Just before heading to the border, we had made the decision to take the Mekong River cruise on a 'slow boat' from northern Laos, southwards to the town of Luang Prabang.
After a successful border crossing from Thailand to Laos the previous day and a good night's sleep in the small border town of Huay Xai we were ready for a new adventure.
There’s no train network anywhere in Laos so the alternative was going to be some buses or minivans through the long and winding roads. No contest, give us a boat on a smooth river any day.
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What are the boat options for the Mekong River Cruise?
There are 3 options for heading south to Luang Prabang via the Mekong River.
Public slow boat - the cheapest option at around 240,000 LAK ($30 USD) or less per person for the two-day journey. Google ‘slow boat to Laos’ and you’ll find plenty of info and pictures with a wide variety of reviews and opinions on how good or hellish this option is.
Speedboat - at 345,000 LAK ($40 USD) per person it's a little more expensive but will get you to Luang Prabang in around 6 hours with 1 quick stop along the way.
A quick search on this option gives you plenty of warnings as these boats travel at speed in a river peppered with massive rocks. It's time vs. risk on this option and you just have to hope it won't rain!
Posh 'private' slow boat - the most expensive and 'touristy' option at around 1,200,000 LAK ($150 USD) per person. The boat will make some stops along the way to visit local villages and caves plus lunch is served onboard. The price stated would include accommodation overnight at the halfway stop in Pakbeng at a posh lodge.
Booking the slow boat with Mekong Smile Cruises
After reading a fair few articles from fellow travel bloggers and other online reviews about the Mekong River cruise on the slow boat we opted to book the posh ‘private’ version with Mekong Smile Cruise.
There’s no online booking facility on the Mekong Smile website but you can pay via PayPal via email if you’d prefer an online transaction.
Like me, you may not want to transfer your hard-earned money to a stranger online so they have an office in the centre of Huay Xai which is open until at least 7 pm. Here you can pop in and pay the night before like we did.
Having used the company I’d suggest using PayPal if possible as ATMs in Laos let you take a maximum of 1,500,000 LAK per time ($185) so if you’re booking for 2 it means 2 ATM visits.
There’s a 20,000 LAK (£1.70) charge per withdrawal to factor in plus running up and down Huay Xai High Street trying to find a functioning ATM when you’re hungry isn’t anyone's idea of fun I’m sure.
Booking in person gave us a chance to chat with Pheng who runs the operation from Huay Xai. He’s a lovely fella and we could tell he cares deeply about giving a great experience to all that book with Mekong Smile.
I told him to put more of his personality into the website as that would sell way more seats I'm sure.
The boats run every few days so you can just book onto the next Mekong River cruise with space available and away you go.
Day 1 - The Mekong River Cruise adventure begins
The great thing about taking a private slow boat is they have a restriction on the number of seats sold. Mekong Smile says there won’t be more than 26 passengers on their boats so everyone has plenty of space.
With this in mind, we jumped into our hostel pickup minivan with 2 other couples and set off for the pier. Our guide for the next 2 days, Kat, gave us a quick intro on the short journey down to the river.
Arriving at the pier all 6 of us boarded our slow boat and were expecting to wait for a few more vans of people to join us on this exciting Mekong River cruise as the engine suddenly started up.
Before we had time to say hi to the others onboard we were cruising out into the middle of the Mekong with virtually the whole boat to ourselves, perfect.
So our shipmates for the next 2 days turned out to be a couple from Canada and another couple from Germany. Everyone seemed pretty chilled out and we started the journey south and Kat showed us around the boat.
What’s onboard a slow boat?
The designs vary slightly from boat to boat but here’s an idea of the layout we had onboard.
Right at the back of the boat is the separate ‘house’ where the crew sleep and cook and this is also where the noisy but mighty engine lives.
In the main section, there were 2 toilets at the back next to an open area which had tea, coffee and fruit that you could help yourself to and beer, coke and snacks to buy if you wanted.
There were around 8 tables with 2 seats facing each other along either side of the boat. The seats looked like they had been removed from a transit van and were very comfortable but also reclined fully if you fancied a nap. Nice.
Up at the front just before the captain's seat were 2 benches on either side with cushions so you could lie down and watch the stunning scenery pass you by.
Mobbed by local children
Our only stop on the first day of our Mekong River cruise was at a riverside village where we had a quick walk around as Kat talked us through the ways and culture of the inhabitants.
What seemed like all the kids in the village had been busy making colourful bracelets and were well practised in following any visitors around hoping for a sale. I’m not sure how many boats a day stop here but Kat told us it was one of the only sources of income beyond trading anything they catch or grow in the surrounding area.
Kat also mentioned that everyone in the village had contributed towards sending one person to college to study in the hope that they would come back and teach the children. Quite a lot of pressure on that one person we thought!
Both myself and Kristina agreed that we felt a little bit awkward with this village visit. The locals just stared at us while we wandered around between their huts and then got back onboard our boat and headed off.
It is fascinating to see how the people in these remote communities live and a stark reminder of the abundance of stuff available to us every day. However, the experience feels a little hollow and you just wonder what the locals made of us silly tourists.
Lunchtime on day one
As if to give the contrasts between us and the villagers even more impact, shortly after climbing back onboard we were served a delicious lunch.
There was a good spread of dishes with something to suit all tastes. Kristina got stuck into the sticky rice and I enjoyed the chicken, vegetable and noodle mix.
The cook was the captain's wife and worked magic in her tiny kitchen at the back of the boat. The food was a great addition to the peaceful Mekong River cruise and tasted even better for the relaxing surroundings.
Feeling the effects of a sizeable feast we kicked back with a couple of BeerLao and chilled for the rest of the afternoon. It was so relaxing just watching the lush green scenery pass by.
Slow boat overnight stop at Pakbeng
It was soon 4 pm and time to pull into the small town of Pakbeng, our overnight stop by the Mekong River. When booking the Mekong River cruise we opted for the accommodation suggested by the company for an extra $20 per person.
We certainly could have found cheaper by ourselves but this took the hassle out of finding somewhere. It also gave us more time to enjoy the town before the public slow boat crowd showed up a couple of hours later.
The accommodation provided was the Mekong Riverside Lodge, a series of bamboo and wooden huts perched on the hill overlooking the dock below. It was a stunning vantage point but we didn't have long to enjoy it as we met up with Kat again around 5 pm to head to the market.
To be honest we could have skipped this bit as the market looked very sad compared to the lush fresh markets we had enjoyed in Thailand. It was quite interesting to see rats, ants eggs and buffalo skin for sale but it did make me wonder what we would eat for dinner. Yikes.
The question was answered as Kat led us to a restaurant he recommended and the 6 of us enjoyed sampling the local food. Our guide disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a couple of bottles of local ‘whisky’.
Concocted from fermented rice, this local moonshine is sold everywhere in Laos despite being officially illegal. There was one bottle with clear liquid and one with dark, we tried the clear first.
It certainly burnt a little on the way down and we found the darker stuff a lot more palatable. Maybe it’s our love of dark rum that shone through?!
Happy bar anyone?
Maybe it was the local brew, maybe it was the fresh river air but we were in the mood for another drink or two. When docking earlier in the daylight we had noticed a sign for the ‘Happy Bar’ up on the hill side just past our huts.
After checking earlier in the evening we decided it didn’t quite live up to the name and gave it a miss but on the way home for the night gave it another go. We met another 4 lost souls who were just about to pass on it as well until we all decided to pile in and make the most of it.
The local chaps running it were very happy to get some custom and gave us all some free whisky shots to start things off. After a few beers and a good natter with fellow long term travellers it was time to slip under the mosquito net and dream of the gentle Mekong flowing on by.
So after an epic first day of our Mekong River cruise on the slow boat and a good nights sleep we were keen for more.
We were up early and wandered down to the riverside around 6am to take in the beauty of the location before the town came to life and people started boarding their boats.
It was very tranquil for about 5 minutes until a massive lorry backed down the ramp and started loading up one of the barges, still we had enjoyed our brief peaceful moment by the Mekong and headed up into the village for some breakfast.
Day two - back onboard the slow boat to Luang Prabang
After a pretty poor breakfast of scrambled eggs and bread, the only disappointing element of the overnight stay in Pakbeng, we climbed back on board our slow boat and got comfortable for the next few hours.
We pulled away from the dock at around 7.30 and instantly relaxed back into the pace of the river for the next few hours.
There was only one extra passenger today so it was still like having a boat to yourself, ideal for a morning snooze as we chugged along.
Another slightly awkward village visit
After a few hours it was time for the first stop of the day at another tribal village, Ban Baw.
The previous day our guide Kat had mentioned it would be a good idea to bring something to give out to the kids of the village as they were very poor.
This put us in an instant dilemma and we considered simply bringing nothing but settled on a bag of some weird Japanese potato snacks. Well we didn't fancy giving them sweets to rot their teeth in a village with no dentist.
Disembarking from our boat we were mobbed by the most of the kids from the village and tried to distribute our snacks fairly but some of the cheeky buggers kept hiding their snacks and coming to get more. There were just a few girls that waited patiently and said thank you so we made sure they got some.
As we walked around Ban Baw village Kat told us about the methods they use to make the roofing for the huts and grind out the sticky rice as the women worked away hard beside him.
There was definitely a bit more going on here than yesterday's stop and we met the 1 local that was sent off to study and has come back to teach the local children.
The most fascinating sight was an 8 year old girl cracking open nuts with a machete much to the horror of the older ladies from another Mekong River cruise that had docked just before us. This is just something you wouldn't see back in the UK and goes to highlight the void that exists in the world.
It was sad to see there were wrappers from the snacks we had given now scattered all around the place. We picked a few up as a gesture but still felt stupid for giving them in the first place, I'm not sure why Kat said we should.
If you're visiting here definitely don't bring stuff to give, it would be much nicer if there was a way to donate and train more teachers.
Visiting Pak Ou Caves by the Mekong
Back onboard and it was once again time for a filling buffet style lunch. We really can't fault the food with Mekong Smile and after a couple of helpings I felt like I was ready for an afternoon nap.
Kat soon informed us that we were closing in on the end destination of Luang Prabang fast but it would soon be time for our final stop of the day, Pak Ou caves.
Rounding a bend in the river an mighty limestone karst reared in the distance, this was home to the famous caves. There's Tham Ting (lower cave) and the Tham Theung (upper cave) hidden inside the rock and each contain hundreds of Buddha images in different positions carefully laid out over several levels.
It's a very impressive sight, we had around 40 minutes to explore both caves and it was quite a climb up the 300 plus steps to the upper cave in the hot sun.
Some visitors were turning back half way up but we made it and entered the darkness to be greeted by many more wonderful glittering Buddha images.
Back onboard we sailed on for less than an hour to reach the 'new pier' a few kilometers outside Luang Prabang.
If this was the new pier I'm not sure how bad the old one was because there was just a wooden plank onto some sand to scrabble over to reach the steps up to the road.
We waved goodbye to the crew, the captain and his excellent wife the cook and jumped into the waiting minivan.
Mekong Smile provide this final bit of transport to drop you directly at your hotel in the total price, if you were on the public boat you would have to stump up for an overpriced Tuk tuk.
Is it worth getting the slow boat with Mekong Smile Cruises?
In short, yes. It of course depends on your budget but around a month into our trip this is the first thing that we really splurged on.
As mentioned earlier, there are other cheaper ways to go but sometimes you have to weigh up if you are using the river just to get to the next place or if you want to really explore and enjoy it.
If it's the latter then consider taking a 'posh' slow boat for your Mekong River cruise.