May 16 2013

River transport in Laos

Published by at 2:32 am under Practicalities


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.

A typical boat on the journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang.

A typical boat on the journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang.

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.

The sort of boat used commonly on short shuttle services to remote villages along the rivers.

The sort of boat used commonly on short shuttle services to remote villages along the rivers.

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 possible to transport your motorbike on a river boat in Laos.

It’s possible to transport your motorbike on a river boat in Laos.

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.

You'll generally get this perspective when riding on one of the smaller boats.

You’ll generally get this perspective when riding on one of the smaller boats.

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.

These sorts of isolated communities in Laos are dependent on river transport for trade.

These sorts of isolated communities in Laos are dependent on river transport for trade.

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.

Even the United Nations World Food Program uses the rivers to transport goods.

Even the United Nations World Food Program uses the rivers to transport goods.

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.

The town of Nong Kiaow is a transit point for those living on remote parts of the Nam Ou.

The town of Nong Kiaow is a transit point for those living on remote parts of the Nam Ou.

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.

Some river crossings require the use of barges.

Some river crossings require the use of barges.

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.

It's not just the tourists in Vang Vieng who enjoy tubing.

It’s not just the tourists in Vang Vieng who enjoy tubing.

The rivers aren’t always just about transport in Laos. Locals use it for food, washing and leisure.

The river is also use for playing.

The river is also use for playing.

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?

Cargo on the river includes buffaloes.

Cargo on the river includes buffaloes.

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…

Speed boats in Laos are great way to get from A to B in a short amount of time.

Speed boats in Laos are great way to get from A to B in a short amount of time.

… 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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3 responses so far

3 Responses to “River transport in Laos”

  1. Gregon 16 May 2013 at 4:20 am

    Great photos and write up. Sadly -if I am not mistaken- China is building a cascade of 7 dams on the Nam Ou River, and more dams are slated for the Mekong, Sekong, and other rivers in Laos. These dams will radically alter the natural environment in Laos, they displace communities, and, for travelers, the great times to be had traveling these rivers will be a thing of the past. That means go out and explore the rivers of Laos while you can!

  2. Danon 20 May 2013 at 1:19 am

    Greg you are correct on the China/ dam info, traveling north from Prabang there are a couple enormous construction sites seemingly in the middle of no where. Have spent the last 4 weeks in Northern Laos, traveling by boat where possible, huay xai- prabang- nong khiew- mueng gnoi- hatsa/phongsaly. Stopping at remote villages along the way when possible (with just a few people on the boat the captains are sometimes open to stop upon request). I have been traveling in low season and most boats have had a limited amount of passengers, which has been fantastic. Much more room on the boat, although you will have to pay additional. You can always make more money right?
    Road travel is taking over here, faster and cheaper. Add in Chinas dams and it’s only a matter of time before the experience of boat travel here is all but over. Its been a great experience, just remember to bring ear plugs :)

  3. somsaion 21 May 2013 at 2:57 am

    What a great article!

    I’ve never seen a more useful piece on boat travel in Laos. Been reading your postings as I come across them. They make me wish I were in Laos.

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