How to take a slow riverboat up the Mekong River in Laos. I will provide details that include maps, costs, logistical requirements and facts as well as links to a full written narrative, photos and videos. This is a self-guided adventure on a shoestring. Follow the links to dig deeper into the adventure.
While hanging out in Louang Prabang I opted out of the local tourist game by taking a long slow boat ride up the Mekong River to the border town of Houay Xai (after five visits to the ferry ticket office to finally get a 100,000 kip ticket, which was half the rate the guest house wished to sell it for). This is a two day trip with a night stay at Pak Beng.
Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $
Boat ticket (per person)
Food 2 days
Note that there are also fast boats that cost more. But if you’re in a hurry, why are you in SE Asia?
Boat General Photos
Accommodation In Louang Prabang (lots of alternatives):
Personally I cannot recommend anything in good faith. Pretty much everywhere I stayed was over-priced. Even in Luan Prabang after hours of checking out GH’s and prices, and changing a few times.
The remote villages were no better. They simply charged a little less than Luang Prabang, but for way worse accommodation (believe it or not).
Add to the price and quality issues the noise factor. Pretty much everyplace had a Karaoke bar or late night party going on next door.
How to Get to Luan Prabang (from Sapa Vietnam)
Leaving Sapa for Dien Bien Phu (for the Muang Kwa, Laos crossing):
Asking around the various travel agencies in Sapa for a connection to Dien Bien Phu (DBP) resulted in some good information and some bad information. They all pretty much agreed that the price of a bus (van) ticket is $13-$14. Some said the bus would pick us up in front of the hotel and others said we had to walk to the main road (the other side of the lake) and flag down the bus. The time of departure also varied from 6am to 9am, depending on who you asked. The average stated length of the trip was 6:45hrs to 8hrs.
We purchased the $12 tickets, and even though we were assured that we would be assigned a seat, and be picked up in front of the hotel, we ended up without a seat assignment and had to get a scooter lift to the main road. Further, the 8am bus turned out to be a 9am van. So much for truth in sales.
The ride to DBP took about 7hrs and was over a mix of very bad roads (under construction) and relatively good paved roads.
Warning about DBP Arrival:
We arrived at the main bus park and were attacked by the usual throng of tuk-tuk and taxi touts. After much negotiation we settled on a 50,000 D ride for four to the Bien Long GH (a recommendation of the Book of Lies – Lonely Planet). The ride was a rip off.
Exiting the bus park, turn left. Walk 100m to a bridge. Cross it and follow the road to the left (thru a market). First street on the left you find the rip-off Bien Long GH. The woman charged $10 (170,000 D) a double, then dropped the price to $8 (140,000 D) after much negotiation, and then switched the room to a smaller and lower quality room. The bait-&- switch method. She also offered 80,000 D bus tickets to Vietnam for 100,000 and hotel pickup at 6:30am.
We purchased our tickets at the bus park for 80,000, arrived early to claim seats (the assigned seat numbering is ignored) and then left to pick up the fellow travelers at the Bien Long GH. The bus stopped out front and they had to sit on top of already loaded sacks of noodles, etc. The bus filled up at the station so their premium tickets got them the worst seats or no seats at all. Further, they didn’t actually get tickets. The GH woman simply gave the driver some cash and the entire transaction stayed in the black.
Accommodation in DBP:
As mentioned above, do not stay at the Lonely Planet recommend Bien Long GH. Instead simply walk out of the bus park, cross the road and usethe May Hong Hotel GH (0989.797988), to the left 20m. It charges 120,000 D ($7) a double with private balcony. Not only a cheaper price than the others, it is also more practical for catching the early bus to Vietnam.
Note on Bus to Laos (Muang Kwa):
The ride is long and the road is mostly dirt and pot holes. The ticket costs 80,000 in DBP bus park.
You can get a Laos visa at this new border crossing for cheaper than at the Hanoi embassy. They charge the listed rate and not the premium of $10-$15 that the Hanoi embassy charges. It only takes about 20 minutes to issue the visa at the border (bring two photos and US dollars). You will also have to pay a stamp fee to the border guard of about 30 cents (in either Laos Kip or Vietnamese Dong).
The bus completes its journey on the other side of the river from the town of Muang Kwa around 11:30am. As a westerner you will be directed to a small motor canoe and asked to pay 5,000 K to cross (50 cents). Once the westerners are across the locals walk onto the large car ferry for the 20m crossing (and pay 1,000 K).
Once across the river you need to follow the road into town and then out of town for the bus park. It cost 3,000 K per person in a shared tuk-tuk to reach the bus park. You need to hurry since the van to Udom Xai (3-4 hr trip) leaves at 12:30pm (next bus is at 3:30pm). Bus costs 28,000 K ($3.25) or $4 if you don’t have Kip.
The town of Muang Kwa does have two guesthouses if you want to spend the night (since you will have to spend the night in Udom Xai anyway). There is also a bank (Western Union Station) in the center. You can change money here, but they are closed for lunch (when you arrive) so consider changing at least $10 worth of dollars or Dong at the border.
If you continue to Udom Xai you can find heaps of guesthouses, but I only found one ATM cash machine. Since my cards are all Debit Cards they are all Plus cards, not Cirrus. As a result the machine would not give me cash (or any others in Laos for that matter).
If you make the connection in Udom Xai for Louang Prabang be prepared to pay a lot for accommodation. You will reach the bus park (6km outside of town) around 1am. The normal shared tuk-tuk price to the center of 10,000 K ($1.20) will be much inflated. Then when you reach town most of the guesthouses will be closed and if you find one open (waking up the owner) don’t be surprised if you are charged $25 (or more) for the night. Louang Prabang is not a backpacker town. It is a tourist town so even in the best of times you will find it very difficult to find a room for under $10 night.
Bus to Loas Photos