Being on the road either brings you some adventures or lets you create them yourself. Our time in Chiang Mai was about to run out because of our Thai visa and we had chosen Laos as our next destination. To get there, there are different options: by plane, bus or a slow boat. You can either book a tour via an agency or you can “rough it”, and take local buses and arrange all the transport and accommodation by yourself.

Since we wanted to make sure we would cross the border in time because of our expiring visas, we booked a tour at the agency. We paid 1700 THB per person for a 3-day/2-night tour from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos, having had no experience with official tours. It was our first slow boat trip ever!

Slow boat to Laos

A slow boat on the Mekong River.

If you plan to do a similar trip in the future, you’ll want to read the official information, especially about what’s not included in the package.
So, if you decide for more “secure”, traditional option as we did, here is an experience we would like to share with you.

Sleeping in a former prison

Day 1
Morning pick up.
Planned time: 10.00-10.30
Real time: 10.35

The minivan arrives, already packed with seven other people and ten backpacks. Luckily, we can just grab our carry-on luggage and put it in the aisle of the van. Forget big comfort here. “Baby won’t you take me, baby won’t you take me…” The best of the worst pop trash song is in the air. Oh, lucky Gianni with his earplugs.

After we stop for petrol, we continue until we stop at 12.20 pm at the local Full House Coffee. All purchases made here are NOT INCLUDED in the package. After 20 minutes of toilet break here, we get back into our minivan.

Wild fields, farmed rice fields, dried bushes and terracotta-coloured soil, old, yellowish billboards, shabby houses and 7/11 convenience stores on the road, which ruin this virgin countryside. Well, footprints of globalisation are inevitable, even in the villages you might not find on the map, apparently.

Stop in Chiang Rai.
Planned time: 12.00-12.20
Real time: 13.55-14.35

We stop just in front of the famous, bizarre and magnificent White Temple. Since we have already visited the place, we just walk around and take some random pictures. Time for a small refreshment in the food stalls.

Drive: apart from the sharp curves and scary moments when the driver overtakes two trucks and one car at the same time and another truck is approaching from the front side, the trip by minivan is okay.

Arrival to our hostel in Chiang Khong.
Plan time: 15.00
Real time: 16.35

What we saw in the agency’s brochure was a simple room with a bed. What they did not show us was a pigeonhole in the wall, a sink inside the room and a squat toilet with a “DIY flush”. The conclusion: we are going to sleep in a former prison. Good news: all arrested survive and are released the following morning.

Slow boat to Laos

The rooms of our ‘hostel-prison’ in Chiang Khong.

The dinner is scheduled for 6.30 pm and IS INCLUDED in the package, but after we have seen the room, we prefer to find some food on our own downtown. In Chiang Khong there are a few street stalls with grilled local sausages, meat or salad, but most of them are closing as it is neither lunch time, nor dinner time. We find a nice, cosy Thai restaurant where we had a classic Pad Thai and some appetisers. Other popular options included a British or a Belgian pub.

Queuing and waiting mission

Day 2
We wake up at 7 am and wait for the breakfast (scrambled eggs, toast with jam, and coffee).
Planned time: 7.00
Real time: 7.45

In case you need to change your money for dollars to pay your visa or you forget to bring your passport photo, you can do both here, at the reception of the hostel.

Slow boat to Laos

The reception of the hostel.

Departing for the border.
Planned time: 7.45
Real time: 8.30

To arrive to the border is a 15 minutes drive. When we get there, we leave our departure card (pay attention: if you cannot show this upon departure, there is usually a 2000 THB fine. One guy from our group managed to bargain the fee down to 100 THB.) After that, we get on the bus and they bring us to the border, where we fill out the application form for the arrival visa and a departure card for Laos. We are queuing to give away our application form and photo to the person at one window, before we wait 50 minutes to get our passports back. The fee depends on which country you are from. We pay 30 USD for Ivana’s visa and 35 USD for Gianni’s.

Border crossing.
Planned time: 8.00-9.00
Real time: 8.45-10.35

Slow boat to Laos

Chiang Khong/Huay Xai crossing border.

“I want you to smile in my country”

After we get our pristine, new visa, a “guide” appears out of nowhere. He gives us all the instructions on how to queue, where and why to wait for him and encourages us to order some food and water in advance for the boat, because “there is nothing around the pier, so make sure you order your meal now and I will arrange it for you”.

Well, who wants to stay hungry and thirsty for seven hours on the boat, right? We order a bottle of water just in case we finish the one we have. We already start to “smell” something fishy going on and we risk making the whole journey with only our cookies, rather than getting ripped off.

We arrive to the village where the pier is, and – surprise, surprise: there are three stalls that sell the same kinds of sandwiches. The price is the same as the price that the “guide” charged, just that he “prefers” one particular seller. We actually see preparing all the lunch packages for about 60 people. We follow the instruction and wait for our “guide”. In the end, we also buy some food from the stall and wait…and wait, and wait. And wait more.

Slow boat to Laos

Sandwiches for everyone!

When our “guide” arrives, he gives a clear and “friendly” piece of advice not to trust strangers in Pakbeng, the village we are supposed to arrive at that evening. We listen to the stories of people who have been robbed, unsafe guesthouses and upset tourists. “I need you to smile in my country”. Well, we are doing our best. So far, so good. He is so convincing that we book a room in a guesthouse he is showing us, pay 500 THB to him and off we go to board the boat. Well, where has our instinct gone?

Boarding time.
Planned time: 10.30
Real time: 13.05

Slow boat to Laos

Gianni is ready to board the slow boat.

We sit on the relatively comfortable car seats, with a small table that we share with our fellow travellers, Carlo and Florence, another digital nomad couple. The engine starts its loud and monotonous symphony; the beers and whiskey bottles appear on the tables around, the smoke of the cigarettes spreads all over the boat (yes, you can smoke there and yes, everybody around us is a smoker)!

Slow boat to Laos

With Carlo & Florence of Next Stop Who Knows.

Once you look out of the boat, the scenery is just marvelous and you can (almost) easily ignore the pub atmosphere on board. Moreover, the natural beauty is by no means all the same during the cruise. We pass tiny, forgotten villages, fishermen, boulders, lush, green jungles and other boats.

Slow boat to Laos

A boat with locals on the Mekong river.

As the time passes, we read books, observe our surroundings, sleep, and enjoy the feeling of pure travelling. For us, this is the real beauty of being a nomad, to absorb and enjoy what we see. Oh yes, and we inhale all the smoke that surrounds us.

“Bad guy!”

In the meantime, life on the boat gets a bit crazy. There are still a lot of beers around (yes, you can buy them on board, along with instant soups, snacks, tea and coffee, which are, as you might guess, less popular). The smell of whiskey gets stronger and stronger and the skirts of the female backpackers get shorter and shorter.

The sun slowly sets and we just cannot stop being amazed at how peaceful and meditative the Mekong River is.

Slow boat to Laos

A breathtaking sunset over the Mekong river.

Without any stop, we approach the pier in Pakbeng, two hours earlier than the “guide” reckoned, but at the exact time as was scheduled in the agency. It is 17.00.

We look for a guy holding the same poster and name of our booked guesthouse. We find him. He is actually holding the poster with the name of the guesthouse, but as he explains to us, “the guy (read: our “guide”) uses my guesthouse pictures. Bad guy!” He checks the name of the guesthouse on our receipt and points to the other man that is already waiting for us and ten other people.

Honestly, we are not that surprised about the whole situation. We are just surprised that after having read about all the scams in SE Asia, we have done what they warn you about in all the guidebooks. Good news is, that the other guesthouse exists; we get off the track and check into a nice, warm, clean room. No additional fees required.

Pakbeng has many restaurants, usually with the same menu as in Thailand. Expect the price to be about 30% higher, though. We go to the first one that is open that serves hot food… and “hot” whiskey drinks for free. Well, we skipped the whisky, and the opium and the hashish the guys hidden in the dark streets offer us.

Wild wind and sunrays on our faces

Day 3
Departure time.
Planned time: 8.30 am
Real time: 9.20 am

We are having a warm breakfast at the guesthouse (NOT INCLUDED IN THE PRICE) and then head down slowly to the village, finding the pier to take a good seat. We are taking pictures of the unique atmosphere and we walk amidst barbecue smoke, the smell of freshly roasted bacon, croissants, muffins and coffee. When we arrive at the boat, it is unexpectedly almost full (at 8.20 am); we are glad our travel fellows have saved seats for us. This time we are sitting on the wooden bench with some cushions in the middle of the boat, a perfect spot. Those who arrive late sit or lie either at the back of the boat, on the wooden deck with the brain-rattling noise of the engine, or on the cushions at the windy, front part of the boat.

Slow boat to Laos

The slow boat is full.

It’s the second day on the boat and we still have not had enough of the views of the river, banks, villages and genuine locals that are travelling with us on the boat. We are also shocked by the captain who tries to come closer to the coast, or better say, closer to the rocks of the coast, to pick up some locals with their huge and fully packed bags of who-knows-what.

Slow boat to Laos

A village along the river.

The first couple of hours are insanely freezing; we pull down the plastic curtains on the boat and we are saved from the strong morning mountain wind. As we continue the voyage, the sun goes up and the mood of the whole crew suddenly changes with the sunrays on our faces. We feel more and more comfortable and interconnected with the waves’ movements. Fortunately, today we sit far from the all-day-drinking-party crowd.

Slow boat to Laos

A local mahout with a Santa hat and his elephant along the river.

More scam, anyone?

We make six stops on the way to Luang Prabang, so the locals get off, or our captain and his assistant exchange the bags with the mysterious who-knows-what in what would have indeed been an intriguing movie scene. We finally arrive to the pier of the Luang Prabang province.

Planned time: 17.00
Real time: 16.35

“This must be the last stop before Luang Prabang,” we assume. Wrong, wrong. Everybody disembarks and walks up the hill to queue in a line of about 160 people to take a tuk-tuk to the town. Yes, that’s right, we arrive, unexpectedly, to a pier 10 km from the main one. With luggage on our back, after seven hours on the boat, who would argue and not just simply take a tuk-tuk for 20.000 kips (2.5 USD)? Not us. We hop on and in 25 minutes, we are in the famous square of the night market in the long-awaited Luang Prabang.

Slow boat to Laos

The new ‘pier’, 10 km far from Luang Prabang.

The town starts its daily night market routine with the local dishes and souvenirs, with hundreds of tourist around. We arrive to a beautiful mansion, where we see a bathtub in our room after three months of travel. Welcome to Luang Prabang!

A final word of caution to travelers. Remember to bring the following on the boat trip: the warmest clothes, a roll or two of toilet paper (better keep it in your pocket rather than in the bottom of your backpack), earplugs and a good book in case you know you cannot stand an awesome view and small boat adventures on board and on the coast.

Have you ever tried the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang? Please leave a comment below; we would like to read about your experience.

21 Responses

  1. Iñaki

    Uf, nice memories coming back from this trip. I made it 3 years ago and I can notice some differences: my boat was definitely worse with no tables and only a few seats which people struggled for… So if you weren’t smart enough, seating on the floor was awaiting for you for the next hours… Also the “pier” seem to have changed. We were dropped off in “official” pier in central LP, so no need for additional tuk-tuks. It seems that these laotian guys are starting to copy the bad habits from their (in)famous vietnamiese neighbours…

    But other things never change, same noisy engine, same Pakbeng guys “offerings”, same scams, ups, that’s the nice thing about it, at the end you get used to it and even you end up missing it… But of course the best is that the Mekong is always the same, so peaceful, so relaxing, so authentic…

    Enjoy your stay in Laos, it’s a nice country

    Reply
    • Ivana

      Yes, we were also pleasantly surprised about the comfort, because in the videos and some articles we saw those simple wooden benches and limited seats. Oh, The “new” pier is just 2 months old, and apparently they do a very good business if you imagine one boat brings around 80 people and is not the only one per day.
      But, I do agree, that Mekong is just beautiful in any day time and we enjoyed those hours on the boat a lot. Apart from the party background :)

      Have a wonderful time, Iñaki!

      Reply
  2. Detached traveler

    Slow boat, but really not THAT slow… I’ve traveled on slow trains in Europe that needed like 20 hours to cover 600 km! Can you imagine?
    That’s Eastern Europe.
    But it was great watching the scenery from the window…

    Reply
    • Ivana

      Hi, Detached traveler,
      You do not mention the season and the countries through which you were travelling, but it happens in Eastern Europe that in winter, since the ‘snow dose’ is much bigger compared to the south, trains stuck or if there is an accident, you just need to wait, as in all the countries in the world :)
      Also, if you travel from the country with the standard gauge rails to a country where they have the broad-gauge rails, you might wait on the border for a few hours, too.
      I am from Eastern Europe and I used to travel by train quite a lot, short and long trips, and with some delays, too.
      But is all part of the adventure :)
      Have safe trips!

      Reply
  3. jogging pregnant

    I take pleasure in, cause I discovered exactly what I used to be taking a look for.
    You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man.
    Have a great day. Bye

    Reply
  4. Betty Wright

    I did this trip over 5 years ago and loved it. I really enjoyed doing it again with your description and wonderful photos. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Ivana Greslikova

      Hi, Betty, many thanks for kind words, we are happy the entry has brought you some nice memories :)

      Reply
  5. dewi

    Hi Ivana, I’m glad you wrote a post about this, because guess what: I recognised almost everything (I didn’t get the beautiful sunset, or see the elephant) I went through a few months back when I was touring from Myanmar to the Philippines, by taking the North way through Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. If anyone would ask me what was the most strenuous trip on my four month journey, it would definitely be the slow boat day ride from Thailand border to Luang Prabang. There wasn’t a seat for me, and when a seat did free itself, It was behind the engine that made a dreadful and deafening noise. The food was expensive and it was garbage. I was counting the minutes, seriously. And then upon arrival, we were kilometres away from the city, and we had to pay a few dollars to get there (I don’t know why I say, we; I was alone on this trip :)). Good memories in this post, thanks a lot. I like to have uncomfortable moments like these, because it just makes all the rest even better. Will be following future posts. I am currently in Chiang Mai, so I hope to meet you and Gianni tomorrow night at the travel blogger dinner. See you!

    Reply
    • Ivana Greslikova

      Ouch, I can hear that terrible sound of the engine!! Well, I am glad both we can laugh on it now, no matter how adventurous this trip was :) Oh, did you get also into the prison? Talk to you tomorrow :)

      Reply
  6. Laura

    Hi Ivana,

    Do you remember at all which agency you traveled with? Really not keen on risking it time wise haha :)

    Reply
    • Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Laura, the name of the agency is Wandering Star Tour, this is the address: 41 road, Phrasingh, Muang District Thailand, Ratchamanka Rd, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
      Just a reminder: try to negotiate for a discount there and be prepared for some scams on the way to Laos, especially with the accommodation in the villages. The rooms are very different from the pictures agents show you in the boat or in the harbour. If you have any question, feel free to drop us a message. And happy travels!

      Reply
  7. Brittany

    Thank you Ivana for your informative post!
    I am currently trying to decide the best route to get from Thailand to Laos, and despite the downsides, a slow boat is looking like a good option.

    Could you tell me what time of year you did this trip? Mine is scheduled for July/August, and I’m a little concerned about how the weather will be.

    Thanks! Brittany.

    Reply
    • Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Brittany, thanks for reading! We did the trip ned of January, two years ago, and it was high season. July-August is a rainy season in Thailand, so less tourists, but you might want to check the weather conditions once you are in the country. Happy travels!

      Reply
  8. Aurélie

    I have dreamed of this trip for years and I am about to make it real… We finally decided to avoid the tours and to organize everything by ourselves from Chiang Mai. Thank you for sharing your experience !

    Reply
    • Ivana Greslikova

      The slow boat is a great adventure, despite all funny things that you will encounter during the trip.
      Doing all by yourself is not a bad idea. You might meet many travellers who will do the same route but with an agency anyway, so you’ll definitely won’t get lost there :)

      Have fun!

      Reply
  9. claire

    Hello Ivana, we are plannin to do this trip with 7 children (between 3 an 11) and a baby.
    what do you think ? possible or not ?
    many thanks, Claire

    Reply
    • Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Claire,

      It all depends on many factors. Which season do you plan to travel? If it’s during a low season, there might be less people, backpackers and the trip can be quite pleasant adventure. Although, if t’s during high season, it’s usually full of travellers who like entertaining themselves with beers, alcohol and smoking on board. The boat is an open space, as you can see on the pictures, but still, if somebody smokes behind you for about 8 hours, as happened to us, it might be an unpleasant journey. Also, bear in mind there is no space for playing/running around for kids. You can stretch your legs and walk in a narrow alley between the seats, but no room for playing or whatsoever. I’ve seen a couple travelling with a baby but he/she was less than half year old. They carried him/her all the time on the lap in front part of the boat, sitting on the floor so that they avoided loud crowd and smoke in the main sitting area.

      These are practical things to mention. The trip lasts two days and might be quite tiring so depends also how many adults would travel with the children. Personally, I would wait for kids being a bit older and get a half day boat trip on Mekong once you arrive in Luang Prabang :)
      But again, this is just my opinion and you know your kids the best :)

      Have a great time in Asia and you have any more questions, please feel free to drop us a message.

      Ivana

      Reply
  10. Mark couhig

    Thank you for a fine story.
    My wife and I plan to make this trip in january or February.
    Two quick questions: can we fly into Bangkok, then fly out of Bangkok three months later?
    Because (as I understand it) the visa for Thailand is only 30 days, we plan to leave the country, then return for another 30 days.
    Does the system work that way?
    And where and when do you get your “departure card”?

    Reply
    • Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for reading!
      The departure card: you’ll get one in the plane, before landing in Bangkok.
      Regarding visa: you haven’t mentioned which country you’re from, but Europeans (I guess also ppl from other countries) can arrive to Thailand and get visa on arrival that lasts 30 days, zero fee. You will need to leave the country after 30 days, then you can come back for another month (you’ll get another visa on arrival at the airport) and before that period finishes, you can apply for visa extension for another 30 days at the Thai Immigration Office. This will cost you about 2000 THB ($57 USD).
      OR: you simply apply for regular tourist visa to Thailand in your country (single or multiple entry). Hope this helps.

      Cheers!

      Ivana

      Reply

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