Laos: Taking the Slow Boat on the Mekong

A journey through the beautiful People’s Democratic Republic of Laos is all about rivers and my journey on the ‘Slow Boat’ down the Mekong was one of the most memorable experiences of my travel in Laos.

I first crossed the Mekong at the northern Thai border from Chiang Khong to Huay-Xai in a longtail boat and entered the country under a lowering monsoon sky. The heavens presently opened as I grasped my backpack tightly to stop it from falling into the river.

Luckily the deluge ended before I got on board a big open sided boat for the two-day slow boat trip to Luang Phabang.

Fifteen years ago tourists to Laos caught a lift on a cargo boat but these days the boatmen have figured they can make more money from the falang than from a few sacks of rice. Backpackers are loaded onto the boat like cattle.  This was not the most comfortable journey ever.  In fact I swore at the time I would never complain about a longhaul economy flight again (I’ve already broken that promise).

It is basically two long days on a narrow wooden seat. I had judged the boat to be full to capacity when we launched but the boat proceeded to stop at different villages to take on board what seemed to be the entire population and their possessions. These (live and otherwise) took up all unavailable space.  The already overloaded boat sank ever lower in the water and was definitely listing to one side, my side.

Slow boat to Laos

However, forgetting the discomfort (and I already have) this was an incredible journey down the  mighty Mekong, one of the great rivers of the world, and it’s most untamed.

Steep hillsides covered with lushly green creeper-enmeshed jungle, arching fronds of bamboo forest, tiny bamboo and thatch hut villages, the occasional crop or orchard hacked out of the jungle, and naked children swimming and waving enthusiastically staring curiously from the banks. It is a true image of this long-isolated country of Laos.

Slow boat to Laos

Even to my inexperienced eye the river looked like it requires careful handling.  Surface whirlpools and rocky outcrops in the brown water.

The boat stops for the night at a small village and it was easy to find a room in a basic guesthouse, obviously rejecting the weed salesmen in the corridors.

Next day the boat continues to its destination – the fabled and historical Laos capital of Luang Phabang. As it approaches Luang Phabang the river becomes ever wider and more majestic, a great yellow sheet of water towered over by limestone mountains.

It was not a comfortable two days but it was certainly a memorable one and certainly didn’t stop me from catching another slow boat further south in Laos – to the temples at Champasek.

By Natasha von Geldern

Have you travelled by slow boat in Laos?

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