A slow boat cruise down the mighty Mekong river was high on our list of things to do in Laos. In fact it was one of the most exciting experiences we had planned for the Southeast Asia leg of our trip. As we cruised slowly down the Mekong over two days before reaching Luang Prabang, we’d be treated to some of the most beautiful scenery that Laos has to offer.
How do you book your slow boat ticket?
There are different types of slow boats available and because we’d be sitting on our backsides for six hours a day, we were quite keen to book a boat with a reasonable level of comfort.
Cindy emailed one Mekong river cruise provider that we found online. They seemed to have quite comfortable boats but she couldn’t get a reliable response from them. They kept emailing us wildly different prices, so much so that we thought it might be a scam. In the end, we decided to take our chances and book the tickets when we got to Thailand. At least there we’d hopefully be able to get more reliable information.
Booking a Slow Boat Ticket in Chiang Rai
We expected that booking the slow boat would take a bit of effort, but when we arrived at our guesthouse in Chiang Rai, we discovered they could book it for us. It cost about $US30 each for the trip so we decided to take our chances, not knowing quite what we were getting.
If you’re leaving from Chiang Rai on your slow boat trip you’ll probably be able to buy tickets though your hotel or guest house but if not there are plenty of tour agencies in town who will sell them to you. If you leave from Chiang Khong as well I imagine it will be the same story.
Otherwise, you can wait to buy your slow boat ticket at the slow boat pier in Huay Xai which is the town on the other side of the Thai-Laos border. The ticket will cost you around $US25 but you’ll have to make your own way to Huay Xai.
Where do you take the slow boat from?
Chiang Khong is Thailand’s gateway city to Laos but many people choose to leave from Chiang Rai, which is just two hours drive from the border crossing. We stayed a few days in Chiang Rai beforehand and quite enjoyed it. It’s nowhere near as touristy as its sister city Chiang Mai but it’s still worth a visit. You can read our post to find out what to do in Chiang Rai before you take your slow boat.
If you don’t want to visit Chiang Rai you can also take a bus or minivan from Chiang Mai to the border or the bus to Chiang Khong and stay overnight before catching the slow boat. The bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong takes around six hours.
Getting to the slow boat from Chiang Rai
At 6am sharp on the morning of our boat ride, a minivan collected us from our guesthouse. The driver was super friendly and efficient and the van was quite comfortable. After filling up the bus with a few more travellers, we headed towards the border.
Our driver made sure that everyone had the correct amount of US dollars ready for their visa application, along with their passports. He also made sure that everyone knew what the process was going to be when we arrived at the border crossing. Cindy and I were really impressed with the level of service so far. It boded well for the rest of the journey.
Along the way we stopped for coffee and a loo break at a reasonably hip coffee joint. Another twenty minutes or so later, we arrived at the border crossing and bid farewell to our driver.
How do you get your visa for Laos?
Applying for the visa for Laos at the border is fairly straightforward. You fill in both an arrival and departure card along with a visa application form and then line up at a window. The only confusing bit is that (just like in Vietnam) they take your passport from you while they fill out the visa and you have to line up at a separate window next door to pay for the visa and get your passport back. Apart from that, the entire process is quite simple and it only took us a few minutes.
Doing Some Last Minute Currency Exchange
Before you head across the border, you have the opportunity to convert any Thai money into Lao PDR’s currency, the KIP. We took advantage of this, although I imagine the exchange rate was not very favourable. We only had a small amount to convert so we didn’t care. Better that then being left with a small amount of currency that we may never use again.
Getting from the Laos border Crossing to the Slow Boat Pier
On the Laos side of the border crossing was a series of tuk tuks waiting to take us down to the river. So far so good. But first they took us to the agency’s office where we could buy food and drink supplies for the boat. This was supposedly because food and drink on the boat was very expensive. Their shop wasn’t exactly cheap, so it could have just been another way for them to make some money off us and we didn’t buy anything on the boat to compare prices with.
The agency also offered to book our accommodation in Pak Beng (which is the town the slow boat stops in at the end of the first day). We didn’t need this as we’d already booked our accommodation in Pak Beng online. There’s no doubt we paid a premium for doing this but we’d heard some horror stories about accomodation in Pak Beng and were happy to pay a bit more to lock in a decent room.
Next, we hopped back on the tuk tuk for the short drive down to the port. When we arrived there our driver gave each passenger a ticket for the boat with an allocated seat number. He assured us that there would be someone from the agency on board the boat to help us out along the way. This was all pretty encouraging.
The Slow Boat Reality
We never actually found out who that person was. As soon as we got to the boat everything kind of went out the window. The seat numbers appeared meaningless, everyone just sat wherever they wanted and none of the crew seemed to care. We couldn’t really complain though. Half a dozen people that turned up late had no seat at all and were forced to sit on the floor at the back of the boat for six hours!
By this point we knew we were on the local version of the slow boat, the one that picks up locals along the way, rather than one of the fancier boats we’d been hoping for. We hauled our backpacks up the aisle to the engine room, where everyone’s baggage was piled up. Then we found ourselves a pair of seats in the middle of the boat.
A Cramped but Entertaining Experience
Rather comically, the seats on the boat had been ripped out of old minivans with some additional framing added to allow them to rest on the wooden floor. But the seats weren’t attached to the floor so you had to be careful not to bump your seat, to avoid pushing it back onto the person behind you!
It was pretty cramped to say the least. We struggled to put our daypacks in between the seats and that didn’t leave much room for our legs. Fortunately I was able to stick my legs out in the aisle for most of the day. Because the boat travels very slowly, we were free to get up and walk around, so to be fair it wasn’t really a huge problem.
The First Day on the Slow Boat
The first day passed very peacefully. The boat slowly cruised down the Mekong river and there was plenty of amazing scenery to take in along the way. There were beautiful lush green hills rising steeply up on either side of the river. The Mekong was actually flowing quite fast and the captain had to be constantly on the lookout for the large black rocks jutting out from the river bed.
Every so often our boat would head to one side of the river and pull in to one of the sandy beaches to pick up some locals who were patiently waiting there. Normally it was just one or two people at a time. Unfortunately for them they had to sit on the floor as all the seats were taken.
Now and again we’d come across children playing in the shallows or excitedly running down the banks towards us waving and shouting. It was kind of sweet to see how happy they were.
Arriving at Pak Beng – The Slow Boat Halfway Mark
After about six hours we finally made it to Pak Beng, our destination for the night. Pak Beng is really nothing special. It basically just exists to accomodate travellers from the slow boats. There is one main street above the port that houses several guest houses and there are some hostels slightly out of town.
When we reached port, there were lots of locals there. Most were waiting to try and sell accommodation to travellers that hadn’t booked any yet. Accommodation in Pak Beng is very cheap relative to other places in Laos, so if you haven’t booked your accomodation beforehand you can try your luck on arrival.
Double Booked in Pak Beng
We were glad that we’d thought ahead and booked our accomodation online. It was one less thing to worry about. Or so we thought!
Use the search box below to look for accommodation in Pak Beng:
Getting off the boat onto the dock with two heavy backpacks was a bit tricky but we finally made it up the stairs to meet our guesthouse’s owner who had come to pick us up. But as we happily hopped into his tuk tuk, he bashfully told us that he’d somehow double booked our room!
We’d heard that this happened a lot in Laos so it wasn’t a total surprise. Fortunately the owner made it right by booking us into the guesthouse down the road, which was apparently the nicest one in Pak Beng. So everything worked out alright in the end.
Day Two on the Slow Boat – A New Boat
The next morning we woke up early. The boat left at 9am, so we aimed to arrive by 8am to be guaranteed a seat. We quickly ate our breakfast while watching some elephants bathing on the other side of the river. They are truly beautiful animals.
We were one of the first to board the boat and to our delight we discovered that we had a different boat for the second leg. While it still had sections of the old minivan seats, it also had some wooden tables with benches for groups to sit at. We decided that the minivan seats were more comfortable but the tables were quite popular with other travellers.
The Final Leg on the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
Everyone was noticeably happier with the new boat and around 9am we headed off down the river. The scenery was very similar to the previous day, still as spectacular and iconic.
The main difference from the first day was that we picked up a lot more locals. At one stop we picked up at least a dozen extra passengers. That included large amounts of their luggage which was cheerfully tossed onto the roof of the boat.
One guy even brought a live duck on board in a plastic bag. He dipped its head in the water a few times to let it drink beforehand. He saw us looking at him, smiled, pointed at the duck and said “My dinner!”, much to Cindy’s horror. I’m not quite sure where he stowed the duck as we didn’t see it again.
Arriving at Luang Prabang’s Slow Boat Pier
The second day’s journey took about eight hours. By the time the boat reached Luang Prabang the centre aisle was packed with locals sitting on the floor. There probably wouldn’t have been enough life jackets for them all. Then again, at least this boat actually had life jackets. I hadn’t seen any on the other boat.
One thing to know is that the slow boats no longer drop you off in Luang Prabang’s old town. For whatever reason, the old dock there is no longer in use. Instead the boats drop you about two kilometres further down the river.
Your only real alternative is to catch a tuk-tuk into the old town. That’s unless you fancy a long walk into town. There’s a booth above the port that sells tuk tuk tickets for 20,000 KIP per person. Any of the waiting tuk tuk drivers will accept these tickets. If you ask nicely they’ll drop you off close to your hotel.
Use the search box below to find accommodation in Luang Prabang:
Is the Slow Boat Trip to Laos Worth it?
So is the slow boat trip to Laos worth it? We think so. It was certainly an experience and one that we really enjoyed. Although if we did it again we’d probably fork out the extra cash for a fancier and less crowded boat.
The slow boat is certainly much nicer than travelling by bus or minivan. It’s not everyday that you can sit back, relax and take in beautiful scenery. It’s a great way to read a good book, enjoy some time with friends or just meditate on life.
We’re not exactly backpackers and if we managed to survive the slow boat trip intact, so can you!