Undoubtedly the most adventurous way to travel from Thailand to Laos is by taking the slowboat. For two days you’ll be bobbing around at the mercy of the mighty Mekong river that meanders through the whole of Laos. It’s gonna be chaos, It’s not gonna be uncomfortable and it is definitely not speedy. But the spectacular scenery and social vibes on the vessel make it all the more worthwhile. If you are looking for adventure, there is no better way of crossing the border than by taking the slow boat.
– Practical information –
What to take
In addition to your normal luggage, You need a portrait picture for your Laos-VISA, your Thai departure card and a warm vest/jacket to wear on the morning of the second day. Make sure you have it on you when you get on the boat. I forgot to get mine out of my big backpack (that get’s stored in the hull of the boat) and had to curl up like a little baby on my bench. Shivering under my paper-thin sarong, my fellow travelers who – of course – had not forgotten to put on a jacket happily mocked me and felt snug and comfortable.
The whole trip costs about 1600 Baht if you book it upfront, a little less if you do it individually. Add 30/35 USD for your VISA + 50-100k kip for a night at a guesthouse in Pak Beng. They are all shitty but hey, the classic Asian ‘shower-right-above-the-toilet bathroom’, is a must-try experience on its own. Bring a couple of dollars/baht extra for random nonsense charges like ‘overtime charge’ or ‘excess luggage charge’ at the border.
You can get the USD needed for your Laos VISA in bigger banks in both Chiang Mai as well as Chiang Rai. Alternatively, you can also just exchange your Thai money at the border (at various points). Take into account a 200-300 baht fee for the exchange (they will not tell you this is a fee but simply give you a shitty exchange-rate).
Two days, depending on your point of departure. The bus leaving at 6:00 AM in Chiang Rai will have you arriving in Luang Prabang around 4:00 PM.
If you leave from Chiang Mai there are some operators that offer a very early rise, stop-by at the white temple in Chiang Rai and still getting on the slow boat to Luang Prabang on the same day. Most operators divide the trip from Chiang Mai up into 3 days, with your first night spend at the border-town Chiang Khong.
If you depart from Pai you will first take the bus to (the outskirts of) Chiang Mai before you drive on to Chiang Rai. From Chiang Mai also pass to Chiang Rai. The prices below are for crossing the border independently without a package deal.
Chiang Rai – Chiang Khong: 2-3 hours (bus – 70 baht)
Chiang Khong (Thailand) – Huay Yai (Laos): 10 minutes (bus crossing the bridge – 20 baht)
Huay Yai border – slow boat pier: 30 minutes (tuk-tuk – around 50K kip)
Huay Yai pier – Pak Beng: 6 hours (slow boat – 1000 baht at the pier/1300 baht at the border)
Pak Beng – Luang Prabang pier: 7 hours (slow boat)
Luang Prabang pier – Luang Prabang center: 10 minutes (tuk-tuk – 20K kip not included in a package deal)
– Crossing the border –
Think twice before you decide you want to cross the border and take the slow boat independently. It will hardly save you any money, is a lot more hassle and will most probably cost you an extra day. This is because it will be a challenge to be at the pier at 11:45 AM when the daily slow boat departs for Pak Beng. If you are traveling with anything breakable or valuable, either keep it on you in your hand luggage or wrap it well in your big bag. Your backpack is going to be tossed around a lot in the coming days in a not too delicate way.
If you booked a package deal you’ll get picked up at the crack of down from your accommodation in Chiang Rai in a mini-bus. As I only slept for about 5 hours I was looking forward to a bit of a snooze in the bus to the border but alas. Not only was the vehicle packed and were the seats Asian-sized, the chairs lacked headrests which meant no sleeping for me.
You’ll get to the border in about 2-3 hours depending on traffic (I had no delay). Here you get off the bus and go through customs – leaving Thailand. Make sure you got your departure card!. When you’ve passed through customs – there is no real check on anything – you have to take a shuttle to cross the Thai-Lao friendship bridge. Crossing the river means crossing the border. Yay! You are now in Laos! After a short ride, you arrive at the customs where you get your VISA. You have to fill out a form and head over to office nr. 1 where you hand over your form, photo and the dollars for the VISA, which you get back at office nr. 2. With your VISA on hand, you hop on a tuk-tuk to the pier. Make sure your tuk-tuk is actually going to the pier and not the bus terminal. I had to switch tuk-tuks a couple of times since there was some confusion before we left.
Twenty or maybe thirty minutes later you’ll be dropped off at a shop close to the pier where your ‘tour-guide’ (this would be the first and last moment I actually saw my tour-guide, nor did I knew or was expecting that there would be one in the first place) tells you to stock up on supplies and book accommodation for Pak Beng. He’ll tell you the boat will arrive late in Pak Beng and that you should really book now. Kindly decline both buying food and booking accommodation – you’ll get a way better deal when you arrive in Pak Beng. Food and drinks can be purchased at the pier as well. Beer and snack are available on the boat as well, albeit at inflated prices. Prices at the boat are similar to what they charge you at the office-shop however so I really see no reason why you should stock up there. I – of course – fell into this little scam. I bought a couple of beers and the most disappointing sandwich in Laos and was drinking my luke-warm canned beer for the same price as crisp and cold bottled beer purchased at the boat itself.
– The slow boat to Luang Prabang –
When you arrive at the pier you’ll see the boat docked and most probably it is already packed. I hopped on believing I got the last seats – but then there arrived another bus. And another one. and a few more. And some minibusses. And a couple of tuk-tuks. Even though the boat was already packed they kept on loading more and more people on. Chaos started to break out in some families. Sweating parents – crying kids. The expression on the faces of people lined up to get onto an already packed boat – priceless. The expression on the faces of the boat-workers ensured me that this is the norm. So do not stress out and just enjoy the show.
Do make sure you are not one of the last 30-50 people to get on the boat. The last seats are in the engine room and your ride will be dreadful. The sound of the engine will have your head spinning for days and the petrol-fumes will make you feel nauseous – and probably aren’t that healthy either.
When the boat departs instantly the whole ride gets more enjoyable. All seats in the boat are just loose bus-seats that can be turned around to form little get-togethers. People play cards, chat with each other and take in the spectacular scenery.
At around 5:30 PM you’ll arrive in Pak Beng, where you can immediately arrange for accommodation at the pier. Expect shitty fan-rooms with gecko’s on the walls and cockroaches in the bathroom. If you want something more luxurious – opt for the eco-friendly the Sanctuary Pak Beng Lodge with beautiful and clean rooms and a killer view overlooking the Mekong River from its restaurant.
After dinner, all travelers that are looking for some social interaction gather at either Happy Bar or the Hive Bar, where drinks are served and tunes are pumped well over midnight.
The next morning the boat to Luang Prabang leaves at around 09:00 AM. Most people – especially those who spent their first day in the engine room – will arrive early and the boat will most probably fill up before 08:30 AM. Luckily this time everybody is divided up over 3 boats that are both more comfortable and more spacious. I have no clue why these boats aren’t used for the first lap but I can image it is because shallower water does not allow for the big boat to go to Luang Prabang. Obviously the smaller, more comfortable boats are more costly for the operators. Either way, this part of the trip is more relax and enjoyable. In my experience, people are also a bit less social most probably because they are no longer cramped together with 10 people in one square meter.
At around 04:00 PM you arrive at the Luang Prabang tourist pier where you have to get off and take a tuk-tuk into town. Here, everybody cues up to buy a ticket (20K kip) into town.
If you gather a large enough group you do not need to buy a ticket and can just arrange for a tuk-tuk to take you to your accommodation straight away – saving you time, hassle, and if you are a good barterer probably a bit of money as well.