Your Guide to Slow Boats in Laos

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July 13, 2011
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July 22, 2011

Your Guide to Slow Boats in Laos

By Stephen Bugno

Before visiting Laos I had images of gliding down rivers at an impossibly  slow speed all the while enjoying both the view and necessary transportation with friendly locals.

Our slow boat from Muang Khoua gets close to Muang Ngoi

That was hardly the case. In fact, it describes only one of my four slow boat rides. The reality is, the slow boat is being replaced by bus and songthaew as a means of transportation, especially now that roads are improving slightly.  The only genuine slow boats that are still plying the rivers of Laos are the ones where no roads go. So that’s the secret to getting a real slow boat experience: choose your routes wisely.

Below is a description of a few of the slow boat routes on the waterways of the Nam Ou and the Mekong in northern Laos

Houayxai to Pakbeng

This is the most touristy slow boat experience. Groups of backpackers are shuttled from Chiang Mai, Thailand to the border with Laos and are packed on to huge boats for the two-day journey to Luang Prabang, stopping at the village of Pakbeng for the night. Eating, drinking, music, card playing were all commonplace on the boat I rode. Out of about 150 passengers, only two were Laotians. Needless to say, this was not a Lao cultural experience. It was, however, riding a slow boat down the Mekong.

Our motor man in the back of the slow boat

The boat is a huge one, and the scenery is pleasant, passing villages and quite remote areas of the country. It leaves more or less at 11am from the slow boat docks 1km upstream from Houayxai. This trip is a mainstay on the Banana Pancake trail.

Scenery: Very Nice        Touristy: Very Touristy    Time: 5-6 hours      Costs: 110,000-130,000 kip

Hat Sa to Muang Khoua

This is the most remote and off the beaten track slow boat that I rode, and consequently the most authentic. The boat was so narrow that it only allowed two people to sit abreast. The bags were loaded into the back of the boat and covered by a tarp. The boat was filled with all locals except for my chain-smoking Swiss friend who shared his cigarettes with our new friends as well some rambutan and bananas we bought before boarding. We passed remote bamboo villages, the inhabitants farming the hillsides with subsistence agriculture.

About every thirty minutes of the  we passed a village on the riverbank, usually comprised of less than 25 houses. Most times there would be a fisherman casing a net or kids playing in the river alongside their water buffalos.

Village children and water buffalo on the river bank

Hat Sa is only a village, but serves as the Phongsali’s river port, reachable by bus via a slow-going 24 km winding dirt road.

Scenery: Nice, but not spectacular      Touristy: Very local        Time: 4-5 hours    Cost: 100,000 kip

Muang Khoua to Muang Ngoi

You’ll arrive in Muang Khoua in the afternoon and most likely spend the night there. From the wooden balcony of my guesthouse’s restaurant, I watched  life unfold in and around the river. There is no bridge on this road that passes through the village going to the Vietnamese border.  A tug-boat of sorts nudges a ferry barge the short push across whenever traffic arrives. Local long boats come and go. A neighbor buns rubbish. Kids play and swim in the water on both sides of the river.

I met a teacher and freelance trekking guide who was strategically hanging out close by. We got to talking, and unfortunately I didn’t have the time or extra  money to go on one of his three day treks to nearby hill tribe villages. So we’d have to hang around the rest of the afternoon and be out on the boat at nine the next morning. “Do you have internet in town?” I asked. “No,” he laughed. “We just got electricity.”

Leaving Muang Ngoi on the slow boat

The 4-5 hour trip to Muang Ngoi leaves in the morning, usually around 9am and because there are very few locals making this trip, filling up a boat depends on how many travels are present. You’ll need at least 6-8 passengers to make the fare (approx 1 million kip per boat) more reasonable for each passenger.

The scenery gets more and more outstanding, with dramatic karsts, as you get closer to Muang Ngoi.

Scenery: Very Nice      Touristy: Mostly tourists, but small boat  Time: 4-5 hours   Cost: 100,000-120,000

Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw

Muang Ngoi is a quiet little traffic-free village. It feels very cut off from the rest of the world. My travel partner stayed here for three days as I made my way more slowly down the Nam Ou. Most of the time he spent in his hammock and at the local cafes reading, writing in his journal and soaking up the gorgeous views of the surrounding limestone mountains. If I had the chance, I would return to Muang Ngoi for some serious chill time.

In Muang ngoi

The following morning we got the 9:30 am boat to Nong Khiaw. This is one of the most scenic slow boat rides in all of Laos. And one of the most packed little boats I had ever been on: both with locals and their cargo and backpackers moving on downstream. It’s hard to tire of these serene mountains that have an ancient and oriental air to them.

Scenery: Very Nice        Touristy: Locals and travelers        Time:  1 hour              Cost: 20,000 kip

Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

Slow-boating it from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang is also supposed to be a trip of spectacular beauty. But I opted for the 40,000 kip ride in the back of a sawngtheaw to save a bundle of money.  In general, taking ground transportation saves money over river transport.

On a Lao Slow boat

The boat to Luang Prabang supposedly leaves at 11am, and if I had to guess, I’d say very few locals would be taking it, seeing that the bus is so much cheaper. But if I had the money, I’d opt for this scenic route on the river.

Scenery:  Nice                      Touristy: Touristy              Time:  5 hours     Cost: ?

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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 15 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine GoMadNomad.com. He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Google +, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

3 Comments

  1. […] with. We had hiked through jungles in Borneo, re-charged while working remotely in Chiang Mai, and ridden long boats through the north of Laos together. We needed this day for our health and well-being. The herbal sauna at Wat Sok Pa Luang, […]

  2. […] March, April, and May I traveled through Southeast Asia—a place I had long dreamed about. From riding slow boats in Laos, to working remotely in Chiang Mai, to discovering Penang, Malaysia, to seeing orangutans in the […]

  3. […] For slow boat costs check out my Guide to Slow Boats in Laos. […]

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