Traveling is all about adventures.
And mild madness as well.
The trip Chiang Mai / Luang Prabang by slow boat is for sure one of them!
When my Thai tourist visa ended in January 2017, I decided to cross the Laos border by taking one of these boats.
I will give you in this article my feedback about this experience!
Slow Boat, but what is it ?
Laos is crossed north to south by the Mekong River, so it is kind of logical that it became a vital and very busy link. Thus, to wander into this river, you can find crafts called slow boat that are used both by tourists and locals.
About 10 meters long, they are nowadays furnished with former bus seats for greater comfort.
Toilets are available on board and there is a little booth where you can buy food and drinks. Sailing through the water at no more than 30 km/h, it will take 2 days to cross the 300 km which separates Huay Xai from Luang Prabang.
How do you go to Huay Xai (Laos) from Chiang Mai (Thailand)?
Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai
For this first part of the trip, you will have to take the bus!
It’s possible to book the whole trip with a travel company, but it is not that hard to do it by yourself.
Early morning, just go to the Chiang Mai bus station, north-east of the city and walk through 2 halls to find the Green Bus ticket booth. Book the next bus for Chiang Rai. It will cost you around 130 baths. Prices are not the same for every hour of the day.
For my own trip, I booked a bus which left at 11 am and I made it to Chiang Rai at 2.20 pm.
The bus is going to stop at a bus station outside the city. You have to stay inside the bus as the next station will be in the heart of the city at a big field filled with large and random transport vehicles.
Be careful, if it rains (as it was the case for me) it’s a big mud skating rink that is waiting for you!
Chiang Rai / Chiang Khong
Leave the bus and just walk a couple meters to take another one, an antique local bus, which is going to Chiang Khong.
The price should be 65 baths and the trip will last 2h30.
Chiang Khong / Huay Xai
At this point, there are 2 possibilities.
Some people choose to stay in Chiang Khong overnight and cross the border the next morning, while other people are crossing it the day they arrive.
As the slow boat departure is at 11 am, the best according to me is the second solution, if you can make it in Chiang Khong early enough. It will spare you some stress. The border is open from 6 am to 10 pm. You will have the evening to get familiar with kips, the laos currency, and in the morning you will be able to book your seat without panic !
When you will arrive near Chiang Khong, the bus driver assistant will certainly ask you, given your backpacker look, if you are going at the border. Say yes, and the bus will drop you off outskirts of the city and not downtown. And that’s a pretty good thing, as the border post is located 10 km South-East of the city ! You would have to pay an expensive tuk-tuk ride to go there from Chiang Khong.
The bus dropped me off on the road just before 5 pm.
Luckily, a dutch couple did the same. We were able to share the cost of a tuk-tuk to do the last kilometers that separated us from the border. There are always 2 or 3 tuk-tuks waiting at the bus stop, so don’t freak out ! For brave people, you can reach the border by walk. It took us a good 5 minutes by tuk-tuk.
Crossing the Thai / Laos border
Nothing complicated here and no corruption issue.
You will only find a light money-making scheme to make you pay some extras.
Indeed, once you left the thai border, a bus is waiting for you to cross a bridge and get to the laos border. It is mandatory, and the fee for the ride is 25 bahts. Price goes up to 40 bahts on weekends and after 4 pm.
For the record, before to take the bus, there is a currency exchange booth. Rates are really interesting, so feel free to exchange your cash here. Otherwise, you can still find a ATM on the other side of the bridge.
Once the river crossed, gather your courage to fill up the laos forms.
A photo is required. If you don’t have any, the visa fee (which is $30) will cost you $1 more. Same if you cross the border early in the morning or after 4 pm, Customs Officer will charge you one more green bill…
You can pay your laos visa in baht and not in US dollar if you want.
But you will pay a bit more.
For example, I was supposed to pay $31 (as I got to the border late at 5 pm…).
As I asked to pay in baht, the Custom Officer told me it was 1,200 bahts. Which is $35.
You may have crossed the border, but you will still have to free yourself from some bills !
One last step is waiting for you.
To reach Huay Xai center, you have to take a tuk-tuk.
The fee should not be more than 10,000 kips. Otherwise, just keep walking, and as if by some miracle, a driver will agree on a decent price.
There is only one road to reach the town, and despite this, it took us a solid 10 minutes.
Endless, because of darkness. For this reason, I can only advise for everyone to take this tuk-tuk ride, even the brave ones.
There are many guest houses on the main street.
It will cost you around 50,000 kips for a room.
Huay Xai / Luang Prabang
Here we are at last, the slow boat boarding !
As the boat is leaving at 11 am, I went at the quay at 8 am to book a ticket, and went back again at 10 am to jump in.
Well, as they are stuffing the craft like crazy, I could have spare my time.
Just go at the quay for 9.30 am, pay for your ticket and go on board right away.
If you don’t care about your seat location, you can even come later than that, but you will be at the back of the boat, close to the motor and its deafening noise…
To find the quay, just follow the Mekong River going North.
After 5 minutes walking you will find a big street. Take left and you will arrive near the river. You can pay your ticket in baht, in this case the price will be 1,000 bahts.
For this trip leading to Luang Prabang you will have to learn living as smooth as the boat, which is making its way at a very humble pace.
To pass the time, what best than a good book, or good buddies to have fun with, your choice !
Speaking of good buddies, you can make new ones at the food booth located in the slow boat, it sells alcohol. Or at the back of the boat, where you can smoke. However, you will have to shout to be understood as in a night club…
If you are traveling on a budget, it is better to bring your own food before boarding.
Tips : it is possible to get free hot water on the boat, convenient if you are eating only noodles for example.
It can be fairly cool on the boat so don’t forget to bring warm clothes.
I did this trip early January, wet season was supposed to be over for a long time, but the sky was grey and the temperature low. We even got some rain drops on the way…
The boat’s breeze, which has to be salutary on a sunny day, was for me a strength test.
Late afternoon, you will land in the small village of Pakbeng, where you will spend the night.
You will be welcomed on the quay by touts who will offer you accommodations.
I made the choice to keep walking by myself.
Obviously, don’t stop at the first guest houses you will see. Keep walking a bit more, and it should be easier to bargain.
It will cost you around 80,000 kips for a room.
I managed to drop the price at 60,000 kips, which is getting closer to a fair price for a private room in Laos (50,000 kips).
The arrival in Luang Prabang
The boat will drop you off 10 km away from the city, though there is a quay in the city center…
One more well thinking business, that will cost you 20,000 kips to get in a tuk-tuk.
But this time it’s finally over !
You survived the slow boat !
Chill moment for some, where you can meet new people, endless boring trip for others.
In any case you will have some nice stories to tell !
Time now to discover the beautiful city of Luang Prabang !
Its colorful architecture and tasty food well worth these 2 journey days !