Since Laos re-opened its borders to westerners in the late 1980s, the Mekong River voyage from Houay Xai to Luang Prabang has become an absolute classic. Crossing the river from Thailand takes a matter of minutes, and you will soon find the ‘slow boats’ that will carry you downstream.
These are either cargo boats with enclosed sides, or riverboats that have a roof but are open-sided – the better choice. The luggage is stored at one end, and passengers sit on narrow, wooden benches that get less comfortable the longer you sit on them – take a cushion or something to sit on if at all possible. Bring your own food and drink – you can buy drinks on board but of course they are more expensive than they should be.
Discomfort notwithstanding, it is perfectly lovely to be on the Mekong. Most of the passengers are young backpackers, and the atmosphere is sociable. You pass few villages en route, but you’ll see fishermen on the river and people on the sandy beaches – tiny glimpses of local life – as well as lovely, riverside scenery. Arriving at the village of Pak Ben, your overnight stop, there seem to be more foreigners in Pak Ben than there are locals – all the slow boats stop here – and it’s crammed with guesthouses, small shops and eateries.
In the morning, off you go again on this peaceful voyage: the sound of the water slipping past is hypnotic, though occasionally broken by noisy speedboats that complete the trip in a few hours.
As you reach your destination, more villages and fantastic vegetable plots at the river’s edge can be seen. The Mekong is wide and beautiful at Luang Prabang, with temples visible on each bank, and you’ll be glad to reach dry land once more.
WHEN TO GO:
November to March
TIME IT TAKES:
two days and one night
The Bokeo gem mines nearHouay Xai.
The views over the river from the slow boat.
The Pak Ou Buddha Caves, 25 km (16 mi) up-river from Luang Prabang.
Apart from slow boats and speedboats (very uncomfortable and rather dangerous), there is at least one other more expensive and more comfortable cruise boat you can book. Right down in southern Laos, there are other Mekong River journeys to be taken, from Pakse down to Si Phan Don