May 16 2013
Laos is a mountainous, land-locked country making it time consuming to traverse despite a road network that’s improving every year. Historically, the primary mode of transport around the country was via boat with most of the country’s major towns linked by a network of rivers. To this day, many smaller towns are serviced by passenger boats and in some parts of the Mekong large cargo boats do the heavy lifting that road transport simply can’t yet do.
The first and in many cases the only river transport many visitors to Laos will experience is the large passenger boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. It’s set up for tourists with a bar selling beer and snacks, a toilet and seats that appear to have been torn out of old cars. These are some of the most comfortable boats in Laos — it generally goes down hill from here.
Typically on shorter routes smaller boats are used, and these either have hard wooden seats running along the sides of the hull or planks of wood spanning the width of the boat on which to rest your butt. You’ll see these boats often on the Nam Ou and will almost certainly get stuck on one if you decide to head up to Phongsali by river. They still have room for a bit of cargo.
It’s even possible to put your motorbike on one of these boats, which is handy if you made your way to somewhere remote by road but can’t face heading back out the same way. A motorbike will generally cost the same amount as another passenger, but the price is negotiable and you will need to pay a fee commensurate with how desperately you need to transport that bike. A one-day charter will cost in excess of $120.
The smaller boats are obviously less stable than the bigger ones, so you’ll constantly be reminded by the captain to sit precisely in the position required to ensure the boat doesn’t list. This means no leaning over the edge to get photos and very little shuffling around to get comfortable. Just sit there and enjoy the scenery.
The scenery along many stretches of the rivers is simply breathtaking. Remote communities are dotted all along the river and their only connection to the outside world is the odd passing river boat, which stops to unload cargo and transport villagers heading somewhere to trade or visit family. These more remote villages seldom have access to modern building materials such as concrete and consequently grass huts are the standard.
Given the remoteness of some of these communities, food scarcity is a real problem and sudden weather changes can wreak havoc on already desperate people. The United Nations World Food Program delivers food aid along these rivers ensuring the survival of communities.
Some river towns are connected by road and this has an enormous effect on the wealth of the inhabitants. The transit town of Nong Kiaow has buses departing to the county’s far east and Luang Prabang as well as boat services up and down river, so people from these communities can get to and from major centres without the need for overnight travel.
Other transit towns have yet to have bridges built, meaning that barges are used to ferry all four-wheel vehicles including semi-trailers to the other side. Passengers and motorbikes usually just hop on board one of the smaller vessels standing by.
The rivers aren’t always just about transport in Laos. Locals use it for food, washing and leisure.
Kids in particular can be seen playing in the river throughout the day. Who needs a Playstation when you have this at your front door?
Still, the river serves a serious purpose and at times you might just need to take whatever boat that passes by — such as this one filled with buffaloes…
… or these speed boats which top out at about 70km/h. Whatever your choice of river transport in Laos, you’re bound to have a fantastic experience — far more interesting than anything that a road can provide.
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