For a mode of transportation that many tourists take there seems to be little information online for those who are wishing to take the leisurely slow boat to Luang Prabang (Laos) from Thailand. It’s quite a popular route for backpackers, even families traveling, and is very much on the beaten path.
For those who want to wander into Laos on their own though it might seem a tad intimidating or confusing as there are quite a few steps to follow. But not to worry, it’s more simple than it seems and you’ll find yourself relaxing on the Laos slow boat traveling down the Mekong River making new friends in no time.
Majority of traveler’s you will find with stickers on their shirts as they’re shuffled across the borders, onto tuk-tuks and then the boats. There are many tours organized from Chiang Mai, Pai, and Chiang Rai. In Chiang Rai I was told that no organized tours were running because it was slow season. There were actually plenty running if I had just looked myself.
Lesson learned: Never rely on information from one person, especially in Southeast Asia. You will always hear a million different answers.
Getting from Thailand to Laos is easy. For this post I will focus on getting from Chiang Rai (the closest city of the three mentioned above) to Luang Prabang in Laos. The most popular route is from Chiang Mai to Laos.
I highly recommend spending a night in Chiang Rai as the famous White Temple is worth a quick stop and you’ll need to take an early bus the next morning for the two-day journey.
Slow Boat to Luang Prabang: Step by Step
Bus from Chiang Rai to the Thai border: Take the first available bus in the morning (6AM) from the bus terminal in the city center. These are local buses, they’re big and red and clearly have Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong labeled on them. They leave hourly but if you wish to leave later but you may not make the slow boat that day.
It costs 100 baht and you’ll be asked to pay on the bus. There is no air conditioning but there are fans. Even in the summer if you take an early bus the outside air will be cool and refreshing. This bus will take you straight to the Thai border. If for some reason it doesn’t (as things often change in Thailand for no reason) take a tuk tuk to the border as the bus will drop you off on the side of the street and tuk tuks will be waiting.
Thai border: Getting out of Thailand will be quick. Once you have your exit stamp just to the right after the officer booths there will be another booth where you can buy a shuttle bus ticket. It costs 20 baht and it’ll take you the short distance to the Laos immigration point. I don’t recommend trying to walk, the bus is quicker.
Laos immigration: After getting off of the shuttle bus there is an ATM and currency exchange. I would take care of money there if you haven’t already as you’ll need money for a tuk tuk and the slow boat.
You’ll then be given immigration papers to fill out and will need to provide a picture. They had specified dimensions but didn’t care that mine was different. You’ll then need to get in line to hand in your papers and passport (this is on the right) and then you wait until your passport is held up at the counter on the left. You pay the visa fee and then you’re in Laos!
Getting to the boat: Hop into a tuk-tuk and wait until it fills up. They will charge you 100,000 kip each if it’s not full, or 20,000 kip each if it is. Even during slow season we found people to join myself and my friend. The tuk tuk ride is about 20 minutes to the slow boat pier and may make other stops along the way to drop others off.
Buying slow boat tickets: At the Laos immigration people were trying to sell us tour packages that included getting a tuk tuk to the pier and then for the cost of the boat. Don’t buy these, they’re more expensive and you’re so close already that there’s no point in getting a tour package.
We were offered 300,000 kip for the tour. At the pier we paid 210,000 kip per boat ticket and 20,000 kip each for the tuk-tuk ride. The tickets are available at the office that is located opposite of the boats and up the stairs. If you don’t see it a local will be able to direct you, their English is very good around the area.
Finding a place to stay: The first day on the boat will bring you to the small town of Pakbeng. Locals will be waiting for you to arrive and will begin yelling prices at you trying to get you to stay at their guesthouse. They’ll start around 50,000 kip but they will eventually go down. For 50,000 kip you’ll get a room with a private bathroom and air conditioning, or for 25,000 kip you can share a room (you each pay 25,000 kip) with some fans. Don’t expect much, but it’s cheap and it’s only for one night. With the fans it was warm but comfortable.
The next day you hop back on the boat and then you’ll arrive in Luang Prabang!
It seems complicated but when you’re actually doing it it’s really quite easy as there is usually a crowd of people doing the same route for you to move with.
Slow Boat Tips
What it’s like: Depending on the boat there may or may not be tables. The one I was on had none, the seats were literal seats from cars and it was quite tight. It was hot and only got hotter throughout the day so dress appropriately. It may be cooler during peak season though so research accordingly. I was traveling in early August.
Visas: Have USD ready to pay for your visa on arrival. CAN $42, UK $35, USA $35, AUS $30 (all are in USD). Please double check the visa prices for your country as they may have changed!
Stopping: The boat stops multiple times. Locals will jump on and off, you’ll be getting off in a small town.
Meeting others: If you’re solo then no need to fret, you will meet a ton of people on the boat who you’ll most likely grab beers with the first night.
Cost of Food: Food and beer is expensive on the boat so stock up beforehand! There are a few shops right by the boats to get everything you need. Sandwiches cost 15,000-20,000 kip and a big bottle of water is 5,000-7,000. Many people were ripped off at some of the shops, paying double or triple the price.
Where to sit: Get to the boat early. You’ll want seats closer to the front as there’s a better breeze.
Timing: Be aware of what time the boat leaves the second day. If you don’t know it’s better to show up early. I would recommend being there at 8:30AM the latest if your boat leaves at 9AM. Don’t be the person everyone hates by showing up late!
Tuk tuk to the City: Once in Luang Prabang grab a tuk-tuk as the boat stops 10km away from town. The tuk tuks will stop at multiple accommodations if you wish to share one with others. Expect to pay 20,000 kip each.
Slow Boat to Laos Cost Breakdown
Local Bus: 100 baht
Shuttle Bus to Laos Border: 20 baht
Laos Visa Fee: CAN $42, UK $35, USA $35, AUS $30 (all are in USD)
Tuk-Tuk to Pier: 25,000 kip each
Slow Boat Ticket: 210,000 kip
I highly recommend taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang from Thailand. It’s a relaxing two days, makes for cheap travel days, and you’ll meet a bunch of people that you’ll see again and again throughout Laos. You can also take the bus or a speedboat but these boats are known to be dangerous and are not recommended.
If you have the time take the slow boat!
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