Pakbeng is in Bakeo Province, Northern Laos.
This small village lies half-way between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang, perched high on the banks of the Mekong river. You will likely be in Pakbeng because 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. It's also the eastern end of Rte 2, originating in Udom Xai. 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 arrived relatively recently 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. Much more uncomfortable than the slow boat, however 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.
Pick-ups make the trip to Udom Xai around 07:00 and leave at the northern end of town on Rte 2.
A bus leaves at 12:00 from Muang Ngeun (near the Thai-Lao border), costs 30,000 kip, and takes 1.5 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.
Recently a local guy named Mana started offering treks, with a sleepover in a hilltribe village. Could be nice before you get on that slow boat again.
- Mekong Elephant Camp. Elephant treks.
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.
- 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 and opium, plus cocaine and amphetamines. The latter usually Burmese in origin. If you are stupid enough to buy anything, you are highly likely to soon be approached by a different guy with a more or less 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!!