Mekong cruises in Laos

Rivers evoke the very essence of traveling well: everything is passing on the way to somewhere else, in its own good time.
Many tours of Southeast Asia, and especially those that feature Laos, will include time on the Mekong River. It is, after all, something of a natural icon: one of the longest rivers in Asia, criss-crossing the continent down from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand before emptying into the sea in the vast, labyrinthine Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

You might just undertake a short daytrip, perhaps cruising from Luang Prabang out to see the nearby Pak Ou Caves for instance, home to thousands of statues of the Buddha. Or you might join a boat tour that takes you around the mosaic-like channels and waterways in Si Phan Don, in search of the incredibly rare Irrawaddy dolphins that occasionally appear there.

Overnight voyages are also popular, perhaps taking the attractive route down from the Thai border close to Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang. On multi-day cruises on the Mekong of any length you will usually be staying in guesthouses, hotels or homestays alongside the river, rather than on the boat itself.
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Types of boat

There are many different types of vessel on the Mekong, from larger cruise ships to the small dugout canoes used by fishermen to get around. In all likelihood you’ll be traveling aboard a long, narrow slow boat (not actually all that slow, but not especially zippy either). Some cruises will see you embark on a private voyage, while on others you will be sitting alongside local people as they get from A to B.

Mekong cruises through Laos

The Mekong snakes down through Laos in its entirety, passing the ancient city of Luang Prabang, the pleasantly lethargic capital, Vientiane, and Pakse, the final city before the river is dispersed in Si Phan Don, then regroups as it enters Cambodia and makes its way toward Tonlé Sap, Siem Reap, and the majestic Angkor Wat.

Longer cruises along the Mekong allow for a very immersive experience, and because the river passes many of the key destinations, or close by them, daily excursions can be easily arranged. A typical itinerary would see you traveling upstream from Vientiane to the Golden Triangle, at the border of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar where the Mekong and the Ruak Rivers converge.
High-powered colonial cruise vessels navigate sections of rapids and deep gorges, past tranquil rural communities where fishermen go about their business, lush jungle scenery and towering limestone cliffs pockmarked with caves. Itineraries include Laotian cookery demonstrations and traditional dancing lessons on deck, excursions by minibus, tuk-tuk or even mountain bike out to admire Luang Prabang or to visit the grimly fascinating Opium Museum in Chiang Sean. And of course, sunset cocktails on a sandbank are little short of a necessity.

Other routes use the Mekong as a guide, traveling by a combination of road and boat from the far north of the country past Si Phan Don as far as Phnom Penh over the border in Cambodia. Stop at old French river ports for sundowners overlooking the river, or to explore lesser visited locations such as the Boloven Plateau, centerpiece of the Laos coffee growing industry, and little villages that see few foreign visitors.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Felix Nagel] [Intro: John Pavelka] [Types of boat: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra] [Mekong cruises through Laos: Stefan Magdalinski]