Travel Tips: The Slow Boat on the Mekong (Laos Edition)
I have received quite a bit of feedback from folks on my recent South East Asian travel posts – a sign to me that other people find much of the information on the web and in guidebooks as misleading and out of date as I do. I’m going to do my best to stay current on this from here on out, but if you’ve got any questions or want me to skip ahead, please ask.
2011 Asian Itinerary:
Thailand – Laos – Vietnam – Singapore – Hong Kong
Macau – Philippines – Myanmar – Sri Lanka – India –Nepal
There are times when it feels like I spend half my day at the computer researching travel routes, accommodations, VISA fees, entry regulations, flight schedules and more. I’m sure many of you know exactly how I feel and have spent your fair share of time and energy scrounging travel forums for up-to-date information on your preferred destination.
More frustrating is when you come across a bit of information that seems helpful on the surface but turns out to be half a decade out of date; I don’t care if 1,000 Myanmar black market Kyat was worth $1 US dollar in 2003, I want to know what it’s worth today!
To that end I’m blogging about a few of my travel experiences from the road in a general capacity. I’ll write about crossing land borders, the best time to book flight tickets, how and where to get a VISA for a particular destination and so on and so forth. This is and shall be subjective, of course, but I’ll try and stick to the cold hard facts where applicable. And maybe every now and then I’ll interject with a photo tip or two and an amusing anecdote or another. Read on if you’re interested in the subject matter at hand; skip to another post if you’re here looking for photography insights, tips, tricks and more.
For Part 1, Click Here.
Part 2: Taking the slow boat down the Mekong River (Laos Edition)
Phase One: Accommodations and Slow Boat Tickets
The range of accommodations in Huay Xia are limited. There are plenty of guest houses along the main road from the boat landing and then plenty more near the slow boat pier offering the same general level of service. Just keep in mind that this isn’t a five-star operation; from here until you touch solid earth in Luang Prabang you’re going to be doing things Laos style on Laos time. We settled on a hotel at the top of the hill from the boat landing; it had large rooms, AC, hot showers and, most importantly, WiFi. One more technological infusion before our arduous boat trip! (Actually, we used it to book hotels in Luang Prabang and beyond. We book through agoda.com whenever we can; great deals and points that can be used for free hotel rooms. I hate spending time wandering around a town looking for a deal on a hotel room; I’d rather book something online and arrive worry-free).
We arranged our slow boat tickets through our hotel as well. There seems to be a lot of contention out there about the cost of the trip from start to finish, but I found this process to be a simple one. The price as marked on the ticket is 110,000 Laos kip from Huay Xia to Pak Ben – the halfway point. If you buy your tickets at the slow boat pier you’ll have to buy two, of course, to get you all the way to Luang Prebang, bringing the total to 220,000. Our hotel charged us 235,000 kip each. That extra 15,000 represents about $2 USD, not something to get bent out of shape about. Generally we find it easier to package things together where and when we can – we’d rather spend more time exploring than searching for deals.
Phase Two: Huay Xia to Pak Beng – on the river
Seats on the slow boat are assigned; don’t worry about showing up half an hour early as the boat isn’t going anywhere until it is loaded with people and whatever supplies the good people at the pier need to transport down the river. Don’t be afraid of asking someone sitting in your seat to move, either; people often park their asses wherever they want, causing problems later on.
You can buy beer, cold drinks and noodles on board. Stock up on food only if you really need to; you’re going to be sitting all day without any exercise. You may not need half a dozen ham and cheese sandwiches to tide you over.
Kids jump on and off the boat at various points along the river. They really, really want to sell you warm beer. They also want to sell you warm fish cakes.
Arriving in Pak Beng after a long day on the river means dealing with hoards of touts bent on selling you their hotel experience. Be vigilant here; some of the guesthouses are much rougher than others. They’re all cheap, though, save for one upscale option on the top of the hill to the left of the boat landing. Look to pay between 200-300 baht for a room with AC. The rooms get cheaper the further up the hill you go (baht and kip are accepted all along the river).
The food in Pak Beng is excellent – especially when you get it from locals on the street. If you eat banana pancakes in Laos at some foreign-owned guesthouse you should be ashamed of yourself!
There’s a quaint village here, a few bars worth kicking back and sharing a beer at and numerous vendors selling delicious grilled pork and lemongrass sausages. Just mind the early curfew and you’ll have a great time. And don’t be a complete idiot and buy drugs from any of the people selling contraband in town; if you do, you risk spending the rest of our life in a Laos jail and/or delaying the boat for all the passengers with common sense.
The second day on the river passes like the first; seemingly endless hours of rugged countryside roll by as you try to spot elephants taking a dip in the river. Buy some fish cakes from local kids like our Austrian friend did and marvel at the many villages you stop at along the way. The speed boat would have got you to LP faster, but the slow boat is one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips you’ll be glad you took (though it’s unlikely you’ll ever want to take it again!).
Phase Three: Arrive in Luang Prabang
You’ll know you’re getting close to Luang Prabang when the river widens and you see the oft-visited caves on your right side (can’t miss them; every passenger on the boat will point them out for you).
There’s a new Lao-owned vegetarian restaurant open near the Hotel Villa Deux Rivieres in Luang Prabang; all their proteins are made from tofu and assembled to look like chicken, beef, eggs or pork (pictured).
I strongly suggest you have your accommodations booked prior to your arrival. If you don’t, it’s likely that you’re going to be swarmed by canvassers the moment you step off the boat. You don’t need the hassle; if you haven’t booked a hotel, ignore everyone and walk up the hill, turn left and drop your bags at the first riverside restaurant you see. Enjoy a Lao Beer or two over the Mekong and wait for the crowds to disperse. When it’s all clear, then you can head out and look for a place to sleep.
I recommend the Hotel Villa Deux Rivieres; a gorgeous new hotel with a ton of ambiance. We were working on a luxury travel story in LP but we’d come back here for a stay in a heartbeat.
Things to Consider:
1. The waterfalls close to Luang Prabang, while oft-visited by tourists, are a great place to relax and spend a bit of time swimming. Pink eye can be a problem during the rainy season, though. Keep that in mind.
2. Always ask a monk before you take his picture (if you’re close enough that he notices you). I see a lot of rude tourists shove their cameras into a monk’s face and click away. Don’t. You wouldn’t like it – neither do the monks, who have to put up with constant attention from tourists in Luang Prabang. Be respectful. Be doubly respectful during the Alms Giving in the morning.
3. Luang Prabang is the most comfortable town in Laos; it’s unlike the rest of the country (save for parts of the capital). Don’t expect free wifi, hot showers or working electricity if you venture into the country after your stay here.
4. Visit the real LP; the part of town where locals actually live. Stop in at a rural village. While the UNESCO Old City of LP is a wonderful place to visit, it’s not all there is to Luang Prabang.
5. Visit Tamarind Restaurant. The Laos food here is exceptional; a lot of care and effort goes into these dishes. The quality of food increases the further you venture toward the conflux of the two rivers (and the further you get from the main backpacking zone!). Also try Three Nagas if you’re looking for upmarket Laos fair.
6. Don’t be afraid of Laos food; it is sensational. Try as much street food as you can. As long as it has been cooked (don’t eat raw veggies!) you should be fine.
7. Enjoy yourself. Luang Prabang is one of Asia’s most alluring town’s for good reason. It’s easy to lose yourself here for a long time.
8. Don’t bother renting a motorbike here; $25 a day is mental in South East Asia. It’s cheaper (and easier!) to rent a jumbo (large tuk-tuk) with a driver. Split the cost with friends, pay your driver for the day and stop wherever you like.
9. Skip Vang Vieng, on the way out, unless you’re looking for Spring Break: Asian Edition.
Don’t act like an asshole with a camera; be respectful when shooting monks. Treat these young (and old) men with the respect they deserve. If you walked up to a priest in the USA, blocked his path and shot 15 pictures of him he’d probably punch you in the nose. You would deserve it.
Up Next: Laos Guide 3/3: Getting from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw