Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang

On my first trip to Southeast Asia, I did not make it to Laos. Just about everyone I met was either on their way to Laos or had returned from Laos and was raving about it. On this trip, after my flight arrived in Bangkok, I made a beeline for northern Thailand and the Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang.

Huay Xai Laos
A lone backpacker steps on to the slow boat at the Huay Xai dock.
Laos slow boat
Plenty of room on the Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang

Booked Laos slow boat tour in Chiang Mai

I booked the tour in Chiang Mai. The tour included transportation to the border, a stop at the White Temple in Chiang Rai, a night stay at a guesthouse in Thailand, transportation over the border to Huay Xai, Laos, and the ticket for the boat. I paid about $65.00 usd with another $35.00 for the Laos visa. The tour did not include lodging the first night in Pakbeng, which is the halfway point to Luang Prabang.

Laos boat
Another boat on the river in front of us

Related: Getting a Laos visa at the border of Thailand

The Laos slow boat a relaxing two days

The Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang was one of the most relaxing experiences ever. Watching the lush green mountainous landscape slowly roll by while listening to the soothing sound of the motor while sucking down a fe Beerlaos made for an unforgettable experience. Laos is notoriously hot and humid, but being in the middle of the river in an open boat while going about 20 mph made for the perfect air-con.

Mekong River
Typical scene of the Mekong River from the Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang

We coasted along the Mekong River with gorgeous jungle covered mountains on either side. The color of the river was dark brown. The brown mud contrasted against the verdant countryside made for an interesting scene.

Laos slow boat
Mekong River shoreline

The Laos slow boat description

The boat had everything one could need for conveniences. It had a bathroom, a bar, and sold snacks as well. I ate a sandwich while waiting for the 11:30 a.m. departure in Huay Xai. This was plenty of food as the boat pulled into Pakbeng around 4:30 p.m. You could buy more food and snacks if needed at the dock area. There was a restaurant that sold fruit and snacks. Travel in Laos is incredibly easy.

Laos countryside
The Laos countryside was mesmerizing
Laos grass huts
Loved these grass huts in the fields in Laos

The Laos slow boat had about 20-25 passengers. It was evenly split between Laos villagers and international travelers. We had travelers from Australia, Spain, England, the U.S., and Germany. There may have been a few other countries represented, but I did not meet everyone.

Mekong River valley
Laos Mekong River valley

The Laos slow boat can be a party

We had two travelers from Manchester, England who were heavy, heavy drinkers. They had already gone through a couple of rounds of Beerlaos before the boat even left the dock. They both seemed to be constantly at the bar waiting for another beer. I enjoyed several beers myself. I thoroughly enjoyed having a few cold beers and watching the Laos countryside slide on by while taking many pictures.

Mekong River fishing
Mekong River fisherman

For different perspectives, I moved around the cabin. This was the slow tourist season, so the boat was only half full. Perhaps there is assigned seating during the busy season, but on this day you could sit wherever you wanted as long as it was not occupied. You could also sit on the front of the boat and the back of boat.

Laos slow boat
Up front on the slow boat to Luang Prabang
Laos boat
The boat inclined upward, so sometimes all you would see is the green on the jungle mountain ahead of you.


Back view Laos boat
Looking out the back door of the slow boat

Arrival in Pakbeng

About 4:30 p.m we pulled into Pakbeng. A small riverside community built almost completely around the slow boat tourism. We exited the boat after stepping over the two British dudes who were passed out right on the floor of the boat by  the entrance. There were a handful of hotels right along the riverside. I booked a room at the BKC Villa and the owner was there at the dock to meet me and drive me to my room. There was no one else staying at the hotel.

The hotel was up on the hill looking over the river. The hallway to room was outside and afforded a gorgeous view of the Mekong. There was an elephant sanctuary across the river, and sometimes they can be seen in the morning when caretakers take them down to the river. The room was small, clean, and comfortable. The room was a little more expensive than others in town, but it had air-conditioning, so it was worth it.

Mekong River Pakbeng
Misty morning along the Mekong River in Pakbeng.

The next morning I opened the door and there was a beautiful mist hanging over the river valley. Elephants sounds could be heard across the river. I went down and enjoyed breakfast and also bought a lunch and snacks to eat along the river for day two of the journey.

Day 2

Day 2 was more of the same except the terrain seemed to get a little more craggy. Instead of tree covered smoothed down river bluffs, the terrain got a little more craggy with some rock face cliffs and more pointed mountains. The heavy drinkers from Manchesters were a little more placid on this day. They quietly sipped the hair of the dog and exchanged stories of past travels and past parties.

Mekong River
I loved the contrast of the dark brown water of the Mekong with the green lush Laos countryside.

One thing that really surprised me about this trip is the lack of birds. We did see a flock of egrets every now and then, but not much of anything else. We did not see any eagles or birds of prey. There were no hornbills and not really a whole lot of any small birds either. I remember visiting the Amazon in South America and while there were not as many birds as I expected, there were a whole lot more than I was seeing along the Mekong.

Laos water buffalo
Water buffalo along the Mekong River in Laos

This lack of bird sightings was quite a surprise because the jungle was lush with vegetation and there were not many people around. We would see fisherman here and there and evidence of habitation along the river at points, but for the most part, the boat went through a really remote area of Laos. There were plenty of domestic animals like water buffalo and goats, but no wild animals that I could see, and I was looking.

Mekong River Laos
Sun beating through the clouds over the Mekong River

Rapids and stops along the way

There were a couple of times the slow boat driver had to navigate through some rapids. The river was more than adequately deep and the rapids were more standing waves than actual rocks or impediments.

Laos Mekong River village
An example of the small riverside villages we sometimes would stop at on the way to Luang Prabang.

We made a few stops along the way at little riverside communities to drop off and pick up Laos passengers. The boats also served as transport for goods as sacks of food and other items were loaded and unloaded as we traveled down the river. The whole back of the boat was covered with green seaweed harvested from the river I assume and dried out in the hot Laos sun.

Laos boat poling
The Laos boatmen using poles to push off from the shore.

When we made these stops, one or two of the Laos people on board would pull these long poles that were situated on the front of the boat and use them to push off the bottom to steer towards shore. When pulling off they would push off on the other side of the boat to push us back into the current.

Cliff Mekong River
The terrain got a little more craggy as we neared Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Around 4 p.m. we arrived at the dock at Luang Prabang. The dock is actually not in the middle of town, but about 10 km outside. Transport in the form of an open bus with benches was waiting for us for 20,000 Kip per person. The bus dropped us off at the market in town, and I had to walk only a quarter of a mile to my hotel. Luang Prabang is a small town, so most rooms would be within walking distance to the drop off. There is an army of tuk-tuk drivers in case you need a longer ride.

Better in the off season

The Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang was a great way to see the countryside and enjoy my first couple of days in Laos. I think the experience is much better in the off season when the boats are not so crowded. This opinion is based on a different perspective of the trip during the busy season, and it seemed a lot more hectic with some travelers having to sit on the floor. I visited Laos in September, and it was the slow season. The high season for tourism in Laos is November through April.

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