Northern Laos: Mekong River Cruise

The funny thing about living in Vientiane is that although you see the Mekong River all the time, you're never actually on it. (Or in it, for that matter). 

There are no ferry services or boat cruises, though the boisterous Thais across the way do like crank up the jet skis from time to time. 

It's only the local fishermen who are out in their quiet wooden longboats of a morning, fishing the muddy waters with their nets and poles. 

I quite prefer it this way in Vientiane. But if you're hankering to see life from the slightly rocking helm of a boat, head south to Champasak and the 4,000 Islands

Or, for a smaller and more intimate experience river cruise experience, travel north. 

See the real Laos, beautiful and serene from a boat on the Mekong River - Northern Laos: Mekong River Cruise © Eat Drink Laos

In May, we travelled to the northwest border town of Huay Xay near Thailand to hop aboard the Luang Say river cruise. There are very few proper river cruises in Laos and this is one of them.

Luang Say offers several different cruises but we opted for the 2-day cruise down river to Luang Prabang. 

It was an amazing experience and I highly recommend it. Go soon; the Pak Beng dam is under construction at a rapid rate which spells the end for overnight river cruises in northern Laos. 

The cruise starts in Huay Xay with a hotel pickup from the town. To get there, you can either fly into Huay Xay and transfer to a hotel in town, or fly to Luang Namtha and drive 3 hours to Huay Xay. We opted for the latter and organised private transport through Green Discovery tours

It was overcast and drizzling when we set off in the morning though it didn't dampen anyone's mood. The boat is open on all sides though they rolled down plastic shades to block the rain. It was lovely curling up in jeans and a wrap and looking out onto a very green, serene and mountainous landscape. There wasn't another boat, person or sign of life anywhere. 

The Luang Say cruise only carries a limited number of passengers and it's all very comfortable. Most passengers were curled up with books or watching the world float by from the front and back vantage decks. 

See the real Laos, beautiful and serene aboard the Luang Say Cruise on the Mekong River -  - Northern Laos: Mekong River Cruise © Eat Drink Laos

There's a steady supply of vegetable chips (and cookies, if you ask!) and it's all inclusive with lunches, fruit and water aboard. 

The food is falang style Lao (aka minus the chillis and padaek, Laos fish sauce) with popular favourites like Lao sausage, fried rice and beef curry. It's cooked up fresh in a tiny kitchen at the back of the boat and there's plenty of it. Boat travel with all its fresh air and beautiful scenery, makes you extremely hungry so meal times were always greeted with enthusiasm. 

Tasty lunches aboard the Luang Say Cruise on the Mekong River  - Northern Laos: Mekong River Cruise © Eat Drink Laos

You'll also receive breakfast, dinner and overnight accommodation at the charming and beautifully situated Luang Say Lodge at Pak Beng.

Beautiful stay at the Luang Say Lodge in Pak Beng, Laos - Northern Laos: Mekong River Cruise © Eat Drink Laos

Prepare yourself for a very steep climb up the mountain to get to the lodge (though amazing porters will carry your bags!). The traditional wooden rooms are spacious and comfortable with views over the river. The lodge is only for guests of the boat cruise so it's especially peaceful and cosy. We'd brought a bottle of Champagne to celebrate our family holiday and drank it on the main verandah at sunset. 

Stay at the beautiful Luang Say Lodge at Pak Beng in Laos - Northern Laos: Mekong River Cruise © Eat Drink Laos

This river cruise from northern Laos to Luang Prabang is called a slow boat for good reason.

Sit back, day dream and watch the beautiful and peaceful Laos landscape slipping by. Thick green jungle shrouded in mist rolled away to clear blue skies dotted with fluffy white clouds. In places, the jungle was replaced by neat rows of rubber or banana trees. Sometimes there were goats or pigs foraging on small farms, or fishing boats. Other boats and people were rare. It is remote, rural and real Laos. 

Along the way, the boat stops in at local villages to "see rural life". While this is probably interesting for tourists, I felt a bit uncomfortable doing this. However the tourism trade here does help to support the villages. You can also buy silk and cotton handicrafts from the villagers, or support Luang Say's community projects by donating school supplies. 

Village children play along the Mekong River in Laos - Northern Laos: Mekong River Cruise © Eat Drink Laos

Just before Luang Prabang, the boat also stops in at the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas. A brisk walk up a few hundred stone steps (we counted and it was over 300) will shake off the boat lethargy.

Then the boat pulls up in Luang Prabang and our gentle trip to the real Laos is over. 

Luang Say cruises operates year round with boats leaving on certain days. They are flexible with their packages and children under 14 travel free of charge. 

Eat Drink Laos is an independent food blog created by Australian writer and web designer,
Lilani Goonesena. Get your daily dose of Eat Drink Laos on social media @eatdrinklaos.