Pakbeng is a small village in Bakeo Province, Northern Laos. The two-day boat between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang has to stop for the night, and a number of guesthouses have been set up to cater to passing tourists.
This small village lies half-way between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang, perched high on the banks of the Mekong river. To call Pakbeng sleepy is an understatement. It's quiet to the point of being dead. Still there are sufficient restaurants for one pleasant night.
24-hour electricity has arrived in Pakbeng, but you'll still find most of the town is shut down by 22:00. What Pakbeng does have to offer is a good night's sleep and sunset views over a particularly scenic stretch of the Mekong.
Most visitors will have to stop here overnight on the slow-boat trip to/from Luang Prabang. It's also possible to arrive by speedboat en route to the north. It's much less comfortable than the slow boat, but you will arrive before the slow boat so you have the option of choosing a guesthouse and showering with no lines/queues. You also get to see the town as the only Westerner. Another possibility is to reach the place by bus. This is a rough and long option.
The boat landing is at the end of Rte 2 on the Mekong. Slow boats leave in the morning in both directions. They depart when full but expect to start at around 09:00. Arrive early to get one of the better seats (as far away from the loud engine as possible). The in-bound boat normally arrives at about 17:00, but this is Laos, so bear in mind that this is a guideline. Laos transportation goes when the driver can be bothered. It's best just to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet. And have a beer, of course.
Slow boat transport ("express boats")
Slow boats are long and narrow with a large, loud engine. They are family-run. You will usually find a snack bar behind the sitting area and toilets further down the boat. Further down the boat the family's private area.
- As of May 2017, it costs 110,000 kip for the upstream ride for foreigners. Apparently the downstream price is the same. In Pakbeng you can buy your ticket on the boat as they will come around just before departure to check for tickets. The boat schedule is variable as the boat will stop on the way to drop off or pickup villagers.
- Upstream slow boat trips to Huay Xai depart each morning at around 08:30. The trip takes about 9 hours with arrival in Huay Xay around 17:30-18:00 which usually makes it too late for passengers to make the border crossing to Chiang Khong, Thailand the same day.
- Downstream slow boat trips to Luang Prabang depart each morning at around 09:00 from Pakbeng. The trip takes about 8 hours with arrival at the boat landing 10km upstream of Luang Prabang around 16:00. A tuk-tuk to the center will cost around 20,000 kip. The downstream trip is about 2 hours faster but the upstream boats depart earlier so the arrival times at PakBeng are about the same.
- Buying tickets : there is no need to book ahead a 2-day ticket all the way to Luang Prabang in Huay Xay. You are better off just buying a ticket to Pakbeng (110,000 kip) and buy the next ticket to Luang Prabang when you get on the boat in Pakbeng (105,000 kip).
If you choose to travel on the speedboat (a light canoe with a very powerful engine), a crash helmet and life-jacket should be provided. It is also recommended that you make your bags as waterproof or water-resistant as possible and wear a rain jacket. The boat can generate quite a bit of spray, plus any showers you might encounter along the way will sting like needles against any exposed skin. On sunny days, sunscreen is invaluable as there is no roof or shade on these speed machines. The journey to Huay Xai can be reduced to as few as 4 hours in the wet season, with a lunch stop at Pak Beng. However, some consider this means of transportation less safe, especially in the dry season. Earplugs are strongly recommended. Those who are concerned about creating as little environmental impact as possible may want avoid speedboats, as they are heavier polluters than the slower options. Travel agents in Luang Prabang will sell the tickets for 320,000-370,000 kip. You will need a minivan to take you the 10 km north to the fast boat pier in Luang Prabang.
1 Pakbeng Bus Station (approx. 2 km north of the town center).
Pick-ups make the trip to Udom Xai around 07:00 and leave at the northern end of town on Rte 2.
A bus for Muang Xay leaves around 09:00 at the bus station.
A bus leaves at 12:00 from Muang Ngeun (near the Thai-Lao border), costs 30,000 kip, and takes 1½ hours.
There are only a few streets, so walk around. Most of the guesthouses are along the first 50 m of the main street as you head up the riverbank.
With the roads and particularly the rocky riverbank just above the boat landing being very steep, it might seem tempting to accept an offer for someone to carry your bag for you. Ensure that if you do, you agree on the size of the tip beforehand.
There is nothing much to see except the Mekong and rural Laos. A couple of local wats may interest the obsessive temple enthusiast.
- Wat Khok Koh.
- Wat Sin Jong Jeang.
Find a bed, eat something and sleep.
A local guide named Mana offers treks, with a sleepover in a hilltribe village. Ask for him in Pak Beng.
- Mekong Elephant Camp, ☏ +856 2055320069, toll-free: +33622092532. A non riding Elephant Sanctuary in Pakbeng with an environmental purpose
Pakbeng is remote and offers very little in the way of shopping, but if you're about to spend the rest of the day on a boat it would be a good idea to pick up snacks from the row of market stalls that line the main road in the morning.
Several guesthouses and some restaurants offer food, but don't expect anything special. There's an Indian restaurant with decent curries along the main street, called "Hassan". The friendly manager will also package meals for consumption on the slow boat. Be careful while paying though, he might tend to give you back too little or hand you unusable (too old, broken) dollar notes. (Never accept a banknote that's torn. It's unusable!)
Locals set up small sandwich stands along the road to the waterfront each morning. You can buy basic sandwiches of bread and Laughing Cow cheese. If not, ask your guesthouse to provide you with a packed lunch, as you are going to be in for a 9-hour boat ride without meals. Some boats do have some food and drinks for sale too.
Standard beer options are available from guest houses, at inflated prices. To ensure a good nights sleep, try the local "lao-lao bong" -- water poured over fermented rice and slipped through a straw.
- Hive Bar (Down the main street past most of the guesthouses). Offers some music to dance to and seems to stay open later than the other bars.
Drugs: everyone's selling in Pakbeng, and they happily double their profits by scamming you. After having sold you drugs, someone will appear with a police badge, and ask for a hefty bribe in exchange for not taking you in.
Standards are low at this village near-the-end-of-the-world. Just look around as things change fast. The guesthouses in Pakbeng are all along the main street, just hundred metres away from the boat dock area. A room with shared bath will cost about USD3, while an en suite bath will cost an extra USD1-2 (rooms can mostly be paid in Thai baht and Lao kip as well). There might be places where you can get a room for USD2, but you'll have to search long and bargain hard. Considering hot water: make sure that your bathroom has an individual electric boiler, as there are guesthouses with central boilers that only provide a certain amount of hot water for the whole guesthouse on a first-come first-served basis.
Touts are prevalent in Pakbeng, and you will be bothered. However, these touts are very laid back, especially compared to Thailand. If you are after a really cheap option, it is possible to get a mattress and a mosquito net under a veranda for about USD0.50. Just watch out for monkeys.
It is possible, but not necessary to book accommodation in Pakbeng in advance, as there are plenty of guesthouses and almost all visitors stay only one night.
The exception to this rule is if you're looking for something a little more upmarket, in which case you have only two choices.
- 1 Thip Phavanh Guest House (next to Kanya Backery), ☏ +856 20 98076677. A guest house run by a young couple (with kids), they speak a very limited English but are very helpful. WiFi is available; All the rooms have not been finished in June 2018 50,000 kip (twin with fan).
- Luang Say Lodge. Up-market option, offering luxury bungalows mostly for passengers on the Luang Say cruise boat.
- Pak Beng Lodge. French-run hotel offering smart rooms, river views from the balcony and French wine in their restaurant. USD62-135.
- Pheksokxai Lodge (If you have entered Pakbeng by slow boat from Huay Xai, when you get out of the boat and walk up the road leading down to the port, then turn left almost following the road out of the town. You will see the Pheksokxai Lodge). Has very basic rooms with a non-functioning TV, but the lodge has a fantastic pavilion, great views of the river and the mountains as well as a great balcony, plus a nice restaurant with spicy noodles and bamboo shoots.
Pakbeng is in the Golden Triangle, and in the midst of one of the world's drugs production areas. From the moment you set your foot in Pakbeng, you will be offered weed, opium, cocaine and amphetamines. The latter usually Burmese in origin. If you are stupid enough to buy anything, a common scam is to be approached soon after by someone with a fake police badge, who apparently will turn you in to the police if you don't pay, usually, USD20-50. It cannot be said often enough; when in Asia, stay away from drugs.
Huay Xai and Luang Prabang by boat are the normal destinations for anyone leaving Pakbeng. It is possible also to go by bus to Muang Xay.