I'm just wiping off the dust, having just handed back my bike, 960km older, in Luang Nam Tha, and here's a little update on the boats according to either travel agents here in LNT, my own experience or other traveller reports.
Boat on the Nam Tha river: not running.
Boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang: not running
Here are ones that are running. Trip time based either on my own experience or what other travellers who actually caught the boat said. Note agents in each town routinely say the boat takes less than it does.
Boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khua : Running, takes 6 hours down (me), 9 up.
Boat from Muang Khua to Nong Khiaow: Running, 7 down, 9 up.
Boat from Nong Khiaow to Luang Prabang: Running
Boat from Nong Khiaow to Muang Ngoi: Running.
Hope that helps!
#1 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,737
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As per the above linked post on Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, it's unlikely the river will be much higher by late April, but if there are enough people at the slow boat ramp on any given morning a boat will make the trip even now. However, as long as the river is this low there are still likely to be mixed messages from touts as you appraoch and cross the border. Many people tell their own version of the truth which best suits their business during these lean times. The go right now is selling bucketloads of minivan and bus tickets and saying boats aren't possible, too dangerous, etc. I'd pray for rain in the next month and check here or Thorn Tree again before arriving at the border.
Tickets are again being sold for the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, starting for March 20 (this Thursday) so officially it's back in business. However people should be aware how low the Mekong still is and that boats have to take extra care and might not make their destinantion on time (was common in early Feb too before the boats got cancelled). So be prepared to sleep wherever they tell you to if Pakbeng doesn't materialise by sunset. Keep extra clothing handy as it can get very cool at night by the river, bring extra food too and you will be very popular.
Get the regular bus at 9am, 1pm, or 5pm and buy your ticket at the bus station.
Bus schedule here
There is usually a lot of pressure at the border crossing and in town to buy a bus or van ticket. You can ignore this and get a tuk tuk for 10,000 kip (or 40 baht) to the bus station. Arrive about an hour ahead of time to get a decent seat. The ride takes about 11-12 hours.
Boats (slow and speed) are running too. Go to the boat ramp (slow 1km north, speed 4km south) and buy ticket there. The touts in town can be like flies - swat them away.
The slowboat is indeed running - we got it on Monday, arriving in Luang Phabang last night. We had absolutely no prblems whatsoever, the journey was incredibly smooth, we didn't get stuck/have to sleep on a riverbank, and the ride itself was stunning. I'm so glad that we took the boat instead of opting for a bus, as I'm sure the boat was infinently nicer than being crammed onto a bus for 12 hours. If anyone reading this can't decide, you should definitely take the boat.
Our journey was pretty smooth sailing from Chiang Mai. We paid 1700 Baht per person for the whole journey to Luang Prabang (all accommodation, transport and meals, bar the room in Pakbeng, and food on the 2nd leg of te boat). We took a mini bus from CM to Chiang Khong - about 5 or 6 hours, pretty cramped and very windy roads (probably the worst bit of the journey!) We stayed overnight in CK, where our guesthouse organied our visas in advance (you can do it on arrival at the border as well). In the morning we left at 8.30, took a minibus to thai immigration, a short boat hop across to Laos, where we picked up the visas, cleared immigration, and took a tuk tuk to the boat. We didn't encounter ANY touts at all trying to put us off theboat/sell bus tickets. After all the numerous accounts of this in this thread, I'm not sure where they all went...
We boarded the boat, which left at 10.30 sharp - they were very strict about this, as they obviously want to avoid getting stuck. It was about 3/4 full, so there were plenty of seats to spare, and the only people sat on the floor were those who chose to (some of the benches are pretty hard, you should definitely buy a cushion!) We stopped overnight in Pabeng, arriving at about 5.30. Now I really don't understand the fuss about Pakbeng. Yes it's small and quiet, but it's nice, has numerous guesthouses and a few decent restaurants, and is completely fine for a night. We stayed in the Monsavahn Guesthouse, rooms for 200B - clean and nice. There were loads of rooms so no need to book in advance at the vastly inflated prices being offered before you board the boat! On day 2 we left at 9am, and reached LP by 5.30.
After reading all the threads on the forum we were aprehensive about both the boat and Pakbeng, and this just goes to show that sometimes too much research can be counterproductive. It was good to go into it with our eyes open, as obviously sometimes things do go wrong, but if we had let ourselves be put off enough to take the bus that would have been a real shame. I'd encourage anyone debating it to take the boat - yes it's long, but it's beautiful and peaceful, a great way to meet people, and an experience you'll never forget.
#8 Worldtraveller has been a member since 12/2/2010. Posts: 8
Finally, a report of someone doing the slow boat on the Mekong recently and having no problems.
I still don't see why anyone ever does this trip. It's just not worth all the potential problems, especially when there are better river trips in Laos. Certainly the trip south on the Nam Ou from Muang Khua is unrivaled. The only downside is the cost. If you want to go all the way to Muang Ngoi or Nong Khiew, you'll probably have to charter a whole boat for approximately $100. The only other passengers are likely to be locals going from their village to the nearest market or back again.
You never know on the Mekong how overcrowded your boat will be, how many days it might take, or where you'll wind up sleeping. It's not worth the risk. And does anyone really need to meet that many other tourists? You could stay in Amsterdam or New York to do that. The slow boat is really nothing more than a floating Khao San Road.
Talk to your fellow travelers in Chiang Khong or Houi Xai and convince a few of them to join you from Luang Nam Tha to Oudomxai to Muang Khua if you need to share the costs.
#9 eljefe has been a member since 16/11/2008. Posts: 25
I think you've slightly missed the point here. Most people do the slow boat as a way to get from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang, and the alternative is an overnight bus journey from a to b on a cramped, hot, uncomfortable bus. As someone who considered both, and who's since spoken to people who took the bus (it took them 22 hours, although I think this is varied), the boat is an infinitely more preferable option. Not to mention the fabulous experience of floating peacefully along the Mekong for about £8 - slightly less than the $100 quoted for the other journey.
#10 Worldtraveller has been a member since 12/2/2010. Posts: 8
I still don't see why anyone ever does this trip
Because everyone does it, of course. That's integral to the experience of "doing" southeast Asia or wherever. You must take the slow boat to Luang Prabang, you must go tubing in Vang Vieng, and you must visit the Buddha park in Vientiane. Otherwise you are missing out and will be a loser when you can't join the cool late night traveler discussions during the breaks between Friends and Family Guy!
Most people do the slow boat as a way to get from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang, and the alternative is an overnight bus journey from a to b on a cramped, hot, uncomfortable bus.
Hmm that's not the only overland alternative. There are VIP buses with AC. & also alternatives such as stopping along the way to explore Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, etc - see more of Laos, meet more Lao people...
22h in what season with how many breakdowns? If all goes well should be closer to 13h.
Not to mention the fabulous experience of floating peacefully along the Mekong for about £8 - slightly less than the $100 quoted for the other journey.
VIP bus (135,000kip) is cheaper than slow boat (~200,000kip) for entire journey (HX to LPB). Can have a look here if you need more details on boat & bus options.
Not that am against this slow boat journey, but prefer to do it upriver (which i did, with max 20 other passengers at any time). Cramped, uncomfortable ride with 100 other passengers drinking & playing cards isn't a 'fabulous experience of floating peacefully' to me. #10: The slow boat is really nothing more than a floating Khao San Road seems like a pretty good description for the downriver boats...
Though you travelled during the off-peak season when many avoid northern Laos because of the haze, so guess it wasn't that crowded for you, & you paid low season rates for Monsavan (stayed there & liked it too).
Agree with #10 that there are more beautiful river trips to be enjoyed in Laos. Guess it's cos i travelled on the Nam Ou before travelling on the Mekong that i found the latter far more boring in terms of scenery.
Oh dear - I wrote that first post because I've used Travelfish so extensively whilst I've been away and wanted to give something back by posting an up to date account of a very poular journey. The last thing I wanted was to get into an argument with the 'professional travellers' mafia. I've seen these arguments on here before and they get nasty.
But let me say this - there are a lot of really normal, cool people who want to travel to popular places and do popular things and sometimes are just looking for up to date accounts on said destinations and activities.
If somebody wants to 'do' SE Asia I personally don't think their experience is any less valid because they: shower, chat to other like minded westerners, watch the odd episode of Family Guy and don't have to sneer at the journeys other people are undertaking in order to feel better about themselves.
I can't help thinking that travelling is an experience and is not a profession and writing countless posts is not the same thing as studying to be a doctor and then giving medical advice. The opinions stated here (certainly including my own) are not definitive beacuse there is not a definitively correct or incorrect way to travel.
So come on guys - the opinions and first hand accounts of the more travelled travellers are always appreciated, but certainly in no way enhanced when laced with unjustified snobbery.
#13 Worldtraveller has been a member since 12/2/2010. Posts: 8