Cruising down the Mekong River

The 12th longest river in the world, the mighty Mekong, snakes its way 4,350 km through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.  We began our journey through Laos with a two-day “luxury” cruise down the Mekong, starting in the border town of Houay Xai and ending 300 km downstream in the Unesco World Heritage Center of Luang Prabang.


The trip from Bangkok to Houay Xai was surprisingly easy: a cheap Air Asia flight to Chiang Rai followed by a bumpy 2 hour ride on a local bus to the Thai/Laos border at Chiang Khong.  We managed to sneak ahead of a large Asian tour group on the Thai side and sailed through customs in minutes.  A short ferry ride to the other side of the Mekong River and we again breezed through Lao customs; this time I was singled out of another large Asian crowd and processed ahead of them – maybe the custom official liked my light coloured hair, or maybe he  took pity on me, an old woman carrying a  heavy pack.  Whatever the reason, we obtained our Laos Visas in record time.

The one street town of Houay Xai is popular amongst tourists as a gateway to slow and fast boat trips down the Mekong as well as adventure tours to the north.  On arrival we found ourselves a simple room with private bath in a typical guest house and opted to do it on the cheap – no television or air conditioning making this the cheapest accommodations to date, at nine bucks for the night.   It was perfectly adequate although the bed was rock hard (like most beds in Thailand), the fan only had one speed (warp speed which made me fear it was going to come crashing down on our heads at any moment), and a nearby rooster that started crowing in the middle of the night.  Aside from that, it was fine.

As we wandered through town, it was easy to see the French influence here (dating back to the 18th century when Laos was part of French Indochina).  Baguettes were sold in every shop, and cars drove on the “right” side of the road.  But the most unusual thing we saw was Snake Whiskey which true to its name was a bottle of whisky with a snake coiled up  inside.  We were told it was an acquired taste, used by some as an aphrodisiac, while others claim it has medicinal benefits.   We decided to pass on this  one.

Without really knowing what a “luxury” boat entailed, we knew we didn’t want to take the regular slow boat to Luang Prabang because it had a reputation for being overcrowded and terribly uncomfortable.  As one blogger put it, “it was interesting for the first ten minutes, and then miserable for the next seven hours.”  Multiply that by 2 days, and we knew it wasn’t for us.  Once again, luck was on our side as we managed to snag two of the last seats on a Shompoo Cruise that was leaving the next morning, the only luxury boat with seats still available.

All the boats departing the next morning – the cheap and the luxury – looked the same on the outside – long, narrow 35-meter wooden structures.  The difference was in how they were laid out on the inside and how many passengers they took.  Our boat had a maximum capacity of 30 (there were 29 on our cruise) and the interior of the boat was built of local rosewood and teak, offering a sun lounge area at the front, ten tables in the middle and a bar and sitting area in the back.  The regular boats that we saw were equipped with chairs only, and these looked like they were old (uncomfortable) car seats.  Somehow they manage to cram upwards of 100 people on these boats that were the same size as ours.

As we waited to board, we met a young pair of Germans, Jacob and Josephine who were cousins, travelling together for a few weeks.  We hit it off with them right away, and later Stacey, an engineer from Canada, and Andrea, a physician from Austria joined our little group. We had lots of laughs with them over dinner both during the cruise and after landing in Luang Prabang.  Throughout our two days of cruising, we had lots of time to chat with the other passengers too, many of whom were also German.  We were lucky to be amongst such a fun group of people.

Our cruise included a guide who doubled up as our waiter on board.  We learned that he was originally from a hill tribe on the northern border of China and Vietnam.  His family sent him to the temple at the age of 10 (something quite common especially amongst rural families).  At the age of 26, he was forced to leave the temple when his mother passed away and there was no one to support his ageing father and grandfather who was 110 years old at the time.  He became a guide so that he could send money home  to his family each month.  He learned English, French, and Lao while studying at the temple, and continues his studies at the university in Luang Prabang during the wet season.  He wants to learn German, Spanish and Italian next.

On the first day, we stopped at a typical Hmong hill tribe village where the locals speak their own language.  We learned about their way of life, so isolated even from the local Laos population because they do not speak Laos.  Primitive bamboo huts with dirt floors and a modest two room school form the village.  The Hmong people rely on their shaman and a fortune teller when they are sick or injured.  They refuse modern medical treatment.  At the school, the children were busy making pottery, one of the many traditional skills they are taught.

As the sun was starting to set, we arrived in Pak Beng, a small village about half way to Luang Prabang and the place where we spent the night in a very comfortable bungalow overlooking the Mekong river.  At $45 per night (360,000 Kip), it was considered a mid-range choice, quite a step up both in price and quality from the night before.


View of the port from our bungalow verandah.
Impossible to tell which boat is ours as they all look the same.

Chris and Stacey looking up at our bungalow.

Our second day was much like the first, sailing from 8:00 in the morning until our arrival in Luang Prabang at around 5:00 in the evening.  We stopped at another hill tribe village, as well as Pak Ou Cave where hundreds of old Buddha statutes have been laid to rest, like a Buddha cemetery.   I thought the most interesting part of that stop was seeing the water marks of recent floods – at 30 m above the current water level it was hard to imagine.

The scenery along the Mekong was beautiful, but the glimpse into life along the river was what really captured my attention.  Primitive hill tribe villages dotted the mountain slopes, high above the river, safe from flood waters.  Fishing poles and nets were wedged into the rocks along the shoreline, neat rows of peanut plants  lined the sandy shores.  The sound of laughter echoed from children who swam and played butt naked in the river, waving to us enthusiastically as we passed by.  In the late afternoon, children were bathed in shallow waters  and mothers did laundry in the same murky waters.  Boats of all sizes navigated the river heading both north and south carrying every imaginable form of cargo from huge transport trucks, to local produce.  Speed boats whizzed by with people decked out in motorcycle helmets – sadly these fast boats are notorious for serious accidents.

Cruising the Mekong River for two days was a relaxing, educational and enjoyable experience, something we would highly recommend.

Category: Laos, South-east Asia
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2 Responses
  1. Julie says:

    Hi guys,

    Wow totally love this one!!! I think I have to visit that part of the planet, I think I should put it on my bucket list!!! Enjoy the rest of your journey, can’t wait to hear and see more…oxoxJulie

  2. Angus says:

    I agree with passing on the snake whiskey, looks pretty gross but then again I’d rather the snakes be on the inside of a bottle than on the outside 🙂 Snakes kind of creep me out. That would probably be my biggest fear travelling through asia, the snakes, and of course all my allergies. The whole time on the cruise I’d be watching for big water snakes to attack us and probably would have a hard time sleeping in the bungalow unless I had my own pet mongoose. And don’t get me started on spiders. Makes me appreciate Canadian winters 🙂