I was heading from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos, which meant I had two options for transport. I could either take the 24 hour bus or the 2 day slow boat.
Neither options are particularly appealing but the lure of the beautiful scenery and being able to sleep in a guest house during the overnight stop off saw me choose the slow boat.
On the first day the journey takes about 7 hours, the second day is a little longer at 9 hours. Unfortunately the seats on the boat aren’t very comfortable so be prepared for a long journey.
If you’re travelling from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, you’ll need to stop over in either Chiang Rai or Chiang Khong (near the border).
How to Save Money on Your Ticket
Along with many other travellers I met taking this journey, I made the mistake of booking the slow boat through my hostel.
I paid 1650 baht for the journey. However when I got to the border, there were people joining the exact same journey as us for less than half the price.
I’d recommend making your own way to the border. You can catch a bus from Chiang Rai bus station to Chiang Khong and you’ll then need to take a tuk tuk to the actual border point. Even accounting for the cost of the bus and tuk tuk, you’ll still save upwards of 600 baht which goes a long way in South East Asia.
The ticket desk for the slow boat is located on the Laos side of the border, just after border control. We arrived here just before 10am. They will provide you with transport to the dock in Huay Xai as part of the ticket.
Other Slow Boat Tips + Tricks
1. Remember dollars and a passport photo
For most people crossing the border, you’ll need to pay for your visa on arrival. You will usually get the best rate by paying in dollars. If you can, remember to have a passport photo handy for the visa on arrival, alternatively they can take a photo for you for an extra $1.
You’ll also need to ensure you have a spare page in your passport as they stick the visa inside.
2. Stock up on food and drink
There is food and drink available on the boat (despite what you may be told by your guide) but choice is limited and the prices are inflated compared to a shop so plan ahead.
It is best to stock up on food and drink before you even leave Chiang Rai. Although don’t expect those beers to stay cold for too long.
3. Be careful with your luggage
When you get on the boat, most of the luggage is piled at the front. Luckily there were no mishaps during our trip but I’ve heard stories about people picking up the wrong bag (whether accidentally or not). Make sure your bag is securely fastened, ideally with a lock, and clearly identifiable – this is especially important if you have a popular backpack that could easily be mixed up.
4. Bag a bargain by not booking ahead
You’ll spend the night in Pak Beng before continuing part two of the journey the next day. The moment the boat even touches the dock, you’ll be inundated with offers for guest houses for the night.
There are plenty of rooms available in Pak Beng and the prices on offer at the dock are far more favourable than booking ahead. However you’ll need to significantly lower your expectations for most of the guesthouses as they are very poor.
If you do prefer a little luxury and are prepared to pay a higher price then by all means book ahead so that you can see the reviews.
5. Take a pillow or something to rest your head on
Let’s be honest, a public boat in Laos is never going to be the life of luxury. But you can make it as comfortable as possible by taking a neck pillow or something comfortable to rest your head on.
6. Make some new mates
Okay this one’s a bit obvious and applies almost anywhere you travel but is especially true on the slow boat.
You’ll not only be spending two full days onboard the boat with these people but you can be sure that you’ll be bumping in to them for weeks to come and some may become your friends and travel buddies.
It’s been over two weeks since I took the slow boat and I’m still bumping in to people from the journey.
7. You’ll need your ticket for day two
When you first get on the slow boat, you’ll be given a ticket with a seat number on. These seat numbers only apply on the first day and most people move around once the boat has left anyway.
But you’ll still require your ticket for day two so keep hold of it. If you’ve provided your passport number when paying for the slow boat this can also act as a back up should you lose it.
8. Pick up some playing cards for the journey
Those days aboard the boat are long and whilst the scenery will provide something to occupy your mind, a pack of cards wouldn’t go amiss.
9. Grab a good seat on day two by arriving early
There were less people on day two so we ended up getting on a slightly smaller boat. I’d recommend getting there at least an hour early to grab yourself a good seat.
You may be lucky like me and get a whole two seats to yourself.
10. Be prepared to take a tuk tuk in to Luang Prabang
The slow boat doesn’t quite go all the way in to the centre of Luang Prabang so you’ll need to get a tuk tuk. When you get to the pier, there is a well organised system to get a tuk tuk so you’ll be sharing with other people from the boat.
Unfortunately everyone has to pay an additional 20,000 kip, something we were never told.
That’s all of my tips for taking the slow boat from Thailand to Laos, if you have any additions please leave them in the comments below.