If you are traveling to Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos and you want to see the traditional boats, it’s really quite easy; go to where there’s water and look around. In Laos, you’ll have a chance to tour on the Upper Mekong River Slow Boats and maybe take a canoe ride in the incredibly long, narrow Laotian canoes. As elsewhere in Indochina, there are fascinating boats just about anywhere there is water enough to float one. But to increase your chances of seeing interesting sorts of boats being built or being used, here are a few suggestions.

Square Ended Canoe: Northern Laos

Typical Mountain Canoe in Northern Laos


The Mekong River in Laos is navigable at least from the Cambodian border to the Thai border crossing at Houayxay, a distance of over 920 miles. For much of that distance the river is also the border between Laos and Thailand or Burma. For a traveler headed generally northward from Cambodia, with an indefinite notion of seeing the Laotian Mekong, the road is fairly helpful, running through the river’s valley, and stopping at least in all the river towns as you run northward, with their romantic names, Muang Khong, Champasak, Pakxe, (all of which you might pass in a single day on your motorbike) then Savannakhet, Thakhek, little Pak Kadding (which I like very well), and finally Vientiane, the capital: busy and big, though very tidy and well ordered.

All of that I would call Lower Laos, a countryside of rolling hills and a broad river, though the river is often not visible from the highway. Planning my first trip into the country I had thought that if I made it as far as Vientiane I would be content and could turn back to Viet Nam and a flight home. If you stop in Vientiane though, no matter that you’ve seen much—and much to like—you will have missed what you came for. Above Vientiane the countryside and the river begin, ever so gradually, to change. A long day’s ride above Vientiane, you come to the ancient capital, Luang Prabang, an incomparable small city with no particular single thing to recommend it other than that being there, you will find you love the place. And from Louang Prabang on Northward, in the far North of Laos, you’ll find the Laos you were looking for—and its boats—on the upper Mekong River (where the road cannot go) or among the fabulous limestone mountains and their bright fast running streams.

Square Ended Canoe with Long-Tail Outboard: above Vientiane on Upper Mekong, Laos

Canoe with Long-Tail Outboard Motor

The Cambodian–Laotian Border

If you cross from Cambodia into Laos at the border town of Strung Treng, stop at the Khone Phapheng waterfall to understand just exactly why there is no boat service between Cambodia and Laos. Once you’ve admired the magnificent falls, you will have to make a decision: whether to stop in the Four Thousand Islands area and party, or keep going North to visit elsewhere. By all reports there are a good many boats of all sorts among the islands and apparently quite a few on-going parties as well. I was behind myself when I passed that way and the day was young, so I kept pressing on Northward towards Vientiane. I’ve since been told that was a dreadful mistake, so perhaps I’ll make a point of returning. In the meantime, if you pass through and spend time there, be sure to send photos of the boats you find. (I’ve already seen parties.)

Pak Kadding

There’s a very fine place to break your journey to Vientiane from the South at Pak Kadding. Pak, incidentally, means The Mouth of. So Pak Kadding is where the Kadding river runs in to the Mekong, or Pak Beng or Pak Ou are the towns where the Beng and Ou rivers find the main stream. Pak Kadding is far enough from Vientiane to be about ideal for a dinner stop for trucks and busses headed south, so the one long main street of town (which is also the main highway) is lined with utterly wonderful food stands and restaurants and there are two quite nice guest houses in town. The bridge over the Kadding River gives good views up and downstream and across the Mekong to Thailand. The boats in town (you’ll spot the harbor from the bridge) are sturdy, relatively broad beamed, shovel nosed boats, often made from three incredibly wide boards. (More about Lao boat construction.) They are powered with the same air cooled long-tail engines you were used to seeing farther South, and, steep as the climb is to the houses above the little harbor, the motors are carried home every night. The first time I passed this way I was convinced their main business was smuggling goods across from Thailand, but lately that trade seems less obvious. Plan to spend a day there, the town repays the visit well.

Return to Top

Square Ended Canoe: Mekong River near Vientiane, Laos

Square Ended Canoe with Inboard Engine


If you arrive in Vientiane in the dry season, (as I have) you’re likely to find the river is gone far away across a mile-wide sand bar to the Thai side of the flood plain. If you can, get down past the food booths along the riverfront and hike across the sandbar to the river. Even at really low water the river is still powerful here and, though I’ve never seen it, the sandbags up high on the bank tell you it can be absolutely enormous at times. Vientiane is one of the last places you’ll see the long-tail outboards in use on the river. The gill netters fishing the river in the evening have a marvelous trick of swinging the long-tail around until it’s almost going the wrong way and leaving it running, so that it pushes the boat along in a long sweeping turn, going astern. They then move to the bow of the boat to pay out their net in a long arc across and downstream, far out of reach of the motor controls. No matter, by shifting their weight a bit they roll the boat so the propeller comes out of the water, still running, but doing no good in the air. Ready to move on again, a slight shift of their weight rolls the boat down again and puts the prop back in the water. I suspect that trick might take a little learning.

Upstream from Vientiane almost all the boats have their engines mounted inboard and driving the prop by a typical shaft and through-hull arrangement and the sharp bowed extra slender style of powered canoe gives way to a superbly graceful hull that’s nearly double ended, with high curved ends, but square. The Cambodian style of part-dugout canoe gives way entirely to planked boats. Although the river runs ever harder as you go North into Laos, a surprising number of these river canoes have no power at all and seem to be paddled successfully where they need to go, or perhaps the paddle-only canoes hitch a ride behind a powered boat when they need to.

There was until recently an active fleet of “slow boats” plying the river from Vientiane north to Luang Prabang and on through the canyon to the Thai border at Huayxai. The road network is good enough now that it has forced the slow boats out of that trade and they only run from Luang Prabang up through the canyon, where road building would be extremely costly.

Canoes at Ban Thahua, Laos

Canoes on the Man-Made Lake at Ban Thahua

Ban Thahua

If you missed the party in the Four Thousand Islands (or even if you didn’t) you will have another chance in the incredibly scenic little town of Vang Vieng, half a day’s ride North of Vientiane. If, on the other hand, you want to sleep at night instead of party, you should stop in the last little town before Vang Vieng, which might be called Ban Thahua, though I’m not sure, since it’s a very small place and its name is printed in very small type on my map and it falls on a crease in the map so I can’t really read it anyway. You don’t have to know its name, just that it lies on the shore of a very large man-made lake, has two perfectly fine hotels, several nice little restaurants and a fleet of needle-slender motor canoes that are willing to take you for an hour on the lake. To a Westerner it seems odd that these lake boats, which never see a bit of current, are, if anything, skinnier for their length than any others in the river system. Perhaps it is simply that the local boat style was well established before the dam was built and the reservoir filled and the people, accustomed to the skinny boats, just kept using them instead of designing something less tippy. If you hire one, pay very close attention getting in and out, and sit still while you are on board. The owners of course can stand up, throw timbers ashore, flail around with fishing gear and so forth without a second thought. You might be well advised to re-part your hair in the middle before attempting to board.

They roll up the only street in Ban Thahua early in the evening and put it away until morning.

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng, if you must, is set in utterly gorgeous countryside, with astounding limestone cliffs and a clear sparkling mountain stream running alongside the town. There are no boats besides rental plastic kayaks and inner tubes. In the restaurants you can find anything you’d like, especially if it’s a banana pancake. If you are in your twenties and love beer and loud music late at night, or even if you’re just looking for someone in their twenties who loves loud music at night. . . It seems as though the entire world sends their twenty-somethings here to play.

Return to Top

Slow Boats on the Upper Mekong

Slow Boat on the Upper Mekong

Luang Prabang

Another short day’s ride north of Vang Vieng is Luang Prabang, without doubt one of the most marvelous stops on your travels. A small white water river runs a looping course around the town to join the Mekong, so wherever you walk around the town you’re never far from running water, swimming kids, and fascinating things to see and do. But there are no boat yards—not that that is such a terrible thing.

Slow Boats

Luang Prabang is now the downstream terminus for the last thriving Slow Boat fleet on the Upper Mekong as well as a fleet of smaller boats plying local waters for the tourist trade. Thus the Mekong river bank in front of town is lined with any number of amazingly skinny river boats waiting on their next trip. They are all similar, with their hulls made of light gauge steel these days and their upper works still of wood. There are just a few of the old wooden hulls left, and they’re being used upriver as floating warehouses. They are all long and skinny, but the larger they are, the slenderer they seem. To compare, the local tour boats are wide enough to seat one person each side and have a walkway of sorts up the middle. So, figuring a human at about 2 feet wide (including elbows) they are about 6 foot beam or a bit more and might run 50 feet long. The long haul boats, serious traders, are wide enough for four (very friendly) local people or maybe three bulky tourists and have a somewhat wider walkway, a little more than 8 feet in beam, but they might run to 120 feet long or more. These boats are passenger and freight boats combined, carrying their freight and the passengers’ baggage in an open area right behind the captain’s wheelhouse forward. The engine and rudder are far behind, requiring long control linkages and chains. Even farther aft than the engine room is the crew’s quarters and the aft-deck (back porch?). Since the voyage the length of the canyon from Luang Prabang to Huayxay (say that “Why Sigh”) takes all the daylight of two long days, the crews are necessarily away from town at least three nights every trip.

Youngsters with A-Frame Nets

Youngsters with A-Frame Nets: Upper Mekong, Laos

The voyage through the canyon/valley from Luang Prabang to Huayxay is a trip to make time for. There is no road in this entire stretch of river except for the steep, winding track that comes at great length to Pak Beng, and by luck, the halfway point in the two day voyage. All the villages along the river depend on these long-haul “slow boats.” (They aren’t at all slow except in comparison with the “fast boats,” about which, a little more later.) At low water (the only time I’ve seen it), the river is constrained by shallows and rocky reefs, sharp turns around cliffs and occasional sandbars. The skill and river knowledge required to bring a 120 foot long boat up through this slalom course is amazing. Although, if you read Samuel Clemens, perhaps amazing river pilots are part of the American heritage as well. In any event, it’s a grueling 12-hour day upstream each day. The amazingly hard wooden benches you perch on become unbearable in the first hour, and after that. . .you endure.

Still, nothing can change the fact that you are riding a magnificent river boat, in the hands of a remarkably skillful captain through what seems (particularly late in the afternoon when all feeling has passed from your lower extremities) like endless surprises and delights, rocks and rapids, quiet pools, riverside villages (perched high on the bank from your viewpoint, if you are there at low-water time), fields of corn planted right on the sand of the riverbank, youngsters fishing from the rocks with impossible A-frame nets (Why are they not swept away in the current??), downbound boats slipping by in a brief roar, the occasional flash of a Fast Boat going by, all bright colors and flying spray and a roar of its own, a thundering good riverboat race when another, just slightly faster boat creeps up from behind and gradually inches past you up river (or the much more satisfying moments when you, your own engine pounding out its steady growl, gradually overtake and leave behind some slower boat), and of course, all the varieties of river canoes working along the way, tending nets, hauling families and small freight. Oh, and the pink water buffalo. You occasionally see a “white” water buffalo almost anywhere in Indochina, but the upper Laotian Mekong seems to be their home land!

Fast Boat Speeding to Huayxay

Fast Boat Speeding to Huayxay: Upper Mekong

Fast Boats

There are basically only the two sorts of boats, though there is a good deal of variation in the size. There are the cabin boats—the long haul “slow boats”—and there are the shovel-front canoes, open boats in general use all along the river above Vientiane. I suppose you could say there is also a third sort of boat though there are only a few of them: the “fast boats” which are fast indeed. Generally built to carry 6 passengers (presumably foreign tourists), they are simply large single-step hydroplanes—overgrown raceboats—powered by large automobile engines coupled to long-tail propellers. I’m told they can do over 50 mph, and don’t doubt it. Supposedly the law requires passengers to wear lifejackets and motorcycle helmets, but many don’t. They make the same trip from Luang Prabang to the Thai Border at Huayxay in a single long day.

Return to Top

A quick note: The information for this article was gathered by riding around the countryside on a small motorbike for months at a time. That isn’t practical for most people, and perhaps is not terribly safe, but not to worry. Most of what I saw you can see just as well traveling by ordinary planes, trains or busses to the major destinations and renting a bicycle or motorbike from your hotel or a shop nearby or even hiring a car and driver—just ask!

Home>Visiting Vietnam>Visiting Laos

Home  About  Contact  Sitemap

P.O. Box 10115
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110