Laos was a country we had done almost next to no research on before we left the UK and after a month travelling in Thailand, we were almost working solely from the recommendations of those around us.
Among those recommendations was travelling from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai or Chiang Khong in the North of Thailand, down the Mekong River, to Luang Prabang in Laos on a traditional style slow boat.
Boats, as you may or may not know, are not really my friend, and so the prospect of spending two days on a boat was more than just daunting to me. But, hearing absolutely nothing negative about the journey, we decided to go for it. I even packed myself around 30 motion sickness tablets just as a precaution (which I didn’t need), and the journey ended up being one of the highlights of our three month trip.
How it works
First of all, I’m just going to make it clear that this is not two days and a night solid on a boat as I had initially considered.
No. Instead, you must first drive to Chiang Khong to cross the border over to Huang Xai in Laos (have your passport sized photo and $30 USD ready), and then start your two day boat journey from there. Then, in the evening, the boat will stop in Pak Beng for the night so you can rest your weary sea legs on dry land (phew).
All of the above can be organised by the majority of travel agents or hostels in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai or Luang Prabang for around 2,100 Thai Baht (not including the accommodation in Pak Beng or the visa costs), and, though it sounds a nightmare on paper, it is surpringly organised compared to a number of other journeys we have taken in the region, and completely worth it.
Starting the Journey: Our route out of Thailand
Our particular journey started in Chiang Mai and was actually two nights and three days overall, including a half an hour stop to see the famous white temple in Chiang Rai and a one night rest stop in Chiang Khong before crossing the border into Laos.
Taking around six hours to drive from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, we were incredibly grateful for the stops provided and were glad to have a night of recovery before tackling the border in the morning. While not the most stressful of land border crossings, it’s definitely not something you want to be doing tired and agitated so if you have the time and the opportunity, take a break – I promise you’ll thank me after.
Chiang Rai is also worth a quick stop for if time isn’t against you. Despite being a relatively quiet town, it’s completely white temple is an Instagrammer’s dream and breathtaking in it’s complex structures and intricacies, it’s worth that little detour for even just a peek over the fence.
Following the Mekong River: Travelling on the Boat
After walking across the border, we were dropped at the town’s small port which has only one small restaurant/shop and a single ATM.
This stop is crucial as now is the time where you get some Laos currency and stock up on snack supplies if you haven’t already. Buying food, beers and other drinks to take on with you is essential as you are limited to only a few bottles of water or BeerLaos and noodle pots on board, all of which you buy for premium price. This is also a LONG journey and if you’re unprepared you’ll definitely know about it quickly.
On board, it’s safe to say that the views from the boat are beyond stunning, and it’s worth taking the journey just to spend the two days taking pictures and staring at the peaceful wilderness around you.
Of course, peace and beautiful views are what you’d expect travelling along the Mekong River, but what we didn’t actually expect was the amazing friends we made, the copious amount of beer we drank and the great atmosphere that was created in just those two days.
Even though 8 hours a day on a boat is a long time, we spent the majority of it chatting, drinking and playing cards with other travellers – a number of whom we travelled with for a while after – and it ended up going pretty quickly. I didn’t even need any of my sickness tablets in the end.
While views are amazing, this is definitely what makes the journey an unforgettable experience for any traveller.
Stopping for the night: Pak Beng
As the first day on the boat drew to a close and we came into land, we were very much left in the dark as to what our stop for the night entailed and what sort of place this was going to be.
Here, I would encourage you to exercise some caution. Pak Beng is a very small town with limited options and some accommodation owners will use this to their advantage and are known to drive up prices on arrival or offer rooms that are neither safe nor clean. If the opportunity is there for you to book in advance, this is definitely something to consider.
Though there are some oddities, the majority of people are friendly and there are even a couple of bars where you can get a few cheap drinks, play some pool and wind down with fellow travellers before the next long day of travel.
Arriving in Luang Prabang (sort of)
At the end of the two days, as we finally reached Luang Prabang, we were almost sad that the journey was ending. What we failed to realise though, is that the slow boat is unable to land in the city, but instead drops you 3km outside in the middle of nowhere and so we still had a another journey to arrange undertake (something else not included in the price)
As with any tourist hotspot in Asia however, we were spoilt for choice with the number of Tuk Tuks waiting to take weary backpackers into the centre of town and so it’s a simply journey. The only issue here though is settling on a price that isn’t rediculous.
A TukTuk into the centre of Luang Prabang should cost you around 20,000 Laos Kip each and if you’re not afraid to haggle you could get it for cheaper, or (even better) get them to take you to your hostel door. Otherwise, they’ll just drop you in the centre.
So, should you do it?
Yes! If you have time to spare in your travels, it’s definitely a really individual opportunity not to be missed and is 100x better than taking the bus.
My top tips for two days of slow boat survival:
- Bring snacks, drinks, US dollars for the border and a passport sized photo (also for the border).
- Book your accommodation in advance (with the company you book with or on the boat).
- Be careful of children selling jewellery and other items on the river banks. While super cute, if people continue to buy from them, they will continue not going to school. Be kind, but firm.
- As always, be aware of what and who is around you.
- Don’t be afraid to bargain with TukTuk drivers for a fair price into town.
- Be chatty and friendly with those around you!
Have you taken the slow boat to Luang Prabang before? If you have any tips or questions I’d love to hear from you!
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