We took the 2 day, 1 night trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Our package included a transfer... read more
We took the 2 day, 1 night trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Our package included a transfer... read more
I was expecting to be sipping drinks on a sun drenched sun deck, so finding myself completely wrapped in a large fluffy acrylic and gaudy coloured “Hello Kitty” blanket was not quite the picture I imagined when I booked a two day Mekong River Cruise trip to take us from Laos’ second city Luang Prabang to Huay Xai a town near the Thai Border and the closest place to our next destination.
While the view was truly to die for and we loved the experience overall, I did not quite anticipate how the cold winds coming down from the Chinese plains would wash down into Laos and the Mekong in January, meaning that the air was pretty cold in the mornings even if we were just 20 degrees north of the equator. While the temperature warmed up into the afternoon that last minute decision to pack a thin but warm merino wool skin jumper and a hoodie served me well, but the choice of shorts and long linen trousers only ultimately proved to be an error.
The Mekong River Cruise was made early in our trip and where we were still just a little tired and jet lagged after our long flight; I therefore thought a couple of fairly chill days would suit us well while we floated past the views from the river. As it turned out, the tour “felt” quite energetic (although we spent much of it parked on our bums) and it was a different kind of chill that lingers on in the memory.
After speaking with the friendly Smile team by internet, we determined what we wanted. Our trip from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai incorporated a night sleep over in a village hotel on the way and we had a choice of booking a boat for just our party of 4 or for a cheaper cost mixing it up with others on board (which is what we chose). In the end no one else wanted to stay in a boat with me for 48 hours, but I didn’t take it personally as it transpired that most tourists arrived into Laos from Thailand and took the reverse trip onto Luang Prabang rather than out of the city. All the boats coming back up the river out of LP were pretty deserted (I think the most we saw on a single boat was about a dozen).
Once arranged, we had to bite the bullet and pay a foreign business full cash up front via pay pal. It was a risk, but to be fair, the kind people from Smile kept in touch and also arranged for the tour guide to visit us at our hotel in Luang Prabang the evening before our trip just to give assurance that he would be there in the morning.
Our trip for the two days, one night’s basic but clean accommodation and food on the boat came in at around £100 a person. I call that something of a bargain.
Despite the chilli mornings our trip was pretty amazing really. The boat was a long barge with seating for 100 people. There was our party of 4, our friendly guide Keo, and the boat owner, his wife and two teenage kids on board. It kind of felt a little deserted but after a while we quite got into having the place for ourselves, sitting on one side of the boat or another, front or back, or out in the open front in the afternoon sun. It was quite a trial wandering around picking up stray books, sunglasses, camera, sun screen, sun hats, drinks and packs of cards at the end of each day, and it felt like we had sat in each and every seat on that boat.
Inside was nice and clean and I liked the wooden interior, and what looked like unscrewed coach seats, all covered with a blanket with a cartoon character on them. It would seem it is not unusual for fat tourists to feel the cold. While I loved the view from the unpaved windows there were occasions in the morning where I marvelled at what a wonderful invention glass was.
The Mekong river although wide at this point, still looked an interesting river to navigate with plenty of bends and scary rock formations in the middle. I enjoyed looking at the geology of the rock formations particularly as at one point one side of the river had entirely different rock formations to the other side.
One of the quickest ways to get around this part of Laos is to take a speed boat between the two destinations which rather than taking two days does the whole trip in 8 hours. I have done the speed boat thing for an hour or two and that really was great fun but that time scale was quite enough. I think I would have left a long trail of vomit down the Mekong while complaining of back ache had I chosen that particular 8 hour option. Given the slightly tricky navigation I am told speed boat accidents are quite common; and it was telling that as they zipped past I spotted the drivers tended to wear crash helmets whereas the “invincible” tourists went alfresco. Our guide told us he used to take the speed boats all the time, but he then had to promise to his mother to stop using them as she got so frightened for his safety. It’s telling when the locals don’t use the service.
Along the way, it was pretty much wall to wall mountains, forests and sandy river beaches. There were signs of life all the way along the river however, and we spotted locals panning for gold, punting between fishing rods, nets and baskets, growing peanuts on the light sandy soils of the beach, astride elephants and buffalos or there were kids just frolicking on the river in narrow local boats.
There were just a couple of signs of things to come along the way, and the only town of note that we passed through in the entire two days was the place we slept at. We passed a Chinese sponsored bridge, where our guide told us that the Chinese builders pay local Laos people to work on the bridge and also promptly build a casino, a bar and brothel on site to get their money back. We also passed a couple of very large banana plantations; again apparently the land is leased to Chinese traders who dump huge amounts of pesticide on the land and get amazing crops for a year or two before the land becomes degraded, poisoned and unworkable. The produce end up for sale in Singapore (a word to the wise if you go to that city; ignore the bananas). I have to say that China didn’t get a positive word while we were in Laos, and after we have left I have heard about a number of killings of Chinese businessmen in Laos such are the tensions in the region.
There were also a few pit-stops en-route. We stopped at a cave filled with statues of Buddha (who else?), had our overnight village stop, and also stopped at a resettled village where we helped fund the local school. Our guide explained that the villagers were resettled opium croppers; the government had insisted they had to move and stop their opium production and they were enticed by the prospect of running water, electricity and schooling (paid for by the tourists). It was a nice neat but basic place with pigs and dogs trotting around, and the kids were happy to pose for a photo and giggle shyly at us.
Our hotel for the night had very small rooms, was very basic but it was also clean and central. We could have left our heavy rucksacks on board the boat where they would have been safe, but we had a bit of rejigging of luggage to undertake.
Keo our guide was very friendly and quickly picked up that we really didn’t need a running commentary of everything. He did have a good knack of really picking up on the things that caught our eye and then letting us know about that. We enjoyed his company, and he took us around the local market and told us that on a previous trip one of the guests had taken up his offer to eat one of the frogs that you could buy live in the market, and which the stall holder cooked for you while you waited.
Given that our host was capable of rustling up food for 100 her meals were fantastic and cooked on board. There were plenty of veggie dishes, steamed fish and chicken, and absolutely plenty of it – we didn’t eat a fifth of the food placed in front of us (of course the crew ate with or just after us).
Tea, coffee and water was readily available and the local tea was particularly nice to my taste; like a nice fresh mild green tea. We also bought a bottle of beerlao each afternoon, but we appreciated that it would not be a grand plan to get completely slaughtered.
Our alternative to a two day boat trip was a very long and bumpy taxi ride that probably wouldn’t have come in much cheaper than what we paid, or another flight (we already had 9 hops scheduled in just over two weeks, so another one hardly felt vital). I did look at flights through the second airline in the country, Laos Skyways, but their website didn’t allow me to book anything for the month in question and I lost confidence in them after three weeks of trying and where my emails to them got no response. I was never going to do the speed boat thing.
In this context the thought of a relaxing boat-trip gently taking us on our way sounded like an excellent plan and it worked a dream. While I don’t particularly often choose organised tours, given it was just us on the boat and Keo was happy to read and doze rather than feel he needed to entertain us, it didn’t feel like we were being herded around and there was no laggard in the group.
In terms of comfort, the boat was perfectly pleasant and looked the business with its wood interior, the crew were friendly and the food excellent, and the views along the Mekong were one of the highlights of our Laos trip. Our night stay was basic but comfortable and our trips off the boat were also worth doing.
All in all there wasn’t really anything to dislike and if I had my time again this is a part of the trip that I’d certainly do again.
Do not hesitate to book with Mekong Smile Cruise, it was fabulous from start to finish. We were picked up in Chiang Rai, Thailand and taken to the border crossing. Pheng was there to meet us and assist with the visa requirements on the Laos side. We were driving to our hotel in town and collected the next morning and taken to the boat, always at the time advised or slightly earlier. There was 15 of us on the cruise and we were all comfortable and could move around as we wished. There was always tea coffee and fresh fruit available and the lunches were amazing, so good!! The stops at the villages were really interesting, and the children appreciated the pens and paper we took for them, at the overnight stop we bought some more pens and a football for the stop on the second day, other people also purchased gifts for the children. We also stopped at Pac Ou caves just prior to arriving in Louang Prabang, they are not difficult to get to from the boat. Upon arrival at Louang Prabang there was a mini bus waiting to take us to our hotel. You have a guide all the way who explains things as we travelled. If you are worried that two days is too long, don't worry no one on board got bored. One of the highlights of our tour so far.
Its a very good trip, i have done it with local boat and with this on, is worth every dollars to go on this boat, you have space and the guide we have was Amazing.
Great experience compared to cheaper options. The Mekong Smile cruise was well organised and very relaxing. We were not packed in like sardines with only a small number of friendly people. The boat was comfortable with reclining seats, the food was tastey and more than enough. Could even purchase a beer if you wanted to. Our guide was well spoken and informative. He looked after us extremely well. The scenery was amazing. The overnight say in Pakbeng was a real experience in itself. You have the choice to choose your own accommodation which is worth looking into. We arrived in Lang Prabang safely and feeling very rested and relaxed. We were very pleased we chose Mekong Smile.
We planned to take the slow boat to Luang Prabang but decided to upgrade at the last minute. We wanted comfort, space, food and ease of travel. We were picked up at our hotel in Thailand, transported across the border to Laos. Once there we were picked up by out guide and taken to the boat. He spoke English and had wonderful stories about his experiences as well as others. We stopped at several villages.. It was a highlight of our travels. The food was excellent. The total cost was $150 per person, well worth every cent.
This was one of the highlights of our trip to SE Asia. The whole experience was amazing, everything was perfect from the boat, the food, the village visits, the overnight hotel even the weather was perfect, if a little cold first thing in the morning.
A special thank you to our English speaking guide, the boat captain and his family. We were made to feel very welcome and all were most helpful.
Only issue was alighting from the boat at Pak Beng. It was a steep climb up a sandy slope and maybe not easy for some people.
Thank you for you kind words and I am so glad you enjoyed your trip down the Mekong River with Mekong Smile Cruises, we hope you use us again if you come back to Laos and we will take your advice on board, once again thank you for using our company