After 5 relaxing days in Luang Prabang, and fully recovered from my illness, we were ready to move on. Our next, and final stop in Laos was nearly 500km away near the Thai border. We had two options – a 12 hour bus journey or to head from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai by boat, which would take two days. Still averse to long bus journeys after Vietnam, we opted for the boat.
We boarded the large wooden barge in the chilly morning mist and snuggled up in our hoodies as the boat set off. I was expecting tortuous wooden benches, but instead we got old car seats which were far more comfortable than expected! They weren’t nailed down to the floor, so we shuffled in and balanced slightly precariously on them for a snooze. The boat had a proper toilet, and even a small bar where you could buy hot drinks and um, pot noodle.
As we glided down the Mekong river, taking in the breathtaking views of rural Laos, I had no regrets about our choice. We flitted between scenes of utter remoteness and human life – a beach without footprints set against the rugged green crags would suddenly become a field with a herd of cows and electrical wires on telegraph poles. Around the next bend would be a fisherman casting his net out into the water.
The river was calm, we had a little more leg room than on a bus and we were free to stretch our legs by walking up and down the barge. Best of all, we could read (we both get travel sick if we do it on buses), so we passed the seven hour journey with our books, napping and just gazing out as Laos rolled past us.
At about 4:30pm, we pulled up at the overnight stop – Pak Beng, which is a rather strange little town. Very remote, the numbers swell each afternoon as the boats pull up and unload their passengers to patronise the guesthouses and restaurants. By 9am the next morning the town is back to just the locals again, ready to receive their new influx of visitors. We stopped for an Indian meal – magnificent both in views from the restaurant and the sheer levels of mediocrity achieved in the food.
The next day, refreshed and loaded up with new stocks of Pringles and Oreos (other unhealthy snacks are also available), a giant cup of tea and a croissant, we boarded our second boat and headed on for the second leg to Huay Xai. Our new boat had even more leg room, so we stretched out and sailed into the misty morning, knowing that the sun would soon be out to warm us on our gentle westward journey.
The day passed much the same as the first had, with reading, naps and gazing at the beautiful scenery before arriving in Huay Xai at about 5pm. Although the journey took a day longer than a bus would have, I’m so glad we went from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai by boat. It was a relaxing way to travel and we really enjoyed it, rather than most long journeys which feel like we are gritting our teeth and enduring them!
If you want to travel from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai by boat
- Our boat ticket cost us ₭320,000 each (about £26). We booked this from a tour agency opposite our guest house and did a bit of haggling on the price! I think the bus is cheaper, but the boat is worth it for the experience if you have the time.
- The boats depart from a jetty about 10km outside Luang Prabang; most tickets include a tuk tuk pick up in the price but make sure you check this.
- There is a basic snack bar on board, but unless you want pot noodle it’s sensible to bring snacks and maybe pick up a packed lunch before you set off. Apparently the Luang Prabang tuk tuk drivers know places to stop on the way to the jetty if you ask them
- The guest houses are mainly situated on the street leading away from the river. Head up the river bank and head left – as you walk you’ll see plenty of accommodation options.
- We stayed in Monsovanh Guesthouse in Pak Beng which is opposite the bakery on the main street and cost ₭150,000 (about £12) for a private room with en suite. It was clean and central and we’d recommend it although it was a bit more than we’d anticipated paying. There was no negotiating on price (we tried!) – I think the price depends on how busy the town is; we secured one of the last rooms.
- I don’t think there is any need to book a room ahead – we didn’t. Most people only stay one night and a few of the guest houses aren’t on booking sites. Before setting off, we checked TripAdvisor and WikiTravel and made a note of a couple of guest houses, which we headed straight for as soon as we got off the boat.
- There are plenty of options for dinner, and also to stock up on snacks for the second day of the boat journey, so no need to buy tons before you set off! There is a bakery opposite Monsovanh Guesthouse which does takeaway sandwiches, pastries and coffees as well. It’s probably worth bringing enough cash to cover you – there is an ATM but they can be a bit temperamental in rural Laos.