A few years ago I embarked on a lengthy yet totally amazing journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos. The slow boats between Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang provide a cheap, truly incredible way for backpackers to travel from Thailand to Laos. Many travellers hit the river in search of a Mekong River Cruise and, if you have cash to splash, it is possible to do this trip in truly incredible style. If however, like us, you’re a broke backpacker then the slow boat is the way to go… Check out this in-depth trip report to find out everything you need to know about travelling from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang via the mighty Mekong River…
My visa was set to run out in Thailand, and after the many tales I’d heard of the delectable happy pizzas (and happy pancakes, and happy foods of all varieties), Laos was the obvious next destination. At first, I figured it would be pretty simple; hop on a bus in Chiang Mai, pop a few valium, and wake up in Luang Prabang. Easy.
I was presented with three options to transport me to this delightful land: 1) I could fork over way more money than I could afford for the fast boat (which would commence with a several hour minibus journey to the border), which tends to cause extreme sea sickness. All round, that just didn’t sound too great. Option 2) was the bus, which I had fully intended on catching, being the easiest and cheapest option. This was quickly shut down when the manager at my hostel in Chiang Mai informed me that this bus took a minimum of 20 hours – and that’s if the roads existed. Apparently, the roads in Laos have a tendency to wash away in the rainy season, making for a long and arduous journey. Meanwhile, a friend chimed in that despite being heavily sedated on valium, she could feel every damn bump when she made the journey.
The slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
There was one somewhat affordable option left: the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. This meant a three day journey by mini bus and boat to reach Luang Prabang. Well, it would have to do… I booked my ticket and was promised a luxury Mekong River Cruise by a toothless guy with a sarcastic smile… I proceeded to envision the worst as I prepared myself for the upcoming journey. For 1800 baht (about $50 USD) a mini bus would collect me from my hostel, bring me to the border town where a private room as well as dinner, breakfast, and a packed lunch was included, shuffle me off to immigration, and plop me on the slow boat to Laos.
Day 1 – Mini Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong – 6 hours with two stops
The bus arrived (eventually), and we all crammed in. There wasn’t enough room for everyone’s bags in the back, so some were packed in between the seats. I was lucky enough to get a spot near the front that granted me ample leg room, but I’m not so sure everyone was quite so cosy.
After a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch as well as a much needed toilet break. We hopped back in the mini bus and headed for Chiang Rai. There’s this rather eerie and unique white temple there, so the buses tend to stop en route to the border. Sadly, we were only given 20 minutes to explore, and with the crowds of tourists paired with the great amount of detail to examine, it wasn’t really enough time to fully discover the temple. Still, to have this included in the bus trip was definitely a win.
On we continued until we reached Chiang Khong, the Thai border town. From what I’ve gathered, different companies will bring you to different hostels, and I’ve read some pretty sour reviews of the night’s accommodation. Fortunately, there were no nasty surprises at my hostel, and the free dinner was delicious. I may have had seconds. Perhaps thirds. I’m not saying. Vegetarians rejoice – all three meals were either vegetarian, or there was a vegetarian option.
There was a pile of cushions wrapped in plastic at the reception area, with a sign underneath: “40 baht – good for slow boat!” I’d read that the slow boat is nearly always overbooked, causing many people to have to sit on the floor, and some of the boats have wooden benches with no cushions. Knowing how much I’d already dropped on this journey, and how ridiculously long I was going to be sitting on a boat, I splurged to keep my ass nice and comfy – a splurge that cost me about $1.
Day 2 – From Chiang Khong to Pak Beng – 8.5 hours including immigration
We departed our hostel by mini bus at 8:30 am en route to immigration. After having our passports stamped out of Thailand, we caught a bus (25 baht – not included in total fees) to Laos immigration. There we filled out some forms, handed our passports over, and patiently waited to pay the visa on arrival fee. The price varies from country to country but tends to be between $35 and $43 USD. Apparently paying in US dollars is cheaper than paying in either Thai baht or Laos kip, which seemed rather counterintuitive.
Our group caught a taxi (included in the tour price) to the dock, with a stop on the way at a small shop. There we were told that there wouldn’t be any snacks nor beer on the boat, so we should buy them now. This was a blatant lie, and the prices were steeper than on the boat, but at least we had stocked up. On we went to at last reach the boat that would transport us to Luang Prabang in Laos.
The boat’s seats were far from the wooden benches I had read about; we were fortunate enough to be sat upon car seats for the journey, which was rather cosy. There was room for everyone to sit, though some seats were added in the engine room and at the back of the boat. Tip: sit as close to the front as possible, as the motor is bloody noisy.
By noon we were off the boat filled with grinning faces as they cracked open their beers and bottles of whisky. We were all ready to party and make new friends – a far cry from my normal silent bus journeys.
Smokers rejoice! Smoking is permitted in the back of the boat, so the smokers don’t go insane, and the non-smokers don’t get murdered by the nicotine deprived smokers. At one point I went to the back for a cheeky smoke. There were five people from Laos sitting on car seats in the back, and they proceeded to feed me and hand me beer after beer. Though we had no common language, we managed to communicate in smiles and laughter. It was wonderful, and whatever the pastries were that I was given, damn they were delicious.
The boat stopped a couple of times in the middle of god damn nowhere – not a hut nor a human to be seen. Still, a person or two would hop on or off at every stop to go who-knows-where. Finally, around 5 pm we docked in Pak Beng.
As the swarms of travellers offloaded from the boat, people approached us to sell us rooms for the night. I had made friends with two other travellers on the boat, so we opted for a three bed room at 30,000 kips each (around $4). After feasting on some delicious Indian cuisine, I was already missing the scorpions on a stick from Khao San Road, and making a couple of new friends, we thought it was time to grab some more drinks.
We approached a man on the street of this tiny town, which I can only imagine earns all of its revenue through the slow boats. “Which way are the bars?” He pointed, and we continued on our merry way through the empty streets (wondering where on earth the rest of the boat party could be) until we found the bar. Don’t be mistaken – there is one single bar, so you better like it. Luckily, it was a damn awesome open air bar, the menu of which included cocktails, shots, beers, shisha, and joints. Yep, right there on the menu was listed “Happy Smoking”. It was my kind of bar.
Day 3 – From Pak Beng to Luang Prabang – 8 hours
We headed for the boat at 8:30 am to score some seats before the 9 am departure. No one had announced as we left the boat the prior evening when we were departing in the morning, nor was it written anywhere. Fortunately, my friends had received an email detailing the time of departure, so I followed their lead.
We were a tad disappointed upon boarding, realising that there were two boats. Everyone we had met the previous day was on the other boat, grinning and ready to get back on the booze. Our boat was mellow, filled mostly with 40 and 50-somethings.
I glanced around, noticing the pathetic life jacket situation; there was about one for every two people. Well, good thing I can swim.
The day carried on much like the first, though it dragged on a tad with the longer boat journey. The boat periodically stopped here and there in the middle of nowhere to pick up locals. I couldn’t help but scour the landscape, dreaming of hopping off the boat and pitching my tent on a sandy riverbank away from the world. I watched a group of locals approach the boat at one stop, not to board, but to simply use the boat as their shop, frolicking away happily with a cup of noodles.
On we trekked until at last, we reached our destination. We were 10 kilometres outside of Luang Prabang and caught a taxi into town. There we were approached by several people attempting to sell us a room in their guesthouses, and after some bartering, we managed to score a lift and some rooms. A word to the wise: the accommodation closer to town is much pricier, so you’re better off a bit further away.
And so concluded the three day adventure upon the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang upon the truly gorgeous Mekong River – A journey which I had been dreading at first. Weirdly, as soon as it was over I was ready to hop back on that glorious slow boat, crack another beer, and enjoy some more sights.
To find out more about all the cool shit you can do in Luang Prabang, check out this guide.
Top Tips for the boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
This is hands down one of the most iconic journeys upon the backpacker pancake trail in Southeast Asia and is a great way to get cheaply from Thailand to Laos whilst also taking in some truly striking scenery.
The main tip’s here are pretty simple…
Firstly, shop around to be sure to find the best price – haggling will go a long way when picking up your ticket for the boat.
Take supplies so that you’re not hungry or caught out without beer or smokes whilst on the boat.
Take a dry bag to keep your electrical gadgets ultra safe whilst riding upon the high waves.
If you’re already in Laos, it’s possible to do this journey in reverse – travelling from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai.
Sit back, crack open a beer and enjoy the ride…
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