Taking the Slow Boat Down the Mekong River
You may have read some horror stories about the 2 day slow boat down the Mekong River journey from the Thai / Laos border at Chiang Rai / Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, but I’m here to tell you that not only is it not that bad, it was actually quite amazing! Sure, there wasn’t much to see or do during the 13 hour cruise, but the slow boat itself was the experience and created opportunities for self reflection, bonding with other travellers, and amazing scenery. So if you’re still debating whether or not you should take the slow boat down the Mekong River, read on!
1. You’ll be stuck on a boat with 80 other travellers for 2 days
So this might sound like a bad thing but it really isn’t, especially if you’re a solo traveller or someone that finds it hard to meet people. There’s no better opportunity than when you’re travelling on a slow boat with the same people for 13 hours! I ended up meeting 5 other backpackers on the slow boat as soon as we got on and we all bonded within minutes. Everyone that met our group afterwards thought that we were all friends travelling together and were completely shocked when we told them we’d actually just met on the boat. We ended up travelling much of Laos together after that and, in fact, I kept on meeting some of them at random times in other countries.
2. You get to chill out and slow down
I’ve met a lot of travellers that hate the actual “travelling” part of travel. I quite like it, actually, as it allows for personal reflection and thought. And throughout all my travels, the slow boat down the Mekong River journey was one of the most calming, serene, and beautiful landscapes to watch go by. Just make sure you get a window seat and somewhere near the front of the boat away from the engine in the back. And if you’re lucky, there’ll be a spot off the side of the boat where you can dangle your feet and watch the Mekong River and Laotian jungle drift on by.
3. You get to travel how the locals travel… or at least, used to travel
As you putter on your slow boat down the Mekong River, the boat will sometimes stop to drop off or pick up locals coming and going to remote villages in the jungle. Recently though, more and more Laotians have been taking the bus instead and the slow boats have been left to the tourists. That’s a good thing though because they’ve upgraded all the chairs! No more hard wooden benches and floor seats – they’ve all been replaced by plush car seats. If you’re lucky and you get seats at the front with no one behind you, you can even recline it back a bit.
4. You won’t crash in the speed boat and die horribly
If you are a thrill seeker or have a death wish, you can opt to take the “fast boat”, which can get you to Luang Prabang in 1 day (7 hours including a 1 hour lunch break). This option is usually more expensive (around $35 USD), typically will cause cramps in your legs and back from sitting cross legged in a tight space, and might give you migraines from all the jostling and incredibly loud engine. Consider yourself warned. If you still are thinking about this, you can read Hank Leukart’s experience on the speed boat to Luang Prabang. Spoiler alert – he doesn’t recommend it.
5. You won’t get motion sickness on the night bus winding through the jungles and mountains
Although the bus to Luang Prabang may be cheaper (around $13 USD), it also takes 13 hours through the night, on a stuffy bus speeding its way through the winding jungle roads. You will have absolutely no chance to sleep as you’ll be tossed from left to right and back again as the bus continually swerves up and down the mountains and valleys of the Laotian rain forest. Still not sure? Just check out Google Maps for the route and zoom in to see all the twists and turns.
6. It’s really cheap
The public slow boats will cost you around $20 USD from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Also, you’ll have to spend a night in Pak Beng, but that should only cost you another $10 USD, cheaper if you’re sharing with other travellers (6 of us shared a 3 bed guestroom with extra mattresses on the floor – slumber party!). No need to book ahead, just hop off the boat and ask around until you find a place with vacancy. Just make sure to buy some delicious Laotian sandwiches (I’d argue that I’ve had some of the best sandwiches in the world from random street vendors in Laos) and drinks in Huay Xai and Pak Beng before you hop onto the slow boats. There isn’t much selection in terms of food on the slow boat, but there’s always beer.
7. You can always opt for “luxury boats”
Finally, if you’re still a bit anxious about roughing it for 2 days on the budget slow boat, there are “luxury” slow boat options available to you. These boats provide accommodation, food, and pretty much hassle free and worry free travel with fewer passengers on the boat. However, the cost is significantly higher ranging from $150 – $250 USD per person. If backpacking isn’t your thing, then this might be a better option.
Ultimately, I highly recommend taking the slow boat down the Mekong River. It was one of the highlights of my travels through Asia because it was so raw, no frills, and down to earth. However, to be perfectly honest, if you don’t have the patience, don’t like “roughing it”, or have special physical needs and concerns, then it might not be for you – otherwise, cruise on.
What was your experience on the slow boat down the Mekong River? How did you get to Luang Prabang and would you recommend it over the fast boat?