Feb 13 2013

Speedboats in Laos

Published by at 6:59 am under Practicalities


Speedboats in Laos have a kind of mystical aura surrounding them, with travellers often chatting about their dangers over a beer as they watch the sun set over the many rivers throughout Laos. In fact, if you’re looking for a second opinion on whether you should take a speedboat or not from a fellow traveller, you’ll almost always get advice not to do it as it’s too dangerous. But is it really?

Speedboats are shaped much like a surfboard and not much bigger

Speedboats are shaped much like a surfboard and not much bigger

We here at Travelfish.org have ridden speedboats in Laos occasionally over the past 15 years as a practical means of transport from A to B when time is short or when there is no other option and many locals do the same too. So what is it like to ride on a speedboat?

First of all, the speedboats are small. Really small. Only about 80 centimetres across which is just wide enough to fit two people of healthy weight side by side. The boats usually fit six foreigners with luggage (backpacks and/or suitcases) or eight locals. There’s also room for your legs, but unless you’re chartering the whole boat, your legs will be bent. The boats don’t actually have seats — simply a wooden separator onto which a cushion is lent and then a cushion for the floor on which you sit. The position you sit in is not that uncomfortable over short distances of up to an hour and you do have enough room to move the position of your legs, but not your bum. It’s on longer journeys where things get a little uncomfortable.

The speedboat seat with a divider removed -- normally this section fits 4 people

The speedboat seat with a divider removed — normally this section fits four people.

When riding a speedboat, you are exposed to the elements. So when the sun is blazing, you will burn unless you cover up or lather on plenty of sunscreen. When it rains, you get soaked. On a recent speedboat journey we took, a vicious thunderstorm was underway before we hopped on board and we wanted to wait for it to pass. The boatman would have none of it and we embarked with luggage and proceeded to head off up river at about 50 kilometres an hour with lightning flashing and rain piercing our skin.

You are usually provided with a helmet when riding a speedboat and this is as much for protection from the elements as it is for a crash which is possible, but unlikely.

Helmets are a must and there is room for luggage

Helmets are a must and there is room for luggage.

The boats go fast. Upriver speeds are typically around 55 kilometres an hour and downriver speeds about 60 kilometres an hour, although in sections they can go significantly faster than this. While that doesn’t sound so fast, it feels fast when you are sitting just centimetres from the water and you are flying over rapids and zooming past rocks. As well, the wind at these speeds is exactly like it is when you stick your head out of a car window — enough to give you bad wind burn over extended periods of time.

It's hammer time

It’s hammer time.

Some of the most common routes for fast boats are Huay Xai to Luang Prabang via Pakbeng, Nong Kiaow to Muang Khua and Muang Khua to Hat Sa. All of these routes require a full boat before departing and this usually means waiting around until other passengers show which sometimes just doesn’t happen in which case you will have to charter the boat. The six-hour trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang costs 340,000 kip while a short 30-minute spin from Huay Xai to Pak Tha only costs 40,000 kip and is well-worth giving a try — just like a cheap theme park ride.

A big engine with a bottle of gas

A big engine with a bottle of gas.

So are speedboats safe? Well, it all depends on how you measure it. We hear of fatal bus crashes all the time throughout Asia and occasionally in Laos. As for speedboat crashes, we rarely hear anything of them. Usually stories are passed among travellers but rarely a person has firsthand experience. We don’t have any statistics about speedboat safety —  we doubt they exist — but anecdotally we believe them to be more dangerous than slowboats and safer than riding a motorbike.

This is the sight as you motor along the river

This is the sight as you motor along the river.

We are big fans of speedboats and think they are a great way to get from point to point quickly and great fun when you just want a thrill. In the end, it’s up to you to make up their own mind as to whether a speedboat is worth the expense, discomfort and thrill — and of course, to weigh up how dangerous you think it is. Please let us know in the comments of your experience.

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Speedboats in Laos”

  1. caroon 13 Feb 2013 at 10:54 am

    I LOVE THEM! I can imagine them being not the safest way to get around, but the thrill and excitement of being in a lao speedboat makes it all worth it.
    passing by riverside villages at full speed, taking in the beautiful nature surrounding you, adrenaline rushing through your body.. now come on: does it really get any better than that?!!

  2. Chrison 19 Feb 2013 at 12:21 am

    I think I’d prefer a life jacket to a bicycle helmet.

  3. actionhanon 15 May 2013 at 2:39 pm

    fucking awesome!
    bit uncomfy on a 6 hour ride but it was defenitely worth it!

  4. Redmonkon 02 Jan 2014 at 3:40 pm

    Had a speedboat journey from huay xih to luang prabang two days ago. First and second boats took on water as they had acquired holes in the base, both were beached with us hopping out and pulling it out of the water before waiting on the replacement boat. Third boat was rammed in the dark by another speedboat and sank shortly afterwards, we barely made it to shore with our bags before continuing our journey by land with all our bags and ourselves soaked through. Heard a slowboat that arrived in lp yesterday nearly ran aground in the shallows too. Dangerous doesnt begin to describe the boats here.

  5. mrenigma42on 18 Feb 2014 at 3:46 am

    Done the trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang by fast boat three times now. Apart from a couple of broken props, getting a bit crossed up sideways once where I thought I was going to have to bail, no problems at all. Exhilarating every time and will no doubt do it again one day. Am I a slow learner…….maybe.

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