Before I started really planning a trip to Southeast Asia, I only knew a few things I definitely wanted to do on my first trip: go to the Lantern Festival, eat spicy noodles, see elephants up close for the first time in my life, and spend two days on a slow boat traveling down the Mekong River.
Although slow boat isn’t the quickest way to travel from Thailand to Laos, it is cheap and easily the most breathtaking route you can take. The experience is meditative, humbling and one that you won’t get on any other form of transportation.
The main thing I want to stress about embarking on this two day journey, is that you can absolutely do it all on your own. There were people trying to sell me slow boat tickets at every turn, especially the closer I got to the border, but stand your ground, don’t get discouraged, and follow these simple steps.
Departing from Chiang Rai
My first recommendation is to spend the night in Chiang Rai and plan on getting an early start on the first day of your journey to Laos. I found Chiang Rai to be a little boring, so make sure you have a plan of what you’d like to see or take a later bus in to limit your time there.
The closer you stay to the bus station the better. There are plenty of options to choose from that are cheap, clean, and just about a five minute walk from Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1.
Plan on taking the first bus out at 6:30 am to Hua Xin/Chiang Khong. (Side note: check out with your hostel the night before if they don’t have anyone at the front desk that early.)
This bus will cost you 65 baht, which you can pay on the bus and takes about 3 hours.
The bus was filled with a bunch of locals and I was almost unsure if we got on the right one. It’s always smart to let the bus driver know what your final destination is. The bus lets you off on the side of the road near border control, you will start seeing signs for it.
Once you get off the bus, you have to take a Tuk Tuk the rest of the way (for the two of us we paid 50 baht each) – we didn’t even try to haggle this price so it is up to you if you want to try or not.
The Tuk Tuk will drop you off right in front of border control.
Border Control and Visa on Arrival
You can bring everything you need for your Visa on arrival, but I want to tell you that I didn’t have anything prepared and still made it through easily. However, It’s always smarter to come prepared.
Prepare ahead of time for border crossing by having one passport photo and $35 in US currency. I was told that it needed to be in US dollars (which I didn’t have) but border control agents accepted Laos Kip for my Visa (300,000 kip or $36).
I paid a small fee (10,000 kip or $1.20) for not having the photo. You can withdraw Kip from one of the ATMs on site or even use Thai Baht you have left.
Once you’re done getting your Visa, you’ll be able to buy a ticket for the slow boat which is scheduled to depart at 11:00. At this point there is only one option for purchasing your ticket.
At the time I traveled it was 1,200 baht (about $37) per person for the bus ride, tuk tuk and boat ride to Luang Prabang. This is the cheapest you’ll find.
Purchase the ticket, wait for the bus, at this point the journey is pretty self explanatory.
Time at this point can feel a little stressful but in my experience, the boats won’t leave without you if you’re through border control at a reasonable time before departure. Our boat departed at noon.
There is a stop before you get on the boat where you can order fresh made sandwiches for the boat ride and any other snacks or drinks you’d like. The boat I was on had toilets on deck and sold beer and other snacks and soft drinks at reasonable prices.
Sit back and enjoy the beautiful and relaxing scenery that lines the Mekong River. This journey they estimate to take up to 8 hours, we made it in about 6.
Staying the night in Pakbeng
The slow boat stops for the night in Pakbeng, a tiny one-horse river town that has an abundance of mediocre rooms and restaurants.
There is no need to book a room ahead of time, even though there will be a tour advisor that will ride with you from border control to the boat who will insist that you need to book a room in advance because it’s “high tourist season.”
You don’t, and you should always be wary of the phrase high tourist season.
Once you get off the boat in Pakbeng just head immediately up the hill and down the main road and stop at the first place with an available vacancy. If I can offer any advice here, don’t be picky.
I stayed at Dockhoun Guesthouse. It was clean, had hot water and cost 100,000 kip (about $12) for a private room with private bathroom and was a close walk back to the boat in the morning.
Have a bite to eat in one of the local restaurants and go to bed early. There isn’t much else to do in Pakbeng.
Day two on the slow boat
The boat leaves on day two at about 9:30am. Get there as early as you can. Have your guesthouse make you another sandwich for the boat ride or stop at one of the street vendors near the boat dock.
It’s pretty easy to navigate this part. We confirmed the boat departure time with our guesthouse, had a quick breakfast and got to the boat around 8:15. If you’re able to get there even earlier you might be able to snag a seat with an outlet for charging devices. This trip takes 7-9 hours and there is no Wi-Fi on the boat.
Arriving in Laos
Once you dock in Luang Prabang, there is only one option for a tuk tuk into the city center and it’s 20,000 kip per person. There really is no use trying to haggle this price.
Before you get on the tuk tuk, let the driver know where you’re staying if you have already reserved a room. If it’s close to the city center, they will most likely drop you there. Otherwise you’ll get dropped off near the night market and you can easily look for a room from there.
I always like to have a room booked for at least the first night that I am in a new city. Then I decide from there how long I’d like to stay and if I like the area that I’m staying in. Most importantly I like to know that the room I booked is clean and in a safe area before I commit to more than one night in a hostel.
The entire two day process to get to Luang Prabang is pretty painless and seriously beautiful. If you have the time to travel this way, it isn’t an experience you will forget.