Not Your Typical Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Mekong River Cruise, Laos

Over the years I’d heard all the horror stories about crossing from northern Thailand into Laos and taking a slow boat to Luang Prabang. Each day hundreds of travelers cross the Mekong River and join the crush at Lao Immigration, where they wait to be stamped into the country. Once approved, they’re herded like cattle aboard flimsy boats where overcrowding is so serious that some passengers are forced to sit on the floor for two days. One man even told me his luggage had been stored on the deck over the engine and by the end of the day his vinyl bag had melted into an unspeakable mess from the heat of the engine. Each time I heard another tale of woe I nodded sympathetically, thankful that I would be sailing on the luxurious Luang Say Cruise offered by Mekong Cruises.

Chess match on the roof of our slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos
Chess match on the roof of our slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos

Rather than fighting crowds, I was met by a representative of the company in Chiang Khong on the Thai side of the border, who showed me to the longtail boat for the short ride across the river. On the other side, a second employee greeted me as I stepped off the boat and escorted me to the offices of Mekong Cruises, located conveniently next door to the Lao PDR Immigration office. As my luggage was spirited away, I filled out paperwork in the relative calm of the office while sipping tea and munching on sweet bananas, after which I was artfully inserted at the front of the crowd waiting for the Immigration office to open. Soon, officers stepped to the windows and began collecting passports from outstretched hands, stacking them into an impossibly high pile that had me wondering how we would ever make our departure time. Miraculously, after a few minutes of jostling and jockeying, passports belonging to those of us traveling with Mekong Cruises were the first to be passed back through the thick glass windows, duly stamped and authorized. A short tuk tuk ride later I stepped aboard the white yacht that would be my home for the next two days.

Crew members threw off our lines and we motored into the swift current of the mighty Mekong. The powerful barritone engine thrummed through the soles of my shoes as I stuck my nose in every nook and cranny, investigating my choice of seating. Aft, thick upholstered benches formed a semi-circle around a large built-in table while the recessed main cabin offered individual upholstered captain’s chairs, but I opted for the roof. As minor rapids set the boat swaying gently to and fro, I languidly stretched and settled back onto one of the thick cushions strewn across the upper deck with camera in hand.

My fellow passengers settled in as well. Some pulled out novels or flipped through magazines. One man broke out a miniature chess board and challenged his son to a match. Within minutes, several passengers were snoozing. “They’re missing it! How can they possibly sleep?” I wondered, as I snapped photos every few seconds, excited that my first ever cruise should be on the storied Mekong.

Hmong hill tribe children gather on shore to meet our boat
Hmong hill tribe children gather on shore to meet our boat

A short while later the river bowed eastward and Thailand slipped away for good, along with the developed world. No telephone poles, no roads, no airplanes; just dense jungle vegetation marching down to mica-flecked white sand beaches that glittered in the midday sun, backed by waves of hazy green humpback mountains. Gradually, signs of life emerged. Palm and thatch huts peeked out from forests and naked children posed on cliffs, waving delightedly as we passed. Fishermen in flat bottom boats dipped nets tied to long pieces of bamboo into the muddy waters, crossing the bamboo branches like enormous chopsticks on the down stroke and uncrossing as they scooped upward. In the searing heat, our captain maneuvered the boat toward shore for a visit to a Hmong village, perched high atop a ridge overlooking the river.

Children from the village ran headlong down the hot sands to meet our boat, competing for a chance to sell trinkets: bracelets woven of colored yarn, felt purses, and Lao silk scarves interwoven with gold and silver thread. The young girls turned their big eyes on me, imploring, and before I could protest a pink and purple bracelet had been tied around my wrist. Whether or not their sad faces were cultivated for effect, I couldn’t refuse; I dug in my pocket and handed one of the girls a U.S. dollar, accepted throughout Laos as are Thai Bhat.

Can’t view the above slide show of the Luang Say Cruise from Thailand to Laos? Click here.

Sweat pouring down my face, I hotfooted it over burning sands back to the boat and could have kissed the crew members who greeted us with chilled towels and ice cold glasses of water. Back underway, our captain’s skills were put to the test. Water levels in the Mekong are at their lowest in the spring, just prior to the arrival of summer rains, however levels have been getting lower each year as China builds dams upriver. Not only did jagged rocks line the shore at this point, they began poking up into the main channel. I sat on the bow, holding my breath each time we passed within inches of a razor-edged peak thrusting up from the depths and admiring the captain’s ability to hold the boat in the dead center of whitewater rapids that signaled deeper water. Despite the dramatic scenery and hair-raising route, the gentle seesaw motion from the rapids finally lulled me to sleep, my camera dangling uselessly around my neck.

Rocky retriever on the banks of the Mekong River, seen from our slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos
Rocky retriever on the banks of the Mekong River, seen from our slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos

I woke just in time to see the first road and telephone pole come into view, but my disappointment at being back in civilization was assuaged when we rounded a long bend and the Luang Say Lodge came into sight. Not surprisingly, traffic on the river comes to a halt at night; it is simply too dangerous to navigate after dark and our boat was no exception. We pulled up to the shore and made the long climb up a steep sand embankment and stairs to the open air reception area, where we were rewarded with fresh lemongrass coolers.

Individual teak and palm thatch cottage at Luang Say Lodge in Pakbeng, our overnight accommodations on the Luang Say Cruise
Individual teak and palm thatch cottage at Luang Say Lodge in Pakbeng, our overnight accommodations on the Luang Say Cruise

Exhausted from my hard day of sailing, I decided against the 15 minute hike into the nearby town of Pakbeng and instead opted to enjoy the spectacular views from the Lodge’s clifftop aerie high above the Mekong River. As the sun dipped behind the mountains I followed elevated walkways to my private cabin and stepped across the threshold into a scene out of an Ernest Hemingway novel. I threw open the shutters and sat in one of the easy chairs, drinking in the river valley far below. In the center of the room a gauzy white mosquito net hung knotted over a giant four-poster teak bed and a mahogany desk stood to one side, begging me to set up my laptop and write. But having spent much of the last month in hostel dorms, the lure of the luxury bathroom, with its thick terry towels and lemongrass soap won me over. I showered and primped and dove into bed, sinking into the thick, ultra soft mattress with a sigh of pure contentment. My last thought as I drifted off to sleep was that I would do this trip all over again in an instant but I’d change one thing. The Luang Say Lodge was so incredible that it bordered on criminal to stay just one night; next time, I’d stay longer and catch another boat for the second half of the trip.

Stay tuned for part two of this enchanting Mekong River Cruise…

Mekong Cruises kindly hosted the author on the Luang Say Cruise and at the Luang Say Lodge. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items/services received will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and in this case, Mekong Cruises is one of the best tour operators I have ever had the pleasure to work with. Their administrative staff was well organized, their boat crew was highly trained to meet every need of the passengers, and I simply cannot say enough about the skills of the captain, who knew every inch of the treacherous river by heart.

Series NavigationVat Phou Cruise Through Four Thousand Islands on the Mekong River – C’est Magnifique!

22 thoughts on “Not Your Typical Slow Boat to Luang Prabang”

  1. LOVELY! This sounds simply perfect. I am in the course of planning a RTW trip now, and am in my researching/saving/dreaming phase. Plan to take the big trip in 2016, with a few smaller trips in between. My style of travel has always been “budget with some splurge”. I enjoy balancing things like a hostel dorm and a few nights at a nice hotel with a spa or a diving lesson. To me, traveling this way helps me enjoy once in a lifetime experiences without completely breaking the bank. After all, what is the point of going half way around the world if you miss the good stuff? And this is one of those trips that truly stays at the forefront of your memories. Not to say that one could not enjoy a less expensive trip down the Mekong because it certainly is possible but, this sounds idyllic.
    Thank you so much for sharing. I have been looking into various tours of the Mekong, because I really want mine to be special. I will certainly be looking into this company, and if I chose them, I will mention your post…..although it will be several years out. 🙂 Love your blog and photos, thank you for sharing. Keep up the great work!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Courtney! And if you do choose them, I really would appreciate it if you’d mention that you found them on my blog. I thought the trip was spectacular and can’t recommend it enough.

  2. Pingback: Mekong River Cruise Laos and its cultural diversity | y Travel Blog
  3. Wow, now you definitely had a more comfortable travel than we did on the slow boat. We loved our experience though, we met so many great people and it was beautiful. Mind you, we did the trip in 2003. I’m sure it has changed a lot. If I were to do it again, I would take the Luang Sang cruise for sure.

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  5. Sounds a simply wonderful way to cross a border. Laos still appears to have some element of an undiscovered paradise though I suspect that won’t last much longer. Luang Prabang from various friend’s accounts sounds a very serene and special place.

  6. I took the “slow boat” from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang in February of the yr. (2011). It was wonderful– probably the highlight of my trip to SE Asia. I am in my 60s and was a bit apprehensive. I had read the horror stories about the crowding, the smell of diesel, the running up the hill in Pakbang to find lodging. There were probably about 100 people on our boat, but everyone seemed to be so friendly and helpful. The boat was in very good shape and you only smelled diesel if you were sitting right next to the engine. There was plenty of lodging options in Pakbang. There was no line and no waiting to get into Laos in Huay Xai. We arrived there in the afternoon and spent the night. Please don’t sell the “slow boat” short! It was a great experience and it only cost about $30,00 US!!!

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed your writing, it made me feel that I was actually there with you. Looks like you are having a great time. Rose

  8. Pingback: Crossing into Laos from northern Thailand | Hole In The Donut … | Today Headlines
  9. Sounds amazing 🙂 I’m not usually a fan of boats (to put it mildly), but your cruise sounds like a lot of fun. Laos is one of the only southeast asian countries I’ve not visited and I am getting sooo impatient to go there!!

  10. We seem to be right be hind you. Thank you for giving us a glance of what is ahead.
    today is our last of three in Ayuthaya. I am in love with Thialand.

  11. Sounds like a great way to cruise through the Mekong into Laos! We took the 2 day slow boat when we did it and had very sore bums at the end of it!
    The way you describe your accommodation for the night sounds truly luxurious! Having a shower and getting into bed would be the first thing I would do too!
    can’t wait for part 2!

    • Hello everyone! Thanks for your great comments. Although I have spent years
      wandering around SE Asia, this was my first foray into Laos. I was supposed
      to go four years ago but the schedule got changed at the last moment (normal
      for me). This time I finally made it; spent a month there and I can honestly
      say that if you can only see one country in SE Asia, make it Laos. Though
      there are some places in Thailand where you can still find the slow and
      easy, non-commercial life (wait till you read about my visit to the
      spectacular island of Koh Mak), Laos is laid back, easy and non-commercial
      in a way that I imagine Thailand must have been 20 years ago. And though I
      have never been a fan of boats (I also get terribly seasick, which is why
      I’ve never done a cruise), river cruising was entirely different. It was the
      most relaxing tour I’ve ever been on. The rapids we sailed through were very
      gentle, turning the boat into a cradle that rocked me gently to sleep. I’ve
      never felt so free of stress.

      Brim38, if you decide to do the trip with Mekong Cruises (and I can’t
      recommend them highly enough), I’d appreciate it if you’d tell them you read
      about it on my blog. On May 1st the price drops to about $355 per person,
      which may seem like a lot until you consider that it includes all of the
      following, and I might add that the food was absolutely spectacular:

      – Transfer from Laos’s immigration to the pier in Houei Say
      – 2 days cruise with stops and visits en route
      – 1 night accommodation at the Luang Say Lodge
      – Meal plan as mentioned in the program ( 2 lunches, 1 dinner, 1 breakfast )
      – Coffee, tea & drinking water on board and during meals.
      – Admission fee at visiting points as mentioned in the program.
      – Services of qualified crews during the cruise.

      One last thing, if you prefer the “white yacht” that I was on, be advised that it only sails on Sundays. It is the oldest boat in their fleet and, though in good condition, only makes the trip once a week because it takes three days for it to get back up river again. The rest of the company’s boats are wood-clad steel-hulled boats designed in the typical fashion, thus they do not have a roof deck.

      • Yeah it does seem a lot – the standard slow boat costs less than a tenth of that, with the same views for same length of time. Sure, it doesn’t include food and drinks, but they can usually be bought on board for a couple of dollars, while accommodation in Pak Beng runs at about $10US a night for a basic room.

        The ‘crowds’ that are rumoured to be so bad in all of the guide books simply didn’t exist when I took the trip – if you avoid high season, there won’t be a problem. I had a perfectly comfortable bus-style seat the entire two days, and the boat wasn’t even completely full.

        The best bit of taking the normal slow boat, in my opinion, was the interaction with locals who were travelling upriver to visit friends and family, carrying everything from huge baskets of food to a couple of cute puppies that came most of the way from Pak Beng with us.

        Each to their own, I guess!

  12. Thanks Barbara for putting words to some of my very own feelings !! Having done that journey twice once in the wet and once in the dry season, I must say that I have great respect for the Mekong River. It fascinates me !!!


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