There are many articles giving advice on how to travel from Thailand to Laos by slow boat but very few cover going the other way so I decided to write this short piece to help those who, like me, chose to do things backwards!
If the idea of paying over £100 for a flight, or sitting in a small sleeper bus designed for Asian-sized people for 16+ hours, doesn’t appeal then there is a cheaper, more comfortable and hopefully more enjoyable way to travel between Luang Prabang and northern Thailand, particularly Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai.
Every day a small fleet of boats travel along the Mekong River shuttling tourists and locals between towns and countries, and it is easier than you think to hop on board and relax as you float along the river passing between mountains and jungles whilst seeing a small part of local Laos life.
The trip involves two days on a slow boat, with an overnight stop on land on Day 1, before arriving at the Thai/Laos border in the evening of Day 2..
Once you’ve crossed the border you can either carry on by private transport (more on this later) or spend the night and catch a bus in the morning to your final stop.
The boats cost 110,000KIP each day and you can either book ahead with your hostel or tour company for a little extra, typical costs between 275-300,000 KIP (around £25 or $33 at time of writing) including hostel tuktuk pickup and transfer to the pier on the first day, or make your own way to the slow boat pier which is 5km out the city and get your ticket on the day.
In high season, or for those who like an easier life, I’d advise to book with someone before hand. It only adds 50-70,000 KIP (about £5) to the price and you get the guarantee of someone picking you and your luggage up from the hostel, taking you to the right place, tickets for the boats on both days and instructions on which boat to get on.
A private tuktuk will set you back around this anyway but you can save a few KIP if you’re on an extreme budget!
I am told that the pier used to be in the city centre but it was moved away to allow tuktuk drivers to make more money, I don’t know how true that is but it wouldn’t surprise me!
I stayed at the Chitlatda Central Bila House in Luang Prabang and they offered the slow boat ticket, including transfer, for 275,000 which was the cheapest price I saw.
Note you’ll see it advertised as slow boat to Huay Xai, this is the Laos border town which the boats will take you to. You then need to arrange your own onward transfer to your Thai destination but this is covered later in the article.
If you are making your own way to the pier aim to arrive around 8am to get a ticket and find the right boat. If you have booked a package then your driver should get you there on time and point you in the direction of the correct boat.
Make sure they provide you with 2 tickets, one for today and the second one for the boat tomorrow!
All the boats are different and have varying levels of comfort but generally the seating will be made of reused car seats bolted to blocks of wood which are not secured. You can move them around to create the best seating area for your group and you don’t have to worry about using the seatbelts! Both boats I was on had plenty of life jackets and seemed in good condition.
There will hopefully be a toilet and on the two boats I used were in a decent state, although one didn’t have any toilet paper so you may wish to bring your own!
A small amount of food and drink may be for sale but I would recommend picking up some snacks and lunch before you go. Some hotels and hostels will put something together for you if you ask the day before otherwise a perfect excuse to stock up at the night market on your last night.
When you board the boat you’ll be directed to store your large baggage somewhere and then claim a seat. You definitely want to be near the front as the engine in the back can be exceptionally loud on some boats.
I am told this is the less popular route for travellers and when I went it was around a 50/50 split of backpackers and locals.
I was lucky enough to find a great group of travellers on the first day and the 10 hour journey passed relatively quickly taking in the views and chatting as we travelled along the river.
Occasionally the boat will head over to the river banks and find an unremarkable group of rocks, or random outcropping, and a local will jump from the boat and make their way into the jungle, presumably towards a village just out of view. Don’t worry about spotting the rock for your stop, you’ll be carrying on to the end of the line!
The first day is around 90 miles and took me about 10 hours and you’ll be spending the night at Pakbeng.
I have heard differing accounts about the availability of people offering places to stay on arrival however when I arrived there were plenty of guesthouses on offer. I stayed at Thip Phavan Guesthouse which was reasonably priced (relative to other prices in Pakbeng which knows it has a captive audience) and ate dinner at Sabaidee with the group I had met on the boat.
Once again you can ask your guesthouse to make you a lunch for the boat the next day, I was able to get a pork with rice dish and a selection of mixed fresh fruits for £3 which, whilst relatively expensive for South East Asia, is much better than price for instant noodles on the boat the first day!
The next day head back to the boat pier around 8am, making sure you haven’t lost your ticket if you bought the package, and find the right boat to get you to the border.
The locals will happily direct you if you ask for Huay Xai but the people actually in charge of the boat may not speak any English so if you want to make sure you’re going to the right place show them this:
Once happy you are on the right boat sit back and relax as you start the second 90 mile trip up the Mekong. You’ll be on this boat for around 9-10 hours too so you may wish to bring a book or some games with you.
As you float by the town on the way to the slow boat pier in Huay Xai you’ll pass underneath the Friendship Bridge which acts as the border crossing between Laos and Thailand, replacing the previous ferry service.
There is limited, and contradictory, information online about when the Laos/Thai Friendship Bridge border crossing is open between Huay Xai (Laos) and Chiang Khong (Thailand).
We arrived in Huay Xai a little after 6pm and some websites said the border would be closed at this time. We spoke to the tuktuk drivers who were waiting to drive the new boat arrivals and they confirmed it would be open and it seemed to be that it would be open until 9 or 10pm.
Despite our group of 7 people, who had all met on the boats over the last two days, all wanting to cross the border the tuktuk drivers were unwilling to haggle over price; likely fully aware we had no real options otherwise. It seemed there was a default price of 20,000 KIP per person (about £1.75) to get to the border crossing.
At the border there is a $1 fee for leaving Laos after 4:30pm which you can pay in KIP, USD or Baht.
You cannot cross the bridge on foot and so have to pay another $1 for the shuttle bus. The counter that sells you the shuttle bus ticket can also exchange any remaining Laos money into Baht for a fair exchange rate.
On the Thai side there is no fee on arrival if you are from a country given a visa free waiver but make sure you fill in the arrival form properly as some of our group got sent to the back of the queue for missing out some (originally considered unimportant) information.
Once through there was a taxi and private transport service offering rides to downtown Chiang Khong (the Thai town on the border) or further towards Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
You can also use an ATM at the entrance to the Thai border post to withdraw some Baht if you haven’t already. It will charge you 220baht (nearly £6!) to withdraw from a foreign card but even when I tried to do it later in town and in Chiang Mai the ATMs charged the same so you may as well suck it up and withdraw as much as you think you’ll need for the entire stay in Thailand to limit the damage on multiple withdrawals.
If you’re heading to Chiang Rai you may wish to just use the private minibus if there is a big enough group of you from the boat. It costs 4,500 baht (£115) but if split between enough this will be cheaper than getting transport into town, paying accommodation and getting a bus in the morning. The drive takes around 1 and a half hours and means you’ll have the full day in Chiang Rai the next day.
If you’re heading to Chiang Mai you can also get a private shuttle but it is more expensive and the drive is around 5+ hours so depending on the time you cross the border (we didn’t get to the shuttle service until gone 7pm) you may not feel up to another several hour trip. I certainly didn’t.
Instead I got a tuktuk into Chiang Khong for 100 baht (£2.60) and stayed overnight at a hostel (Sleeping Well, for about £5 for the night) and enjoyed a long awaited Pad Thai at the bar opposite.
The next morning, in anticipation of sitting in a bus for many hours, I walked the kilometre or so to the Green Bus Thailand office to find transport to Chiang Mai.
The 9:45am bus has two prices. I paid about 428 baht (£11) for the VIP seating. The cheaper price only 275 baht (£7).
The higher price gives you a seat at the front of the bus which included ample leg room despite my 6 foot 2+ frame, free water and snack and the bus itself is air conditioned.
If you are smaller and so far had no issues fitting in Asian seats then you may wish to save money and sit in the back and buy some snacks at the 7/11 next to the office.
If you really want to save money you can get the 7:30am bus for just 220 baht (£5.70) but I value my sleep more than that!
The bus stops right outside the office about 20 minutes early to load luggage and passengers and will then take you on to the destination with a 10 minute toilet break in Chiang Rai bus station.
Overall the slow boat was a fantastic experience and a great way to change up the routine of flying or bussing everywhere.
If you have the time, and the patience, to sit for 10 hours each day doing very little then you can see more of the beauty of Laos and a little bit more of how local people live, whilst travelling in a unique way between two countries.
Plus as a solo traveller I found it a great way to meet people heading the same way to have company when you go exploring in Thailand!