The Mekong is the lifeline of Laos. This river originates in Yunnan province, China, flows south and forms the border between Laos and other countries like Myanmar and Thailand. The Mekong Trail crosses Cambodia and ends in southern Vietnam where it forms the famous Mekong Delta. One of the most popular activities in Laos is to cross part of the Mekong River in a slow-moving boat.
The normal trip starts at the Thailand-Laos border in the city of Laos Huay-Xai, and from here it's a two-day trip ending in Luang Prabang, Laos (which is the coolest name for a city in my opinion! ).
Knowing my family and knowing we can't stand still for long, I wasn't sure whether to include this in our itinerary. Still, it felt like one of those "must do" things to do in Laos and if we left it out we would be missing out.
So the slow boat across the Mekong was included in the itinerary.
Our Mekong Experience
For our slow boat tour we used Mekong based tour operator Nagi and had a fabulous experience. We did this trip in January 2015.
In Huay-Xai we board our boat with about ten other travelers. The benefit of using Nagi was that we were able to make the trip on a boat much more comfortable, a hot lunch was served both days and they booked our accommodation in Pakbeng, Laos halfway down the river.
Lots of slow boats, especially in high season (December to February) can get very crowded and uncomfortable. We wanted a more relaxed and enjoyable experience, so we spent a little more for comfort and nicer accommodations.
So what is a slow boat?
A slow boat is a very long, narrow boat that floats well on the water surface. The driver sits in the front and the engine in the back. Vehicle bench seats are attached to the boat and seat four people around a small wooden table. There was plenty of seating for our small group of people and since the boat wasn't crowded we had plenty of room to spread out.
Tea, coffee, water and fruit were served. We also had a relatively clean bathroom on board. We were ready to cruise down the Mekong in comfort! I'm so glad we did!
Chiang Rai for Chiang Khong
Our day started very early on a Sunday morning. We hired a driver to take us two hours northeast of Chiang Rai, Thailand to Chiang Khong on the Thailand-Laos border. Here we left Thailand, easily obtained our visas for Laos on arrival, and then entered another new country for Earth Trekkers. Hello Laos!
Views from our boat
It was a beautiful day. Skies were partly cloudy and temperatures were only in the low 60's. A cold front had recently moved in, making the air much colder than usual. When we left it was pretty cold.
At 10 am we start our journey down the Mekong. This part of the world is so beautiful. On either side of the great sluggish river were small mountains covered with lush vegetation. We saw lots of palm trees, banana trees and even corn. Within the first hour Thailand was on our right and Laos on our left. Then the river turned east and we headed straight to Laos.
Tim and I were very happy about it! One of the activities we had dreaded turned out to be one of our favorite things to do in Southeast Asia.
As we were walking down the river, Tyler and Kara were teaching a homeschooling class. I drank cup after cup of 3-in-1 instant coffee, which has become very popular since I arrived in Myanmar. Tim and I enjoyed the incredible view. I took tons of photos to capture these views so I can see them forever.
A visit to a village in Laos
At noon we made a short stop in a village nearby. Normally we don't like to visit villages. I feel a bit voyeuristic and intrusive. This time was no different but people seemed to enjoy having us here. Plus, it felt like looking into a National Geographic magazine, with barefoot kids playing in the streets, chickens cackling, and thatched houses on stilts everywhere.
In the village we saw a group of children playing volleyball. Instead of a volleyball, they used a rolled up piece of plastic to form a ball. More children were running around playing and some were riding bicycles. These kids could be happy and have fun without a TV, computer or other device...or even a real ball. That was great for Tyler and Kara to see.
After visiting the village we boarded the slow boat and then were served lunch. Rice, vegetables and soup... it was hot and tasty.
Late no slow boat
We rode about four more hours. As the day progressed, cloud cover thickened and temperatures dropped. The constant breeze on the boat made us very cold. We started huddled under the blankets provided, looking for places to sit to keep the wind out of our heads. It was not so bad; The breathtaking view was worth a little cooling off. We'll later forget how cold we were, but we hope we'll always remember those views.
It was almost 5pm when we docked in Pakbeng. This is a small town on the Mekong. Loaded with our backpacks and bags of snacks, we walked up the sandy steps into town.
We stayed one night at the Mekong Riverside Lodge. This was a really cool place. We had two bungalows with large patios overlooking the river. The view was amazing and the rooms were very clean. Tonight we would sleep under mosquito nets. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant and then went to bed early.
It was a cold night with temperatures around 50 degrees. We didn't have heating in our rooms so it was too cold to dress the next morning. After breakfast at the hotel we board the slow boat and at 7:30 AM we start our journey again along the Mekong River.
Day 2 on the slow boat
The sky was very cloudy and as soon as the boat started moving it got even colder. We all snuggled under the blankets and tried to protect ourselves from the wind as much as possible. I drank a lot of coffee, which also helped.
For hours we cruised down the river enjoying a landscape almost identical to yesterday. The biggest change is that the mountains got higher as we got closer to Luang Prabang. Around midday the sun started peeking through the clouds and warmed things up for us.
Lunch on the boat wasn't as good as yesterday. We had a lemongrass dish, more vegetables and more soup. After lunch we had dessert and ate our stash of Nutella on bread.
The captain of our boat was a short Laotian man who sat on his stool with a pillow behind his back and guided us across the Mekong. I was amazed at how well he landed this long boat and stopped in a narrow spot between the other long boats. He was also mesmerized by us as he walked by and smiled at Tyler and Kara and spoke to us in Lao with a big smile on his face. We don't get it, of course, but Tyler and Kara enjoyed the attention.
Caverna Pak You
At 13:00 we arrived at Pak Ou Cave.This is a large cave on the Mekong that has been converted into a Buddhist temple. We see more Buddhist shrines as well as hundreds of dusty Buddha statues.
Arrive in Luang Prabang
An hour later we were in Luang Prabang. Our slow boat ride turned out to be an amazing two days. It was an incredibly beautiful trip. I loved the laziness of floating down the river, reading my Kindle and just relaxing. The two days were better than I expected and not boring at all.
Luang Prabang "doca"
Traveling down the Mekong River on a slow boat is really a must do in Laos and it is also a very convenient mode of transport for anyone traveling overland from Thailand to Laos.
We used Nagi of Mekong for the slow boat ride. They make the trip three times a week, connecting Huay-Xai with Luang Prabang. The journey can be made in either direction, although the journey from Huay-Xai to Luang Prabang is much more popular. On the boats to Huay-Xai, there were very few people on board. If you want to have the boat all to yourself, depart from Luang Prabang.
We spent one night in PakbengMekong Riverside Lodge.This appeared to be one of the best places to stay in town and you can't beat the views of the Mekong from here. All four of us really enjoyed our stay here and it was so much better than we expected for a small town in Laos.
Video of Tyler, Day 1 of the Mekong:
If you have any questions about how to go down the Mekong in a slow boat or want to share your experience, let us know in the comments section below.
More information on Laos and Southeast Asia
LAOS:Find out more about how we spent a week inLuang Prabang, Laos.
THAILAND: Cycling to the White TempleIt's one of the best things to do in Chiang Rai. We also have information about thatthe best things to do in bangkokeActivities in Chiang Mai.
CAMBODIA:Visit ofTemples in Siem Reapis one of the best things to do when visiting Cambodia, but you can also spend some time in CambodiaKampotorPhnom Penh.
SOUTHEAST ASIA ITINERARY:If you are planning a trip to Southeast Asia, read ours3-month itinerary in Southeast Asiafor travel ideas and important planning information.
TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY: You can find more information about our photo equipment in ourTravel Photography Gear Guide.
Planning a trip to Laos? Read all our articles on our Laos travel guide.
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