Originally, the Mekong’s slow boats (heua sa) were primarily for cargo and the occasional Lao passengers who relied on them for trade and transport in a part of Laos where roads are sometimes impassable. Since the Lao government eased travel restrictions allowing foreigners to ride these antiquated diesel-powered boats, thousands of tourists have made the two-day journey between Houayxai and Luang Prabang (and vice versa), stopping overnight at the village of Pakbeng.
Many travellers agree that the journey is one of those definitive Southeast Asian experiences. The riverbanks along the Mekong are sparsely populated, though the forest is not as pristine as one might imagine. Logging and decades of slash-and-burn agriculture have left their mark, and, on the more accessible slopes and summits, trees have been supplanted by rows of corn stalks and banana plants. Of as much interest are the glimpses into local village life. Fisher-folk utilizing bamboo fish-traps and prospectors panning for gold can be seen among the sandbars and jagged rocks that make this stretch of the Mekong a treacherous obstacle course. Along the way, boats often call briefly at tiny villages situated at confluences, and the villagers take the opportunity to hawk fish, game and other local products to passengers and crew.
The boats usually carry far more passengers than there are seats – take a cushion with you if possible, which will really make a difference on the long journey, as well as plenty of drinks and snacks. Turn up at the boat landing as early as you can – you may need to sign up in advance so check locally what the situation is.
A couple of luxury tourist boats also make the journey up the Mekong, the pick of which is Luang Say (wwww.luangsay.com), run by the same company as Luang Say Lodge in Pakbeng. The price includes overnight accommodation in Pakbeng, meals and drinks, plus stops at Pak Ou Buddha Cave and minority villages along the way. If you can afford the splurge, its definitely worth it to do this wonderful journey in more comfortable surroundings.
You’d be foolish to risk your life travelling the river in one of the speedboats (heua wai) which also make the journey from Houayxai to Pakbeng (4hr) and Luang Prabang (6hr); crash helmets and life-vests are supposed to be provided, and don’t forget to bring earplugs.
Note that in February 2010, water levels in the Mekong were so low that boats were suspended for a few weeks – those that did run often ended up with tourists having to camp on riverbanks and in nearby villages when the boat couldn’t make it as far as Pakbeng for the night. There seems to be no clear answer about whether it was due to low rainfall or Chinese dams further up the river limiting the flow, so it could certainly happen again. If it does, your best option is to take the bus back to Luang Prabang, rather than risk a very slow, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous journey.