Slow Boat from Thailand to Luang Prabang
Two days on a long wooden boat cruising down one of the world’s great waterways—Read all about our experience.
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I’m David. Since 2010, my wife, Lori, and I have been sharing our travel stories with the world over at AwayGoWe.com. PlacesApart.com is the next evolution of that project. Enjoy the journey!
November 2017, Vientiane, Laos
Taking the “slow boat” from Chiang Kong—on the Laos-Thailand border—to Luang Prabang—one of the great heritage cities of Southeast Asia—is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes you the natural and cultural wonders of the Mighty Mekong in relative comfort over two days.
Being something of a purist (read: masochist) when I travel, I was a bit disappointed to learn that current boats plying this route are quite comfortable and touristic. Nevertheless, this journey still remains one of the top transport highlights of our time living and traveling through Southeast Asia. Really, how often to you get to spend two days floating down one of the world’s great rivers with no responsibility but to take it all in?
Arranging Our Trip from Chiang Mai
We opted to arrange travel from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos via the Mekong River through a travel agent in Chiang Mai. Contrary to logic, this seemed to be the most common way of doing the slow boat from the Thai border rather than trying to piece everything together yourself. We usually prefer to travel independently, but in this instance it seemed to make sense to purchase a joint ticket in which all transport and first night of lodging was arranged via the travel agent.
Here’s a quick rundown of our joint ticket itinerary from from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang:
DAY 1 — Departed guesthouse in Chiang Mai around 11am; stopped at a cashew factory store for lunch (local food) and the White Palace in Chiang Rai for 30-40 minutes; Arrived in the border town of Chiang Khong around 3-4pm; Dinner at guesthouse and overnight stay in Chiang Khong.
DAY 2 — Ate breakfast at 7am and departed guesthouse between 9-10am for the ferry to cross the river to Laos; Crossed river to Huay Xai, Laos; bought visa just up the road and passed through Laos immigration; Departed on river boat to Pakbeng around noon. Arrived in Pakbeng around 5pm and secured our accommodation for the night (not included in joint ticket).
DAY 3 — Departed Pakbeng around 9am, arrived in Luang Prabang around 4pm.
There are a couple of things worth noting regarding the itinerary above.
For one, times listed here are actual times, not the times we were told, which is important given that we were told something very different than what actually took place. For example, we were told that would be picked up in Chiang Mai between 10 and 10:30, but it ended up being closer to 11:30 and some of our crew had to wait until noon as our minivan made its rounds picking other passengers up. The agent also told us that the slow boat would leave Huy Xai at 9am, but it was in fact closer to noon.
The boat basically leaves when the boat leaves. I wouldn’t believe anyone who says otherwise.
We were also told that it would take seven hours to get from Huy Xai to Pakbeng on the first day, and 10 hours to get from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang on the second day. This was a drastic over-estimation but we actually think this had to do with the speed of the river this time of year (it was late October and right on the heels of the rainy season—very high and very fast with the current).
Something else to take into consideration is that, regardless of being called the “slow boat” it can be quite the speedy trip, especially if it is the rainy season and the waters are running high. This time of year, I wouldn’t take the boat expecting a mind-numbing lazy amble down the mighty river. We found the boat refreshingly swift, yet never felt it was anything close to dangerous.
I think the main reason it is called the slow boat is to differentiate it from the other travel option: the very aptly named “fast boat” which we saw on a number of occasions buzzing by at lightning speed dodging barely visible boulders, logs, and other craziness. The fast boat covers the same amount of distance as the two-day slow boat journey but in a matter of hours. However, the time saved comes at a price and Pakbeng is full of people with tales to tell of grizzly accidents.
Turns out, both camps were correct.
The day we departed from Huay Xai, two boats made the journey. We were on the first boat, which was outfitted entirely with seats transplanted straight from a couple dozen minivans. They were indeed quite comfortable and far more luxurious than we had expected. However, the second boat, which left right after us, was not outfitted in this way—most of those passengers made the journey on wooden benches or even on the floor.
Not sure of which type of seating we could expect—and being the chronically frugal travelers we are—we thought we’d split the difference and buy one cushion that we both could share back and forth (they were sold at our guesthouse in Chiang Khong). As we found ourselves with comfy seats on the second day as well, we didn’t end up needing the cushion after all. But my feeling on the matter is that as long as guesthouses are selling the cushions in Huy Xai then there’s a chance that some of the boats running the route are still outfitted with wooden benches.
Something else worth noting is that we were given assigned seat numbers on our tickets. While there were handwritten numbers on small pieces of paper laid out on many of the seats the first day of travel, many of the other passengers did not have assigned seats and no one seemed to pay any attention to the pieces of paper. We were some of the last passengers on the first boat out, but weren’t concerned about our seating options because we believed we had assigned seats. By the time we boarded, the pieces of paper had been shuffled all around and we got stuck up in the least desirable seats on the boat—facing each at the very front of the long boat.
Being the last to board did have one big advantage—our luggage went into the overflow room where it was easily accessible while the rest were buried under a hatch. This meant that we had a head start on securing accommodation when the boat arrived in Pakbeng and everyone else had to wait for their luggage to be unearthed.
Lies, Filthy Lies!
Consistent with nearly all joint-ticket transport we’ve arranged through travel agents in Thailand, we again felt that we had been categorically lied to and deceived. With that said, given the low price and relative ease of getting from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, we would do it all over again.
However, if you are planning to book the trip through a travel agent, there are some common untruths to be aware of:
#1, Lunch is included. **FALSE** The joint-ticket generally covers dinner on Day 1 and breakfast on Day 2. Depending on the company, they may also give you a small muffin and a juice box for a snack. If they tell you that you get a lunch, this is said lunch. Plan accordingly.
#2, Times are set in stone. **FALSE** Take all times given to you with a grain of salt. Factor in +/- 2 hours.
#3, Boats only have hard wooden bench seats. **FALSE** Don’t necessarily believe your fixer/guide when s/he tells you the boats all of bench seats while s/he is holding a cushion for sale in his hand. Yes, the cushion is insurance, but out of all of the passengers we talked to only a small minority ended up on the boat with benches. If it’s low season, chances are good you’ll have comfy seats.
#4, Budget lodging in Pakbeng is booked up tonight. **FALSE** Somebody at some point will probably tell you that all of the budget guesthouses in Pakbeng (the halfway stopover on the Mekong) fill up fast, or better yet, that they are already full! Then they will probably tell you that the only accommodation choice you’ll have are expensive hotels which cost $50+ USD per night — so naturally you should pre-book with him/her at Guesthouse A or B to avoid disappointment. DON’T FALL FOR IT!!! They will charge you two to three times the going rate and you will not have a problem securing accommodation. Pakbeng is chock full of dozens of budget guesthouses and have far more rooms than even the busiest nights’ worth of passengers can take. Don’t bother booking ahead, just get off the boat and head to your guesthouse of choice, or do like we did and take a stroll up the main road and check out a few for yourself. Granted, if you have a strong preference you should try and be first off the boat, but even our place, which was a top pick, never filled up completely with over 120 passengers from two boats arriving that evening.
#5, No food or drink available for purchase on the boat. **FALSE** your fixer/guide may also tell you that there is no food or drink available for sale on the boat. While the selection was limited and prices were a bit steeper than land-based shops, our boat had snacks, noodles, baguette, and a full bar with water, beer, soda, coffee, and hard liquor in the rear. We do recommend bringing lunch and snacks which can easily be purchased at any of the small shops and restaurants on the main drag in Chiang Khong or Huy Xai and there are also a couple of nice bakeries in Pakbeng on the main road.
#6, There is no official place to change money in Huy Xai before immigration. **FALSE** there is an official money exchange kiosk in the same building as the visa office. This one is a flat-out lie.
#7, There are assigned seats on the boat. **FALSE** We already covered this above. As far as we could tell, there was a half-ass attempt to assign seats for some individuals but the system is extremely flawed. In a nutshell, chances are you will probably get a seat but it might not the one that was “assigned” to you. There is also a slight chance that you will find yourself sitting on the floor on one of the two days. Our understanding is that this is rare, but it happened to a girl we talked to who spent an extra day in Pakbeng and had arrived there the day before we did.
1600 baht per person (~$54 USD) — Joint ticket including transport from Chiang Mai guesthouse to Chiang Khong guesthouse via minibus; ferry from Chiang Khong to Huy Xai; River boat from Huy Xai to Luang Prabang via Pakbeng; 1 night accommodation in Chiang Khong; Dinner on Day 1 and Breakfast on Day 2 (and possibly a small snack).
150 baht ($5) — Double room for two people at Donevilasack Guesthouse (walk-in).
80 baht ($2.50) — Noodle and chicken lunch at cashew factory.
10,000 Kip ($1.20) — large bottle of water on the boat
20,000 Kip ($2.40) — BeerLao beer on the boat