A few years ago I embarked on a lengthy yet incredible journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos. The slow boat to Luang Prabang provides a cheap and truly spectacular way for backpackers to travel from Thailand to Laos. Many travellers hit the river in search of a Luang Prabang Mekong River Cruise and, if you have the cash to splash, it is possible to do this trip in a most magnificent style.
If, however, you’re like us, then you’re a broke-ass dirtbag backpacker and need to get from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in the cheapest fashion possible. In that case, the backpacking boat of old 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…
Table of Contents
Beginning the Journey: How the hell do I get from Chiang Mai to Laos?
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 joyous varieties), Laos was the obvious next destination. I had been staying in a pretty cool hostel in Chiang Mai but the time had come and I was ready to leave. 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:
- Fork over way more money than I could afford for the fast boat to Luang Prabang which commences with a several hour minibus journey to the border and most likely culminates with extreme seasickness and what could only be described as an “Epic upchuck, brah!“. All round, that just didn’t sound like too appealing an option.
- Option 2 was the bus; the easiest and cheapest option. My hopes of bussing it was dashed, however, when the manager of my hostel in Chiang Mai informed me that this bus took a minimum of 20 hours… and that’s if the roads still 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 not even copious amounts of valium could make that bus ride a pleasant journey.
- Option 3 was to catch a plane but planes are for losers and I’m a winner.
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 minibus and slow boat to Luang Prabang. Well, it would have to do…
I booked my ticket and was promised a “luxury Luang Prabang 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 minibus would collect me from my hostel in Chiang Mai and bring me to the border town where a private room was waiting as well as dinner, breakfast, and a packed lunch. They’d then shuffle me off to immigration, and plop me on the slow boat to Laos.
Day 1 of the Luxury Luang Prabang Mekong River Cruise: Minibus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong – 6 Hours, 2 Stops, 0 Valium
The bus arrived (eventually) and we all crammed in. There wasn’t enough room for everyone’s bags in the back so some were smushed in-between the seats with that trademark graceful Thai elegance. I was lucky enough to get a spot near the front and that granted me ample legroom but I’m not so sure everyone else was as cosy.
After a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch as well as a much needed toilet break. We hopped back in the minibus and headed for Chiang Rai. There’s this rather eerie and unique white temple (Wat Rong Khun) there so the buses tend to stop en route to the border.
Following a brief visit to the temple, we continued on 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. Praise be the buffet gods!
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. Considering how much I’d already dropped on this journey, and how ridiculously long I was going to be sitting on a boat, I splurged. Sometimes it’s good to treat yo’self.
Day 2 of the Luxury Luang Prabang Mekong River Cruise: 8.5 hours, The Slow Boat to Laos, Southeast Asian Bureaucracy
We departed our hostel by minibus at 8:30 A.M. 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 and paying in USD should get you a flat rate.
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 (oh, Southeast Asia), but at least we had stocked up. On we went at last to the slow boat that to Luang Prabang in Laos.
The Slow Boat to 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. Protip: sit as close to the front as possible; 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 and 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 beer and snacks. Though we had no common language, we managed to communicate in smiles and laughter. It was wonderful.
The Town of Pak Beng
The boat stopped a couple of times in the middle of goddamn 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, 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 Laos slow boats.
“Which way are the bars?”
He pointed, and we continued on our merry way through the empty streets until we found the bar. Don’t be mistaken – there is one single bar, so you better like it. Luckily, it was an 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”. This was my kind of bar.
Day 3 of the Luxury Luang Prabang Mekong River Cruise: Pak Beng to Luang Prabang – The Final 8 Hours
We headed for the boat at 8:30 A.M. to score some seats before the 9 A.M. departure. No one forewarned us of the departure time but fortunately, my friends had received an email detailing the time of departure so I followed their lead.
We were a tad disappointed upon boarding when we realised 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, lucky I can swim.
The day carried on much like the first though it dragged on a tad with the longer boat journey. 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 simply to use the boat as their shop before frolicking away happily with a cup of noodles.
On we (slowly) floated 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. Protip #2: 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.
Often, the hard journey makes the reward so much sweeter.
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.
If you’re planning on taking the journey – Broke Backpacker style – then I got some rad tips to keep you sailing smoothly
- Shop around to be sure to find the best price for the boat. Haggling will go a long way when picking up your ticket.
- 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.
- I know I just wrote an absolutely sickbiscuits guide (and adventure piece) on taking the slow boat from Chang Mai to Luang Prabang, but maybe you don’t want to spend 3 days crossing the Southeastern jungles. In that case, I’d recommend using 12Go. These guys are excellent for booking tickets in Asia on any form of transport and you get to skip the bartering phase if that’s not your cup of Lao Lao.
When you’re ready to travel to Luang Prabang, forgo buying tickets at Chiang Mai and book them online instead! You can now book transport in advance for most of Asia using 12Go and doing so can really save you some stress (and maybe money, too).
Get Insured Before Travelling from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai
Things happen – that’s part of travelling! Maybe you fall in (remember the life jacket situation). Maybe your bag falls in and you’re stranded in Laos with only the clothes on your back.
When that happens, how are you gonna buy a second pair of underwear? Things are starting to look grim… Have no fear: enter World Nomads!
Shoutout from Will – The OG Broke Backpacker and Bear Spotter: Have fun on your backpacking adventure, but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
Find out why I recommend World Nomad: check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
A Final Note of Inspiration on the Chang Mai to Luang Prabang Slow Boat
Do it. Seriously.
That line I said before – often, the hard journey makes the reward so much sweeter – it’s so true. It doesn’t matter whether it’s three days down the Mekong River, hitchhiking across Iran, or a thru-hike across the Appalachian Mountains… A journey is a goddamn journey!
I could give you some Confucian-ass proverb about journeys and the destination. Or some Frost-ian prose about the road not taken. But I won’t. I’ll give you some proper dirtbag gypsy advice.
After a journey like this, the spliff at the end always tastes so yummier. You know why?
Because you earned it.
So sit back, light up, crack a beer and enjoy the ride. That’s the whole point of travelling. Sometimes, your ass has gotta hurt.
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Need more inspiration?
- Backpacking Southeast Asia
- Southeast Asia Packing List
- Backpacking Thailand
- Best Hostels in Thailand
- Backpacking Laos
- Backpacking Cambodia
- Adventure Packing list
- Backpacking Packing List
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Writer and hustler. Adventurer and vagabond. Master of the handstand pushup. Conqueror of mountains, survivor of deserts and crusader for cheap escapades. Will has been on the road for nine years, travelling to far-flung lands on a budget. Today, he runs a number of online ventures. He is passionate about teaching others how to ditch their desks, hit the road and achieve real freedom by earning money online. Currently, Will is based in Bali where he plans to open his first Tribal Hostel in 2019.