Taking the ‘slow boat to Laos’ is a Southeast Asia backpacker classic, and also a misnomer. The boat actually starts on the Laos side of Laos/Thailand border, so technically you’re not taking it to Laos.
However, it’s still a must-do when you’re in the area and heading to Luang Prabang.
You can book a trip from anywhere in the northern region of Thailand, with many starting off in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and booking a package that takes them all the way onto the boat. We decided to make our own way across the border and spend the night before the boat journey in the tiny Laos border town of Houayxay. We took a bus from Chiang Rai across the border, and then teamed up with some other travellers for a tuk-tuk to Houayxay.
A note: I know it’s been almost a year at this point since I was in Southeast Asia, but time has been mostly meaningless for the last 10 months and I still have stories to share. Hopefully this will be helpful to people who are planning their travels for when the world is open again, and entertaining to everyone else in the meantime.
This turned out to be a good decision because we were able to sort out our Laos sim cards, grab some sandwiches for lunch in the morning (the only food on the boat is extremely overpriced cup noodles), and not worry about feeling rushed.
We also found a hostel (The Little Hostel) selling tickets for the boat (and a tuk-tuk ride to the pier—apparently it used to be walking distance but they built a new one farther from town) for a reasonable price (about 25 USD). There are a lot of places offering tours for much more than this, so be sure to shop around.
Getting on the boat is basically a free-for-all. Jump on, launch your large bag into a pit below deck, and find a seat as quickly as you can.
The boat we were on was probably 70/30 backpackers to locals, and most of the Lao passengers disappeared into the back to nap by the engine (which was very loud, but not as loud as the Brits up front getting steadily drunker and rowdier despite it being 8 in the morning).
As the boat was getting ready to depart, a man up at the front began hawking hotel rooms in Pakbeng, the town where we would be stopping for the night. Luckily, we had done our research and knew that the 100,000 kip rooms he was selling could be had for half the price if we waited until we arrived, so we settled back and got ready to relax for the 7 hour journey.
The ride was surprisingly smooth despite the ricketiness of the old boats, with the river being fairly calm.
We saw a few people whizzing by on speed boats, which I’ve heard is extremely dangerous and don’t recommend (you’ll notice that the drivers on those boats are all wearing helmets, but no helmets provided for the passengers, which should be a strong warning sign).
Occasionally our boat would pull over to the edge of the jungle along the riverbank and a few locals would get in or out.
There’s nothing to do but read a book or sightsee, but there’s no need for anything else. The scenery is beautiful, all karst rock formations and rolling hills, and it’s an ideal way to sit back and decompress after whirlwind travel in Thailand.
Another thing I don’t recommend is drinking too much. While you’re not likely to get seasick, the boat is very cramped and you’ll definitely annoy your fellow passengers—I think everyone else on board was shooting the evil eye at the drunken Brits at the front of our boat.
Also, the toilet is a hole with a bucket over it, that floods easily and splashes around, so minimising your need to go to the bathroom is a good idea.
If you do want a few beers, buy them before you get on the boat as it’s much cheaper.
When we arrived in Pakbeng in the early evening, we were immediately greeted by crowds of locals urging us to come stay at their guesthouses.
We negotiated with one owner for a room for 50,000 kip (half what the man on the boat was promoting, remember?) and took off in his tuk-tuk up the hill from the pier. 50,000 kip is only about 5 USD but honestly it wasn’t even worth that—it was dirty, rundown, and didn’t feel particularly secure.
Still, it was only one night so we warily left our bags behind and went off to explore the town and find a cold beer.
We stumbled upon the Hive Bar, where the friendly owner poured us shots of some sort of banana-flavoured liqueur.
Afterwards, we had some pretty decent Indian food for dinner. It was a surprisingly good evening in such a small town.
Despite having only sat on a boat all day, we were pretty tired so made it an early night.
In the morning, we headed down to the pier early, having heard that while the boat from Houayxay usually leaves late, the Pakbeng boat often departs earlier than advertised, and we didn’t want to be left behind.
We bought some sandwiches and fried rice from one of the roadside stalls catering to travellers (the sandwiches at 1 USD each were far better value than our 5 USD accommodation the night before) and got on the boat.
We took off again shortly after 9am, and luckily today the loud Brits seemed too hungover to cause much nuisance. The second day is longer than the first, but the scenery is even better, so you won’t mind the extra time to enjoy the vistas to either side.
We arrived in Luang Prabang around 5pm—oh wait, no we didn’t. This is one of the mildly annoying unavoidable costs that exist just to squeeze a bit more money out of backpackers. Although the river goes all the way to Luang Prabang, the boat will dump you about 7km outside of town so you must get a tuk-tuk the rest of the way.
However, as with most things around, even if the tuk-tuk is overpriced, it’s still cheap for westerners so don’t whine too much about having to pay. They also load the tuk-tuks up with as many people as is feasibly possible, so the cost is split.
When we arrived in Luang Prabang, we were dropped off in a central area that was not far from the guesthouse we had booked.
A night market was just setting up, so it was easy to know where we should return for food once we dropped our bags at the guesthouse we had booked.
Overall, unless you’re really pushed for time, I definitely recommend taking the slow boat from Thailand to Laos.
Book as much as you can on your own to save money, and be flexible about not booking things in advance as you’ll get better prices on the spot. Enjoy yourself but don’t drink too much, and will your bladder to not make you have to use the toilet too often.
But in the end, it’s a unique experience that offers some fantastic views along the Mekong river, and well worth the two days’ journey.