One of the most popular activities in Laos is to take the two-day boat ride along the Mekong River from Huay Xi by the border with Thailand to the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. While in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after much deliberation we decided to go with a tour company rather than cobble together the itinerary on public transportation ourselves. The company took us from Chiang Mai to Chiang Kong, via Chiang Rai and the White Temple. We were then put up at an extremely average hotel in Chiang Kong for the night, and the next morning made the border crossing into Huay Xi, Laos, without much assistance. The price included the ticket for the two-day slow boat ride to Luang Prabang from Huay Xi and for this part we were glad to have the guidance as things were rather confusing. There are dozens of companies offering this package in Chiang Mai and we investigated quite a few–as far as we could tell they all seem basically the same for the same price, which is only a little bit more than if we had done it ourselves via public transportation.
Once in Huay Xi, we and our new Norwegian friends were determined to get to the boats early–we had all read many accounts of how uncomfortable the slow boats could be and that if you didn’t get there early you’d get stuck sitting on the floor in the back next to the very loud engine. We had even bought cushions in Chiang Kong in anticipation of the wooden seats we had heard were so uncomfortable. But all our rushing across the border (which is done by boat across the Mekong) and beating the lines were for naught; we then simply had to wait on the other side for the rest of our group.
When we finally got to the docks, we saw that there were multiple boats with not only plenty of room but real, cushioned seats! Upon closer inspection, these seats turned out to be car seats that had simply been lined up inside the boat–they weren’t nailed down to the floor in any way. We quickly grabbed seats and moved them as far back as possible to give ourselves maximum leg room, and also realized the cushions we’d bought in Thailand were completely unnecessary. Nice racket they got going, though.
The ride itself was smooth and pleasant and there was some very beautiful scenery along the way. Beer and a a few simple snacks are for sale on the boat, but all in all there’s not much to do besides read, chat, and play cards–our Norwegian friends introduced us to the game 500, which quickly became a staple of our trip. At the end of the first day the boat moors in the small town of Pak Beng. There’s really not much to see or do there except have dinner and find a cheap and not too disgusting place to spend the night!
The boats leave very early the next day to complete the journey to Luang Prabang, the beautiful ex-capital city. These boats are a great way to relax and take in the Laotian scenery along the Mekong. It was perfect for us because my foot was still healing so it gave us an excuse to stay still for a few days–something that’s not so easy for us!
There are definitely fancier (and more expensive) cruises you can take, and there is also a fast boat that will get you to Luang Prabang in a few hours, but we read multiple accounts of the danger of the fast boats. These simple slow boats are affordable and a comfortable enough way to travel down the Mekong, a classic activity when in Laos.