One of our favorite ways to travel, especially in Southeast Asia, is on a boat. So when we discovered this Mekong River cruise in Laos, we knew we had to do it!
Spending two days gazing out at the jungle interspersed with villages as we sailed down the Mekong River was incredible. If you are thinking about taking this cruise, keep reading to find out what to expect from this 2-day experience!
Our Mekong River Cruise: Houayxay to Luang Prabang
The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, running through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. So you're bound to find Mekong River cruises offered in many locations.
However, the cruise I'll be talking about is the slow boat cruise down the Mekong River from Houayxay to Luang Prabang.
Alternatively, you can take a cruise upriver from Luang Prabang to Houayxay. No matter which direction you go, the boat stops overnight in Pakbeng - a small Lao town on the Mekong. All travelers disembark and spend the night in a hotel or guesthouse in town.
If you'd rather only spend one day on the boat, you could begin or end your trip in Pakbeng. This town is accessible by road so you can travel by bus to/from Pakbeng.
Which Mekong River Cruise to Choose?
Although all the cruises follow the same basic route from Houayxay to Luang Prabang, they vary in terms of luxury and amenities. Of course, this means they vary significantly in price as well.
Public Slow Boat from Houayxay to Luang Prabang
If you're on a budget, the best option is probably the public slow boat as it's far cheaper than booking a private cruise. When you book this option, your ticket will not include lunches or accommodation. As a result, you'll have to plan for those costs and should have some extra cash (Lao kip) on hand.
Since we opted for a private cruise instead of taking the public slow boat, I'll refer you to this blog post for a review of the public boat.
Private Cruise Companies
For a more luxurious and comfortable experience, I recommend booking with one of the Mekong River cruise companies. We found several options when we were looking, but ultimately booked with Shompoo Cruise.
In general, I liked the look of Shompoo Cruise's boats and what the trip included. I was not disappointed!
Becky's Recommendation: Shompoo Cruise is a good mid-range option, plus it includes lunches, accommodation, transportation in the booking price. We had a great experience with them, so I'd highly recommend them to anyone looking to cruise the Mekong River.
Our Experience on the Mekong River with Shompoo Cruise
In order to give you an idea of what to expect on a Mekong River Cruise, I'll provide an overview of our trip from Houayxay to Luang Prabang with Shompoo Cruise.
My goal for this post is to give you a detailed picture of what the cruise is like and what you'll need to have a great time when you go. Hopefully you can learn from some of my mistakes!
Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions about this cruise.
Mekong River Cruise Day 1 - Houayxay to Pakbeng
The first leg of our Mekong River cruise was from Houayxay to Pakbeng (~7 hours). Though we spent most of the day on the boat, we made a brief stop at a local village after lunch.
Shompoo Cruise's Pick-Up Options
Since Shompoo Cruise is a private cruise, they offer pick-up included in the price of the cruise. The two options you can choose from are:
1) Meet a guide on the Thai side of the border at 8:00 am to go through immigration and cross the Friendship Bridge;
2) Be picked up from a guesthouse in Houayxay between 9:00 am - 9:30 am and go directly to the boat.
Obviously, I chose the extra sleep. So we traveled from Chiang Rai to Houayxay the day before our cruise.
Check out my post on How to Travel Cheaply from Chiang Rai to Houayxay, Laos!
If nicer accommodations are something you look for, you may prefer to stay across the border in Chiang Khong the night before the cruise. At the time we visited, Houayxay mainly had no-frills guesthouses whereas Chiang Khong had a wider range of options.
Leaving from Houayxay
On the morning of our departure, we were picked up in a shared songthaew at our guesthouse at almost exactly at 9:30 am. We were slightly worried we'd gotten the information wrong, but the songthaew showed up just as we started to panic.
Apparently one of the passengers on the earlier pick-up had gotten in a different company's van, so they had to track them down. Luckily we were taking a private cruise, so they weren't going to leave without us!
Pro Tip: Traveling around Laos, you'll often find yourself in shared vans or songthaews - a truck with bench seats and a roof on the back. Most times, that means your large baggage will be thrown on top of the vehicle. As a result, it's good to keep it on the lighter side so you can lift it easily.
Our cruise left Houayxay that morning at 9:50 am, so we were only slightly delayed from the scheduled departure time (9:30 am).
As soon as everyone boarded, our Lao guide - Sommay - introduced himself and gave us a brief overview of the trip.
Throughout our trip, he checked in with everyone to make sure we had what we needed. If he saw something interesting on the river banks, he'd try to point it out to us and give us some facts about Laos and Lao life.
About the Boat
During Sommay's introduction, he told us that the boats belong to the individual boat captains and the staff live on the boat. Shompoo Cruise contracts with the owners to rent the boats for these cruises.
As we boarded, I immediately noticed how clean and well-maintained the boat was. Simple touches such as flowers on the tables and colorful seat cushions gave the boat a homey feeling.
Luggage and Shoe Storage
In an effort to keep the boat clean, they ask everyone to remove their shoes and store them on the shoe rack. Good thing too because shoes get super dusty traveling around Laos!
The staff stored all of our larger bags towards the front of the boat. Some were rolled under the seats at the front, but all were accessible throughout the journey.
One of the reasons I liked this boat was the variety in seating arrangements. From longer tables, to smaller booths, and even a more private area towards the back of the boat. We had plenty of room to move around throughout the day.
Bathrooms on the Boat
The boat had two western-style bathrooms with running water, toilet paper, and soap. Since you don't wear shoes on the boat, flip flops are provided for you to put on when you walk into the bathroom.
Snacks, Coffee, Tea
Throughout the day, coffee, tea, and fruit were provided for free. Or, you could purchase alcoholic beverages and other snacks from the bar.
Also, each time we returned to the boat after one of our stops, the staff would give us a cold towel and a refreshing lemongrass slushie drink. I felt so pampered each time.
Traveling to Southeast Asia? Check out this 2-Day Itinerary for Chiang Rai!
Morning on the Boat
During our first morning on the boat, we got to know some of the other travelers. We met a few families from the UK, a Swiss couple, and a solo traveler from Singapore.
Most everyone socialized at some point, but one large family claimed the back section of the boat for the duration. They barely left it except for lunches and the stops along the way.
Because we went on this cruise in December, it was colder than I expected as we moved down the river. The sun's rays were a welcome addition to the day! The roof towards the front of the boat rolls back to allow even more sunlight in which felt wonderful.
At around noon, the staff brought out a beautiful buffet of dishes for our lunch. Though they called it Lao food, it seemed a bit more Thai to me. Especially the coconut curry. Regardless, it was delicious!
Stop #1 - Khmu Village
A couple hours after lunch (~2:30 pm), we arrived at the first stop on our trip - a Khmu village along the Mekong River.
The Khmu (or Kamu) ethnic group is one of the main ethnic groups in Laos. Since our guide - Sommay - was Khmu, he was very knowledgeable about Khmu customs and beliefs.
Visiting the Village
Because the village we visited is only accessible by boat, it was still very traditional and rustic - no electricity or running water.
To get to the village from the river, we trekked up a steep, dusty hill. I'd recommend sneakers for a visit like this as flip flops might be too slippery. Especially on the way down! Walking up the hill in the bright sunshine, it was the first time I was hot all day!
We walked around the village, stopping to see the one-room school house. It's only large enough to accommodate grades 1-2 and the teacher comes from another province.
Shompoo Cruise's Connection to the Village
Our guide, Sommay, told us that each year, Shompoo Cruise picks a different Lao village to support and donates some of its proceeds to the village.
Honestly, visiting villages like this always makes me uncomfortable. Like I'm making people living their lives into an attraction. At least the kids seemed entertained by our visit.
Arriving in Pakbeng
Back on the boat, we had a couple more hours before we reached Pakbeng around 5:00 pm. The sun was already starting to set as we approached the town.
Since we were staying overnight in Pakbeng, we had to take all our bags with us off the boat. Jeremy and I carried all our bags ourselves. But we could have hired a porter for only US $1 to carry our large bag up the hill to our hotel. Plenty of them were waiting for our boat!
Overnight in Pakbeng
Mekong Riverside Lodge
When booking the Shompoo Cruise, we also reserved our hotel in Pakbeng through them at one of their partner hotels - the Mekong Riverside Lodge.
We had a cute bungalow with a balcony overlooking the Mekong River, but these rooms do not have air-conditioning or screens.
Since it was cold and dry when we visited, that wasn't a problem. In the hot and/or rainy season, I may not have enjoyed it since I had trouble figuring out the mosquito net!
And although it is one of the less expensive options to book through Shompoo Cruise, you could probably find a cheaper guesthouse by walking around Pakbeng.
Despite not pre-booking our dinner at the Mekong Riverside Lodge restaurant, we ended up there for dinner anyway. We ordered from the Indian food section of the menu and it was pretty tasty. As always, the "paneer" in Laos is actually tofu.
Mekong River Cruise Day 2 - Pakbeng to Luang Prabang
The second leg of our Mekong River cruise took us from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang (~8 hours). Though we spent a long morning on the boat, a couple stops - Pak Ou Cave and Whisky Village - broke up the afternoon.
Early Rising in Pakbeng
Despite having closed up our shutters the night before, we awoke to a chilly morning in Pakbeng. When the temperatures dip down to 57°F (14°C) and there's no heat in the building, it feels much colder than it is. Luckily, the hot water heater in the shower worked!
After bundling up in all the warm clothes we'd brought, we headed to breakfast, which was included in our room booking. The restaurant is also open-air, as most things are in a Lao village, so I went straight for the hot coffee. The breakfast was basic but the baguettes were unexpectedly delicious.
Departure from Pakbeng
Since the Mekong Riverside Lodge was just above the pier, it only took us a few minutes to walk down to our boat. Again, we carried all our luggage, but you could probably hire a porter if you needed help.
The boat departed earlier on the second morning at 8:00 am. As you can see, it was a misty morning!
Long Morning on the Boat
Because the second day's stops are quite close to Luang Prabang, we had a long day on the boat before we stopped. This is a great time to read, chat or play games with your traveling companions, and admire the scenery.
For me, however, it was kind of a rough morning. I was SO COLD! Let's just say, I did not bring the appropriate outerwear for the boat trip.
Since our second day was cloudy and misty, the cold felt like it was soaking into my bones. So I wrapped myself up in several blankets provided on the boat, clutching a hot cup of coffee, and dreamed of warmth for a few hours. And I wasn't the only one doing so!
Pro Tip: If you take the slow boat in the winter months, bring a heavier jacket than you think you'll need! Or a windbreaker. Sitting in the shade with the wind blowing, it feels very COLD!
Around noontime, we had another beautiful lunch buffet. This time, the dishes served were more the traditional Lao dishes that I recognized. Spring rolls, stir-fried eggplants, chicken larp - YUM!
I noticed right away that these traditional dishes were clearly made for western palates. The chilies that usually light my world on fire were completely missing. But they were still delicious, plus they provided some spicy sauce on the side!
Around midday, the sun also began to appear for which I was extremely grateful.
Stop #2 - Pak Ou Cave
Our first stop of the day was Pak Ou Cave around 1:30 pm. We spent ~45 minutes exploring the upper and lower caves as a group. The entrance fees were covered by Shompoo Cruise.
To get to the lower Pak Ou Cave, we climbed up a few stairs. I really enjoyed the view of the mountains and the river from just outside the entrance to the cave.
The lower cave has roughly 4500 wooden Buddha statues to admire. It gets pretty crowded here so it's hard to spend too much time in this cave.
The upper cave is deeper (and darker), but has fewer statues. To get there, we climbed ~220 steps. After sitting on the boat all day, I was happy to climb a few stairs and it warmed me up!
Tip: If you have trouble climbing stairs though, you may want to skip the upper cave. You won't find a good view of the river or mountains from the top. Plus, the statues aren't as impressive as the ones in the lower cave.
Looking for another relaxing Lao destination? Check out Nong Khiaw, Laos!
Stop #3 - Lao Lao Whisky Village
Next we stopped at the Lao Lao Whisky Village, which is approximately 20 minutes from the Pak Ou Cave. Jeremy and I visited this village back in 2011 and it's changed a lot! Clearly they've had some tourist dollars coming into the village.
At the entrance to the village, you can taste some of the laolao - a Lao rice whisky. Behind the tasting table, you can see where they make it. Beware of that clear one that is 50-55% - it burns!
You'll also find plenty of handicrafts in this village like scarves and material to make the Lao skirt. The patterns are so beautiful - I had trouble remembering I already have so many of these things that I shouldn't buy more!
Tip: If you're visiting Luang Prabang, but not taking a Mekong River Cruise, you can still visit these places. I recommend hiring your own private longboat (office is near Saffron Coffee) for a half-day trip to Pak Ou Cave and the whisky village. It should cost ~US $10 per person or less and you get the boat to yourself!
Check out this 2-Week Adventure Itinerary in Northern Thailand & Laos for more exciting trip ideas!
Final Destination - Luang Prabang!
After our final stop, we only had ~45 minutes left on the boat until we arrived in Luang Prabang. As we approached, we saw a new bridge for the high-speed railway that China is building through Southeast Asia.
At 4:00 pm, we arrived in Luang Prabang and said good-bye to the wonderful staff on the boat. Porters helped us carry our bags up the river banks (paid by Shompoo).
Since transportation to our hotel in Luang Prabang was included in the price of our booking, Sommay organized us into a few shared vans to drop us off at our respective hotels.
Tip: Confirm the name of your hotel with the driver directly and show him on a map. Due to a miscommunication (similar-sounding name), the driver drove Jeremy and me to the wrong hotel (very far from our actual hotel). We got it sorted, but it took extra time.
If you're staying Luang Prabang, check out this post for more things to do!
Final Thoughts on the Mekong River Cruise
Overall, we had a great experience on the Mekong River Cruise! I'd recommend it for anyone who has a couple days to slow travel through northern Laos. Just remember to bring a jacket if you're going in the winter!
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about the river cruise or traveling through Laos.