Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
I knew pretty early on in my trip planning that I wanted to take the slow boat from Thailand to Laos. It’s a fairly popular way of making the border crossing from northern Thailand to Luang Prabang and seemed far more interesting than just taking a bus. (Also, I had heard from a Laotian friend that the buses in Laos were not that great…).
After doing a few searches online and reading other travel blogs, I had the route pretty much figured out. It seemed rather easy to do – though there were quite a few steps involved, it was totally doable and would be a bit of an adventure. All I had to do was get myself to Chiang Rai so that I could depart rather early for the border crossing and make my way to the boat which leaves daily around 11am.
First, to be clear, the slow boat doesn’t go from Thailand to Laos. It’s the shorthand for the journey, but really the boat departs from Huay Xai in Laos. All the border crossing will happen before you arrive at the boat, either the same morning or prior to arriving Huay Xai. Because the boat leaves in the morning, there are people who prefer to arrive in Huay Xai at least a day before to avoid the stress (and early morning, all-day travel) that come with crossing the border and taking the boat on the same day.
Second, it is totally feasible to do this border crossing on your own. I had done my research and felt quite prepared. My anxiety during the whole process mostly came from my fear of arriving too late to get on the boat, but I managed to get to the dock a full hour before the boat left. However, there are, apparently, many tour companies that will help arrange the border crossing for you. When I told the manager at my hostel that I was planning to take the slow boat the next day, he was surprised that I hadn’t booked an organized tour but reassured me that so long as I took the 6 am or 6:30 am bus, I would be fine (he even took me to the bus station on his Vespa so I wouldn’t be late). I found myself at the border crossing in the midst of these tour groups. You can identify them as they are all wearing matching stickers or nametags. The benefit of these tours is that they will arrange all of the transportation: to the border crossing, from the Laos border to the boat, the boat ticket. From my observation, it also seemed like a good way to meet other travelers so long as you can find like-minded folks in your group.
All in all, the boat trip takes about 12-13 hours to reach Luang Prabang with an overnight stop in Pak Beng. The scenery is really beautiful and I fell in love with the brightly colored boats we passed along the way. By the time we finished on the second day, I think everyone was ready to be off the boat! It’s a really nice alternative to a 12-hour bus ride though and would highly recommend this option!
If you are planning to do the slow boat, here are some tips:
- Take the first bus from Chiang Rai to the Friendship Bridge at 6am. There is also a bus at 6:30 should you miss the early bus. The bus costs 65 baht. I took the 6:30 bus and felt constantly worried that I would be late as the bus made frequent stops to pick up and drop-off people, taking nearly 2 hours (rather than 1.5 as expected). Cue anxiety.
- The bus will probably not take you to the actual border crossing. You will get dropped off on the side of the road near the crossing where you can jump into a tuk-tuk that will take you to the border. Another 60 baht for this short trip.
- When you arrive at the border, I suggest getting some cash/exchanging money. There is an ATM and a currency exchange here. You will need US dollars for the Visa payment in Laos so get those here if you don’t already have them. You should also get some Lao kip so you have it for transportation when you leave the border crossing in Laos. I tried to use the ATMs at the Lao border crossing and none of them were working so don’t bet on that.
- Thai immigration was super fast. Once you are through, you will wait for a shuttle bus that will take you to the Lao border (20 baht)
- At the Lao border, fill out your paperwork and jump in line for your visa application. After waiting a bit, they will call your name at another window to pick up your passport and pay for the visa. All done!
- Leave the border crossing and jump into another tuk-tuk to get to the slow boat (20,000 kip). You will immediately realize that the quality of the roads in Laos is much poorer than the roads in Thailand. Hold on tight. The trip takes about 20 minutes (we had a few stops along the way).
- When you arrive at Huay Xai, it is rather easy to find the boat and the ticket office. You can pay for your ticket in kip or dollars ($30). I was so confused by all of the currency that morning!
- At this point, you can breathe easy knowing that you will not miss the boat! There are plenty of restaurants nearby where you can get snacks/drinks for the boat ride.
- The boat itself is semi-comfortable. The first day the ride is about 5.5 hours. There is space to put your luggage in the back of the boat and, if you’re lucky, you can grab a bit of extra space so you can stretch out during the ride. Suggest sitting toward the front where it is quieter and less smelly from the engine/bathrooms. The boat stops occasionally to drop-off locals and it is a really pleasant way to spend the afternoon (especially after a stressful early morning).
- When you arrive in Pak Beng around 5pm, you will be inundated with people trying to get you to stay the night at their guesthouse. There are many children there as well begging for food since they know so many of the travelers have snacks on them. It’s madness. I had a can of Pringles sticking out of my tote bag and ended up just tossing it to some kids so they would leave me alone. You can get pretty cheap accommodation for the night if you wait to book until you arrive in Pak Beng. The quality of the guesthouse will be low, but it will be cheap. On the other hand, if you are like me and don’t want to deal with this madness, book ahead. You will pay more, but you will be able to just get off the boat and jump straight into a truck that will take you to your hotel. After a LONG day of travel, this is all I wanted. I stayed at BKC Villa which was not cheap, but it was super comfortable, had a nice restaurant, and free breakfast. Easy.
- The boat leaves around 9am on the 2nd day – make sure to bring sandwiches/snacks for the 7-hour journey (you can buy food/drink on the boat as well but likely more expensive).
- Whenever we stop to drop people off, kids are rushing the boat to ask for food or try to sell us some cheap bracelets. More madness.
- Upon arrival in Luang Prabang, you will have to climb a bunch of stairs and then will be asked to pay 20,000 kip for a tuk-tuk into town. Your bags are thrown on top (not tied down) and you will climb in with 7 other people from the boat for the bumpy ride to the center of town. Surprisingly, your bags are still there when you get out of the tuk-tuk! Now you are free to find your hotel and enjoy Luang Prabang! And you will most definitely see your fellow boat travelers everywhere you go!