Feb 13 2013
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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