After spending a few weeks in Luang Prabang, a cruise on the Mekong River seemed like the perfect way to cap off my first visit to Laos. I had not done a Mekong cruise in Vietnam, and I expected the experience in Laos to be less of a crowded tourist affair and more of a relaxed dive into nature (albeit with the amenities of a well-oiled tour machine).
Scroll down to the end of the post to learn about all options to get from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (or Huay Xai to Luang Prabang) and how to book your Gibbon Experience and transport to Thailand.
Day 1: Luang Prabang to Pakbeng
The typical Luang Prabang tuk-tuk bus arrives at 6:30 am to pick me up from the Lakangthong 2 Friendly Guesthouse. That’s five minutes early, but I’m ready to go.
There is an English-looking lady already in the tuk-tuk. But it’s too early for a conversation.
We stop at a fancier guesthouse, closer to the river to pick up a couple. They know the lady; turns out she works are the Luang Say office in Luang Prabang and could have given me a discount on my single supplement.
We get to the boat a few minutes later and meet the other passengers: a group of 4 from the US and a Japanese couple.
The staff of five is dressed in crew shirts, eagerly grabs our bags, and helps us on board.
There is ample space for the ten of us with cushions on benches or chairs, dark wood, and decor in beige and purple. I choose a chair and stow my daypack underneath the table.
We leave at seven on the dot.
It’s rainy season (August), and the waters of the Mekong River are high. Big Muddy is showing us where her name came from with her reddish brown face dotted here and there with jagged rocks and wood speeding by.
Just a few minutes from Luang Prabang, we see a massive building site: Lee, our guide, explains in a quiet voice that the Chinese are building a railroad from China to Cambodia that will cross the Mekong River here.
Soon, breakfast with croissants, baguette (of the typical dense Lao kind), two homemade jams – one with pineapple and a dark red one with orange -, eggs, tea, and coffee with real milk is served. The coffee is terrible – thin and mixed with chicory. But combined with the views, it’s a feast nevertheless.
Toto’s Africa pops into my head and will be my jam of the day. (You’re welcome!)
The whole journey from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (sometimes also spelled Houayxay, Huay Say or Huayxei) is 320 km long, and we’ll do about 160 km to Pakbeng today.
After breakfast, it starts raining heavily for a bit but then the rain stops, and the clouds retreat into the hills to the left and the right of the water crowning the dark green forests and brown rocks.
After 25 km (and 1.5 hours) we reach Pak Ou Caves: Over the centuries, kings and local Buddhists have collected 4,000 Buddhas in two caves by the Mekong River. We only see the bigger Pak Ou Cave (the second one is 220 steps or 60 m above us).
We hear that across the river is the Mahout elephant camp. But it must not be the time for their morning bath.
The Pak Ou Cave was initially used to worship animist deities but when most of Laos became Buddhist in the 14th century Buddhas were brought here. Initially, many of the Buddhas were made from pure gold and the caves occasionally robbed of their riches. Today, the 4,000 or so Buddhas are wooden, and only a few are covered in gold.
As we move up the Mekong river, there are no significant settlements, just a few temples, collections of huts, and large colorful houseboats.
The landscape is dominated by dark green jungle with flashes of purple flowers, interrupted here and there with the light green of with fields and banana plants.
Lunch is served at 11:45: rice, a buffalo curry with mushrooms, lemongrass and dill, a chicken curry with cauliflower and carrots, and fried fish are on offer. I take a bit of each. I love the buffalo curry but offer the lemongrass sticks and the wads of fat into the Mekong.
At 1 pm, we stop at Ban Baw – which translates to “No Village” in Lao. It’s a “Model village” which means they have running water, a primary school and – since two months ago – electricity supplied by the hydroelectrical power plant downriver in Vientiane. A doctor also passes through twice a year.
While the village mostly lives off subsistence farming – with rice, corn, and wheat fields plus chicken, pigs, and cows – the women buy cotton and silk from Luang Prabang to weave colorful shawls they sell to tourists. The girls are following the visitor groups to try and sell bracelets made from leftover yarn. It seems overkill for less than ten passengers on our Luang Say Cruise, but Lee assures me that in high season from October to March several boats with easily 60 to 70 people a day cruise up and down the Mekong River and bring business to Ban Baw. There is only a narrow dirt road leading from the river so that buses won’t come anytime soon.
An old woman with a joyful face shows us how she makes rice wine – “Laos Whiskey” – and offers a small sip. 45% burns. The lady laughs.
If you are considering a shopping trip to Ban Bow, prices are incredibly reasonable: 200,000 Kip (ca. $25) for a pure silk shawl, 50,000 Kip for a silk-cotton shawl, 5,000 Kip for a bracelet, 5,000 Kip for a 150 ml bottle of Laos Whiskey.
Back on the boat, I go for a snooze on one of the day beds at both ends of the Luang Say. When I wake up, a large plate of fresh fruit is waiting for me. I notice that I always get the same serving size as the couples share – I guess that’s one of the perks of a single supplement.
We pull into the Luang Say Lodge at 5:30 pm. It sits a couple of hundred meters upstream from Pakbeng, a small town that seems to have grown on the northern bank of the Mekong River for no other reason than that it is half-way between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang.
Staff in traditional outfits is awaiting us at the top of the stairs with cold towels and a refreshing drink. The rooms are cottages; mine is #06, about 200 m from the reception down a wooden walkway past the other rooms and an herb and vegetable garden by the water.
The cruise passengers are the only guests here tonight.
My cottage faces the Mekong River. It exudes luxurious 19th-century colonial style (plus electricity). The interior is mainly made from wood: the large bed with a mosquito net, the floor, the chairs, the wardrobe, the vanity,… The wood and the bamboo mats along the walls are painted in a dark wood stain. So the crisp white linen on the bed and the off-white pillows on the chairs stand out.
There are no window panes just large shutters along three of the walls.
The bathroom is separated from the main room with large sliding doors. A testament to the upscale nature of my abode for the night is the size of the bathroom and the large shower stall, a pleasant change from the usual wet room prevalent throughout Southeast Asia. The tiles are chipped here and there lessening the exclusive appearance a bit. In addition to the usual amenities, I find two small bottles of mosquito repellent. How thoughtful. I put the mosquito net in place, and open the shudders to soak in the view for a while.
Dinner is a selection of local dishes with sticky rice and fresh vegetables from the lodge’s garden. I enjoy every last bite and treat myself to a $3 beer.
There is no internet tonight. Even if it were working, it wouldn’t reach the cottages. But today it isn’t working in the reception/restaurant/deck area, either.
When I get back to the cottage, the staff has closed the shutters rearranged the mosquito net, turned down the bed, and left a treat: Two hand-sewn cats sit on the pillows.
Since I’ve not brought a book and all the couples are disappearing quickly into their rooms as well, I make it an early night. At 8:30, it’s lights out for me.
The bed is extremely comfortable. Unfortunately, the duvet is too warm, and without the duvet, I am too cold. So I spend the night covering and uncovering myself in a half-sleeping state wishing for the sarong I have in my backpack.
Day 2: Pakbeng to Huay Xai
Breakfast is served from 6:15. It’s raining when I get on the long walk back from #06 to the restaurant. Fortunately, the lodge provides an umbrella in my room.
I find a small but varied buffet with muesli/cornflakes, bread and jams, salad, fresh fruit, flan, and rice pudding. The coffee is the same as on the boat the morning before but stronger which makes it a bit better.
At seven, the boat leaves Luang Say Lodge.
About 200m downriver, we see elephants from the nearby sanctuary/mahout camp take their morning bath.
The journey is even more relaxed than the day before: the passengers lounge on the day beds, read their guidebooks or scan the river banks for birds.
Only the color of the forest has changed slightly: up here, orange flowers light up the dark green, mixing in with the violet here and there.
Today, the song in my head is The Girl from Ipanema.
About half an hour into the ride, we see the first bridge over the Mekong River for 200 km. There were a few car ferries but not a single bridge.
We stop once more at a village. Ban Huoy Phalam is similar to the settlement we saw yesterday. But it is nice to stretch our legs and go for a walk before lunch.
Early in the afternoon, we reach the Thai border. From here on, the left side of the Mekong River belongs to Thailand while endless banana plantations in Chinese hands dominate the right bank. The difference between Thailand and Laos couldn’t be more obvious: On the Thai side, efforts are underway to strengthen the river banks while the Lao banks continue to erode. On the Thai side, we see small towns and flashy vacation homes in landscapes gardens while the banana plantations on the Lao side are occasionally interrupted by simple huts.
Around 4 pm, we are just passing underneath the Thai Laos Friendship Bridge #4, a massive storm breaks loose, sending the boat staff in a scramble to pull down all the shades and collect the pillows from the day beds. The Mighty Mekong River disappears behind a curtain of water.
We reach Huay Xai pier at 5. As a courtesy in the heavy rains, Lee finds us taxis to take us to our destinations in town: most of the passengers are heading back to the Friendship Bridge to continue their journey into Thailand while I stay behind for a few more days between the Little Hostel and Sabaidee Guesthouse before heading South to Thailand.
Booking the Mekong River Cruise with Luang Say
- Off-season, buy your ticket directly in Luang Prabang or Huay Xai at the Luang Say offices: the price is $180 p.p. in a double/traveling solo, I paid $208.
- In main season (October to March), boats can be fully booked for weeks in advance; so you better book ahead on the Luang Say website; prices are higher going downriver (from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang).
- Included in the price are:
- Transfer from Luang Prabang hotel (or Laos’s immigration to the pier in Houayxay)
- 2 days on the Mekong River with stops and visits en route
- 1 night accommodation at the Luang Say Lodge in Pakbeng
- Meals as mentioned in the program ( 2 lunches, 1 dinner, 2 breakfasts plus snacks)
- Coffee, tea & drinking water on board and during meals.
- Admission fee for Pak Ou Caves and villages.
- Qualified, English-speaking guide.
- Boats leave twice a week in either direction during Laos low season (April to September) and three times per week in each direction during Laos main season (October to March).
Taking the fast boat from Luang Prabang to Pakbeng and Huay Xai
- It is not recommended to take the fast boat as the water (and what lies below the surface) can be unpredictable. Accidents are frequent and usually deadly (most drivers will wear motorcycle helmets).
- The journey from Luang Prabang to Pakbeng takes 3h (as opposed to one day). Price: ca. 180,000 Kip.
- The journey from Pakbeng to Huay Xai takes another 3h (as opposed to one day). Price: ca. 180,000 Kip.
- You have to change boats, even if you plan to travel the whole distance in one day.
Taking the slow boat from Luang Prabang to Pakbeng and Huay Xai
- The slow boat takes the same route as the Mekong river cruise, but there are no sightseeing stops (stops are made for passengers to embark, disembark). You will have to secure your accommodation in Pakbeng for the mandatory night stop yourself. Food or drinks are not available on board, and seats are limited.
- The price for the full journey from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (or vice versa) is 200,000 Kip per person. You can buy the through-ticket at the piers.
- There are a few hotels/guesthouses along the road to the pier in Pakbeng with private rooms available for as little as $15/night. Pre-booking is not necessary according to the locals and travelers I spoke to.
Taking the bus from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai
- The bus is the fastest and cheapest option to get from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai. Regular drive time is 12 hours.
- The bus from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (or Huay Xai to Luang Prabang) costs around 140,000 Kip.
Booking the Gibbon Experience from Huay Xai
- The Gibbon Experience is a highlight for many visitors to Laos. It’s a unique trek through the jungle and above its canopies (like a gibbon monkey). Treks are two or three days (during the rainy season, only shorter treks are available) and led as all-inclusive with accommodation in unique tree houses.
- Profits from the original Gibbon Experience (a few – cheaper – copies have sprung up) go towards community development and forest/animal conversation. And the prices reflect the approach.
- As with the cruise, if you are flexible, go straight to the Gibbon Experience office in Huay Xai to secure discounts; otherwise book via their website, gibbonexperience.org.
- The cheapest hostel in town is not only right across the street from Gibbon Experience, but the Little Hostel also has a brilliant breakfast menu (try the banana peanut coffee smoothie), lets you borrow shoes for the trek and will store your bags while you’re gone.
- For a little more comfort (and private rooms), check out the Sabaidee Guesthouse next to the Gibbon Experience office.
Going to Thailand from Huay Xai
- Other than the Gibbon Experience, Huay Xai is really only famous as border town to Thailand (which is right across the Mekong) and into the Golden Triangle.
- The border post for foreigners is a few kilometers outside town at Thai Laos Friendship Bridge 4 bridge. The border crossing ferry in town marked on some maps is for Thai/Laos nationals only.
- To cross the border, you’ll need: transport to the border, pay for the bus between Laos immigration and Thai immigration (walking is not allowed), transport from the border to the next town.
- It’s a big border with little traffic. So processing should go swiftly.
- You can buy bus tickets to several Thai destinations such as Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, etc. in Huay Xai (paying in Laos Kip, US Dollars or Thai Baht).
- Since I wanted to go straight to Bangkok, I bought my ticket from the Gateway Tours office on the main road. I paid 280,000 Kip ($35) for the full-service package with transport from the Sabaidee Guesthouse to the border being dropped off at the exit stamp counter, transport between the Laos and the Thai posts, pick up on the Thai side, and a luxury overnight coach (single, extra-wide seat, stewardess, food, food, food) to Mo Chit bus station in Bangkok.