Slow boat on the Mekong: Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos

The Mekong River is one of the world’s longest, running for 4000km from the Tibetan plateau, through southern China, along the borders of Myanmar and Thailand, across Laos, Cambodia and flowing into the South China sea through its massive delta in Vietnam. The Mekong supports the livelihoods of more than 50 million people.

The two-day journey from Huay Xai on the Thai border in north-west Laos, to Luang Prabang, the beautiful World Heritage listed ancient royal capital, via slow boat on the Mekong River has become a popular part of the Laos itinerary for many travellers. I was curious about the Middle Mekong; I’d seen it choking, filled with rubbish in Phnomh Penh, Cambodia, and as a maze of waterways at its delta in Vietnam. I wondered, too, what slow river travel was like – it’s something from a bygone era.

As we were travelling with kids, we decided not to take the potentially crowded and uncomfortable public boat: we spent a bit more money on a mid-level outfit (Nagi of the Mekong) that provided lunch and snacks, and more spacious, comfy seating (well, as comfy as a minivan seat transplanted into a boat can get). Our accommodation in Pak Beng was also included.

A quick note: all of our fellow passengers came directly from the Thai side of the border to the boat. If you’re doing this trip, spend a couple of days in Huay Xai in Laos before you get on the boat. (And read our top 5 things to do in Huay Xai!)

Each day was approximately seven hours of cruising. Here’s the boat:

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And us on the boat:

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The scenery was pretty consistent for most of the trip. Flatter farming areas gave way to steeper terrain, with forested banks and mountain scenery. The boat manoeuvred around craggy rock islands, submerged rocks and small rapid sections.

Mekong River Huay Xai Luang PRabang

Many of the areas we passed were severely deforested. Slash and burn agriculture is unfortunately still widespread all over Laos. A smoky haze hangs over the country at this time of year (March-April) as the dry season ends and the land is cleared and burned in preparation for planting in the coming monsoon. Most of the original forests along the Mekong in this region are gone. Even steep hillsides are no deterrent for the poorest farmers – it’s the only land they can access and work.

A village stop is included each day of the trip, but the reviews I read on TripAdvisor described the visits as a walk around sad little hamlets where cashed up tourists gawk at the terrible living conditions of the locals. Rather than joining the invasion with several boatloads of other tourists, we sat on the beach. As Phoebe and Blake paddled, watched by the local kids, the boys all suddenly decided to take a swim.

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There was also some showing off for the camera.

The slow boats are an attractive sight on the river, and bamboo poles (kept up front) are still used to get them out of the shallows.

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img_5892Back on the boat, things were not always exciting, but we got by with umpteen games of Boggle, journal writing, reading, and some gaming time. I finished a book.

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The sun was setting as we neared Pak Beng for our overnight stop.

Our hotel was in a top spot – looking right out over the river.

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Sunrise was not too bad, either.

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Day two began with a sighting of two elephants and their mahouts on the far shore.

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I am torn about this next image, but I am going to include it because it’s the truth. It’s at our second village stop, on the beach as we disembarked the boat. There’s a horrible sense of racial and socio-economic division in this photograph of the little girls from the village selling their wares to the rich little white girl. It’s heartbreaking to think about these little ones set to work – when they should be at school – to support their families. I also felt a deep sense of culpability for being there to allow this exploitation to occur.

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As I explained to Phoebe that these girls, her age, often don’t go to school because they have to go to work, I hope at least to have opened up her eyes a little to the inequities of the world, and how lucky she is. As the girls taught us to count to ten in Lao, I wished that their parents could see that his daughters would go further in the long run by going to school rather than selling bracelets on the beach. When it’s a struggle to put dinner on the table, the long-term reward is difficult to imagine. Education is key and many organisations such as ActionAid are supporting girls’ education in Laos. I hope they can make a difference and turn this situation around.

On a lighter note, Pak Ou Caves was the final stop before our arrival in Luang Prabang. The caves contain Buddhist temples and were once frequented by Lao royalty.

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The view wasn’t bad either!

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And we were still smiling at the end of our journey.

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The verdict? Do it. It’s not often you have the opportunity to experience such a big section of one of the world’s great rivers. Just be aware the days are long and the landscape isn’t always exciting. Bring a book,some patience, and think about your interactions in the villages, and you will be well prepared.

 

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