Travelling by boat along the mighty Mekong as it winds its way through the green mountains of northern Laos is a true Asian adventure.
Not so long ago the 7,400km (4,600 miles) of navigable waterways in Laos constituted the country’s only transport network. Today, they remain, by and large, a great way to get around the country, although services grind to a halt on some of the shallower stretches of water during the latter stages of the dry season (February-April).
The main long-distance river trip for tourists runs from Huay Xai in the northwest down to Luang Prabang. The 20-person passenger ferries on this route are called heua saa (slow boats) by the Lao, and they live up to their name. Huay Xai to Luang Prabang requires spending one night en route at Pakbeng, arriving at Luang Prabang in the afternoon on the second day. The boats leave in the early mornings from a terminal just north of the Lao immigration checkpoint in Huay Xai. Prices for the ferries are low. Be sure to bring your own food, water, sunglasses and hat or umbrella.
For a luxury alternative , the vessel Luang Say travels from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang with an overnight stop at an attractive lodge near Pakbeng. The boat carries 40 passengers in comfort, and makes stops at points of interest along the way. The price includes all meals, guides and accommodation.
Unless you really are in a hurry, speedboats are best avoided, being both environmentally damaging and rather dangerous.
These days, the route from Vientiane to Pakse in the south is mainly used for cargo traffic, but smaller passenger ferries from Pakse to Champasak and Don Khong still run. The luxury Vat Phou, a steel-hulled vessel with 10 staterooms, makes a four-day round-trip cruise from Pakse to the Si Phan Don area, visiting the famous Khmer temple site of Wat Phou as well.
Throughout the country, river taxis are available for short trips to sites such as temples and caves that are inaccessible by road. The beautiful Nam Ou River, which flows into the Mekong near Luang Prabang, is navigable most of the year as far north as Hat Sa near Phongsali and is considered one of the best river cruises in Laos. This will mostly involve private charters: enquire in Luang Prabang.
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