by Hank Leukart
March 29, 2006

They chose the “slow boat”

All choices are bad choices on the Mekong River.

One of the infamous slow boats makes its way down the Mekong

One of the infamous slow boats makes its way down the Mekong

If you haven't already, read about my "speed boat" trip first.

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ANGKOK, Thailand — Southeast Asia covers 4.5 million square kilometers and includes ten countries: Thailand, Laos, Burma (also unofficially known as Myanmar), Vietnam, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore. Yet the Southeast Asian backpacker community is surprisingly compact.

Remember Jim, the Brooklynite backpacker traveling with two Australians whom I met in western Thailand before embarking on my jungle trek? Coincidentally, I ran into him again in Luang Prabang in Laos, literally thousands of kilometers and a country away from the place I had last seen him. Happy to see a familiar face, we chatted about our travel experiences thus far, and then he dropped a bomb.

He chose the “slow boat.” And he hated it.

As you may recall, I previously appealed to Without Baggage readers, strongly suggesting that if one decides to make the trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang via the Mekong River, he should indeed do so on the “slow boat.”

Unbelievable as it may seem — despite my “speed boat” experience involving a canoe-sized boat; a deafening, machete-maintained engine; and death-defying turns and jagged, rocky water obstacles — the “speed boat” may have been the right choice after all. I’m sorry if I have done my readers a disservice.

“Jim described the prearranged guesthouse — one actually named “Only One Night” — as a “hell hole” unlike any other he had seen during his trip.”

According to Jim, the “slow boat’s” seats were exceptionally uncomfortable — though I doubt they could have been worse than the (lack of) seats on the “speed boat” — and the boat was painfully crowded. He also complained vigorously about motion sickness. But the worst part, he told me, was his overnight stay in Pakbeng, the village at the journey’s halfway point. Jim described the prearranged guesthouse — one actually named “Only One Night” — as a “hell hole” unlike any other he had seen during his trip. Keep in mind that most of us, Jim included, spent every night in Asia in 250 Baht ($6 US) per night guesthouses; so, when another backpacker describes a guesthouse as Jim did, you know it was bad.

Jim isn’t the only one who believes that the “slow boat” was a bad choice. Another loyal Without Baggage reader, Cindy — one of my primary inspirations to backpack in Thailand — wrote me with the following succinct message:

“I took the slow boat. It was exactly the same experience [as the speed boat] except two days long. You made the right choice.”

Thus, I have no choice but to recommend the “speed boat” — only because it’s the least painful of the two options because the trip is half as long and requires no overnight stay in “Only One Night.”

If you’re sure you want to take the dramatic journey down the Mekong River but can’t bear the thought of the “slow boat” ($20 US) or the “speed boat” ($33 US), there is one more option. If you have unlimited cash to burn ($221 - $331 US), you can try the LuangSay luxury boat, specifically designed for leisurely river travel. The boat cruises down the Mekong with an overnight stay in the comfortable LuangSay Lodge in Pakbeng but only leaves on specific days. I have never tried the boat so I can’t vouch for it, but it might be worth a try.

If you do so, however, you’ll be unable to brag that you tackled one of Southeast Asia’s most painful and thrilling rites of passage: a “slow boat” or a “speed boat” down the Mekong.

My boat-luck is not so great. Later, I wrote about a boat’s motor failing in America’s deepest river gorge. Then, I wrote about being detained against my will on a ship by Celebrity Cruises.

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