-Lao border crossing of Huay Xai, transportation to the slow boat dock in Huay Xai, all drinks and food on board (and the food was really good!), enough room to sprawl out, all excursions during the trip, government taxes, a kind English-speaking guide, a beautiful lodge in Pakbeng with a balcony overlooking the Mekong, dinner in Pakbeng, and an impeccably clean bathroom on board.
Even though I hemmed and hawed about the price before making the booking, it turned out to be a good value, especially considering that on the second day, we visited the Pak Ou caves as part of our Mekong slow boat trip with Shompoo Cruises. Had we not done this as part of the cruise, we would have had to do it as a half-day trip from Luang Prabang, which costs about $30 per person.
Slow Boat Trip to Luang Prabang: What to Expect
After making it over from the Thai-Lao border crossing, our guide from Shompoo picked us up and took us to the slow boat dock in Huay Xai. We got to the boat and staked out our spaces on a long bench near the middle of the boat. We were tempted to sit at the back of the boat for the views, but we decided against it since this is where the noisy diesel motor was located.
After getting underway, our guide gave us an introduction to Laos, and the history of the Mekong. We talked with him later, and he had a fascinating story. He had been born in northern Laos and always wanted to learn how to read, so he joined a monastery in Luang Prabang, where he learned English by interacting with tourists.
During the cruise, we watched the river laze by. The slow boat lilted gently back and forth like a hammock. We read, we napped, and we napped some more.
On the first day, the slow boat traveled from the border at Huay Xai to Pakbeng, which is about halfway to Luang Prabang. We were treated to a delicious lunch of Mekong fish patties steamed in banana leaves, chicken, and rice with a fiery tomato sauce. Along the way, we stopped at a Hmong village.
Around 5pm on the first day, we arrived in Pakbeng and headed up to our hotel, the Mekong Riverside Lodge. We were thrilled with the view, and spent the evening and the early morning parked on the balcony watching the Mekong flow by.
Pakbeng itself doesn’t have much to do or see. It is a transit point for the slow boats plying the river and has a kind of border town vibe to do. It’s a transient place but fine for a one-night Mekong “layover.” We got a massage that night and had a pretty forgettable dinner at our hotel’s restaurant.
It was so quiet, so dark, and I slept more deeply that night than I had in years.
The next morning, we got up for the sunrise over the Mekong. Overnight, the temperatures dropped and mist crept in from the mountains, and we warmed up on the balcony with hot tea. There is an elephant camp across the river in Pakbeng, and we watched from afar as the mahouts led the elephants down to the shore for a morning bath.
On the second day, we cruised all morning and had lunch on board. We took the time to chat with our guide, catch up on our reading, and sink deeper into relaxation.
In the afternoon, we made stops for two excursions before reaching Luang Prabang.
The first stop was Pak Ou caves, which are carved into a sheer mountainside. There are two caves, each of which is filled with Buddha sculptures. The lower cave is more like a mountain grotto, with just enough light to see the Buddhas smiling mysteriously back at you, but in the upper cave, we used our phone as a flashlight to make our way inside.
The climb to the upper cave is worth it. I couldn’t decide if the vibe was eery, or peaceful, but going into a cave and shining a light onto hundreds of Buddha statues smiling back at you through the dust and cobwebs clinging to their frozen expressions was something I’d never experienced before.
As we learned, the Pak Ou caves themselves aren’t used for worship, but instead as a repository for damaged or old Buddha figures from other temples throughout the region that are no longer in use. In that sense, the Pak Ou caves are a kind of rest home for these Buddhist relics. Locals paddle in once a year from the surrounding areas and Luang Prabang to bathe the figures as part of a religious festival.
The next stop was Lao Lao village, a kind of touristy riverside town known for its whiskey making. Some of the bottles of whiskey had snakes or scorpions in them – the uncannily preserved reptiles and insects are said to have medicinal properties, for everything from curing impotence to restoring hair loss. The women were selling beautiful scarves at fair prices (the textiles in and around Luang Prabang are the best, and cheapest, I’ve seen anywhere in Asia).
We arrived in magical Luang Prabang around 5pm on the evening of the second day. We were sad to say goodbye to our Mekong slow boat, but excited to see what more Laos had in store.
The Future of the Mekong in Laos
As we learned while we were in Laos, Laotian waterways, including the Mekong, have become a tense topic and a source of geopolitical instability throughout southeast Asia. The Chinese are currently working on constructing a vast network of dozens of large-scale hydroelectric dams on Laotian rivers. We were told that the Chinese government has a 30-year lease on the dams, after which they will be handed over to the government of Laos.
While hydroelectric dams are certainly a more sustainable source of energy than coal, the infrastructure does leave a deep ecological footprint on ecosystems and wildlife populations, thus altering the traditional hunting and gathering practices of indigenous tribes. The Mekong basin is rich in biodiversity, second only to the Amazon, and even slight changes in the flow, temperature, or sediment profile of the river can have disastrous impacts on fish and animal populations.
The impact is already visible, even to tourists like us passing through. During our Mekong slow boat cruise to Luang Prabang, the river was quiet, but unnaturally so. Nature is rarely still: even when it is still, there are birds chirping, the wind blowing in the trees, the hum of insects. It took us a while to place it: there were no birds.
Our guide told us that the birds, even local song birds, have been hunted to near extinction by local villagers. Decreased access to fish in the Mekong, in part due to the dams but also runoff and pollution from China upstream, have depleted the fish stocks the locals depend on for their protein.
Beyond these environmental concerns, the dams are also a source of geopolitical contention throughout the region. China controls the Tibetan glacial plateau, where the freshwater that eventually flows down the Mekong and out to the South China Sea originates. China also controls key upstream dams in China proper, and has a heavy hand in the construction of those in Laos.
With climate changes’ rising temperatures, less predictable monsoons, and longer periods of drought, water politics in the region will likely become a more divisive issue in the future, especially given that China controls the floodgates of the Mekong: some 90 million people downstream in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam depend on this watershed for their livelihood.
This was an anxiety we heard from many people we met during our time in Laos. On our drive from Luang Prabang through the jagged mountains to the capital of Vientiane, we saw no fewer than five Chinese dam projects in progress. Next to the dams, little cities of trailers and temporary housing for workers had been set up – and we knew they were Chinese, because all the signage was in Chinese characters, not Lao. Presumably the projects are staffed with mostly Chinese guest workers rather than the local Lao workforce.
Anxiety about China’s global rise and strong hand in local infrastructural projects is not new, of course. Empires have fought for control of the Mekong since antiquity, most recently with the French colonial occupiers and the Americans during the Vietnam War, and Laos suffered greatly during the American bombing of Vietnam and Laos during the Secret War. I wonder what the Mekong will look like in a few decades: will slow boats here in Laos will still move up and down the river at a tick above its natural flow, or if they will be replaced with speedboats and highways carved by foreign powers through jungle mountain passes?