A rite of passage for backpackers, tourists and travellers alike in Southeast Asia is the trip aboard the slowboat – a narrow, 40-ish metre-long riverboat, half-walled and thinly rooved, decked with old bus seats up front and a noisy engine/cargo room down back.
The boat travels from Huouyxay, Laos, following the Mekong River downstream to Luang Prabang, It’s a two day “cruise”, with an overnight stop in Pak Beng, a village halfway that serves the slowboat with accommodations, restaurants and even a western-style bar.
Often a raucous party, the slowboat is the perfect place to meet and socialize with those on their way through the Southeast Asian circuit. The old bus seats aren’t fixed to the floor, meaning it’s easy to turn them to face others, fostering a social atmosphere.
Unbelievably, after two visits to Laos, I had never taken the slowboat. Shame on me! So as not to be stripped of my Southeast Asia stripes, on my third visit to Laos recently, I got myself a slowboat ticket.
Having had a fair bit of time on my own of late, I couldn’t wait to crack open a Beerlao and play shit-head with a newfound group of friends. By afternoon on day one, in a beer-induced haze, the masses of jungle-covered green were blurring past, and by the second day I was too hungover to even look out the window. Sure, I had fun – but I hardly experienced the Mekong. I’m pretty sure that was the story for many of the other passengers, too. Afterwards, determined to set myself straight, I set about investigating just what I’d missed…
So I have compiled some facts for the discerning slowboat passenger, about the Mekong River and its surroundings between Huayxay and Luang Prabang—in the hope that I might help enrich the experience of future slowboaters, armed with a little better knowledge, and the ability to impress their newfound friends!
- The water you’re floating on is the Mekong River. Its source is the Lasagongma Spring, some 2000 km away on Mt Guozongmucha, in Qinghai province, China, and it flows all the way through the Mekong Delta into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam. The Mekong River is 4350 km (2703 miles) long.
- Who lives on the banks of the Mekong between Chiang Khong/Huayxay and Luang Prabang? Chiefly Lao Lum, a lowland people of Laos; Khmu, the indigenous people of northern Laos; and Hmong, a people who migrated to Laos in the 1800s. (There are over 150 ethnic groups in Laos!) Don’t forget to wave as you float past…
- The Mekong River faces many environmental challenges. Erosion and contamination beset the river system. There are existing dams, and others under construction, that threaten the ecosystems contained within the river. These are just a few issues of many. The management of the Mekong lies with the Mekong River Commission – a group comprising delegates from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia who work together to strategize for the future of the river.
- Some boats you may encounter on your journey:
Lao fishing boat
Mekong house boat
An awesome rundown of the type of boats on the Lao Mekong region is on Ken Preston’s Boats and Rice website - here’s the link.
- The Mekong is home to many aquatic species, but perhaps the most fascinating is the Mekong Giant Catfish—it’s the world’s largest freshwater fish, growing up to 3 metres long and weighing up to 295 kg. (Yes, you read that right!) It’s unknown as to whether it still inhabits the Laos region of the Mekong, as it’s critically endangered. As for plants - Mekong weed is a Luang Prabang edible special – similar in taste and texture to nori, it’s eaten with sesame and often with a dipping sauce. You can find it in many restaurants at your destination.
- Beerlao, which you’ll no doubt be having one or two of, they’re sold on the slowboat – is 50% owned by the Lao Government and 50% by Carlsberg. It’s brewed from jasmine rice grown in Laos. It’s also become a big part of Lao culture… so don’t be culturally insensitive – grab a bottle and enjoy!
Not everyone has the same experience of taking the slowboat – fellow blogger Lillie from Around the World “L”! took the boat UP the Mekong in the opposite direction, whilst Lauren from Neverending Footsteps has an unforgettable slowboat horror story.
Have you taken the slowboat? What was your experience? If you haven’t, is it on your list for Southeast Asia?