A popular way to get from Northern Thailand into Laos is by a boat ride down the Mekong River, a major river in Southeast Asia. Before we left the US, I knew this was how I wanted to get to Luang Prabang, Laos. Of course I had the vision of us cruising a beautiful river with Thailand on my right and Laos on my left… sounded so chic, I was sold.
And then, you start to do your research and very quickly, you realize there are two common options: The Slow Boat & The Speed Boat. Here’s how Wiki Travel describes the options:
SLOW BOAT (2-days, 9 hours on the river): The slow-boat is generally packed, so much so that there may not be enough seats to go round. Plastic stools may be added for the benefit of the unlucky late-comers. Arriving early will mean a longer day, but most likely a better seat, towards the front and away from the incredibly loud engine (take ear-plugs just in case). The best seats are located near the captain as they allow access to large open ‘doors’, however, this area can get cramped with locals, toilet lines and alternatively with shouting, drunk-drinking party-backpackers while the few locals are shoved in the back.
SPEED BOAT (6 bone-rattling hours): If you choose the speed boat (a light canoe with a very powerful engine), plan to arrive in Luang Prabang deaf, shaken and either exhausted or exhilarated. A crash helmet and life-jacket will be provided, but once you have taken the trip you will realize they are mostly show only and will not help you if something goes wrong. Regardless, it is not recommended you travel in a speedboat without this safety equipment. It is also recommended that you make your bags as waterproof/water-resistant as possible and wear a rain jacket. The boat can generate quite a bit of spray, plus any showers you might encounter along the way will sting like needles against any exposed skin.
Eh, pick your poison? These were not the fabulous cruises I had in mind. My 22-year-old self would have followed suit with the rest of the backpackers, bought my cheap slow boat ticket, stocked up on booze & snacks and sailed away. My 30-year-old self immediately thought, not only is this two days of my trip, this is two days of my life. Ting agreed, and he went on a search to find another option. There had to be one, and there was. Enter: The Shompoo Cruise. A “luxury” slow boat with lounge cushions, a bar and a proper lunch. Sold.
We were definitely the youngest people on the boat, so we knew we’d made the right choice. We cozied up with our books on the front sun deck, ordered a beer, snacked on delicious spring rolls, traditional Laos fare and cruised the Mighty Mekong. The scenery was gorgeous. Limestone karst landscape, dense green jungles, thatched-roof hut villages, Laos people bathing in the river, the occasional elephant along with other animals had everyone constantly reaching for their camera.
finished “The Husband’s Secret,” which is great if you’re looking for a super girly & easy read.
after day one of cruising, we stopped for the night in Pakbeng, Laos. Our bungalow for the night up there on the hill.
danny and the laos kids watching the slow boats sail in.
all the slow boats docked for the night in Pakbeng.
An unexpected bonus of the Shompoo Cruise were a few “tour” stops that were included. Along the way to Luang Prabang, we stopped at a Laos textile village where we learned that it’s the women who are coveted and handle pretty much everything. The men have the cushy life. I bought a scarf and played with the puppies. Another stop was the Pak Ou cave, which was only good for its views of the Mekong. And the last was Whiskey Village, where you could try strong rice whiskey out of dirty, shared shot glasses. No thanks.
the laos girls learning their responsibilities to provide for the family from a young age.
walking through a traditional village on the mekong.
just some chickens in a basket ready for the selling.
the making of Lao Lao rice whiskey.
where i bought my scarf.
the Pak Ou cave entrance.
Our two days on the Shompoo Cruise consisted of guilt-free reading, writing, photo editing, game playing, beer drinking and snacking. And, as luck would have it, we met another American couple, Lisa & Erik from San Francisco, who are five months into their 12+ month around-the-world journey. Pretty much the rest of the cruisers spoke German or French, so it was nice to have some English-speaking companions. Days after the cruise, we made dinner plans with them in Luang Prabang, which was a fun night of socializing, swapping travel stories, picking their brain on itinerary spots and enjoying good eats. Check out their travel adventure via the blog: Zooming Way Out.
Overall, the Shompoo Cruise was great. Especially as we chatted with backpackers who shared their horror stories of the slow boat. If you find yourself looking for a slow boat option down the Mekong, we highly recommend the Shompoo Cruise over its “competitors” – worth all the Kip.