How to get to Luang Prabang by Slow Boat

2 Nov

Quick Summary:
Trip: Chiang Mai – Luang Prabang
Transportation: Minivan + Slow Boat
Duration: 3 days 2 nights
Price: 1500-1750 Baht + room rate in Pak Beng
Level of Comfort: low
View: lovely Mekong river scenery
Recommended: Only if you are eager for a new experience, not as a quick and comfortable way to get to Luang Prabang.

Slow Boat on the Mekong River

We were headed to Luang Prabang in Laos. Most tour agencies in Chiang Mai offered three options to get there – by bus (18-13 hours), speed boat (2 days 1 night), or slow boat (3 days 2 nights). We had already experienced extended bus travel throughout Malaysia, most reports on the speed boat route made it sound like a suicide mission, which left the slow boat option. Way to experience not only a new country, but also a new mode of transportation.

From Daret House in Chiang Mai we got tickets for 1600 Baht (about $53) each. I read of other travellers organizing this journey all by themselves, but savings of $3-6 didn’t seem worth the hassle to me.

There are basically three legs to this journey:

Day 1: Chiang Mai – Chiang Khong by minivan
Day 2: Chiang Khong/Huay Xai (Laos side) to Pak Beng by slow boat
Day 3: Pak Beng to Luang Prabang by slow boat

On the first day we were picked up at 11am with a minivan to bring us to Chiang Khong (at the Laos border). There was a quick stop-over near Chiang Rai to see the White Temple. At around 4pm we arrived at a guest house in Chiang Khong. The overnight stay + simple dinner, breakfast and a lunch package from the guest house are included in the ticket price. I don’t believe anyone stays in Chiang Khong longer than 1 night and it felt like around 5,000 other people had overnighted on the mattress in our room before us. We could not only feel every single spring and woke up each other with every single turn, but on Konrad’s side one spring was actually poking through with its sharp point :O

On the second day after breakfast at 7am, we were transported on the back of a pick-up truck to the Thai border check-point.  The day before our guesthouse owner tried to convince us that we should pay him 100 Baht each and he would get our passports stamped so we wouldn’t have to wait in line. It all sounded rather strange and I am always wary of just handing over our passports, so we opted for waiting in line.  Collecting the exit stamp took maybe 5-10 minutes of waiting in line.

To cross the river to the Laos side we took a small boat (40 Baht fare included in ticket), which took not more than 2 minutes. On the Laos side/Huay Xai everyone has to line up again (no short-cuts) which kind of works as an equalizer, so I don’t see the point of paying the 100 Baht on the Thai side.

To enter into Laos we had to fill out an arrival card and also a Visa on Arrival application. For me as German citizen the Visa cost $30, for Konrad as Canadian $42 (the highest!), all other nationalities are somewhere in between. Additionally 1 passport photo was required or $1 to waive that requirement (I think they just copy the picture in the passport then).

It takes about 5-10 minutes to process the visa, which is a sticker that takes one full page in your passport. All travellers that booked with tour agencies where then ushered to different shops to wait for their boat ticket and stock up on drinks and food for the day. Beer Lao and baguette sandwiches anyone?

Finally, we got our boat tickets and were transported to the slow boat pier. We all were told we had reserved seats on the boat and there were actually seat numbers written on the ticket, but all that went out the window on the boat. There were no numbered seats and way more passengers than seats. We seemed to be the last group that was brought to the pier, but somehow we were lucky enough to get some of the last more comfortable car seats (part of the boat had wooden benches or plastic chairs) in the front of the boat; away from the noise and smell of the engine in the back. I am not sure how they fit everyone else on, but at around 11:30am the boat finally went on its way. Looking around I realized that almost all passengers were Western tourists, most of them backpackers.

Backpackers crowded on a boat

It is an interesting journey along the mighty Mekong River, quite scenic with many nice photo ops. It also gives small insights into the importance of the river for the local population. But even our nicer seats in the front got quite uncomfortable with time with no leg room to stretch out and constantly trying not to elbow your neighbour while adjusting your limbs. The arrival at Pak Beng at 5:30pm couldn’t come soon enough. Check out our report on Pak Beng and where to stay there.

Mighty Mekong River

After a one night stay it was time for day 3 and the final leg.  Again we were transported on the back of a truck to the boat pier. Most people were smarter than us and walked there instead of waiting for their transport. So the boat was filled up and all seats taken by the time we arrived. We tried making ourselves comfortable on the floor in the front of the boat together with some other late-comers. But then a few more used car seats were carried in and again we were lucky enough to get soft seats in the front. However, a number of other passengers had to sit on the floor or their backpacks.

By 9:15am we were on our way. If I thought there was little leg room the day before, I was in for a surprise. Half an hour into our trip 2 more passengers were brought on board via a speed boat that caught up with us (someone sleep in?). So we scrambled a bit more and they also found some room on the floor.

But by no means was the boat at maximum capacity yet, at least in the eyes of the operators. The boat kept stopping in several other villages by the river and every time a few more people got on. This time all locals, mainly women with little children. And every time we scrambled a bit more, gave up a little more of our leg room (you can sit cross-legged an entire day, right?) until everyone had a little square on the boat floor to plant themselves on.

Suddenly I noticed something was moving and crawling in the bag of the woman sitting right next to me. For some reason she had a water bottle full of gigantic live crickets. When she saw that it got my attention, she even took one out of the bottle. At first I was quite freaked out, but overcame it quickly. I asked her, if they were for eating and she nodded her head. No one was eating them while on the boat, so I assume they would be roasted later on. It made for some interesting photo ops seeing the little children play with crickets about the size of their hands. In the West people have iPads and iPods and other gadgets to keep children occupied during long travels, here just an enormous insect will do.

You may ask why the crickets didn’t hop away? Warning: This is not for the faint-hearted, but children can be rough when playing, so it didn’t take long until they lost their legs or their mom actually helped remove the legs on these otherwise alive creature :/

With the sardines-in-a-can like seating situation and the setting sun blinding and heating us up, 4pm and the arrival in Luang Prabang was highly anticipated. Waiting at the pier to get our suitcases somehow my sandals felt very uncomfortable and I couldn’t figure out why until I looked down. I was quite shocked to see my feet and ankles swollen! And squishing out of my sandals! Isn’t this is a pregnant or old women’s problem? I guess a 2-day slow boat ride can have miraculous aging effects…

Would we recommend it? For the adventure, yes. If you don’t care for the adventure and just want to get from point A to point B, there has got to be a more comfortable way to go.

3 thoughts on “How to get to Luang Prabang by Slow Boat

  1. Thanks for the post! We were considering the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, but had doubts from all the horror stories. So was just going to back track from Chiang Mai to Nong Khai and cross the border into Vietiane. But the slow boat seems like a great way still! 😀

    • There is no denying it was an uncomfortable and at time frustrating boat ride, but looking back I wouldn’t want to miss the experience. We’ve had more than enough boring bus rides in SE Asia and this boat ride was definitely something else 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *