There is possibly no better way to see the passing landscapes and daily traditions of Laos than by taking the popular slow boat from Chiang Rai, down to Luang Prabang in Laos, travelling down the mighty, and sometimes slightly perilous, Mekong River.
This is a very well-travelled route, but one which will show you traditions like no other. Obviously plan your journey to avoid over-crowding, but on the whole, this is the boat trip everyone should take at least once.
You can book your journey individually, or you can go through an agent, but however you choose to book it, you will generally travel from Chiang Rai, a vibrant and laid-back town in itself, to Chiang Kong by bus, which is on the Thai border with Laos. This is a great excuse to visit another destination en-route!
It’s at this point you will jump on your first boat, however this will be a long-tail ride, much faster, over to Huay Xai on the Laos side of the Mekong. You are now officially out of Thailand, and into Laos. Of course, this means immigration needs to be cleared, and once your passport is checked and your visa is purchased, you’re free to either explore Huang Xai, or head straight to your slow boat.
This is where the fun starts.
It’s advisable to get there early, because nobody wants to be sat over a roaring engine for a two day trip, and it’s safe to say that the best seats are on a first come, first served basis.
So, what can you expect?
A slow boat trip down the Mekong will show you traditional village life as you pass by, obviously at a slow pace. The misty hillsides are perfect for those photographs you will remember forever, and the villages you pass are the typical Asian thatched hut-style farming areas, rustic, and very traditional. You will see villagers washing their clothes in the river at the banks, bathing, thrashing rice, and going about their daily business, in a slow, serene manner. Many of these villages don’t have electric, which makes you appreciate what you do have back at home in terms of home comforts.
Your halfway point at the end of day one will probably be an overnight stay in Pakbeng. You can easily find cheap accommodation here, but obviously if you’re first off the boat then you have more choice! Food is good and cheap, and there is one bar in this small town, so you can relax in the evening. It’s definitely worth exploring Pakbeng a little whilst you’re there.
You will board your second slow boat the next morning, getting there early again, and heading off on the final portion of your exploration of the Mekong. In parts the river can be narrow and fast moving, but the second half of the journey is no less fascinating than the first. You will pass the Pak Ou Caves as you get closer to your final destination of Luang Prabang in Laos, around 25km away. As you get closer to the city, which is still extremely small by other worldwide city terms, you will begin to see more signs of life.
Obviously once you arrive in Luang Prabang you will disembark your slow boat, and head off to explore this most populated part of Laos.
Is it worth it?
Definitely. There is probably no better way to explore Laos in relative comfort, passing beautiful and serene landscapes, and witnessing traditional, daily life.
Photo Credit: Julia Maudlin