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Huay Xai to Luang Prabang: Travel Guide

As a follow up to the previous post: Mekong Photo Essay, and with fellow travelers in mind, I am writing a short guide about the travel options from Northern Laos to Luang Prabang along with details of our experience.

Huay Xai, a small town on the border with Thailand is a common place to start exploring Laos. There are several ways to go from here to Luang Prabang: bus, speedboat, slow boat and luxury cruise.

First tip, wait until you cross the border into Laos before purchasing any tickets. Touts on the Thai side will throw various reasons at you as to why you need to buy a package deal there. Don’t listen, get your water taxi across the river, and buy your ticket on the other side, it will save you some money. (the exception to this is we knew several people who bought a bus/taxi/boat package from a distant city like Chiang Mai that seemed to work out for them, but still more money than separate).

Bus

Public buses typically leave twice a day, once in the morning and another in the afternoon. There is also a VIP bus that leaves in the afternoon, albeit at a slightly higher price. It will cost you around $15 USD for the public. As always, you can buy tickets from an agent or guesthouse in town, but it’s cheaper to buy directly from the bus station about 7 km outside of town. Expect to travel between 12-15 hours (there are no sleeper buses that we heard of). I recommend taking some motion sickness pills as the road can be quite curvy and bumpy.

Speedboat

Before I give any details, I strongly recommend that you do NOT choose this option. You can read all over the web that it’s dangerous, but when you see it with your own eyes you realize why. These tin can speedboats race down the Mekong at high speeds. There were numerous times (on our slow boat) that we saw huge rocks just below the surface, monster logs floating aimlessly and all sorts of various obstacles that must change from day-to-day on the river. All it takes is hitting one of these and those boats would be done for, you along with it.

But if you insist… boats leave in the morning as soon as they are full (6-8 people) arriving in Luang Prabang close to 6 hours later. They depart from the fast boat pier a little north of town. We saw many of them on our way to Luang Prabang, but none of them carried foreigners. The boats are loud and look like they kick up quite a spray on the passengers. People were mostly wearing helmets and stuffed like sardines right next to each other, it did not look comfortable. The cost is around $40 USD.

Slow boat

This is the most common option among backpackers, especially because of the big price difference between it and the luxury boat. It leaves every day in the morning, takes up to 100 people and will be usually have at least 50. It’s best to buy boat tickets at the slow boat pier (not far from the river crossing) vs. the agents in town. The cost is around $30 USD.

The passengers are typically backpackers with a mix of locals. The boat doesn’t include food or accommodation, you have to take your own snacks and drinks for your time on the boat, or buy them from a small selection on board. There are various types of cushions and car seats to sit on. Get there early to get a good seat, near the edge and away from the engine room.

The journey is divided in two days; the first goes directly to Pakbeng (about 6 hrs), a small village in between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. Several places on the web describe this as a sketchy town, but we didn’t find this to be the case. There are several guesthouses and restaurants in town, although they are a bit on the low end.You’ll have to hike up a short hill with your pack from the boat and secure a guesthouse, easy enough.

The second day goes directly to Luang Prabang (about 9 hrs). The views throughout the ride are gorgeous and if you are on a budget with the time to do it, I highly recommend taking a slow boat.

Luxury cruise

After much deliberation this was our choice and we don’t regret it! We are somewhere between backpackers and flashpackers, had the time and money, so we went for it.

Right next to the immigration office we found Luang Say Mekong Cruises and they treated us wonderfully from our first interaction to our last. There are a few other luxury boats we heard of in town, but you cannot go wrong with Luang Say!

The boat departs at 9:30 am every Monday and Friday at this time of the year, we were lucky to be there on a Sunday and were able to slip in the Monday slot. The prices vary by season and boat. You’ll have to check into these yourself ;) Our ticket included all meals along with lodging at the wonderful Luang Say Lodge in Pakbeng (more on this later).

Our experience…

There were 15 passengers including us. Some of them kept to themselves, but we immediately joined a group of 9 people and continued hanging out together the rest our journey and even after we arrived in Luang Prabang. We had our doubts about the “type” of travelers on the luxury cruse, but as always we went in optimistic and it turned out great. I don’t think we could have met a more interesting, kind, fun group of people than we did.

Our guide, Ki, welcomed us with a detailed summary of the trip. Coffee and tea were available at all times and we settled in with a hot cup. At the back of the boat was a lounge area of comfortable couches and the best spot for views. The middle was filled with various tables and chairs with fluffy cushions, and a bar at our disposal. (Cocktails and beers were not included, but not overly pricey). There were also two perfectly clean and well-kept bathrooms.

Our lunch was served at noon; buffet style meat, rice, vegetables and fruit! The food was absolutely delicious, and impressive for being made in a small kitchen on a boat. A bit later we stopped at a village and Ki led us through the small houses filling us on in all the interesting details of the way of life here.

It was a wonderful experience, watching kids running around, seeing a more remote village and feeling completely humbled and touched by the beautiful people. The women of the village were eager to sell us scarves that are hand-made there, but were not pushy in the least bit. I had an enthusiastic “conversation” with one women about how she makes each scarf.

After returning to the boat we were delightfully surprised with fresh wet towels to wipe off the sweat of our walk through the village. Of course we all needed a beer! We enjoyed the views and good conversation until we arrived at the Luang Say Lodge in Pakbeng, our included guesthouse for the night.

I can’t say enough about the beauty of this place. It is slightly outside of town, but if you have the means and are on a slow boat, you should consider staying here while in Pakbeng.

Each bungalow is set apart in the jungle right along the river with a small deck outside. A comfortable bed, nice hot shower, and all the amenities awaited us. The restaurant is cozy and serves up fantastic food!

Soon after we arrived to the guesthouse we all went to explore town. It is very small, but the walk was nice and we stopped for a few beers. We made it back to Luang Say just in time for a truly delicious dinner. The spring rolls were the favorite of the night, along with a few good bottles of wine.

The next morning breakfast was ready at 7am and we shipped off 8. I wasn’t very hungry after all the food from the day before, and only had coffee. However, the American style breakfast others were enjoying looked wonderful.

A few hours later we arrived at another village that made rice whiskey. Again, Ki told us all about the town and the whiskey making process (explained in the previous post), we walked around the village while some people bought souvenirs and we stopped to sample the famous liquor.  It was (surprisingly) good!

From there it was back to the boat, received by cold towels and fresh water as always, some fresh fruit, lunch soon after, and another last stop at the Buddha caves. While not the most impressive caves, the history and many Buddha figures were nice and we enjoyed the stop. Many tourists visit this from Luang Prabang via a half day trip and back, it was great value to stop along the way.

Along the ride we picked Ki’s brain on where to go in Laos, what to do in Luang Prabang (as he was born there), and other tips and ideas. He was a fantastic guide along with the rest of the Luang Say staff on the boat and at the lodge.

Overall our cruise couldn’t have been better!

(All information is based on our experience in August of 2012)

We were so happy to meet these lovely people!

Related posts:

Lombok, Indo
Ko Samui, Gulf of Thailand
Angkor Wat Avoiding the Crowds
Cambodian Genocide
Comments To This Entry.
  1. Marisol@TravelingSolemates September 10, 2012 Reply

    HI Pamela, thanks for the great and thorough tip. The Luang Say cruise and lodge look and sound amazing. Laos trip is our horizon for early next year. This tip will definitely come in handy. And we look forward to meeting the wonderful locals you had met:)
    Marisol@TravelingSolemates recently posted..Magical Prague – Part 2: The Left BankMy Profile

    • Pamela September 12, 2012 Reply

      Hi Marisol,
      I highly recommend cruising on the Mekong, it was a wonderful way to explore Laos. Thanks for stopping by :)

  2. TammyOnTheMove September 12, 2012 Reply

    I would have gone for the luxury cruise as well. Looks wonderful. The location of the guest house looks so beautiful as well. Thanks for sharing.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Finding my inner Indiana JonesMy Profile

    • Pamela September 12, 2012 Reply

      Hi Tammy,
      We were happy we went with this option as well; the company, the stops at the villages and the service was fantastic!

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