The Slow Boat Down the Mekong

One of the slow boats on the Mekong River
One of the slow boats on the Mekong River

The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Laos, running through most of the country and providing resources for more than 50 million people. The shores are filled with villages, farms, boats and locals going about their daily lives. A glance into the horizon reveals beautiful mountain ranges, rock formations, blue skies and more. What better way to take it all in than a two day slow boat ride from Houayxai to Louang Prabang.

Filled with all Western tourists except for one Lao family and a few monks, our boat the first day was long, narrow, wooden and reminded me of a short ceilinged hallway. Our seats switched between the floor and thatched wooden chairs, as all of the comfy bus seat chairs were taken before we got in. The scene on the boat reminded us of a bar, as many travelers spent the day boozing it up on Beer Lao, singing and mingling. In fact, the most popular meeting spot was the line for the toilet.

An old man on a boat on the Mekong River, Laos
An old man on a boat on the Mekong River, Laos

While the party raged around us we relaxed in our chairs, watching the world go by. Fishing was a common theme as many local fishermen sat in small dinghies with bamboo fishing poles waiting for a tug. Others cast out nets to catch their day’s meal while others still just placed their fishing poles on rocks with a line in the water and left them there until later.

Every few hours the boat would stop on the shore somewhere to drop off something being ferried on the roof or to pick up more cold beer and we would be invaded by hordes of vendors: usually children. The boat was quickly filled with the sounds of “chips, coca cola, Beer Lao, pineappllllllle?” Literally, they were selling the same goods as the boat had for sale but for some reason they made a killing and left with their baskets empty.

The town of Louang Prabang with the Mekong River running through it
The town of Louang Prabang with the Mekong River running through it

Eight hours after leaving Houayxai we arrived in Pakbeng, a river town whose sole means of income seems to be the daily stop over of hundreds of westerns. There is one street that makes its way up a hill and features nothing but guesthouses, restaurants and little stores.

While I’m sure that there is a whole other side to the town, it is one that tourists never get to see. After getting off the boat and a mad dash to find a cheap and good guesthouse, we spent the evening wandering around before the power went off at 10pm, as it does every night.

Day two of our boat ride began with a surprise: the two boats leaving that morning had been consolidated into one. So, instead of leg and walking room we now had more than 100 people crammed into a space big enough to fit maybe half of that comfortably. Our seats for the next seven hours were benches with little leg room and, although the scenery continued to be stunning, we were very ready to be done with the trip by the time we got off at Louang Prabang.

A panoramic view of the Mekong River from the slow boat including a look inside