The Slow Boat down the Mekong, Laos

Laos, RTW: 2007-2008, Southeast Asia — By on July 29, 2008 9:01 PM

As if we hadn’t suffered enough already, Nicole, Aine, Jill, and I decided to torture ourselves slowly for two days by taking the “Slow Boat” down the Mekong River from HuayXai to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Aine was game for taking a “speed boat”; however, Nicole and I were scared after learning that the boats are very dangerous and accidents happen on a weekly basis. People have even died while riding on the fast boat as there is much debris in the Mekong and if the speed boat were to hit a rock or debris it is bound to crash and toss you into the river. Those who brave the speed boat are required to wear a helmet. While it would have been nice to arrive in Luang Prabang a day earlier, I really wasn’t in a big hurry to kill myself!

We investigated bus options as well; however, buses are known to break down and get stuck in the mud during wet season. We didn’t feel this was really a faster option. The only other option for transportation was to fly. The only airline that flys domestically in Laos is Laos Airlines. Safety records for Lao Airlines aren’t made public, and many international organizations and Western embassies advise against flying this airlines. Decided I wasn’t ready to die in an airplane crash either!

The Mekong is Southeast Asia’s greatest river, the world’s 10th longest, stretching nearly 3,000 miles from its source on the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea. It winds its way almost the full length of Laos, but our journey downriver covered just a short stretch (186 miles), from the border post of Huai Say to Luang Prabang.


We all grudgingly boarded the slow boat about 9:30 AM. A quick survey of the boat made us regret not arriving earlier! There were a few “good seats” which were airplane bucket seats placed in the middle isle. We spotted our Irish family who had arrived just before us. Kathy and Garreth had landed the last two bucket seats, I was happy for them. The only available seats were small wooden benches, the seat of which was very narrow and didn’t even allow for my skinny but to fit completely on it. We had each bought cushions to sit on as we knew the seats were going to be uncomfortable…we just didn’t realize just how uncomfortable they really were!

View of the boat from our wooden bench…

We sat on the benches until it became unbearable…

Aine suffers slowly on the floor…

Jill manages to sleep sitting up…

Aine was less than thrilled by our seating arrangements and wished she had taken the speedboat. We quickly realized there was absolutely no way to get comfortable in the seats and we took turns laying in the floor in front of our seats, and sitting on the window of the boat. Some very strange man kept yelling at us to get off the window but we just ignored him after a while.

One very smart man brought a hammock and hung it up in the front of the boat…we were very jealous! The boat was completely overcrowded and the last people on the boat were forced to sleep in the engine room and are sure to have lots part of their hearing that day!

The boat didn’t actually depart from Huay Xai for another 2 hours at about 11:30. We made several annoying stops along the way which resulted in children boarding the boat in attempts to sell us things. The only item sold on the boat is Beer Lao, so we had to bring food with us. There was a group of English people in front of us that brought a big bottle of Thai Whisky which they downed before the boat docked. They entertained themselves by playing guitars and singing. Poor Kathy was stuck in the seat beside them and was less than impressed with their musical talents.

There were quite a few interesting characters on the boat that we quickly entertained ourselves by coming up with appropriate nicknames for each. There was “Jesus” who looked just like him, and his girlfriend “Cindy Lauper” with her messy bleach blond hair with massive roots and her hot pink skirt. Then there were “The Giants” a group of very tall Dutch guys and girls. “Model Giant” was a very tall and pretty girl that wore loads of makeup and pearls on the boat each day. We all found this very strange as we had not even bothered to shower!

I passed the time by taking a short nap in the floor until I was so hot I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went into a zone listening to my iPod, I read my book and wrote in my journal as well. My butt hurt, my back hurt, and I felt very anxious.

The scenery entertained me for a while which was pretty minus the dirty brown Mekong. But as the Thai say it was “Same Same but Different” and after a while I was bored again.

After six hours on the boat, we finally stopped for the night at Pak Beng (aka. the shithole town!) Pak Beng is located on the Mekong about halfway to our final destination. We had to climb down a wobbly wooden plank where we found ourselves once again in the mud. Aine had a rolling suitcase which she had to carry over her head through the mud to our guesthouse. Needless to say, she wasn’t happy! Upon inspection of our room, Aine began to cry. I felt her pain as well, but I was also just happy to be off the damn boat!

Pak Beng is the smallest and most run down “town” I have stayed in thus far. The entire town runs on generators which only run from 7 am-11 pm….meaning we had to sleep in a very hot room without even a fan!!! I guess we can’t complain too much given that we each paid $1 USD for the room!

We had dinner at the guest house restaurant. Aine and I ordered “Fried Coconut Chicken”. Instead we were brought a dish that was clearly beef in gravy. We told the waiter we ordered chicken and he argued with us that it was chicken and told us to eat it and we would like it.

Over dinner we all decided that the Slow Boat is a big conspiracy against tourists. I find it hard to believe that the boat can not go faster than 20 mph. We believe the boat purposely goes so slow so that we are forced to stop the night in Pak Beng and spend our money on guesthouses and restaurants that otherwise would have absolutely no patrons.

As Nicole and I layed in bed sweating and wondering how we would ever sleep, we began to freak ourselves out at the idea that the entire town had no electricity and was completely dark. It seemed like a bad scene from a horror flick and we decided to take necessary precautions. Nicole barricaded the door with a chair and I slept with my swiss army knife.


I was determined to get one of the nicer bucket seats on day 2. Nicole and I woke up early and were at the boat by 7:30 AM even though it wasn’t scheduled to depart until 9:30. On the way to the boat my shoes got stuck in the mud and I had to walk barefoot through town to the boat. Surprisingly we weren’t the first on board. Those that had the absolute worst seats on day 1 (in the engine room) were even more motivated than we were! We were stunned to find out that we were not taking the same boat that day. Instead we were forced to board an even smaller boat that had NO bucket seats and only hard wooden benches! Nicole and I quickly surveyed the boat and decided that the best place to sit would be on the floor on the platform in the front of the boat. We quickly threw down our bags and saved spaces for Aine and Jill who were in the process of getting us breakfast and lunch. Soon after many people began boarding, each looking tired and totally depressed by the available seats. Nicole and I felt that we had scored the best seats on the boat and were quite pleased with ourselves! The mud had dried on my feet, but mommy Dorothy bought me a bottle of water to rise off the mud!

It was a bit tricky to hold two extra spots and I got into a little bit of a fight with Cindy Lauper, who kept trying to push my bag over to make more room for herself. Soon after Aine and Jill arrived, both looking slightly defeated as they realized we would be sitting in the floor for the next 8 hours. The good thing about the floor was that we could stretch out our legs and even sleep. We quickly built our “fortress” which no one dared to cross. We received many envious stares from those who’s bums were numb from sitting on the wooden benches.

A crazy thing happened to Jesus and Cindy Lauper. A Laos man boarded the boat and was apparently the owner of the guest house they had stayed in the night before. He was accusing Jesus of stealing a towel from the room! We all thought that surely this man must be mistaken, as Jesus would never steal! The man demanded to search Jesus’ bag and sure enough there was the towel! I still can’t believe he tracked down 1 missing towel by coming onto our boat! CRAZY!

Day 2 was even more bizarre than day 1. We made many more stops that resulted in more people boarding the already packed boat, women coming on board trying to sell us fish, and bags of rice being loaded on the boat quickly filling up the isles. At one stop, little Laos girls were trying to sell scarves. No one ever buys anything at these stops and I don’t know why they waste our time stopping!

The toilets were completely disgusting and while I somehow managed to hold it the first day, I had to use the nasty toilet the second day. I was mortified as I stepped into toilet and my feet became submerged in a couple inches of questionable liquid. It was probably the grossest thing I have ever had to do! Later Aine saw a young Laos boy drop his pants and pee on the floor of the bathroom! YUCK! Needless to say, I immediately scrubbed my feet in hot water the minute we got to a proper shower! I feel sorry for whoever has to give me my first pedicure after this trip!

We passed by Pak Ou caves which look pretty cool…

And alas, the torture ended and we arrived in Luang Prabang! We hope that this popular city would turn out to be worth the torture we had endured over the past two days!

To see photos of our slow boat ride… CLICK HERE!

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  1. Aine says:

    Girl, the slowboat was death! Way I figure: at least the speedboat would’ve possibly gotten you there….alive! Ha, ha. I would’ve preferred death to the slowboat. Hee, hee. Although thanks for reminding me about the towel, I completely forgot about that! SO funny. Jesus was not a good criminal! I giggled out loud when I read it. xoxox

  2. Mary says:

    That was about the best and worst story I’ve ever heard! The best, because no fiction writer could have come up with a more entertaining tale, and the worst because, well, you and your poor friends had to endure 2 days of that! Miss you much, and can’t wait to talk to you at some point!! xoxo – mary

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