Completing a loop of Thailand-Laos-Vietnam-Cambodia in either direction will always present an interesting question to a traveller –  “How do I want to travel between Thailand and Laos?”. Typically, and in my case, Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang.

The options were…

  1. Fly
  2. Coach
  3. Slow boat
  4. Speed boat

In this post, I describe my journey from Chiang Mai, Chiang Khong, Huay Xai, Pak Beng to Luang Prabang taking the infamous slow boat.

Why did I decide to take the slow boat?

I promised myself I’d only fly if I was really pushed for time or if the other options were otherwise too difficult or dangerous – I decided I could do this without flying.

Speed boats have a reputation for being dangerous, hurtling down the Mekong river in half the time of the slow boat at a speed fast enough to tear you into pieces if you hit a rock – Exciting as it sounds, there was too much talk about the failure rate. 

So the toss-up was between a coach and a slow boat. I opted for the slow boat. Although it would take 2 days, I decided that the boat journey itself would be an experience.

What is the slow boat journey itinerary from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang?

  • Leave Chiang Mai and travel 5 hours by taxi/minivan to Chiang Khong border town
  • Stay overnight at Chiang Khong
  • Take a taxi/tuktuk to the border crossing
  • Take a boat across the Mekong River to Laos
  • Take a taxi/tuktuk to the slow boat port
  • Travel by slow boat for 7 hours to Pak Beng
  • Stay overnight at Pak Beng
  • Travel by slow boat for 7 hours to Luang Prabang

How did I book it?

Most guesthouses/hostels in Chiang Mai offered a “package” that included everything except the overnight stay in Pak Beng. Whilst I’m normally against any “package” travel, I was keen on the fact that I could leave late (19:00) one day and get to the border town at midnight without needing to spend time trying to find a decent place to stay or finding my bearings before the morning border crossing. If I wanted to do it all myself, I’d probably need to arrive in Chiang Khong by afternoon. To me, that was wasting a day that I wanted to spend in Chiang Mai.

Hostels offered this at 1700 THB and that’s what I booked. My guess would be that compared to arranging the individual pieces myself, I’d be looking at 200-300 premium, which I thought was fine.

How was the journey?

In the minivan from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong it was a usual story – too much air con and driver driving at breakneck speed meant little rest. Arriving at Chiang Khong was interesting. When the minivan pulled up, I looked out the window at where we were going to be staying. If I’m being honest, my first thoughts were that it looked like a brothel. Those thoughts were echoed by my travel buddy, who had joined me from the Elephant Nature Park last week. Rooms stretching round a dingy lit courtyard shown by a Thai man in a pair of dirty shorts. Shortly after coming to the brothel conclusion, we heard the sound of a man screaming in pain for a good 5 seconds and a face pop out  between the ragged curtains of one of the rooms. As the motel guesthouse owner asked took our tickets, he asked who wanted to share room, my travel buddy and I looked at each other and in perfect sync said “we’ll share”. Having handed over our bus ticket and not been given anything back immediately added to the unease.

You would think, that sometimes, once you’re inside four walls of a room, your thoughts on what is outside can change. When the inside of the room matches looks like something of a prison cell though, it didn’t really change. A steel covered ensuite bathroom door that looked like it wouldn’t open again if it was closed, a sink that looked like it hadn’t been used in months, dubious looking sheets and an interesting looking lockable letter box that opened out to the courtyard akin to something at prison warden could pass food through to a prisoner. The room had a TV, but surely most cells these days include that.

In my mind, I thought the worst case scenario was to stay up all 7 hours of the night until we’d need to get the slow boat. I carefully placed a deodorant can by the door (to make a noise if it was opened), jumped into my silk liner and went to sleep. 

Forward wind to the morning and it was a different story. The courtyard didn’t look so bad in the day light and the reason for the timely screams were answered over breakfast. Other travellers who had got to Chiang Khong earlier (leaving Chiang Mai in the morning instead) had been messing around whilst drinking Thai beers and let out the scream. The face in the window was another traveller who simply wanted to see what the noise was, not the face of a victim. Joking about it made me realise how this place wasn’t so bad after all.

At 08:00, freshly armed with a bright red “SL” (slow boat) sticker on my arm and a boat ticket, myself and the other travellers were thrown into a tuk tuk and take the last 2 mins of the journey to the Thai/Laos border. I got my stamp and said goodbye to Thailand and jumped on a small boat to cross the river. Passing over the boat ticket, again, I was left ticketless. On the Laos side there were somewhere up to 50 people at that time trying to get through immigration. A badly placed visa entry card box and a terrible queuing system meant some a little stress trying to work out where to go. One passport photo and $35 later I had my visa and walked through to Huay Xai. 

By chance, I spotted one of the other travellers with the red SL sticker on their arm. Next to them, was a Lao man who was explaining we should follow him to his shop down the road. I didn’t really want to be taken for a ride to buy unnecessary things so I asked where the slow boats were. He said that we need to go to the shop again and as I deviated to ask a tuktuk driver where the slow boats were, he followed me and said he’d walk me to the shop with the other travellers. He told me that if I went with the tuktuks I would have to buy another boat ticket. It’s amazing how difficult even the most simple relationships can be when there is no trust. The shop was about 100m down the road and whilst he walked us, I wondered how the other fellow red sticker travellers would find this place if he wasn’t waiting at the immigration barrier any more. Without any form of ticket and simply my red sticker, I was dubious that something had been missed and I would have to buy another boat ticket. I was told that the slow boat would leave 11:30 (in 2 hours) and there were no other boat times. I was keen to be ahead of the batch of people, given I had heard of only one good guesthouse in Pak Beng which had been impossible to book.

As the man wandered back to the border, leaving 5 of us at his shop, I wandered around the town to see if I could find more info. As I walked around, I noticed people carrying pillows. It seemed like a good idea, given the pictures I had seen of the boats were people lying on the deck with their backs to the edge of the boat. I returned with a pillow to a growing number of familiar faces all buying lunch and pillows from the shop.

As time went on, people ate and changed money at criminal exchange rates getting more impatient about leaving by the minute. After being asked for our passports (in order to buy the boat tickets and reserve them in our name), I was getting particularly worked up. We were given the inevitable speech about being able to book a Pak Beng guesthouse through them and that there weren’t enough guesthouses to cater for everyone on the slow boats. Having being warned about this particular tactic, my trust was shot to pieces.

At 12:00, we were finally handed our tickets to be used on both legs, thrown into a tuktuk and taken to the pier.

Slowboat huayxai pier

Rather than the slow boat looking like this…. (as I thought)

Slowboat before

…it actually looked like this….

Slowboat looked like

Hardly any need for pillows when you have padded, reclining seats. It was funny seeing every new passenger step onto the boat, then look down at their useless pillows. We joked that all the pillows would be taken off the boats later and directly back to the shops they came from. With crisps and beers available to buy on the boat, you only a sandwich or two bought before to survive. 

The boat journey itself is really scenic. Several times, you would stop at locations down the river to swap empty crates of beer with full ones, let the odd local chicken under their arm, fish sellers or local children selling their wears. Stopping didn’t feel annoying at all, it added a little entertainment and mystery each time.

Slowboat stopoff

Slowboat children

Slowboat children3

Slowboat children2

Slowboat fish

After the first day, we arrived in Pak Beng around 18:00 as the last boat. Luckily, being one of the last onto our slow boat, our bags were immediately reachable under the decking. We grabbed them and walked up the banks into town to find Mosavan. On the way up, every passenger was hounded and shown pictures of various guesthouses. Telling them that “I’ve already booked” was enough to put their sales skills at rest and most people were very helpful pointing the direction (about 50m up the road).

Slowboat pakbeng

When we got there, the owner had just two rooms left, the other of which was secured as soon as I came back downstairs to pay. Somehow, after all the faff earlier, I was happy the most important thing was done. Whilst Pak Beng has other guesthouses, enough to cater for everyone, this guesthouse constantly came up with good reviews. Indeed it was deserved – extremely clean, no rats, perfect location and a pleasant owner. 130000 Kip for the night was the same as the going rate for most others too.

Slowboat mosovan

Comedy pillows in hand again, we left the guesthouse just after 08:00 and took the short walk to the pier. The boat that took us was a different boat, but the same minivan themed seats. It took 2 more hours to fill up and leave the pier. I think another boat had left just before 08:00 and the one we were on was the “catch-all” passenger one.

Slowboat pakbeng pier

If you’re wondering what the speedboats that cruise down the river look like, they’re like this…

Slowboat speedboat

The boat journey on the second day was much like the first – around 7 hours including stop offs. The timing of the boat pulling into Luang Prabang pier was great though, as I was met by this sunset….

Slowboat luangsunset

Welcome the lazy Mekong town of Luang Prabang.

 

How would I do the trip if I had to do it again?

  • I would book the slow boat separately, so that I could be in more control of when I left each morning.
  • i probably wouldn’t buy the comedy pillows
  • I’d sit as far from the engine of the boat as i could (although I did this by luck, other passengers weren’t so lucky)
  • See if you can have your main bags next to your seats. If not, the last ones in the front holdall means they’ll be the first off. I managed this on the first leg (thankfully) but not the second. It makes a big difference getting off the boat in time.