2-Day Slow Boat to Luang Prabang: Mekong River Cruises

Rising Sun on the Mekong River

One step onto the long wooden boat with the old blue car seats, and I was heading into another world. A world where people make their agricultural living by the water and look forward to the boats bringing them supplies. Taking a Mekong River Cruise is a way to experience the simpler life of being transported over water, a way to disconnect from technology and enjoy a scenic adventure through the Laos landscape for a couple of days. Here is everything you need to know about taking Mekong River Cruises and making the most of the two-day slow boat ride to Luang Prabang.

Rising Sun on the Mekong River

How to Get to the Huay Xai Pier

Slow boats on the bank of the Mekong River

After you have been processed through Laos Immigration and secured your tourist visa, pick up a taxi that will most likely be waiting outside to take you to the pier. The taxi ride will take approximately 30 minutes. If you crossed the Friendship bridge early enough, you should reach the pier around 9:30 a.m., which gives you an hour and a half before the slow boat leaves the pier.

Slow Boat on the Mekong River

Mekong River Cruises/Slow Boat Information

Ticket Booth for the Slow Boat Mekong River Cruises

The slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang takes two days with one overnight stay in Pakbeng. The boat leaves daily at 11 a.m. from the pier in Huay Xai with up to 100 passengers, costs 240 000 kip ($22), and lasts approx 14 hours total on the Mekong River. The ticket office is up the hill from the pier, and it is important to stop there first to get your slow boat ticket. The tickets are numbered, and you want to have a lower number on the first day. The second day is first come, first serve, where you can sit anywhere available. The first leg of the Mekong River Cruises lasts 6-7 hours, which will get you to Pakbeng around 5–6 p.m. Book your stay at one of the guesthouses/hotels in Pakbeng on Agoda. The slow boat departs Pakbeng around 9:30/10 a.m. and arrives in Luang Prabang around 5–6 p.m.

Slow Boat Group heading to the boat

Slow Boat Planning

Food Stop at Slow Boat Pier in Huay Xai

Packed lunches for the boat ride are not included, so make sure you bring one along, including drinks and snacks. If you haven’t brought anything from Thailand, you can pick up sandwiches and drinks at a local food place near the pier. We stopped in and picked up lunch for the ride. I love eating Asian food; you can always count on it being fresh and organic.

The Slow Boat

Inside the Slow Boat

If you get your ticket early, you can sit toward the front, which has more legroom than the rows in the back. All of the backpacks are stored under the floor behind the captain. Since I was only on a mini-vacation, I brought my smaller computer backpack instead of my larger pack. However, many of my fellow riders were backpacking through Asia and had all their gear with them. The other nice thing about sitting toward the front gives you some floor space to gather up a group to play cards on the trip down the river. We spent quite a bit of time playing UNO and getting to know each other. I was able to meet fellow travelers from all over the world. It was interesting to see the diversity of ages on who was traveling and from where.

The Captain of the Slow Boat

Most of the young backpackers were from Australia or Europe enjoying their gap year while the older ones were retired from America. This came increasingly obvious to me as I met more and more people while I was traveling through Europe and Asia on how different we look at work and vacation around the world. In Europe, they work to live, whereas in America, it is the opposite; we live to work. Over my many years working, I can remember tons of times when I didn’t take all of my vacation time or stayed home and didn’t go anywhere. What a waste; when there is a big world out there with so many exciting places to experience. I wish I knew to do what I was doing when I was younger, but better late than never.

Storage on the Slow Boat

Mekong River Landscape

Laos Village on the Mekong River

The landscape along the Mekong River fascinated me. I don’t know how many times I had my head stuck out of the window watching the scenery pass by and taking tons of photos. The steep hills were filled with vegetation along the river, but you could still see villages, farms, and cattle on the hillside.

Golden Temples on the Mekong River

Wat Pla Buek

At the beginning of the trip, I noticed quite a few golden-roofed temples along the river. Most of them were on the Thailand side of the Mekong. I was continuously amazed at how opulent the temples were built when the surrounding area seemed so impoverished. But, there is a deep history of gold in Thailand and Buddhism. Gold is the universal symbol of happiness, purity, enlightenment, and freedom. Did you know that Thai gold goes back thousands of years? There were extensive gold mines in Thailand. “In fact, Siam, Thailand’s original name, means ‘gold’ in Sanskrit; the Indians called it Suvannabhumi (Land of Gold), and the Chinese Jin Lin (Peninsula of Gold).” So, it is no wonder that you see it on almost every temple in Thailand.

Golden Spire Temple along the Mekong River

The Life of Laotians along the Mekong River

Activity on the Mekong River Banks

One thing that I noticed was how important the Mekong River is for Laotians, especially the ones who live on the hillsides. Their steep pathway down to the river becomes the social epicenter of the villages when the slow boat arrives. This is the mode of transportation for people, but also goods. Our boat stopped along several villages to drop supplies and let people hop off. But, the Mekong River isn’t important just for transportation; it is their main water supply. They play, swim, fish, do laundry, and bathe in the Mekong River.

Fishing/Boating

Fisherman casting a net on a red long boat on the Mekong River

As we slowly cruised down the Mekong River, we passed several longboats in the middle of fishing. Occasionally, I saw one sitting idly by the banks with a man watching us as we watched him. Again, I was fascinated with everything and everyone!

Farming along the Mekong River

Farming on the banks of the Mekong River

The main industry for the people along the Mekong River is agriculture, and growing rice is the largest. For irrigation, they build their farms directly on the hillside close to the Mekong River. Other major crops are sugarcane, cassava (manioc), corn (maize), sweet potatoes, and nuts. Even with the high temperatures, you can still see the people farming on the hillsides. However, the cattle make their way down to the water to cool off and find shade and water.

Slash and Burn Method

Burning of vegetation in Laos along Mekong River

Staying in Thailand during the smoky season, I was not a big fan of the constant haze and smoke that choked off the fresh air. During the spring/dry season, farmers in many Asian countries use the Slash and Burn method to clear their crops. This method has the farmers clearing their forested land and then doing controlled burns of the remaining vegetation. This leaves the soil with a nutrient-rich layer of soil that can be used for planting crops quickly.

Farmers that live in the hills usually raise crops on patches of land until the soil’s fertility is depleted. This can happen as quickly as three years. Once this happens, farmers then move on to another patch of land and repeat the process. It can take up to 6 years for that land to regain enough fertility to be used again. And in the meantime, this negatively affects the respiratory of people downwind. I hadn’t seen the fires until I was on the Mekong River. And even with being on the water, the heat terminating from the fire was intense. I’m surprised that more of these fires don’t get out of control as there are no systems and rules regarding these burns. I saw burns near telephone poles with the cables above. Crazy! And further down the river, you could see what remained after the fire was burnt out. Well, that and the haze.

Smoky haze covering the Laos Landscape

The Kids

Kids waiting for the Slow Boat to Arrive

And not to be outdone by the adults, the kids stole the show! Their smiles and cheers when the slow boat arrived warmed my heart. Oh, and them climbing up on the side of the boat offering bracelets for sale, you just had to get one, two, or a bunch of them. I’m hoping that what we give them goes to their families and helps them in a small way.

Kids selling bracelets on the Mekong River stops

Two Day Slow Boat to Luang Prabang Summary

Sunrise on the Mekong River

Cruising down the Mekong River was a profound experience for me. Not only with capturing as much as I could with my camera, seeing how the people of Laos live along the Mekong River, but interacting with fellow travelers. To have the freedom to travel to different countries is a luxury, not many people can afford or even have the desire to do. But, there is always a way to experience the adventure of a lifetime for those who have the interest. I hope that this blog post helps you decide that this is something you want to experience yourself someday or gives you tips on making your adventure on the Mekong River something special.

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Further Reading

If you are exploring Laos, Thailand, or Asia, check out these posts for extra travel inspiration:

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