If it's true that the journey is more important than the destination, it's even truer when it comes to river-boat travel. Often slow, uncomfortable and unreliable, boat trips can nevertheless deliver on magnificent scenery and insights into local customs and ways of life. Thanks to rapidly improving road networks and also due to the proliferation of dams in Laos, options for boat travel in Southeast Asia are slowly fading away, but some fabulous trips worth trying do remain. Below we cover some of our favourites, along with a handful no longer really possible to do easily.
Once we sat down to pick our favourite river runs in Southeast Asia, we realised just how many there are. If you've got the time, river travel is almost always a more memorable experience (not always for the right reasons!) than plane, train or bus. If you're planning a trip to one of the following areas, do keep these in mind.
NatGeo in a boat
Siem Reap to Battambang (Cambodia)
We've done this trip probably a half dozen times over the years, and while it is uniformly a tourist boat (anyone intelligent would get a bus), and while we've broken down three times and other boats have sunk in the past, we still love it for the amazing birdlife you'll encounter as you run up the Sangker River to Battambang. It's the classic Cambodia experience: a foot half in the grave enmeshed with breathtaking beauty. We did the trip once with a friend on his first visit to Cambodia and he gushed afterwards that he felt like he'd just travelled through a National Geographic magazine. Yes, it can be that gorgeous.
The banana pancake boat: part I
Huay Xai to Luang Prabang (Laos)
The classic Southeast Asia boat trip is the Huay Xai to Luang Prabang trip. While also possible to do by speedboat, most backpackers go for the slow boat option, which takes the best part of two days to travel from Huay Xai on the Thai border to Laos' atmospheric northern capital, Luang Prabang. This is a tourist affair -- think wooden floating minibus full of gap years rather than an ageing freighter full of character, but it is an undeniably beautiful trip.
Heart of Darkness: part I
Ca Mau to Dat Mui, Vietnam
Okay, the last kilometre or so has to be done by motorbike, but if you've ever wanted to stand on the southernmost tip of Vietnam, the Ca Mau to Dat Mui speedboat trip is the way to do it. These speedboats are definitely not fitted out with Western bodies in mind -- you will get to know whoever is sitting next to you extremely well -- and the boats are so small there is unfortunately no rooftop seating. That said, if you've always wanted your "Heart of Darkness" moment, skimming down this beautiful river delivers the goods. It's five to six hours each way, with the section closer to Dat Mui the best.
Heart of Darkness: part II
Phnom Penh to Chau Doc (Cambodia)
Like the Huay Xai to Luang Prabang epic, this once came in fast and slow boat flavours, but the slow boats are no more (perhaps they all sank or were turned into furniture) so speedboat is the only way to do it. The highlight is towards the end of the trip coming from Phnom Penh where you travel up the canals of the Delta as you near Chau Doc. When you arrive late in the afternoon, the light can be just lovely.
Heart of Darkness: part III
My Tho to Chau Doc (Vietnam)
This is a great one, but there's no passenger service running along it. You'll need to go to the freighter port in My Tho and sort out a spot on a freighter yourself. It's not hard, and is worth the effort, as it is a stunning trip. When we did it (admittedly a million years ago) the trip took two full days -- you slung a hammock and slept amid the cargo, but before the sun set, we sat on the roof of the boat, wedged between baskets of mangoes and bananas, and watched the sun set over the river: sublime.
Off the map
Monywa to anywhere (Burma)
We're keen on this run just because when we did it in 2014 we were the only tourists on the boat and it was a fascinating local experience -- like how the boats in Laos used to be. We loved it. This genuinely is all about the journey. The double (or treble) pricing leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but not all operators practice it, so shop around in Monywa. It took us two days to reach Mawleik -- so the moral of the story is to travel downriver, not up. Smarter (and better organised) travellers may opt to fly to Homilin and boat down from there.
Hat Sa to Muang Khua (Laos)
One of the few remaining great Laos boat trips, the sampan run from Hat Sa to Muang Khua is spectacular. You were once able to do this run all the way through to Luang Prabang, but that's no longer possible sadly -- so do this one now! The main hassle is you'll need to get to Hat Sa first to start it, which means getting to Phongsali, which means that bloody awful road. Buzzing down the river in a sampan (you can throw your motorbike on the boat) makes it all worthwhile.
The banana pancake boat: part II
Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (Cambodia)
Walking around in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap you'll see the occasional backpacker burnt almost to the bone, blistered and in obvious pain. You sat on the boat roof and didn't put sunscreen on right? This remains a popular trip despite the bus being faster, cheaper and shadier, but the river kind of disappoints as much of the trip is spent in the midst of the Tonle Sap where you can barely see the land on each side, so there's just a lot of water. Well, you are on a boat right?
Speedboats, hilltribes and elephants
Kok River trip (Thailand)
A boat journey on the Kok River between Tha Ton town and Chiang Rai is one of the most scenic river journeys you can do in Northern Thailand. It’s also a generally reliable, reasonably priced and well organised trip, yet a relatively under-used one. A bit touristy? Yes. A bit gorgeous? Yes, that too.
Boat in, boat out, walk in between
Taman Negara National Park (Malaysia)
This is probably the shortest trip we have on our list, but we did two different trips here: one going into the park to trek -- think baby blue skies, lush jungle and quivering waters -- and then again at the end of the trek when the mist was moody and the currents fast. Walking in the park is a must for visitors to Malaysia and the the boat trips at each end are great bookends to a classic Malaysia experience.
Up the River of Kings
Bangkok to Bang Pa-In (Thailand)
Unlike its neighbours, Thailand isn't all that well known for its boat trips -- there's the above-mentioned Kok trip, but the Bangkok to Bang Pa-In cruise is one of the few others. This is probably the most touristy we have listed here -- depending on your boat you may well have canapes and champagne served to you during the journey. The scenery is pleasant and relaxing, but you're effectively winding your way up a floodplain, so skyscrapers rather than mountains flank the river. Nevertheless, this is a living, working river with plenty going on (between canapes).
A slow day on the Ayeyarwady
Mandalay to Bagan (Burma)
Burma's version of the Bang Pa-In trip, the Mandalay to Bagan boat trip can take anything from seven to 12 hours and in the dry season may not run at all. The highlights are the beginning and the end, so take a book for the mid-journey. This is a dedicated tourist service and while it's slower than going by plane or bus, this is one trip where it is considerably less hair-raising.
Kinabatangan River (Malaysia)
Weaving through Malaysia's Sabah, the mangrove forests and flood plains along this 560 kilometre-long river are a refuge for all the displaced animals pushed out of the surrounding jungle as it's eaten up by palm plantations. The fact that they're constrained to a narrow swatch of land is bad for them but good for you (in the very short term!) -- sightings are practically guaranteed.
Camp Leakey and beyond (Indonesia)
Board a klodok, or traditional fishing boat, in the Kalimantan port town of Kumai and putter along the rivers of Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesia's Borneo. A two-night trip allows for several stops to see semi-wild orang-utans clustering at feeding stations, including world-renowned Camp Leakey. Seeing the rehabilitated primates, which live among an estimated 6,000 wild orangutans left in the park, is a special experience -- no contrived shows, cages or crowds here.
Huay Xai to Xieng Kok (Laos)
We're not sure if our researcher Adam will ever forgive us for sending him on this trip, but, well, when a one-day trip turns into two days with buffalos and armed bandits involved at least you've got a great story to tell. It's pretty, too!
Offbeat Sumatra (Indonesia)
The Way Kanan River in Indonesia's Way Kambas National Park, Lampung, is off-the-beaten tourist trail and it shows. You'll likely be the only boat gliding along the waters here, and a guide will help you perhaps spot crocodiles, kingfishers, silver langurs, barking deer, snakes and hornbills, among other species -- it's also a sanctuary for the endangered Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran elephant, but your chances of spying these are admittedly slim.
Sadly the following trips either no longer run at all or are not available as a regular service. Intrepid travellers (or those travelling on group tours) may still be able to enjoy some of these.
The vomit comet
Koh Kong to Sihanoukville (Cambodia)
"Let's get a bunch of long thin ‘fast boats' designed for use on lakes and calm waters and run them in the open ocean off the coast of Cambodia!" said some dude, once. Nobody wanted to be in the cabin because locals were either smoking or vomiting within minutes of commencing the trip, so the roof was crowded, where you'd get soaked or burnt or both. But it was fun, in a perverse kind of way, and on some runs the waters would be so crystalline you'd feel like you were on the way to somewhere far more enticing than Sihanoukville.
Two days, three days, it depends
Luang Prabang to Vientiane (Laos)
"How long will it take from Luang Prabang to Vientiane?" Two days, maybe three. Three was on the money. An overnight at Pak Lai, and then, well another night -- clustered around a small campfire to keep warm, sleeping on the chilly alluvial river bank. The scenery was magnificent -- probably not as great as the northern trip to Huay Xai, but still pretty damn fab. Aside from bags of concrete and other bulk freight, we were the only cargo and spent hours on the roof and in hammocks -- this was slow lazy travel in Laos, the way it should be.
Vientiane to Savannakhet (Laos)
Before Japanese aid funded the "highway" south from Vientiane, through Paksan, Tha Khaek, Savannakhet and eventually to Pakse, the quickest way to see all was by boat. Once the road finished, the boats stopped as the bottom fell out of the freight market and the last time we saw tourists on the river would have been speed boats pulling up at Savannakhet from Vientiane some 15 years ago. While it would have been a decent trip, outside of the area around Nakhon Phanom (Thailand)/Tha Khaek (Laos), the scenery is mostly flat and, well, a bit boring. Still it would be more interesting than the bus.
Before The Beach
Bangkok to Ko Samui (Thailand)
This care of a friend in Phnom Penh who maintains she caught a coconut freighter from Bangkok to Ko Samui in 1972. According to her the boat went once a month and took "a few days". Once at Samui she laid on the beach, smoked weed and watched the moon. Unfortunately this was all pre Instagram so there is no proof, but we liked the story.
How much you pay?
The Cambodia/Laos border debacle (Cambodia/Laos)
Everyone's favourite crappy border crossing. Before the bridges were built between Stung Treng and the border, the trip from Laos to Cambodia was a freefire zone of scams and ripoffs. Essentially speedboat drivers had the market and, well they charged whatever they wanted. Immigration officers were in on it as well, charging outlandish surcharges that once had Mrs Travelfish waving a press card declaring "I'm an AFP journalist" -- and all baksheesh was refunded! (Note to self: get fake press card on Khao San Road. Additional note: Hers was real though.) Scams aside, it was an exhilarating (and very fast) ride up or down the Mekong. The regular service is no more, but it is still possible to hire speedboats privately for this run (border formalities are handled at Veung Kham).
Lines on a map
Pak Tha to Luang Nam Tha
We're not sure if this is still running, and we only ever did the Pak Tha to Pak Hat section, but even that was great. Very low waters, paddling ourselves at times, the mist, the forest, and then suddenly around the bend a sampan full of saffron monks off to a ceremony. We got to Pak Hat, hired a war-era Russian jeep and ventured on to Pha Udom, a mysterious town that was marked on our map -- we should have kept going on the boat.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.