Getting there and away
To and from Pakbeng the most common access is by river, but there is also a road which leads to Udomxai -- all of 144 kilometres away. It is possible to get to Luang Prabang in one day via Udomxai, or to other destinations from Udomxai. The bus station is located about 2.5 kilometres out of town along the main road.
Udomxai: Departs 09:00, 12:30, 14:00 and 16:00, takes 3 hours and costs 40,000 kip.
Slow boats between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang take two days to cover the 300 kilometres, and either way it costs about 220,000 kip. The boat is also able to stop at Pak Ou caves (near Luang Prabang), usually by passenger consensus. Passengers are required to buy their own entrance ticket, and occasionally boat staff demand an extra payment of $1 per person in order to stop. It is also possible to do just one leg of the journey for 110,000 kip.
Departure times vary according to a number of factors including river speed -- it's a longer journey heading upstream -- but generally take place between 08:00 and 09:30. A minimum of about 20 people are usually needed to depart, which is usually not a problem. Sometimes as many as 80 people are packed into one boat. There is nowhere to stop or buy lunch along the way, although there is usually a small snack shop on board selling beer, Pringles and noodles in a cup. Bookings can be made at any travel agent and many guesthouses in Luang Prabang and Huay Xai. Tickets are also available at a much higher price in Chiang Khong in Thailand as are package deals with accommodation in Chiang Mai. The best option? Head down to the dock and purchase the ticket at the ticket office for the best price.
The Luangsay Cruise is a more expensive but luxurious way to travel this route, and unlike the backpacker option, includes accommodation at the gorgeous Luangsay Lodge as well as all meals, stops at ethnic villages and Pak Ou Caves, and assistance and transport crossing the border to Thailand. Prices vary seasonally between $400 and $700.
Rocket boats also make the journey between Huay Xai, Pakbeng and Luang Prabang. A faster but more dangerous and noisy option, these speedboats can do both legs of the journey in 2.5 to 3.5 hours each. The small, colourful boats are very noisy, and earplugs are a good investment. Some people have experienced temporary hearing loss. Most passengers wear helmets to fight the noise as well as for safety, and lifejackets for protection from the sun and biting wind.
Horror stories do abound about the speedboats, ranging from death to crashes to engine failure and being stranded by the side of the river waiting for another boat to pass. Despite this of course most speedboats do make their destination in one piece and in just a fraction of the time of the more solid passenger ferries. It is often the transport of choice for Lao people who can afford them.
Speedboats depart from separate piers in Luang Prabang and Huay Xai (transport to the pier is not included in the ticket price) but the same pier as the slow boats in Pakbeng. They leave when the boat is full -- six tourists or eight Laotians. If the boat is not full, you can pay extra to cover the full price of chartering the whole boat.
The full journey between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang is 340,000 kip per person (2,040,000 kip to charter the boat) and one leg either way to or from Pakbeng is 170,000 kip per person (about 1,020,000 kip for the whole boat). A bus from Udomxai often arrives in Pakbeng by midday with other passengers wishing to use a speedboat so it's a good idea to wait around if you don't want to hire an entire boat.
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