If you’re traveling in Laos, the slow boat down the Mekong is often considered a ‘must’. No doubt you have received a dozen recommendations already; certainly, all the other travelers I met in Laos were gushing with praise for the 2-day adventure, until eventually I could no longer ignore them, and booked a trip for myself. The journey leaves from Houayxay, the peaceful riverine border town with Thailand, and two days later docks in Luang Prabang, Laos’ UNESCO-listed city, which harks back to its glamorous history as the country’s capital city and is today famed for its abundance of temples and French Colonial architecture.
Our Slow Boat: The Nagi of Mekong
Many boats ferry tourists along the river, but the cheapest offer few comforts and squeeze as many people on as possible. Seeing my traditional Laos-style boat, The Nagi of Mekong, one of the slightly more expensive options, it was immediately evident that it offered a lot more luxury, and was both clean and well looked after. I was surprised by the size; very narrow, but a gigantic 36 meters long, my eyes naturally stretched along the elegant wooden interior to the distant end, where there was a bowl of fruit, and a tea and coffee station, to help ourselves to.
The Nagi Of Mekong has a capacity of 40 passengers, but they restrict the number to a maximum of 30, to ensure the trip remains spacious and comfortable. My journey in the low season was an intimate affair with only 7 of us. “There are only 4 bathrooms on board. Do you think it will be enough?” our guide laughed. Compared to the other boats crammed with tourists, having the space to spread out and relax was the ultimate luxury.
There were plenty of places to sit and watch the world as it floated by. Inside there were many rows of tables and soft cushion chairs and a sofa area with a roof that rolled back to allow the sun in. At the front of the boat was a bench which offered the best views of all. And when a day of doing nothing got too tiring, there were even beds to catch a nap in.
Related: Things to do in Luang Prabang
The Mekong River
This stretch of the river carves through an area of dense mountains, which makes traveling by boat the only way to access this dramatic region – even the road connecting Houayxay to Luang Prabang is twice the distance of the river section, having to extend far to the north around the mountains. For this reason, we shared the river with a constant flow of local traffic; barges heavily loaded with cement and barely afloat chugged upstream, while narrow speedboats noisily shuttled locals, mostly monks around at perilous speeds. Unlike downstream where the Mekong appears to bring life to the area, with its banks lined with fisheries, towns and a sea of rice fields, the banks here are a lot more rugged, often rising sharply to the mountains or being smothered by jungle. Occasionally the basic wooden shacks of an isolated village were evident. The scene constantly changed but remained one of wild beauty, and kept us all glued to the windows.
In some areas the river was wide and the currents slow, while in others the river appeared to squeeze its path through gaps in the mountains where the valley walls suddenly seemed within reach. Naturally, the water level varies depending on the season; at the end of the dry season, the river is at its lowest, revealing a minefield of jagged, toothy rocks protruding the surface which sometimes appeared almost impassable. In these sections, the boat was swept along through fast-flowing rapids and made for a thrilling ride. Our driver, however, had been driving boats here for 30 years and was completely comfortable as he expertly navigated a course around the obstacles.
Traveling with the Nagi of Mekong made the journey an educational one; we had a local guide who provided information about the area and answered all our questions, and also several excursions had been arranged for us. On the first day, the boat docked against the sandy bank of the river, where young children waited to greet us, and happily accept any sweets we shared with them. They led us through their village which offered an amazing glimpse into their unique lives. We ambled between wooden homes, elevated on stilts, where naked children ran around playing in the mud. Pigs and chickens roamed around, inspecting the earth for scraps of food. Parents crouched outside their houses; some were breastfeeding, some were cooking, and others stared into vacant space. These trips through the villages (we went to a second village the next day) provided context about the region we were passing through and indeed, became one of my highlights of the trip.
The Slow Boat Experience
After 6 hours on the boat, our first day concluded in Pakbeng, which was a lively contrast to the villages we had floated past all day. 20 other boats bobbed in the eddy of the port, and the town had a wide range of places to eat, a market, and a number of hotels. Our hotel, arranged and included in the Nagi of Mekong package, retained the comfort we had become accustomed to and had a balcony offering superb views across the Mekong, where our journey would continue the next day.
Day 2 was very similar to the first, with the added bonus of a trip to ‘Buddha Caves’. These caves have been recognized by locals as being sacred for nearly a millennium. They continue to be sacred to Buddhists today, who come here to pray, but now they do so alongside tourists who come to observe the spectacle of some 4,000 statues of Buddha, from various time periods, now placed in the caves.
What’s included in the package?
- Free hotel in Chiang Khong, Thailand the night before the trip (if not already in Laos)
- Hotel pick-up in Houayxai/Hotel drop-off in Luang Prabang
- Two days of transport on the Nagi of Mekong
- Free fruit, coffee, tea and water
- Lunch on Day 1, and Breakfast and Lunch on Day 2
- Hotel in Pakbeng
- Excursions to 2 villages, and to Buddha caves
- A guide
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How to Get to Houayxay from Thailand?
Getting to Houayxay to begin your boat journey is easy when you’re coming from Thailand;
There are two direct buses per day from Chiang Rai to Houayxay. These will take you through immigration on both sides. As of July 2017, these left at10:00 am and 16:30 pm, and cost around 220 baht ($6.50). Buses run from Chiang Mai to Houayxay, stopping at Chiang Rai en route. You can also navigate across the ‘Friendship Bridge 4’ border independently; Pedestrians and cyclists are not allowed to cross and must take the shuttle bus. For motorbikes, cars, and other vehicles, there is a small toll.
The short shuttle bus from one border to the other costs 25 baht ($0.75), or 40 baht ($1) if it is after 4 pm or a weekend. Bicycles can take their bike on for 100 baht ($3). The bus station in Houayxay is around 5km from the town itself. Tuk Tuks are available for 10,000kip ($1).
Getting a Visa on Arrival
Almost all nationalities will easily receive a visa on arrival at the border which lasts 30 days. This costs around $35. You are allowed to pay in Thai Baht or Laos Kip, but the exchange rate used is not good and this works out more expensive. I recommended bringing crisp US dollars.
It’s a well-worn cliché that traveling is not about the destination but the journey. Arriving in Luang Prabang, we all found that we would rather stay on the boat. For two days, the spectacular scenery had been just a glimpse out the window away, villages had welcomed us in, and much laughter had been shared on board. And all in the luxury environment provided by the Nagi of Mekong. If you’re coming from Thailand, and the alternative is 12 hours cramped on a bus, why not slow down, and give yourself a journey you’ll remember.