Mekong river cruise

Huay Xai has a river border with Thailand, and is also the starting point for boats heading south-east on the Mekong towards Luang Prabang, former capital of Laos. Slow boats take two days, motor boats only six hours – but with a high risk of death. Our hotel sold us tickets for the slow boat (bikes go on the roof and cost extra) and insisted that in order to get a good seat we should be waiting at reception by 8.30 am. Well, we were first at the docks, first on the boat, and did indeed get some of the best seats on the boat. But so did the people who showed up at ten. Even the people who showed up at eleven did alright. The people who rocked up at 12 were perhaps a little less comfortable…but they had certainly had a good nights sleep and an enjoyable breakfast first.

The two days on the boat were enjoyably uneventful. The boat chugs along for about 6 hours a day, and stops overnight at the small town of Pak Beng. The Mekong is a very pleasant river, with great (if a bit repetitive) views of villages and jungle hillsides. We were grateful not to be cycling over many of the impressive peaks we slowly floated past. Our fellow passengers were, in most cases, quiet and kind and even included a couple of bike tourists doing similar trips to our own. They were also mostly foreign tourists, with only a handful of locals mixed in. One Canadian couple had cycled all the way from Hong Kong, and said that their most enjoyable cycling was in China. We may be tired of China, but they had valid points in the quality of the roads and the ease of finding places to stay and eat. On a less high note, there was also a group of extremely loud and increasingly drunk tourists on the second day. The English girl in front of us declared them “an embarrassment” to her friends. Yes, the drunks were also Brits.

In contrast to the calm of the trip, both of the unloading experiences were hellish; passengers and crew yelling and tossing bags around while local business owners pester you with fliers and hotel room offers. Although our bags are great for the bikes, it isn’t very convenient to disembark loaded with eight separate bags, helmets and other extras. Pak Beng was especially terrible for this since it was a small town designed entirely for tourists, and the ‘docks’ were just a steep sandy bank. Competition for the guesthouses was fierce, and if you didn’t move quickly you end up over-paying for a terrible room. Though in hindsight, it looked like every guesthouse in that town was terrible and overpriced. The businesses know you have no other option, so they take the opportunity to gouge you and have no incentive to improve their services.

We were told that the boat left Pak Beng at 8.30 the next morning, and so in order to get our bikes safely on the roof and our bums on good seats, we arrived at the dock by 7am. Of course the boat didn’t leave until everyone was onboard, by which time it was closer to ten. Ah well. It’s not like our beds were comfortable anyway.

Although the only scheduled stop was in Pak Beng, our boat did stop briefly several times along the way. Many of the villages along the Mekong are only accessible on foot or by boat, and we were frequently flagged down by t-shirt waving locals.

We arrived safely in Luang Prabang and, without too much effort, were able to find a cozy room in a pleasant guesthouse far enough from the main roads and bars to be quiet. Luang Prabang seems like a wonderful place to spend a few days and a few dollars.

Pictures can be seen here

~ by Elephants on November 16, 2010.

3 Responses to “Mekong river cruise”

  1. I always like to be in good time when I am travelling less stressful. It sounds like you were able to relax and enjoy the journey apart from the benidorm brits. Its cold, frosty and foggy here today. Tell about the weather with you I want to imagine being warm. Love L x

  2. It might be wrong since i see no mention of it anywhere and stuff, but my phone tells me today is Matt’s birthday, so… happy birthday if that’s the case (otherwise, just please kindly correct me and I’ll try to be right next time).

    **back after a quick check on Couchsurfing, November 16th should be right, so Happy Birthday Matt. I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful party over there with all your friends 😀 As for me, I’ll have a drink for you over here**

    Also, i seldom leave comments, but i do read your articles, so keep up with the good work (just add who writes somewhere if possible, even if it’s Alison most of the time, it would make for clearer articles.

  3. Luang Prabang is a wonderful city and has retained its traditions and character. I’m sure you guys are having a great time there. Be sure to get up early to observe the monks in the morning. There are some fantastic places to eat on the river, so don’t miss those either. The night market can also be fun, although it is quite touristy. Pak Ou could be an interesting day trip from there, and there are many small villages along the way.

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