Photo Essay: Taking the slow boat along the Mekong River in Laos

I was flipping through the pages of Budget Travel magazine the other day and noticed an article about a boat journey along the Mekong River in Laos.

Since we had taken a similar trip in 2008, I was curious to read their impression of this popular backpacker excursion.  The standard trip begins in Huay Xai and goes to Luang Prabang, with a stop in the tiny town of Pakbeng.

Needless to say, what I found in the pages of their ‘budget’ magazine was a much more upscale version of what we experienced.

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Slow boats line the harbor.

The cost

Budget Travel writer Tom Downey joined eight other tourists on a two day boat tour that costs $415 per person, including meals and one night in a hotel.

In contrast, our trip was on a cramped boat with perhaps 40 other tourists and locals. We purchased the tickets on the day of departure for $25 per person, and spent just $2 for a simple hotel room at the stopover point. Meals cost only a few dollars between us.

While we didn’t have all of the comforts described in the Budget Travel article, we sat next to locals, stopped frequently in tiny villages and gained insight into the lives of rural Laotians.

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A tourist fulfills his National Geographic fantasies by snapping photos of Laotian families on the slow boat.

Mix of locals and tourists

When we arrived at the slow boat launch in Huay Xai the area was packed with wooden boats. Fortunately, they departed in a steady stream as soon as they filled up with passengers.

Our boat had a mix of travelers and locals, including some tourists who had no qualms about photographing local families from two feet away. Of course, they never asked for permission or even gestured at their subjects to see if it was OK to snap a photo. We felt awkward just watching the uncomfortable expressions on the faces of local women, but the amateur photographers didn’t seem fazed.

It seemed that the Laotian passengers were eying the tourists as much as we were observing them. They must have wondered what we were doing on the slow boats, which are the Mekong version of a commuter train.

Photo highlights

Words can’t describe the amazing scenery we passed in the Mekong Delta. Scroll down for photos of our journey.

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The opaque brown water in the Mekong River contrasts with the bright green hue of the rolling green hills.

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The number of slow boats seemed to multiply as the journey progressed. The boats are an efficient way to get around this part of Laos, and locals hop on and off at each stop.

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The boat supplied seats, but they were solid wood with no cushioning. It was actually more comfortable to sit on the ground.  After 12 hours a day for two straight days, our butts were killing us!

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We passed tiny villages, where the boat stopped to drop off or pick up cargo.  At one port we unloaded a dozen motorbikes that had been strapped to the roof at a previous stop. By the end of the trip, the boat was packed with crates, baskets and plastic drums!

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A small wicker basket caught our eye when it started to move.  We watched as a crab slowly worked its way out of the basket, which was in fact a cage (see above).  Finally the crab escaped and wandered across the floor until a local woman nonchalantly picked it up, pulled off its legs, and put it in her purse.

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The Mekong sunsets were beautiful, although the mosquitoes arrived around the same time.

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View from out hotel room.

During our overnight stop in Pakbeng we stayed in a family-run guesthouse that cost $2 per person.  The town was so isolated that they turned the power off at 10pm.  We didn’t take any photos of the room, but this is the view from our window.

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Leslie and Jake on the slow boat.

Despite the hardships, I think the less expensive boat is the better way to travel down the Mekong.

We had a chance to glimpse the “real” Laos, since a good chunk of the passengers on our boat were Laotians and we visited several villages during the frequent stops to load and unload cargo.

For more info

Check out the Huay Xai and Luang Prabang WikiTravel pages for details of the slow boat and visitor information.


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About Jake Semmel

I'm a blogger and round the world traveler. I'm always on the lookout for new places to scuba dive, hike and ski.