A few years ago, when we were staying at a Hostel in Bangkok, some travelers told us about how there was a 2 day ‘cruise’ from Thailand to Laos. We were with our teenagers at the time and hadn’t planned on visiting Laos at yet so we didn’t ask for too many details about the cruise.
Fast forward to 10 days ago and another couple of travelers at a hotel we were staying at in Luang Prabang, Laos told Shawn about the Slow boat trip. They didn’t give him a lot of details but he told me I should look it up to see if it was something we would want to do…and also if it was a good idea with a toddler.
I started Googling “boat to Thailand from Laos and came across THIS POST by The Northern Boy. It told me almost everything I needed to know. So much so that I didn’t really research online further. I’m also not going to go into the entire process of How To’s because his post does this but I will share what we did and what the trip was like for us.
We decided to do it. The next step was figuring out HOW we wanted to book it.
**What YOU need to know is that the Slow Boat from Luang Prabang doesn’t actually take you to Thailand or Chaing Mai or whatever. It takes you up to the closest border crossing at Huay Xai (Huay Sai). This is a full 9 1/2 hour day trip from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng, Laos. Then you depart the next day (or whenever you want to plan it) from Pak Beng to Huay Xai, Laos. Huay Xai is directly across from Chaing Khong where you can then take a super short Ferry ride across the river or schedule a Bus or Minivan to take you a little ways South to the Chaing Khong-Huay Xai Friendship Bridge for Border Crossing. Scroll all the way to the bottom of this post to Learn more about the border crossing process.
We could either pay 50-60,000 Kip (one way) to the little Pier the morning you want to leave (not sure why it’s called a pier when it’s just a ton of stairs and then a small pontoon) that is 7 kilometers from Luang Prabang. There you can buy a ticket for 110,000 Kip per person (50,000 for kids – but sometimes they are free. No rhyme or reason for when this applies) to save a couple of dollars from using an agency.
Instead, we decided to use an agency. You can book from your Hotel but sometimes the managers don’t speak as much English nor follow through (like our last Hotel manager). When you book through an Agency or Hotel you also get a Tuk-Tuk to pick you up and take you to the Dock which is included in the price they quote.
We found an agency we liked where the woman spoke good English. The price was 280,000 Kip (about $15 USD per person) total for Shawn and I and we had to pay 50,000 Kip ($5.50 USD) for Sebastian at the Ticket Office or directly on the Boat.
This covers 2 Adult Tickets for both days. Make sure you state the exact days you want to travel on. We wanted to travel 2 days in a row while some people like to stay a day or more in Pak Beng. Getting the right dates on the Tickets are important.
The Day of Departure from Luang Prabang, Laos
Your Tuk-Tuk will pick you up at 7:30 ish. The Ticket office opens at 8 am and our boat was scheduled to leave at 8:30. Make sure to ask your hotel if they can have a take away breakfast or Lunch for you if you don’t think you’ll have time to get some beforehand.
We had no idea what to expect from the Pier but basically, here is the lowdown.
If you have a good amount of luggage be prepared to pay 5000 to 10000 KIP ($0.60 – 1.20 USD) per person helping you drag your crap down a bunch of stairs, across the pontoon and into the boat. There were about 10 men standing around waiting to make a buck! They will accost you and start grabbing your bags. They don’t do it for a smile so make sure you are prepared with smaller bills. You will also need to do the same when you arrive at your daily ports too. If you don’t have enough money they will be irritated and trash talk you and there will be a moment of unpleasantness. You can also pay in Thai Baht or USD but Kip are easier for sure.
We had luggage and purposely used a lot of smaller bills the night before because we knew we would be needing to exchange our remaining Kip into Thai Baht and sometimes they don’t take smaller bills. So, lesson learned there with the trash talking we got upon arrival at our first port.
Day 1 on Slow Boat from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng, Laos
9 1/2 hours. That’s how long the trip lasts. There are stops all along the Mekong. Some are crazy like – one couple were dropped off on a sandy beach with no place that looked like there was any possible path to follow much less any sign of life. One stop was a Rock wall. Seriously. Half the fun of the trip is just seeing the drop-off locations.
I was constantly tapping Shawn and bugging him to stop playing his games to LOOK at the crazy stops we were making.
One guy was being picked up on a cliff of rocks. The boat made a first attempt at getting to him but the man pointed and showed them a better spot. 1 minute later he was onboard and we were off again.
Smokers can ruin your trip if you let them. For some reason they like to all smoke up front so that all their smoke floats downwind into all the other passengers faces. It’s super delightful. Have a mask if you know that this is an issue for you. Some people chain smoke the entire time so…make sure to have some patience because you getting all bajiggity with them will make for a miserable trip for all.
If YOU are a smoker, go sit near the back please. For you sake and for that of the other passengers.
The Toilet was a fun adventure. I wasn’t sure what kind of conditions we’d have but this was better than a hole but worse than a regular toilet.
Everyone on board is barefoot as well so bring some sandals to use in the toilet if you are desperate. Sometimes there are shoes there for all bathroom users to use but that’s nasty too for us. Wet feet in a Bathroom is one of the worst things ever. Shawn has major issues with what he calls “foreign water” which is any water that is not fresh falling from the sky and has contaminates in it that will give him a staph infection.
It doesn’t matter what side of the boat you sit on as the Mekong twists and turns like a snake. One minute you’ll be getting direct sun and the next shade. Just bring a scarf to tie up around the seats if you want some extra shade and don’t want to use the Boat curtains.
On the right side of the boat there were Elephants going down to the river for some bathing about 1 hour into our cruise. We saw lots of Water Buffalo, Cows and Goats. There was even a waterfall under a cliff wall on the right.
Water Buffalo are fun to catch bathing because they go all the way to their chins in the water.
You will also see people panning for Gold along the Mekong. They will have pointed wooden hat looking bowls, shovels and buckets. They dig up rocks and sand and then pan for bits of gold to bring in a couple hundred extra Kip or Baht each day.
One thing I always looked forward to was seeing the Speed boats launch past us. They are insanely fast, super low in the water and people have to be getting soaked and bugs in their mouth and eyes. So glad we opted out of the Speedboat route.
You will get warm around Noon or at least notice that the nice breeze from the speed of the boat isn’t keeping you as cool as it once was. By 2pm you are starting to get warm enough to sweat. Have a hand fan with you if you must.
There were a few other families with young kids on board. Sebastian found one family he liked and kept trying to sit with them. He’s so funny.
Sleeping is great if you can do it on-board. Our boat was only about 2/3rds full so there were some seats you could rearrange into beds near the back of the boat. Just be thoughtful about rearranging someone’s furniture. If locals are doing it then chances are you can too.
At around 2 we also started looking more at our watches and google maps. We were only halfway. CRAP. Here are some screenshots of locations and time on my phone to help you not get hopeful that you will arrive before 6pm. You won’t. You will leave around 8:30 am and not get into Pak Beng until, at the very earliest, 6pm. By then half or most of the boat passengers will have left before docking for the night.
I can’t imagine trying to navigate the Mekong at night. The boat needed to weave from side to side the entire trip because of rapids and shallow waters. Going at night would be very dangerous. The sun was setting as we arrived.
We pulled up to a few other longboats docked at a rock-like hill with some stairs etched in. We did not get a spot that had stairs. As soon as we docked, men jumped on board and started trying to grab our bags. We already knew that they wanted money and I was out of small change but they already grabbed our stuff and started out the boat and up the rockway with them.
Everyone was super helpful and were holding Sebastian’s hand and helping everyone off the boat and up the rocks.
Once at the top, we were surrounded by people trying to get us to go with them to stay at their hotel/B&B. We’d had reservations with a place and they happened to be waiting with a Tuk Tuk for us. We found our guy and then the men with our bags put them on the truck and had hands out. They wanted 10,000 Kip each. I had only 100k bills and then about 8k total in small bills. They were NOT happy. I wasn’t about to give them a big bill. They trash talked me for a minute and then finally walked away with their money.
We booked a room with Villa Mekong Guesthouse in Pak Beng. We booked on Booking.com instead of trying to find a place with all of our crap and a toddler in tow…upon arrival. No thanks. If we each had one backpack and it was just Shawn and I, we might still book in advance.
Anyway, we booked here because of the reviews and they had breakfast available for purchase on-site. The room had a ceiling fan, no TV and we had a triple single room so – 3 twin beds. No view or anything from our room other than a wall about 3 feet away. We didn’t book for views or anything…just comfort and food availability.
We arrived and I took out Sebastian’s toys for he and the older boys there to play with. You can tell they don’t have a lot and Sebastian doesn’t have a sibling to play with so… He can share his toys and both parties win.
If you choose to stay here please know that none of the items in the menu come out looking at all like what you ordered. If you choose to do the Take away lunch option please make sure they got your order correct before leaving and paying for it. I verified verbally twice and our food was wrong… for a 9 hr boat ride! We ordered Pork fried rice and a Ham and Cheese baguette. What we got was large noodles with pork (it wasn’t good) and a baguette with lettuce, spreadable cheese and one small piece of ham sliced into thirds to fit the length, not width, of the bread and…a ton of hot sauce – making the sandwich inedible. I had asked the night before what was on the sandwich and was assured it was only cheese and meat. Anywho, for $25 for the night it is what it is right?
Day 2 Departure from Pak Beng, Laos
For your second day, if you already have your ticket then YOU are definitely doing it right because the ticket office will be closed when you arrive at 6pm in Pak Beng and it opens again at 8am. If you can get tickets in advance it’s worth the few extra dollars and peace of mind and scrambling. Our hotel had us at the dock by 8am and we boarded early. Our boat had only a handful of passengers scheduled to depart so we left promptly at 8:30 am.
This boat was much cleaner than the boat from the day before and, it had 2 fantastic bathrooms with toilets. I have been battling travelers diarrhea for over a week and it was especially bad today. I’ve never been this excited to see plumbing in my life. I think I used these toilets about 20 times. No lie. I had a bad bug. If I took a sip of water I had to run to the toilet 2 minutes later. Thank you baby Buddha or Jesus or whichever god wants to take credit for giving me this toilet gift on this day. I’ll take the blessing.
This trip was almost identical to the day priors trip except a cleaner boat, less passengers and awesome toilets that flushed! Same travel time, same crazy stops to drop off and pick up new passengers.
We arrived at 6:05 pm to a beautiful sunset.
This time, upon docking, there was no one from town here to help unload. Just Shawn and I. I’m sure that in high season things are much different though.
There was a single Tuk Tuk waiting to pick up everyone who needed a ride – us, and two other single passengers. Upon getting to the Tuk Tuk, there were 3 men all discussing money, who would get what, etc. They told us it was 10k Kip per person ($1.13 USD per person – Sebastian was free) to get to the Hotel we were booked at, the Thaveesinh Hotel for $28 USD one night.
Then we had to wait 10 minutes for them all to chit chat and pass money around. Our driver then pulls up the hill and stops and runs back down to the guys. WTH? Sebastian is getting cranky as he’s tired and hungry and didn’t get any real food on the trip because our Take Away meal was messed up.
At the top of the hill, where we were parked, was a sign for the Ferry and Buses to Thailand and other parts of Laos. Again, the offices are closed at 5pm and don’t re-open until the next morning.
Review of the Slow Boat from Laos to Thailand
It was a pretty easy and uneventful 19 hrs in total of cruising time. I would rather do this than spend 9 hrs on an overnight bus any day of the week and twice on Sunday. You can stand and stretch, walk around, use the toilets, eat, have fresh air, sleep if you want or can, not have to listen to the constant honking of a bus… etc.
We could easily have flown from Luang Prabang for about the same price of our two nights at the hotels and the cost of our tickets but – where is the adventure and experience in that?
I’d say that if you have any sense of adventure and don’t have time constraints – take the slow boats. We would have enjoyed one extra night in Pak Beng but not in Huay Xai. We got a good feeling from our first stop but Huay Xai was definitely a border town. We find that Border Towns are dirtier, pushier and just not our vibe. We’d rather spend time in a nice village with less to do. Also, things are much more expensive in these towns as they really cater to travelers. Water is more, so is beer and food. Massages seem to be the same prices so if we wanted one that would be the only thing priced the same throughout Laos.
Let me know if you have any questions at all about this process that I haven’t covered. I’m happy to help.
Border Crossing by Bus
As stated above, one of the things you must know is that you need your passport. We booked a bus through our hotel to take us to Chaing Rai. You can schedule a bus to Chiang Mai and some other places as well. The process across the border will be the same.
We had to book it at 8am the same morning as the office was closed all night. It cost 280k Baht ($32 USD) in total for 3 seats. We like booking our toddler his own seat so we have more space and he’s a big boy. This price included our Tuk Tuk to the Bus Station about 15 minutes away.
The Bus left the station at 9am so don’t stress. Our Tuk Tuk Driver took our passports to the desk and gave them our info to get us all set to cross the border. He returned them to us and was off on his way.
There are Restrooms at the station but they are holes… so make sure to bring your wipes as there is also no soap to wash your hands in the sink after.
We left promptly at 9am and after about 10 minutes we were at the Laos Border. The driver pulled up and told us to leave our stuff on the bus and go through customs. What he didn’t say is where he’d be and how long it’d take for him to get there, on the other side.
What happens is you get out and take your passports to the proper counter. It takes a couple of minutes in total to get through customs. No bag checking or anything. Pretty easy peasy. There are toilets on both sides of the border so make sure you use them. They are actual Toilets but again, no Toilet paper or Soap. Be prepared. There are also snacks on both sides as well as a currency exchange counter and cash machine on the other side of the border gate.
Your bus will appear maybe 15 minutes after dropping you off. Just make sure to look for Thai or Laos people that are on your bus with you to make sure you get back on the right one if you are unsure of what the heck you are doing or where to go. They are always so helpful.
Now you get back on the bus but have about 5 minutes and then are at the Thai border. You will get off but this time you will bring EVERYTHING with you. We had to drag all our crap to the border check. First though, you have to fill out the Customs forms. Make sure to fill out front and back. I don’t know why but we always forget the back. We’ve been doing this for 3 years but do this without fail. One day I will remember.
After you get this all taken care of you find the correct counter for whatever country you are from. They take your fingerprints in their machine and also your photo. All pretty standard stuff like they do in the airport. There are NO fees for Visa on Arrival or anything if you are entering from the USA so all in all it takes less than 5 minutes for all 3 of us to clear customs.
Our bus took about the same amount of time to get to the other side. We went to the bathrooms and got some chips for the 2 1/2 trip to Chiang Rai. As an FYI… most Thai roads are WAY better than Laos and Cambodia roads but there is a lot of construction and road improvements occurring in SE Asia currently. Our bus was a nice one (no toilet) but a smooth ride and our driver didn’t honk a single time. He even went over unpaved roads slowly. So refreshing! Our driver from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai wasn’t a honker but he drove like a bat out of hell over unpaved roads and crazy windy roads for 3hrs.
Again, let me know if you have any questions about this trip or crossing the border.