Cruising the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos is one of life’s great adventures and an essential experience if you’re travelling South East Asia. You can read about our trip here. The question is how to do it – slow boat or fast boat?
If you’re on a tight budget then your two options are the fast boat or the budget-priced slow boat. The 6-7 hour fast boat ride is butt bruising, noisy, and dangerous. If you are eager to get down the river in a hurry, only board a fast boat that provides life vests and helmets.
If you’re a slow traveller, you won’t need to think twice about the pace of travel, but which boat you choose will depend upon how much you want to spend, your style of travel, and how concerned you are about safety. Some of the budget-priced slow boats have been known to accept more than twice the number of authorised passengers and people have had to sit for two days on the floor.
If you like a certain level of comfort, then the ‘luxury boat’ that does this route, the Luang Say, is probably the best option for you, with comfort and space, guided village visits, meals served on board, wine and beer available, and good service, leaving you to worry about little more than where you’re going to sprawl out, what book to read, and when to take a nap.
Here are the nuts and bolts of taking the slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang…
The budget slow boat: Slow boats depart daily when full between 8-11am in order to reach the halfway point of Pakbeng by sunset. They were costing as little as US$25 per person in 2011 for the two-day trip with seating on either reasonably comfortable old airline seats or wooden benches. There’s a meal stop along the way, and once at Pakbeng you’ll need to find your own accommodation, though travellers don’t usually find this too hard.
The Luang Say cruise: You need to book this in advance – you can’t just rock up and expect to get on a boat – and you can do so online at www.luangsay.com. The all-inclusive package we booked covered the 3-day cruise, two nights accommodation at Luang Say Lodge and Kamu Lodge, three generous and mostly very delicious meals a day, coffee/tea and water, service, guides, and group insurance. A 2-day cruise is also available. Extras included the transfer from Chiang Rai (organized through Mekong Cruises), visas, our cold beers/wine, and tips. We also took cash to spend at the villages – I bought beautiful textiles from local women along the way. Per person prices varied from US$432 for 2 days in low season to $650 for 3 days in high season – as prices change, check the current prices for the trip here.
The Luang Say boat: While the trip is marketed as a ‘luxury’ cruise, this is not luxury at the level of a five-star hotel. Rather, the boat is very comfortable, service is attentive, and the food is very good. There were only a dozen people in our group and we had plenty of space once we each figured out where we were going to sit for the duration of the journey, but it wouldn’t have been very comfortable if the boat was full. The boat can carry as many as 40 people, so check numbers when you make your booking. Service was very attentive, with nice touches such as snacks and cold bottles of water continually replenished.
When to go: The Luang Say cruise operates four days a week from November to April, and just a couple of days a week from May to September; in June, it stops for maintenance. From November to February the weather is cooler, but the days are shorter and some mornings are foggy, meaning late starts and the occasional cancellation of village visits. March to May is warmer, April is sweltering, and water levels are lower (meaning that trips can occasionally get cancelled), but on the plus side it’s lighter for longer. June to November is the rainy season, when the weather is unpredictable – on some days it can rain for a few hours, although most of the rain falls at night apparently.
Getting there: As we’d been based out of Bangkok, it made sense for us to fly to Chiang Rai, stay overnight, and get an early morning transfer to be at the Mekong Cruises office by 8.30am. The boat departs at 9am. We were told the transfer would take two hours, however, it only took 90 minutes, leaving us with more than enough time. There are also public buses from Chiang Rai to the border at Houei Say (Huay Xai in Lao) that take 2-3 hours.
Crossing the border: We had heard that there can be a crush at the Immigration office and long lines, however, there were very few people and things went smoothly when we went through just after the office opened around 8am. After you get an exit stamp in your passport at the Thai immigration office, you hop on a longtail shuttle boat (20 baht when we travelled) to get to the other side. It’s all very easy.
Visas: At the time we travelled, it was possible for most nationalities to obtain a 30-day visa to Laos at the Houei Say/Huay Xai Immigration office. As Australians we paid US$30, however, fees vary remarkably – from US$10-45 – depending on which country you’re from. For instance, in 2010, the fees were: US$30 New Zealanders, US$35 British, US$35 Americans, and US$42 Canadians. As things change, always check the situation well in advance of your travel date at your nearest Laos embassy or consulate office. When we travelled, US$ was the preferred currency for payment, two passport photos were required, along with a full black page in your passport, which had to be valid for at least six months.
Currency: The Laos currency is the kip, although Thai baht, US dollars and Euros are widely accepted. You can change money at Laos Immigration.
Village visits: While these were fascinating and our Luang Say guide was good, we would have liked to have had a local guide take over from him at each stop for the walk around the villages. Unfortunately our village visits were in the middle of the day – the hottest and brightest part of the day, which was uncomfortable and wasn’t great for photos. While we still got out of the boat – these were highlights of the trip as far as we were concerned – some of the passengers didn’t, which was a shame.
Shopping: There were textiles and a few handicrafts for sale at the villages we visited, many made on site, so take some currency to buy souvenirs from the source. At one village, children also tried to sell us colourful embroidered wristbands, for as little as 30 cents a piece. They weren’t aggressive, although they were persistent – at one point I felt like the Pied Piper, with a dozen children following me. The wristbands make pretty gifts for children. The textiles I bought directly from the weaver cost less than they did in Luang Prabang. Buying locally seemed an obvious thing to do to me and yet curiously not a single person in our group bought anything. Had they shopped enough elsewhere? Had they spent so much on the cruise, they didn’t have money left for souvenirs? Or had they forgotten to bring change? Don’t make the same mistake. The textiles in particular were lovely.
Have you taken the slow boat, the fast boat, or the Luang Say boat to Luang Prabang? If so, feel free to share your experience and leave tips for our readers in the Comments below.