The 2 day Mekong River Cruise through Laos was one of our favorite travel experiences through Southeast Asia. We left Thailand to travel up to Laos and following the Gibbon Experience we spent two days on a slow boat traveling down river. If you plan to visit Luang Prabang (which we highly suggest), you should add this experience to your list. Asia has no shortage of over-night bus rides and Laos is no different. If you are short on time there are bus options to Luang Prabang that get you there in one day, but we suggest making time for this as you see a different part of the country and meet several like minded travelers along the way.
There are two cruise options- luxury or backpacker/local boat. We discussed the luxury option with a tour operator, which was the same type of boat with less people, a few stops at local villages, one night in an upscale hotel in Pakbeng and meals included. This cost was $145pp and if you’re familiar with how cheap things are in SE Asia, this is outrageously expensive. We opted for the backpacker/local cruise instead that cost $27pp and we found our own guesthouse for the night in Pakdeng for $7. The downstream cruise that we took moves quicker than the upstream one, but expect to be on the boat for 6-8 hours per day leaving between 9 & 10 am daily.
Booking your cruise is easy. If you are leaving Thailand you can book a package in any of the northern cities (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai) that provides bus transport to the border, one night accomodation before you cross the next day and transport to the dock. If you are already in Laos, whether that’s Hoay Xai or Luang Prabang, restaurants, guesthouses and tour companies will all be selling tickets for the boats. The boat leaves around 11am from Hoay Xai and will wait for anyone doing a border crossing so don’t worry about the boat taking off without you.
The views from the boat are stunning. You will see Buddhist temples, pass local villages and fisherman and herds of animals along the way. There is a bar on board to purchase drinks and snacks from but we suggest bringing something more substantial (pringles don’t cut it). We had a great time meeting other travelers and families, discussing adventures, playing cards and enjoying beers. The boat stops in Pakbeng for the night and as soon as you arrive, expect to be greeted by hoards of people asking if you want to stay in their guesthouse. There is nothing to see or do in this town so pick the first place that looks clean and relax for the night. We found a guesthouse for $7, but there are certainly much nicer places if you want to spend more. The Indian restaurant on the main road is the best dinner you’ll find and there are a few bars to finish off the night before you leave at 9am the next morning.
On day 2 you leave at 9am for another 6-8 hours of travel before you get to Luang Prabang. The boat will drop you just outside of town and tuk tuks are waiting to take you into the city center for $2. If you are leaving Luang Prabang to head back into Thailand you can also book tickets to travel upstream, with boats going slightly slower but costing the same and running just as frequently.
If you are looking for an experience that allows you to see parts of Laos not viewed by bus or plane, add this to the list and enjoy a relaxing few days on the river.