It Is What It Is: Cruising the Mekong in Laos

A 7:30 a.m. call from tourism guru, Peter Semone: “I want to cruise the Mekong from the Chinese border to Vientiane. Can you arrange it?”

“Sure,” I had no idea. “What’s this about?”

He needed to survey the waterway for the “Mekong River-based Tourism Product Development Strategy.” a UN report identifying ports and landings with tourism potential, and research the current Mekong cruise situation.

First, we wanted to sail from Luang Namtha’s Ban Say to Houay Xay, where the Mekong temporarily ends its border role with Thailand, and an armada awaits to haul tourists to Luang Prabang. No passenger vessels plied this upriver route. The blogosphere documented failed backpacker attempts. 

Somsavath of Phou Iu Travel could get us from Ban Say to isolated Xieng Khaeng, but no guarantee for onward passage. “How about a guide and ride to Xieng Kok?” They had local boats, and Pandaw Cruises stops eight times a year on Golden Triangle-Kunming, China voyages. 


A gaggle of skippers sat at Xieng Kok’s gravel jetty. They ferried people and goods to Myanmar. Not interested in Houay Xay. “How much to buy a boat?” I asked. “Because that’s what we’ll pay.” $300. 

We spent five hours puttering through green wilderness, stopping at ethnic villages never visited, before reaching the Golden Triangle and Ban Ton Paeng’s floating wooden dock at dusk. A few guesthouses, and noodle shops greeted us. We were within cycling distance of the 1,000-year-old ruins of Souvannakhomkham, a massive Buddha statue, Bokeo Ethnobotanical Garden, and Nam Nyon Waterfalls.

“What do you think so far?” I asked. 

“I see potential and challenges.” Peter said. “It is what it is.”

We reached Houay Xay early the next day. I had raved about its ancient temples, French colonial fort, and old-world charm, but, “Where’d the tourists go?” we asked Pheng at Mekong Smile Cruise.

“The new bridge from Thailand replaced the ferry,” he said, pointing downriver. “Tourists cross, grab a boat, and head straight to Luang Prabang.” It is what it is.

We booked the two-day cruise with Pheng. It included a room in Pak Beng, the traditional half-way point. The boat featured airline-quality seats, a Hmong village visit, and onboard lunch. Shompoo and Naga offer similar mid-range cruises, compared to cheaper, uncomfortable public boats. Luang Say Mekong Cruises and Mekong River Cruises cover the high-end crowd.   

Pak Beng presents caves, nature hikes, ancient temples, handicraft villages, and elephant camps. But most visitors bypass those and climb back onboard in the morning.

Luang Prabang’s flotilla offers cruises to Pak Ou Caves, while private operators like Bounmi Cruises present charters that include food and drinks. Luang Say just launched a 2-day deal: one day on the Luang Prabang-Pak Beng boat, and an overland day through Sayabouly. 

The Luang Prabang-Vientiane route gets tricky. The rocks and currents are too dangerous for local boats. Only Pandaw and Mekong River Cruises navigate this stretch with a handful of voyages a year.  

It is what it is, and that ended our river journey, though we followed the Mekong by bus. We spent a night at Sayabouly’s Elephant Sanctuary and another at the Sayabouly Dam’s work site. We bussed to Pak Lay, where the Mekong again demarcates the Lao-Thai border, and then on to the capital. 

We hunted for a cruise to Champassak, but operators moaned of no demand. It is what it is. Pakse reopens the cuise door in southern Laos, but aside from 4,000-Island ferries, Luang Say’s Vat Phou is the only cruise in town.

“Plenty of potential around the 4,000 Islands and for half-day cruises at Vientiane, Thakaek, and Savannakhet,” Peter noted, and I agreed. But for now, cruising the Mekong in Laos is what it is. 

Leave a Comment