Boating down the Mekong river guide in Laos

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One of the best ways to slow down your pace of life is to literally take a slower form of travel—like the long boats of the Mekong River in Laos.

A two-day voyage from Huay Xai, Laos to the more popular destination of Luang Prabang takes about seven hours each day and affords stunning views of one of the least traveled areas of the world. Along the way, you’ll experience majestic granite slabs protruding from the Mekong, water buffalo sunbathing on sand banks, kids running up and down the shore, and stretches of time when only one or two people can be spotted in the dense vegetation.

This was one of the greatest adventures that I’ve ever taken, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s traveling to Southeast Asia. Want to make the trek? Here are my suggestions to ensure you slow boat like a champ.

>> Tips for a river cruise

Getting Started

The long boats depart from Huay Xai, Laos. To get there, head up to Chiang Khong, Thailand via a chartered bus from more-frequented Chiang Mai. The bus will take you to the dock, where you will “depart” Thailand and canoe across the Mekong to go through customs in Huay Xai.

Mekong River Cruise in Laos (via wsj.com)

You will need to purchase a visa at the immigration point (which is basically a small booth in a small hut at the riverside). For Americans, the 30-day visa costs $35 USD in cash. Make sure that your passport has at least six months validity remaining and that you have two small passport-size photographs to hand over with your application.

Pick the right seat

When I arrived at the pier for our long boat’s early morning departure, I walked around and realized that some long boats had plush luxury seats, some hard benches, and some had no seats at all. I climbed the steep dirt staircase to the ticket office and declared that I wanted boat #43, the nicest of the lot. The jaded woman behind the counter responded, “Number 74.” After paying her about $30 USD, I clamored down to boat #74 to see the very dreaded outcome: wooden seats.

When you’re planning to sit for two days on a crowded boat, please be kind to your rear. A friend had tipped me off about purchasing cushions for $1 each near the docking station, and it turns out this piece of advice was a lifesaver. Do yourself a favor and buy two.

There should be no window versus aisle debate on a long boat—it’s window all the way. You’ll want to gaze out at the scenery, rest your head on the edge, and have no obstruction as your snap picture. Snag somewhere between the middle and the front of the boat to avoid being near the bathroom in the rear.

Mekong River Cruise in Laos (via perceptivetravel.com)

Make friends, bring cards

I’ll be honest: As gorgeous as the river is, you will be on a boat for two days with not much to do but watch the scenery roll by. But, there are people all around you, so break out your cards and make new friends! There’s a tiny bar in the back of the boat that sells Beerlao (the ubiquitous beer in Laos)—make use of it and start a United Nations Poker Tournament. We had representatives from Argentina, Spain, the UK, Canada, Germany, France, and, of course, yours truly from America. Although the scenery was my favorite part of the trip, the friends I made were a very close second.

Get to know Laos

Known as the kip, the Laotian currency runs in the tens of thousands to the dollar. One of my biggest regrets from my time in Laos was having no idea what the currency conversion was—at one point, I believe I paid 35,000 kip for a pen. Do yourself a favor and have a better understanding of what the exchange rate is, which today is about $1 to 8,000 kip.

Instead of exchanging your leftover currency back when you depart Laos, donate it to help identify and destroy undetonated landmines, which are still devastating the countryside of Laos from the Vietnam War. (For more information on this, watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode on Laos.)

It’s also important to know how to say “thank you,” no matter where you are traveling. The Laotians say “khàwp ja̖i lãi lãi,” or rather kop jay la-laiiiiiiii , holding out the last syllable. It’s a joy to say and translates to “thank you very much!”

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