The journey from Luang Prabang to Houei Xai (or vice versa) has been in the back of our minds since before we left. The internet describes it as an arduous journey, but on our route it is pretty much necessary. Flying isn’t really feasible as it is both expensive and misses out a couple of places en route, and the speedboat option is dangerous and Mel ruled it out as she’d certainly be throwing up for most of it. The bus journey is said to be up to 15 hours, and with stories of drivers falling asleep at the wheel, and brakes burning out on the mountain roads, we ruled this out.
This left the tedious slow (15-20 knot) slow boat which historically is uncomfortable, but more recently fitted with car bench seats. These aren’t comfortable and can be overcrowded, though to be fair the boats we saw were full but not ridiculously so.
Our Shompoo cruise VIP boat, whilst more expensive, promised a more luxurious way of transport, and on cue at 6:30am our tuktuk collected us from our guest house and took us to our boat – a 30m or so boat, and to our surprise there were only 4 guests! The only real shame on this boat is that we didn’t really click with the other couple on it, as good company on this sort of trip makes it special. We’ve still got each other!
This meant we pretty much had a private boat all the way up – so full access to wander round, use the sun loungers and chill in a stress free environment for a couple of days. The normal slow boats had maybe 60-80+ people in the same space.
There was no usable TV/DVD as we thought, but as we had movies on the laptop we were able to catch up on films as well as watch the Mekong life go by, with riverside dwellers doing their fishing; washing; and generally getting on with life. Food on the boat was included, and was a pretty good 5 course meal. Really no complaints about the cruise at all, apart from the time we needed to get up. You also do need to wrap up warm as the first couple of hours are quite chilly and we were pleased to hide under the provided blankets.
The first day, Luang Prabang to Pak Beng took around 10 hours (upstream) plus some stoppage time when we stopped at Pak Ou caves near where we went elephant riding. These caves are Buddhist caves with numerous Buddas in, and also showing the ridiculously high flood levels from 2006 and 1966.
The view along the river is interesting, with more rocks and mini rapids than expected, and even huge sand banks better than some beaches we’ve seen.
Pak Beng, the overnight stop, wasn’t really how the guide books describe. We were expecting a few huts, naff accommodation and scarce electricity. But over the last year or more there is now mains electricity which means full power in the main area at least, and enough interesting eateries, bars, and shops as needed – at least one selling Pringles cheaper than anywhere else in Laos! Our guest house (£8 for double en-suite) was clean and perfectly fine for the night. There was even (flakey) wifi in a couple of the bars. Probably won’t be long before Pak Beng is suitable for a 2 night stop.
On the second day we stopped in a little Mhong village next to the river which almost like going back in time apart from the fact there is now electricity and a few large satellite dishes. We differ from some other travellers and tourists in as much as we hate going to these sorts of villages just to have a “tour” around. It doesn’t sit right intruding and we don’t walk around taking photos like it is a museum. We know some will argue its seeing the real country, but unless we stumbled across it and were there to stay/eat or drink in a local eatery, then it isn’t really real. Not sure Mel enjoyed being followed round by a group of girls trying to sell her crafty stuff.
The rest of the journey to Houei Xai was uneventful and we arrived about 10hrs after we left. We decided to say in Houei Xai for the night and got a reasonable place for 80,000kip (£6.50) and just settled down ready for the border crossing to Thailand which are generally eventful…
See Laos costs and review HERE
See next installment, with border crossing, here