A popular Mekong cruise: Houai Xai to Luang Prabang


Oct 23, 2009
Excerpt: The French obsession to navigate the Mekong is still a fascination in the twenty first century. Regular sailings are organized on some river stretches, but many itineraries remain adventurous. Sitting in a crowded tourist barge was an unappealing option for GT-Rider’s Big River lovers; happily, an alternative “bikes on boat” cruise was masterminded by the cheerleader David Unkovitch.

The GT-Rider’s “bike on boat” Mekong cruises stories

This is what David Unkovich says about the organization of the cruises:

My first boat & bike trip on the Mekong was in 95, returning from a ride to Chiang Mai – Jinhong in China, when after several days of rain we realized it was impossible to ride out of Laos from Luang Namtha on the jungle trail to Houei Xai. So to get out of Laos, we rode to Pak Beng, hired a small boat & put 4 off-road machines onboard to sail upstream to Houei Xai. A GTR love of the Mekong & its beauty & raw power was born then in 1995.
The Mekong is part of the soul of S E Asia – Indochina & the more you ride in the region, alongside that life giving river the more it infects you & the more you want to be part of it – to feel it up close & intimate. You have to sail it.
So what better than to sail the ‘Khong with your bike on board & a group of mates who also appreciate that mighty river, its environs & the history of the area we have all ridden through at various times.

Some early Mekong Bike & Boat trips were organised in the past:

  • Solo Feb 2003, Houei Xai - Pak Beng
  • Sept 2004, Houei Xai – Pak Beng
  • May 2004 Pak Beng to Houei Xai
  • Feb 2005 Houei Xai –Luang Prabang
  • Feb 2006, Houei Xai – Luang Prabang
  • July 2007 Houei Xai – Tha Xouang


The next trips are the one related in my stories. These ‘fluvial’ trip report are divided into three parts; on some river stretches, however, we traveled twice, in order to reach again the departing point. My story is cut into chapters, following a geographic division, and, for segments where we have sailed twice, the pictures and anecdotes are mingled.

The three chapters cover the following stories and regions:

1. A popular Mekong cruise: Houei Xai to Luang Prabang (23.02.2013 and 22.02.2014)
2. Through the Xayaboury dam: Luang Prabang to Pak Lai (25.02.2014 and 23.05.2014) (to be published next)
3. The empty Mekong: Pak Lai to Vientiane (24.05.2014) (to be published next)

Loading the bikes in Houei Xai

Sailing down the ‘Great River’ is a memorable experience, but its unforgettable quality is also linked to the cruise’s serendipity. The usual voyage, from Houei Xai to Luang Prabang, lasts two days, on a, frequently overcrowded, public boat, with restricted movements and the usual diversity of tourist fellowship. The alternative is to board a premium boat, at a higher price, or to endure a one day noisy and dangerous speed boat navigation.

Our GT-Rider cruise provided the ‘best of all worlds’, a speedy one day navigation, in a normal boat, and the companionship of a small number of friends, for a very affordable price.

Traveling In groups or individually, the “GT-Rider cruise” participants rallied Chiang Khong the day before the departures. For both trips, the assembly point was Khun Na’s office, a helpful local agent who facilitated our border crossing paperwork.


In 2013, for the first cruise, the bridge was not yet open and we crossed on a ferry; a charming, hence cumbersome way, to reach the river’s opposite rim. The romantic adventure was often delayed for hours, during lunch times or to allow more lorries to be packed on a single boat. Getting a visa, an insurance and all the papers stamped, on the Lao side, was also a steeplechase that, fortunately during this trip, our agent expedited.





One year later, for the second cruise, the “Fourth Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge” had just been inaugurated and, in a caravan, following a police car (a bizarre, but enforced regulation), we crossed over the new spanning. Apart from the “escort procedure” reserved to bikers, the passage is straightforward and, as the arrival point is already south of Houei Xai, it allows an easy trip continuation, on Route 3, toward Luang Namtha.

Again, Khun Na prepared the paperwork, and, on the other side, we drove straight to the pier, to upload our bikes. With everything prepared and settled for the next day, the evening in Houei Xai was enjoyable and relaxing.




Houei Xai, is a remote North Laos Mekong left bank’s locality, whose main attractions are river cruises to Luang Prabang. The bus loop around Luang Namtha, Oudom Xai and the destroyed Pak Mong road stretch is hardly of interest, and only few trekkers head north and north-east to the Chinese boundaries. Recently, however, the place has gained in importance with the completion of the “Fourth Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge”, promoting it as a crossroad along the Asian Highway 3 (AH3). It is now on the circuit of a sizable commercial and holiday makers’ traffic, from Yunnan, and from China globally. The straightforward river crossing has also encouraged more tourists to spend the night in Houei Xai, before next morning’s sailing departure.

For Mekong history lovers it is worth to pay a visit to Fort Carnot, a French colonial construction, erected in 1900 to keep an eye on Thailand and on the traffic from British Burma. This citadel never held a strategic position; nowadays, despite conservation projects for touristic purposes, it is mostly closed to visitors. Being built as an observation point, the fortification commands a panoramic view over the city and the river.



The price to navigate about 300 kilometers in a single day is an early wake up call; but, as the bikes were already expecting us aboard, it was an easy departure, around six thirty in the morning.

During our first trip, the pier was already busy with lorries waiting to be loaded on a ferryboat.



One year later, however, and at the same time, the pier was deserted; only a bunch of moored public boats were waiting the arrival of, already in town, tourists.


Just downstream the ferry pier, the Mekong is divided in branches and I wondered how the fluid land boundaries were coping with islands, rock reefs and sandbanks. The clear answer from our captain was that everything belonged to Laos, at the exception of a narrow strip reserved to Thailand. The (colonial) Franco-Thai border agreement [1] defines the limits as following the “thalweg” (lowest points line along the stream’s bed), except when islands divide the channel; there, the border jumps to the rightmost waterway, squeezing the Thai territory.



Down river from Houei Xay, cutting the pale dawn’s horizon, a construction now spans the waterway.


When we navigated for the first cruise, the “Fourth Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge” was not yet open but its main infrastructure was already completed. One year later, after an auspicious inauguration on December 11, 2013 [11,12,13], we were able to cross over and under it. From the water level, however, few changes could be noticed, the most obvious being a line of street lamp poles.




At seven o’clock, the day’s dawn, raising behind the Lao mountain range, begun to cast warm hues over the cold blue water.






Suddenly, in front of ‘’Phra Tat Mae Ya Mon” pagoda, the Mekong takes a gymkhana course, with hairpin curves around sharp rocks. During my land visits to this peculiar temple, I admired the boatman’s skillful maneuvers; now, I was able to experiment the shaky drift myself and to watch the shrine from another perspective.





When a jungle river marks country borderlines, it is a porous barrier and many products are sold in local markets without “certificates of origin”, on both sides.


A stretch further down, when mountains frame the river rims, a deep fog abruptly blanketed the landscape, during our second cruise.



The visibility rapidly degraded and the captain choose to moor the boat along the sand bank, on the Thai rim. Inside the passengers’ compartment, we patiently waited the diversion’s end.




Pushed by draft, the localized mist moved rapidly and we were soon able to navigate again. Helped by the vigorous drive of a friend, the barge slowly left its landing place.


Still, for a while, the scenery remained dull with boats and people pointing out of the gloom like ghosts.





Cham Rong, on the Thai side, has a landing place; it is located along Route 1155, the way up to Phu Chi Fah.


A gap through the fog, at the horizon, spotlighted the next line of dark rocks, a reassuring vision … when it can be seen.





Eight o’clock, after one and a half hours sailing (actually two hours with the mooring during the second trip), we crossed the Huay Luck viewpoint. This promontory overlooks the Mekong as it totally escapes to Laos, leaving the border line climbing alone, through jungle forests, along the mountain range.





The « Phi Pan Nam » mountain range, in the background after the Huai Luk viewpoint, now replaces the ‘Great River’ as the border line between Thailand and Laos.


From Doi Pha Tang, a summit at the northern mountain’s side, the view plunges straight to the Mekong river. Here, a Thai signboard shortly states the loss of the territory under King Chulalongkorn. The story, however, is more complex. Part of Lan Xang kingdom, Lanna Thai, Nan Kingdom, Lan Chang province, in alternation, this west Mekong land stretch was finally annexed to Laos by Pavie (after the 1893 Franco-Siamese war), retrieved by Thailand with Japanese support (after the Franco-Thai war in 1941) and reallocated to Laos in 1946, when Thailand signed the Washington Accord.



At eight thirty in the morning, we paused at the mouth of the Tha river, a medium sized tributary flowing down from Luang Namtha. This place is a checkpoint, and, as the boat was moored, the passengers were able to enjoy a walk on the boulders and snap “selfies”.






During our second cruise, we shortly stopped near to the same spot, but, that time, we took some passengers on-board.





Taking pictures, particularly from the water level, is a highlight of a river navigation and, during our trips, all participant were happily shooting the slowly scrolling landscape.


Broad and quiet water stretches alternate with shaky rapids dotted with menacing rocks; our raft, however, remained unimpressed and kept its speedy sailing.

Nine o’clock, the time also flows steadily.








In their frenzy to connect Cochinchina with the ‘Celestial Empire’, the French Mekong explorers were aiming straight north, along the shortest ideal line. Their first disappointment was in Paksan when the ‘Great River’ suddenly headed totally west, till Chiang Khan. Another disappointment expected them later, after Luang Prabang, when the Mekong takes again a totally east-west direction, till after Pak Beng.

When cruising down the river, as we did it, the explorer’s books have to be read from the back, like a tategaki manga. We had just past 20 degrees in latitude and, for a while, our GPS would stay around 19°50’, with the morning sun on our starboard. During our first trip the east flexion was at about ten o’clock and, as the mooring in the haze slightly delayed our second trip, it was already ten thirty for the following navigation.

Now, for more than six hours, we would sail toward the East, on a latitude circle similar to North Africa and Hawaii.


As encounters with other embarkations are relatively infrequent, the main challenge for the boatmen is to cope with rocks and rapids populating the waterway, sometimes sparse, in wide stretches, sometimes dense, in narrow gorges with reduced maneuvering margins.





Boats loaded with ‘Farang’ holidaymakers are always an intriguing diversion for riparian kids, starring, winking and even taking pictures.


Ten o’clock already! It’s time to look for a liquid different from the Great River’s brew. At the helm, our skipper is concentrating on the boat’s course, avoiding rocks, rapids and from time to time, a boat navigating in the opposite direction.









The fluvial itinerary passes through secluded and sparsely populated regions; here and there, however, casual encounters allow to observe, from the water level perspective, the riparian’s lifestyle. Gold prospecting activities are workaday, but still amazing, fishing is ubiquitous as are playful children.




Cruising on a privately hired boat provides movements’ flexibility, like sitting on the prow, to come as close as possible to the river’s boulders and to the shacking water sensations.





Only few dwellings are built near to the river’s rim; with the water level fluctuations, they are in high risk to be flushed away by a sudden high tide.

The morning, meanwhile, slowly comes to an end; it’s already eleven thirty.




Fast transportation means, between Houei Xai and Luang Prabang, are the speed boats; dinghies powered by big motors and rushing up and down the river with a deafening noise. Wearing motorcycle helmets should make the journey less life threatening, despite its poor safety reputation.




Novices, enjoying a dip in the river, reveal the existence of a temple, or even the vicinity of a village.


Pak Beng, the middle point.

We have passed midday and, suddenly, after a bend in the river, the Pak Beng’s bridge construction site appears in front of us. Until the span’s completion, the Mekong’s crossing is still handled by ferry boats.




My last crossing, during a land trip along Route 2W, was in March 2015; pillars and arches stood straight over the water, but the construction seemed far from terminated. The inauguration and opening to the traffic should be in December 2015; I wonder if there is still an auspicious day left, now that the other bridges have already taken the decade’s most propitious dates.




A road follows the rocky Mekong, from the bridge’s construction site to Muang Pak Beng; on a boat, the waterway is a short trip.




Travelers on the two days cruise, from Houei Xai to Luang Prabang, stop-over for a night in Muang Pak Beng. This place is nearly deserted during the day and bustles again, after five o’clock, when the boats discharge their loads of tourist.





It’s time to taste the yummy lunch prepared by the captain’s wife and to leave the panorama alone for a while.


Mekong river cruises are not without diversions, most encounters, however, are with dark cutting rocks and boiling rapids, framed by gentle hills or steep canyons. As the barge navigates at a sustained speed, the time gently flows followed by the day’s changing light; a grandiose and contemplative pageantry.








Less contemplative, but also enjoyable, is the companionship of friends and the steadily renewed opportunities to make a toast to the wonderful river.








The boat is sailing to its destination, well protected and well steered, while passenger safely enjoy the view and the still fresh beer.




Signs of an aging afternoon, the landscape is more and more tinted by warm hues. With a less aggressive sun, it is also time for fishermen to go out for a catch.








From the boat’s deck, the rapids are unimpressive, but when sailing through these turbulent waters, the shaking and rolling, particularly near menacing boulders, give a sense of the Mekong explorers’ apprehension as, all along their journey, they had to climb from one furry through another.



Every trip, at slightly different places, we navigated along the moored vessel « Mekong Sun », a luxurious catamaran cruising from Vientiane to the Golden Triangle; it provides another relaxing way to discover the region.




Pak Ou and the arrival in Luang Prabang

During their sojourn in Luang Prabang, the leaders of the French Mekong Commission Exploration, captain de Lagrée and second in command Garnier, had an argument about the group’s itinerary. Lagrée considered the alternative to follow the Ou river, an easy access to Yunnan and to the rim of the “Celestial Empire”, while Garnier never deviated from his Mekong monomania. His point of view prevailed, favoring the scientific and discovery aspects to the detriment of the explorers’ health and even life. [2]

The Nam Ou is an important tributary, already navigable at the explorers time and it remains, nowadays, an essential fluvial artery for North Laos.

Pak Ou from sky, as seen from flight from Chiangmai to Luang Prabang:

An impressive karst boulder marks the Ou river's mouth, a small village and a couples of hotels are located on its left bank.

This is how the place was described by Louis de Carné, one of the French Mekong Commission explorers:
“Opposite this picturesque temple, the gate of which looks, at a distance, like a rent in the rock, the Mekong receives a considerable affluent on its left bank. The Nam-Hou, before losing itself in the great river, runs through a vast verdant prairie, bounded by a vertical wall of at least three hundred meters, which seems as if it had been cut out. To show the height of an extraordinary rise of the waters, the inhabitants had drawn a red line, which was nineteen meters over our heads. We looked at this river, which seems to come from the north-east, with some curiosity; for M. de Lagrée had resolved to get into China by this stream, if he did not success in doing so by the Mekong” [2]




Just opposite Ban Pak Ou, on the Mekong’s right rim, another cliff features some temple caves; it is a popular tourist destination, for a short cruise up-river from Luang Prabang. This place was already well known and worshipped at the “explorers” time, as reported by Carné [2]:

« Farther on in the bosom of a vast perpendicular rock, which plunges into the water, a second grotto is also consecrated to worship. It is adorned by a notched balcony, reached by a brick staircase, the lower steps of which are washed by the water. »





After Pak Ou, the “Great River” becomes broader, it is the last stretch before Luang Prabang, our destination for the day.



In the course of their colonial-era, the French erected a series of concrete channel markers; it is reckoned that about 600 of these pillars still remain in place.



About ten kilometers before Luang Prabang, a half-submerged rock is called « Kone Lò » (twelve people); at this place a dozen members of the Royal family lost their lives in a sinking, on 27th October 1931. In its desperation, King Sisavang Vong remembered a famous medium’s prophecy; “Krouba Acharn Là” had cautioned the monarch about the guardian spirits’ unhappiness when treasures, extracted from Vat Visoun, were not put back into its stupa, after reparation. [3]




Orange hues now tinted the late afternoon, and Luang Prabang already showed up at the horizon, with the Phousy stupa, on its hill, beckoning from afar. We slowly passed the mouth of the Nam Kan and moored at the landing place (for the second trip, we had to disembark more upstream, at a less convenient site). For each trip the arrival was at about six o’clock in the evening, bringing the total navigation time to eleven hours and thirty minutes.





The delicate operation to unload the mounts was skillfully handled by the bikers and some local assistants. What seems straightforward is, in reality, often effortful; heavy machines have to cross on narrow, sometimes fragile planks and, in some cases, there is no helping timber at all.









Besides being a UNESCO World Heritage site, for its blend of traditional, colonial and modern architecture, Luang Prabang has many other assets to make it a compelling and relaxing stopover. At the day’s end, the majestic Mekong, the enchanting waterway who brought us down from the “Golden Triangle”, offers another performance, a glorious sunset show, over it’s glittering waters.



During the next days, some cruise participants drove home, on different paved and unpaved itineraries, while others took advantage of their bikes to visit local temples and the neighborhoods. For the second trip, however, the naval adventure would be carried forward, three days later, downstream toward Pak Lai; that time, everybody took the opportunity to relax in the Royal city.




[1] The Land Boundaries of Indochina: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam
By Ronald Bruce St. John
Google Book online – accessed April 2015

[2] Travels on the Mekong
Louis de Carné
White Lotus Bangkok 1995
Original publication : Voyage en Indo-Chine et dans l’Empire Chinois, Paris, 1872

[3] Histoires Vraies et Vécues au Laos
Extraits des Souvenirs et Mémoires de
Phagna Hiranya Phithack, Houmphanh Saignasith
Paris Novembre 1990

GTR "Mekong cruise" trip reports

Other participants to various Mekong “bikes on boat” cruises have published accounts on the GT-Rider forum. Here are some of the links, other stories can be found by a search on the GT-Rider website.



Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong

You've just made me homesick for that magnificent river & the enjoyable good times we have shared cruising the Khong with our bikes on board.
The fabulous images of the Mekong & the timeless life of its inhabitants warms my heart yet again.
It must be time to go back again - "soon" - for another GTR Mekong cruise.

Thank you so much for a wonderful report, fully capturing the beauty of the magic Mekong.

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
Jurgen, - I'm captivated by your report. I'm like a junky who has just had his hit. This is excellent reporting. As an Anglophone with Francophone skills I so enjoy your (Francophone with Anglophone skills) useage of the English language - you have once more made my native tongue just that much more enriching, given me another insight into a corner of life; an insight I may well have missed without your help. Wonderful stuff. Let there be more.
Mar 30, 2010
Superb Jurgen,

Pleasure sharing this experience with you and the rest of the GT boat cruisers.



Dec 9, 2008
Excellent Jurgen, nice to read the history with photos and story. Thank you.