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Slow Boat on the Mekong - Laos

Slow Boats on the Mekong Mekong RiverMekong RiverBoats on the Mekong

The slow boat journey down the Mekong from the Thai border at Houay Xai to Luang Prabang is an unforgettable experience. When Laos first opened to tourists, travellers would ride on the many cargo boats that run up and down the river. Now dedicated passenger boats ply the rivers with comfortable seats - although this doesn't detract from the experience at all.

The slow boat is a peaceful way of travelling, at least away from the noisy engine at the back. The journey begins near the Thai border passing increasingly rural communities that are dependent on the river for survival. Local women wash their clothes in the river, fishing nets fill the shallows and the sand banks are harvested for the fertile silt.

The area is scattered with small villages amongst the stunning scenery of mountainous jungle, many completely accessible only from the river. The boats slowly meander they way downstream from one side to the other, navigating their way through sections of rapids and jagged rocks and occasionally dropping passengers off at the remote villages.

Many other boats travel the river, from larger cargo vessels with the family home attached to the odd luxury cruiser. Most of the boats are simple canoes but a few longtail speedboats race up and down the river making the journey in half the time.

The journey is broken at dusk at the small town of Pakbeng, where basic guesthouse accommodation can be found. It's a basic place with a narrow strip of guesthouses and restaurants, although improving now that 24 hour electricity has finally come to the area.

The second day has more of the same scenery although this gets more and more dramatic as you approach Luang Prabang. There are more signs of civilisation here too with lots of villages as well as crops planted in the rich silt banks left by the receeding floods. Smiling children greet the boats as they pull in to pick up more locals with their cargoes.

The boats pull into Luang Prabang at dusk, with the setting sun turning everything yellow-gold. It's not the quickest way to get anywhere but the slow boat is well worth the journey and the most atmospheric way to reach the former capital.

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