We have made many, many border crossings on our travels, but none as epic and unpredictable as the two-day slow boat from Northern Thailand to Laos on the Mekong River. We began our journey in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and took the slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos. Here is the story of our journey, along with all the essential information you need to plan yours.
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Slow boat to Luang Prabang: a brief introduction
Our mission was to get from Chiang Rai, Thailand, to Luang Prabang, Laos. We couldn’t find much information on the Internet, and what we did find looked out of date. Flying was expensive. A new ‘friendship bridge’ opened in 2013, so a bus was possible. But of all the options, none were as exciting or attractive as taking the two-day slow boat down the Mekong River.
How would we book it, though? We couldn’t find any way to do it online. After arriving in Chiang Rai we realised that we needn’t have worried, as it was easy to book it in town at pretty much any tour agency or hostel. It’s usually possible to book the journey for the next day.
We paid 1,650 baht each for the whole journey, which was touted as a ‘special deal’, to include transfers to the border town of Chiang Khong, from there to the boat departure point at Huay Xai, and the boat ticket. It’s possible to save money by doing the journey independently, but with many potential pitfalls and we preferred to keep it simple. If you do want to try it solo, I’ve included details further down the page.
What you need to bring for the slow boat
It’s a very good idea to bring plenty of food and water with you for the journey. The boat does sell a few snacks and water bottles, but it’s expensive and there is scant choice. It’s better to visit a 7-eleven in Chiang Rai the night before and stock up.
It can get a bit cold on the boat, so it’s also useful to make sure you have something warm to put on. We saw lots of people rock up in just shorts and vests, and by late afternoon on the first day they were shivering.
You’re going to be on the boat for several hours over two days, so bring something to keep you entertained. It’s a great opportunity to get through a few chapters of your book, or if you’re in a group then bring some playing cards.
Getting your visa into Laos
A complication of the journey is that you need to get a visa to enter Laos, which you can get on arrival – no need to do anything online beforehand.
Laos was the 18th country of our world travel, and the first which we had to pay to enter. In general, the cost of a visa into Laos is 35 US dollars for citizens of the UK or USA, and 30 US dollars for most other people. There are a few exceptions: for some reason people from India or Bangladesh need to pay 40 US dollars, Canadians 42 US dollars.
To make this part of the journey as seamless and enjoyable as possible, there are a couple of things you need to sort before you leave. The first, and most important, is to make sure you have enough US dollars in cash to cover the visa. Our hostel told us we would be able to pay in Thai baht, but when the minivan arrived to collect us, the driver wouldn’t leave until we’d paid him an extortionate exchange rate to buy US dollars from him.
The second is to bring a passport photo with you, as you will need one for the visa. Our minivan driver told us it would be possible to get one at the border, but we didn’t see a booth, and luckily we found a couple of spares we had been keeping in our rucksacks. We might have been stuck without them.
Getting your Laos currency
Obtaining Laos currency at the border was easy and convenient. We changed our last few Thai baht notes into Lao kip at a currency exchange counter, and withdrew some more Lao kip from an ATM. Note that all ATMs in Laos charge 20,000 Lao kip for a withdrawal, so it saves money to withdraw the maximum amount (usually 1,500,000 Lao kip). See xe.com to see the latest exchange rate.
Transit to the boat
On the day we were picked up from our hostel at 6am. We packed the night before so there would be no rushing, and so we had time to sup a coffee before heading off.
The first leg was a two-hour minivan journey to Chiang Khong, the border town on the Thailand side. We stopped at a coffee shop for 15 minutes or so about 5km from the border, before the time came to sort our visas. We drove another 10 minutes down the road to border control where we filled out two long forms, joined the queue, paid our 35 US dollars each and waited to be waved through for the next stage of the journey.
Safely through the border, we were ushered into the back of a jeep and shuttled to a small shop where we could buy sandwiches and take a comfort break. This also happened to be the transport company’s office, and they tried to sell hotel rooms for that night in Pakbeng. You don’t need to book accommodation at this stage – there are plenty of hostels and hotels that you can book on arrival in Pakbeng at much cheaper prices.
After half an hour we got into the same jeep and headed for the slow boat departure point, in a town called Huay Xai. We arrived an hour before the boat was due to depart, but thankfully there was a café selling large bottles of Lao beer for next to nothing. It was still only 11am, but why not? We got chatting with an Irish couple and two solo German backpackers, and the booze started flowing.
If you do want to drink on the boat, you can save some money by stocking up before boarding if you’re ok with your beer getting warm. Large beers were 13,000 Lao kip in this café, or 20,000 Lao kip on board.
Boat journey leg one: slow boat to Pakbeng from Huay Xai
On boarding we were free to choose where to sit, and the six of us found a nice area with inward-facing seats at the back of the boat. The problem with this, however, was that we were right next to the engine, which drowned out any conversation once the boat got going.
Our large rucksacks were all secured in a compartment at the back of the boat, so anything we wanted for the journey had to be transferred into our hand luggage. It’s useful to do this beforehand to save faffing about on the boat while everyone is queueing.
The boat finally set off at 11:30am. We’d heard that the water can get a bit feisty, but we got lucky and had a smooth journey. The scenery around the Mekong River was beautiful. There were plenty of photo opportunities, so we were glad we’d kept our camera handy.
It took around six hours to get to Pakbeng, with the boat making several stops to drop off and pick up locals. When we arrived at about 5:30pm, we took all our luggage off the boat and disembarked in search of some overnight accommodation.
Overnight accommodation in Pakbeng
As soon as we set foot off the boat, we were met by a flurry of hotel and hostel owners waving pictures and offering cheap accommodation. There was really no need to book straight away, so we took our time to assess the options.
We walked up a small hill along the main road in town, and eventually found a hotel called Dockhoun Guest House offering double rooms for 50,000 Lao kip. This was the best price we’d found, and after inspecting the rooms and confirming everything was ok, we went ahead and booked. If you would really prefer to get your room sorted in advance you can find and book Pakbeng accommodation on booking.com, but the price is likely to be higher than booking on arrival.
On the same road there were several restaurants and shops. We had dinner in an Indian restaurant called Hasan overlooking the river, and enjoyed some excellent food while several meowing cats clamoured around us. I probably didn’t help matters by sneaking them some scraps of chicken.
Outside we had been given some flyers offering free drinks at an establishment down the road called Happy Bar, and after dinner we decided to check it out. To get to it we walked back down the hill to the boat docking point and up another hill just past it. This turned out to be the only bar in town, and the place where the overnight party was at.
We downed our free shots and settled onto a table for a night of drinks and chat. Before long we were joined by pretty much everyone who had been on the boat. The bar had a pool table, beer pong table, shisha pipes, and – best of all – one of the cutest puppies we’d ever seen. We stumbled back to the hotel some time around midnight.
Boat journey leg two: slow boat to Luang Prabang from Pakbeng
The next morning the boat was due to depart at 9am, and we were advised to arrive with at least half an hour to spare. We wolfed down a satisfying breakfast in the hotel, stocked up on more snacks for the journey and headed on down.
The boat for the second leg was a different one, and slightly smaller. This time the journey was longer and the waters rockier. At one point the staff asked people to sit on the other side of the boat to avoid it tipping too much. It wasn’t too bad though, and seven hours later we arrived safely in Luang Prabang after another journey of scenic beauty.
Arriving in Luang Prabang: getting into town
After the boat docked, we still had one final journey to make into the town centre. The arrival point was some 10km out of town, and tuk-tuks were on hand to shuttle us there for the set price on 20,000 Lao kip per person.
We bought our tuk-tuk tickets in an office and waited in line for our ride. Ahead of us, we saw a couple of guys hand their tickets over and get on a tuk-tuk, only to be asked to get off again because there wasn’t enough space. When they went to board another one, they were asked to show their tickets again, and having already handed them over they no longer had them. They had to buy tickets again, and did not look happy about it. Lesson learned.
Our turn finally came, and 15 minutes later we were dropped off in the middle of town just a few minutes’ walk from a hostel we’d already booked.
Making the journey independently
As I already mentioned, it is possible to make the journey without booking it through an agency, but it does involve having to book each transit as you go, which presents several possible complications. You can make the journey as follows:
- Take a bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong on the border. Buses depart at 6am from Chiang Rai bus station and cost 100 baht, which is payable on the bus (you don’t need to book beforehand).
- At Chiang Khong you then need to take a shuttle bus to the border, which costs 20 baht.
- At the border, pay your visa fees and make the crossing.
- Once you are on the Laos side, you will need to take a shuttle bus to the boat departure point at Huay Xai, which costs 20,000 Lao kip.
- You can buy a ticket for the slow boat at the pier departure point. For the whole journey to Luang Prabang you can get a ticket for 210,000 Lao kip.
At the exchange rate at the time of writing, making the journey independently costs around 1,000 baht, versus 1,650 baht to buy a package, so it does provide a significant saving if you’re happy to put up with the extra hassle.
Just to recap, here is everything you need to bring for the journey:
- US dollars in cash for your Laos visa
- Passport-sized photograph for your Laos visa
- Passport for the border crossing
- Bank card / Thai cash to get Laos currency at the border
- Warm clothes for the boat
- Entertainment: a book, laptop, playing cards
- Food: sandwiches and snacks
- Plenty of water
- Sunscreen (parts of the boat are exposed to sunshine)
The slow boat to Luang Prabang was one of our favourite long journeys of our travels. The Mekong River scenery is beautiful and there is a great social vibe along the way – the small elements of hassle were totally worth it for all of this! I wouldn’t travel from Thailand to Laos any other way.
Where to stay in Luang Prabang
We stayed for three nights at Downtown Backpackers Hostel in Luang Prabang. It’s a fairly basic hostel, but the facilities were good and it provided everything we needed. There was a good choice of breakfast options, secure lockers, decent wifi, and only a short walk to local sites of interest.
For more accommodation options in Luang Prabang, see booking.com.
For general information about transport in the country, read our guide to getting around Laos.
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