The Mekong River in Laos is navigable from the Cambodian border at least as far as Houayxay, a distance of over 920 miles. In the northern part of the country, the River is still the only route through the mountains to the rest of the world. The many small boats on this part of the Mekong are long, narrow, flat-bottomed and made with just a few thin planks. The Slow Boats that take freight and passengers (including tourists) on the Mekong River between Luang Prabang and Houayxay are built much the same, except for a slight V bottom. These days, the hulls of the Slow Boats are all made of welded steel but the old ones were wood construction and at least two of the old hulls still survive. Besides the Mekong, the Ou River in Northern Laos has its own variety of passenger and freight boats and extends the navigation at least another hundred miles into the mountains north and east of the Mekong, but even that doesn’t define the full extent of the navigation in Laotian waterways. Mountainous as the country is, it is laced with rushing little streams full of whitewater and rocks, but routinely traveled by motorized canoes, oftentimes longer than the stream is wide.
Traveling North out of Cambodia—as I was the first time I was there—you realize shortly after crossing the formal border just why the two countries are separated where they are. The falls of the Mekong River just north of the border present an absolute (and absolutely magnificent) separation between the navigation of the upper river and the river below, which is navigable all the way to the South China Sea. The French built a narrow gauge railway to carry freight around the falls in the last century, but it is long since gone (though you can still see one of the locomotives). Not surprisingly, the traditions of boat building, separated by such a formidable barrier, are quite different. In Cambodia the river boats are all built from very heavy planks, either building up the sides and ends of what is actually a dugout canoe, or simply using very heavy planking to build up a planked hull on a flat bottom plank, and in either case, producing a sharp-bowed boat. More on Cambodian boat styles.
The Lao boat building tradition, by contrast, uses wide thin planks to produce flat bottomed river boats with “shovel fronts” (and sterns for that matter). There are minor differences in local construction details along the river from South to North, but the fundamentals are the same all along, and essentially for all sizes of boats.
For the most part, you can think of the variety of Laotian boats as simply different sizes of otherwise very similar boats: flat bottomed, with shovel ends, flaring sides, and quite long for their width. The smallest are about fifteen feet long usually, paddled with canoe paddles and have no motors. There is a large class of motor powered canoes ranging in size from about 18 feet long to upwards of 25 feet long. The passenger/freight boats on the Ou River drainage are actually just very large motor canoes, with cabin tops added. In all cases, the bottom is a single plank, or if need be, might be made up of two or more separate planks cleated together to form a single flat bottom. The ends of the bottom plank(s) are bent up sharply to form the bow and stern rakes. The sides are likewise either a single plank or, if necessary to obtain the desired width, multiple planks cleated together, but treated like a single plank. The sides have pronounced flare, so the bottom of the boat is quite a bit narrower than the width at the gunnel.
Smaller boats, up to perhaps 16 feet in length, are finished at that point, essentially “three-plank” boats. Larger boats will often have very narrow side decks and then vertical cockpit coamings which, together, form a very light but substantial stiffening structure. All the Lao boats are quite slender for their length. The canoes with no motors, usually used by a single fisherman on the river, are about 26 inches to 30 inches wide and about 15 feet long, six times as long as they are wide, but that seems positively chubby when compared with some of the larger boats. The typical motor powered canoes on the river system are rarely wider than three feet, and many are twenty to twenty five feet long or longer, and the small passenger boats working on the Ou River are 45 or 50 feet long and rarely over five feet in beam. On average these boats are nine or ten times as long as they are wide.
There is an interesting variation in the arrangement of motors in the small boats of Laos. South of Luang Prabang, most small, motorized boats are powered by long-tail outboard motors. About the farthest north you will see the long-tails in use is in a large man-made lake north of Vientiane about half a day’s ride. In the region still further north to the Chinese and Thai borders and in the smaller tributary streams running through the mountains, the common motor installation is inboard, with the motor somewhat aft of amidships, often right out in the open, though sometimes covered by a box and the propeller running in very shallow water under the stern of the boat, with a rudder behind it for steering. Since the operator sits well forward in the boat, he steers with a long push-pull rod operating a short crosswise tiller on the rudder head. In smaller tributaries the boats will work under motor when they can but the crews are quick to shut off the motor and jump overboard in shallow water to ease the boat across and back into deeper water beyond. If the boatman wants to paddle for a while rather than using his motor, he’ll shift from the midships steering position to a position clear in the bow, which will hoist the propeller all the way out of the water. Then he’ll paddle, stern first, without all the resistance of the prop in the water.
The fishermen working in the river at Vientiane use long-tail outboards and have developed a very pretty technique for setting their long gill nets in the river. They swing the long tail outboard around until it is almost touching the side of the boat ahead and leave it in gear and in the water, so it is actually pushing the boat backwards but in a very long arc. They then move from their normal steering position in the stern of the boat all the way to the bow, with the pile of net stacked up in the middle of the boat and the motor continuing to run unsupervised at the far end of the boat. They pay out their gill net then, starting several hundred feet from the bank and headed mostly across the river but gradually swinging parallel to the bank as they get closer. When they come to a tangle in the net or need to slow down or stop for a bit they simply shift their weight slightly, which heels the boat somewhat to the off side and hoists the spinning propeller out of the water, where it does neither harm nor good while they sort out the problem with the net. Ready to continue, it’s just a slight swivel of the hips to put the prop back to work.
Ou River Boats
The Ou River is a charming mountain stream, flowing through remote mountainous parts of Laos and navigable (particularly during the wet season) for at least a hundred miles, from Muang Khoa to its mouth. It empties into the Mekong just a few miles above Luang Prabang and during much of the year there is a regular flow of traffic up and down the Ou as far as Luang Prabang.
The Ou River freight and passenger boats suffer an unfair loss of their beauty in order to carry around the cabins they need for their customers. Seen at a distance they look almost ludicrous: extremely long and skinny, with a disproportionately tall cabin running from just aft of their shovel front bows, with a single break in the roof a few feet back and then all the way back to the engine box, which is itself quite a ways forward of the stern, so somehow they seem all backwards at first sight. On closer inspection, they are a superb development from the shovel front power canoe. The skipper’s pilothouse, just barely high enough for him to sit up in, is right forward where he can see the upcoming problems in the river. (At low water the river is one long rock to be dodged and not much water to dodge it in.) The pilothouse is separated from the passengers’ cabin by a short break in the cabin top. With the boat lying alongside, the skipper can simply duck down into his cockpit and is ready to go. His passengers need to load in order, once a seat is filled there is no going past it again, but everyone sits out of the sun or rain under the cabin top. The engine is happy in its box about two thirds of the length of the boat aft, and any bulky freight can be loaded into the open hull from the engine to the stern, where the propeller turns in very thin water, its blades throwing a long white rooster tail as it accelerates from the bank.
For repair work the boats are simply pulled up out of the water sideways a few feet, and for things that can be handled afloat, the carpenter will cheerfully sit in the river to make his repairs. There are serious advantages to warm water!
The ultimate expression of the Lao river boat is, without doubt, the modern Slow Boat, used to haul freight and passengers (including tourists, for a premium) on the upper Mekong between Luang Prabang and the Thai border at Houayxay, two days further north. These boats are never much over ten feet in beam, and they seem to go on forever, the longest are on the order of 150 feet. I saw one almost completed that will be even longer than that when she is finished. They are not, incidentally, particularly slow except when compared with the Fast Boats that really are very fast. Unlike all the smaller boats in Laos, these Slow Boats are very slightly V-bottomed, though the impression of a shovel front is still quite strong, with their squared off fore-decks extending several feet beyond the end of the pilot house.
The Slow Boats still in service today are all welded steel hulls with quite light wooden superstructure. There are still two of the old wooden hulls afloat at Pakbeng (in 2008) living out their days rafted together to make a warehouse in the tiny bay at the foot of the town. They are clearly the immediate ancestors of the modern steel boats, with the same hull shape and proportions. Built in wood, such long narrow structures, powered by substantial diesel engines and working in the turbulent waters of the upper Laotian Mekong are a real tribute to their builders. Even so, it is hard to imagine that such extreme boats could have been very long lived. The stresses of such service are severe, even if you discount the likelihood of occasionally striking bottom or bouncing off a rock in the rapids! I arrived in Pakbeng as a passenger on a Slow Boat (the halfway point on the voyage from Luang Prabang to Houayxay). It was late in the evening and we had to leave again early the next morning and, sadly, no one was on hand to let me on board to survey the structure of the old wooden hulls.
Some more or less current guidebooks advise that the Slow Boats run a regular service from the capital at Vientiane, upriver to Luang Prabang and two days beyond to Houayxay on the Thai border, but the route between Vientiane and Luang Prabang has been surrendered to busses and trucks now and only the last two days of the old route remain in the hands of the boats. That entire two days worth of travel (about 250 kilometers of river) runs through mountains with only a single steep, narrow road reaching the river at Pakbeng, the overnight half-way point. All the other villages along the river depend on the slow boats for all their freight and transport to the outside world.
Since the river rises and falls so much in the course of a year there is no such thing as a town dock. Rather, at any stage of the river the best available natural landing is used. Sometimes the skipper can nose the boat gently onto a sand beach and the passengers and freight can go ashore in less than knee deep water. Other times the only usable landing is to ease up, ever so carefully, next to a rocky outcrop below the town, forcing the passengers to scramble up the steep rock to go ashore. Passengers on board will include a few adventurous Western travelers moving on from Laos into Thailand, or perhaps China, but mostly will be local people. The seats in the boats are built to accommodate their smaller typical size and don’t suit a normal, bulky American all that well, so the romance of the voyage is somewhat marred by the exceedingly hard wooden seats and the cramped quarters.
I mentioned Fast Boats in passing. They are an interesting anomaly, a species of one-step hydroplane hull such as might have been popularized in a 1950’s Boats You Can Build book. Locally built, brightly painted, powered by longtail outboards with large automobile engines, they supposedly can do fifty miles an hour on a straightaway, though I’ve never seen one that seemed to be going that fast. Still, they make the voyage without stopping overnight at Pakbeng, all in one day, or rather, they do if their engines run the whole day and nothing else goes wrong. They haul six foreigners at a time with much sound and fury. Lao law reputedly requires you to wear a motorcycle helmet on a fast boat; probably a good idea, though often ignored.