Boats along the Mekong and its tributaries are useful shortcuts for the horrible roads, although as the road network improves river services are slowly drying up, and many of the remaining services only run in the wet season, when the Mekong floods and becomes more navigable. Huay Xai (on the border with Thailand) to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse are the main routes still in use.
There are so-called slow boats and speedboats - the latter being tiny lightweight craft equipped with powerful motors that literally skid across the water at high speeds.
By slow boat
Many people go from Chiang Khong in Thailand via the border town of Houai Xai downstream the Mekong to the marvelous city (if you can call a 16000 capita place a city) of Luang Prabang. The ride takes basically two days and is very scenic. Apart from that, it is a floating backpacker ghetto with no (good) food sold, so bring some, cramped and considerably hot. It's your choice, but one of my fellow travellers remarked the second day 'no-one looks happy on this boat any more...' Be sure to bring a good (long) read, something soft for the wooden benches and your best patience.
An attractive choice for some, with a 6 hour ride from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, as compared to the two-day trip on the slow boat, but not for the faint of heart. Expect to be crammed into a modified canoe made for 4, with 10 other people, along with all the luggage somehow packed in. Expect to sit on the floor of the canoe, as there are no seats, with your knees against your chin for the full 6 hours. Expect an incredibly loud engine inches behind your head. Expect the engine to break a few times, and stops for delays to fix it. That being said, when this ride finally ends, if you make it with no trouble, you will never be happier to get to Luang Prabang. Stories of small, overloaded speedboats sinking or hitting driftwood are common, but if you are a good swimmer, take comfort in the fact that you can see both shores throughout the entire trip. So, as you see, choosing between the slow boat and the speedboat is a hard call, based mostly upon your comfort level; would you prefer a slow unpleasant trip, or a much faster, but more dangerous unpleasant trip. Either way, the scenery along the way is gorgeous and unexploited, and Luang Prabang is an incredible city, worth a thousand of these journeys.
January 1, 2007: There are unconfirmed reports that as of January 1, 2007, the Lao Government has banned the use of speedboats due to environmental concerns. Relying on speedboats for travel may not be an option, and further information should be investigated. However, in early December 2007 speedboats were still cruising the Mekong, operating the Vientiane-Paklay-Vientiane route on five days/week and the Luang Prabang-Huay Xai route.
Though helpful in saving time, speedboats are not without danger: built to carry 8 passengers, they are often overloaded; the engine noise is well above a healthy level, which could be a serious hazard to your ears, especially if you are on the boat for a long time (as well as causing considerable noise pollution, scaring wildlife and spoiling the peaceful river life); and fatalities resulting from capsize due to incautious maneuvering, or hitting floating logs or hidden rocks, have been reported (and exaggerated by competing slow boat owners, some say...) However, the vast majority of speedboat users have no serious problems. If you are taller than the average Laotian (many are), are a bit claustrophobic and/or have inflexible leg muscles you are guaranteed an extremely uncomfortable experience for several endless hours.
Suggestions for those who decide to take the risk:
- Get one of the front seats as they allow you to stretch your legs and are far from the noisy motor
- Wear helmets and life jackets; reconsider your journey if these are not provided
- Bring a coat in the cold season, the strong wind can make you feel cold even at temperatures of 25C.
- Bring earplugs
- Protect water-sensitive equipment (you might get wet)