Slow Boating Down the Mekong in Laos

After heading northeast on a 6 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, Thailand, we were at the Laos border. This ride went through some really beautiful scenery with lots of mountains and karsts. At the border checkpoint, there are several options for moving on through Laos once you cross the river (no entry by road that we saw). Following the Mekong River east through the country takes you to Luang Prabang, where most people head from the border. You could go north first and do the Gibbon Experience, which we’ve heard great things about, but it is popular so was fully booked for the whole time we would be near there. So on to Luang Prabang for us. We’d read some horror stories about the two-day public slow boat, which included overcrowded boats of near to 100 people with no food/drink, and sometimes nowhere to sit the whole time. We really wanted to avoid that scenario.

Sunrise on the Mekong River (from Thailand). Also our first glimpse of Laos across the river.

Sunrise on the Mekong River (from Thailand). Also our first glimpse of Laos across the river.

Speed boat on the Mekong River.

Speed boat on the Mekong River.

You could also take a speedboat that got you there in 6 hours, but we’d read some unpleasant stories about that AND the guidebook strongly recommended not taking this option because it was so dangerous. We saw a few of these boats on our trip and most of the passengers were wearing motorcycle helmets, either because of the noise or the high risk of hitting a rock and flying out of the boat (or both). Either way, no thanks.

And, there is a public bus option that I think takes like 20 hours or so on very poor roads. In the end, we got a great recommendation from a friend (thanks Em!) for a private slow boat with food, drinks, and cushions (something public boats don’t have), as well as a guide to help you cross the border and show you through a couple villages along the way. This option was a bit of a splurge for our budget, but booking ‘The Nagi of Mekong’ turned out to be so, so worth it.

View from our boat as we approach Laos from Thailand. The Mekong is murky.

View from our taxi boat as we approach Laos from Thailand. The Mekong is murky.

And the view of the entry point from the Laos immigration "office"

And the view of the entry point from the Laos immigration “office”

We crossed the river that is the Thailand-Laos border, went through a very hectic Lao immigration, and then glided along the Mekong River for about 8 hours each day and stopped over night half way in a tiny village called Pak Beng.

John filling out Laos visa paperwork. Even with a guide to help us through, it was a very chaotic and stressful experience. Really  glad we didn't have to do it on our own.

John filling out Laos visa paperwork. Even with a guide to help us through, it was a very chaotic and stressful experience. Really glad we didn’t have to do it on our own.

On the Laos side of the Thailand/Laos border.

On the Laos side of the Thailand/Laos border.

What a fantastic introduction to Laos! This trip along the Mekong River was so peaceful, relaxing, and gorgeous, that we just laid back and soaked it all in. Best of all, we had two days to get to know the other 18 or so folks on board and had a great time hanging out. I could see where this leisurely pace of getting to Luang Prabang could be too slow for people who were on a tighter time frame or didn’t have the good fortune to hit it off with their fellow passengers. But, it was really great for us.

Lori, across from our new friend, John, who is Californian but has been teaching English for 12 years in S Korea.

Lori, across from our new friend, Jon, who is Californian but has been teaching English for 12 years in South Korea.

John and John enjoying some beers. The three of us were the only Americans and we happened to also get along great. It was funny to learn that several of the other passengers assumed we were traveling together because we were having such a good time. We also hung out a couple times in Luang Prabang before John headed south.

Jon and John enjoying some BeerLao. The three of us were the only Americans and we happened to also get along great. It was funny to learn that several of the other passengers assumed we were traveling together because we were having such a good time. We also hung out a couple times in Luang Prabang before Jon headed south.

Getting off the boat at the midway point in Pak Beng, Laos.

Getting off the boat at the midway point in Pak Beng, Laos.

Pak Beng. All slow boats are actually required to stop here overnight for some reason I didn't catch, but I think it had something to do with it being the only stopping point between Thailand and Luang Prabang and it is dangerous to be on the water after dark.

Pak Beng. All slow boats are actually required to stop here overnight for some reason I didn’t catch, but I think it had something to do with it being the only stopping point between Thailand and Luang Prabang and it is dangerous to be on the water after dark.

Our guide told us that it is customary for a Lao host to offer any guests a welcome shot of Lao Lao (homemade rice whisky) upon entering their home. Further, most bars and restaurants give guests free shots. So, while our boat crew was having dinner in Pak Beng, the guide passed around a bottle of Lao Lao and most of us partook. A few in the [smartly] group shied away from this cultural experience so John offered to drink the extra shots. I love the look the woman to his left is giving him.

Our guide told us that it is customary for a Lao host to offer any guests a welcome shot of Lao Lao (homemade rice whisky) upon entering their home. Further, most bars and restaurants give guests free shots. So, while our boat crew was having dinner in Pak Beng, the guide passed around a bottle of Lao Lao and most of us partook. A few in the group declined this cultural experience, so John offered to drink the extra shots. I love the look the woman to his left is giving him.

I would later wonder if sharing the same shot glass with 20 people had anything to do with the massive head cold I came down with in Luang Prabang

I would later wonder if sharing the same shot glass with 20 people had anything to do with the massive head cold I came down with in Luang Prabang.

Pak Beng at sunrise on day two of the slow boat journey.

Pak Beng at sunrise on day two of the slow boat journey.

On the second morning, it was REALLY cold and windy.

On the second morning, it was REALLY cold and windy.

Peeking in on a school in one of the hill tribe villages in rural Laos (which is where much of the population lives). I'm sure having tourists stop by and snap pictures of them is not disruptive at all. In our defense, the guides were encouraging us to take photos, and everyone else was doing it ...

Peeking in on a school in one of the hill tribe villages in rural Laos. Much of the population lives in rural areas. I’m sure having tourists stop by and snap pictures of them is not disruptive at all. In our defense, the guides were encouraging us to take photos, and everyone else was doing it …

A little girl from a hill tribe village stopped crying to wave at us.

A little girl from a hill tribe village stopped crying for a moment to wave at us.

 

Laos hill tribe woman making Lao Lao (moonshine or rice whiskey)

Laos hill tribe woman making Lao Lao (moonshine or rice whiskey)

Lao man on the side of the Mekong River

Lao man on the side of the Mekong River

 

View along the Mekong River in Laos

View along the Mekong River as we neared Luang Prabang. We only occasionally saw any sign of humans for the entire two day trip.

One thought on “Slow Boating Down the Mekong in Laos

  1. Pingback: Experiencing Hanoi | Lori and John Skip Town

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