Posted by Daisy on

When we were researching our options for this part of our trip, we found good information on the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang tough to find. Never fear! We’re here with up to date info, helping you to plan your slow boat journey down the Mekong. It’s a long, but pleasant and scenic trip.

An organised tour versus a DIY crossing

Although signing up to a package tour for this journey may save you some planning headache, from what we saw on the trip, you’ll probably end up with a worse deal and worse experience. Those tied to a tour found themselves arriving late to an already full boat, and at the Chiang Khong border booked into the worst accommodation. Instead we went it alone, finding our own guesthouse and tickets, and we found it to be a smooth process.

The many steps to cross the border

The slow boat route begins for us from Chiang Mai all the way through to Luang Prabang. It involves many elements, with two stays in accommodation, several tuk tuk rides and several bus journeys. That means a fair few unknowns along the way, and potential to be ripped off, but if you can keep a clear head it’s simple enough. Here’s a quick run down of our experience.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Khong

Huay Xai

Pakbeng

Luang Prabang

  • Chiang Mai
  • Chiang Khong
  • Huay Xai
  • Pakbeng
  • Luang Prabang

Chiang Mai to the border

We chose to take the Green Bus from Chiang Mai direct to Chiang Khong, which borders Huay Xai, in Laos. Green Bus is run well, the buses are spacious and clean. You also get water, juice, and a small weird tasting pastry. When we boarded the bus in Chiang Mai, the bus assistant asked us if we were going to Laos. Say YES! This meant we were able to get off at the junction to the friendship bridge. There were a handful of travellers all in the same situation, which helpfully reassured us.

Upon leaving the bus, there will be tuk tuk drivers waiting to take you down the long road to be stamped out of Thailand. It cost 50 baht each for our tuk tuk. The price is fixed, there should be a board on the street with the prices on.

Crossing the border

After being stamped out of Thailand, there’s a coach which takes you over the actual ‘friendship bridge’ to Laos immigration. It’s 20B each and it waits until there are enough people to fill the bus before leaving. A little annoying as you can see immigration in the distance and it’s not far, but on the coach you must go!

Forms filled out and $$$ paid at Laos immigration ($31 each for UK residents, I think! Adam also paid an extra 40B (£1) as he didn’t have a passport photo). We hopped into a songthaew to take us to Huay Xai town. It cost 200B for both of us, and filled up with the rest of the tourists also crossing. A 20 minute wild ride later and Huay Xai, a small border town, was the first stop of our adventure.

Arriving in Laos

We stayed at the Sabaidee guesthouse for £8 in a perfectly clean and comfy room. There are a few options in town to stay, and provided it’s not crazy season, you should be fine to show up and find somewhere to sleep on the spot. There’s not much in the way of night life – we found a quiet bar with about a hundred cats and had a beer. It was weird – but nice and relaxed!

IMG_1360

Taking the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang

Some people choose to buy their tickets in town. This usually includes a tuk tuk ride to the boat pier, but we chose to walk as it was only 15 minutes downhill. At the boat pier, to your left you will see steep steps up a hill. This is where you buy your tickets. At the time of writing, we paid 210,000 kip each, which was equivalent to £21 more or less. Not bad for two days cruising on the Mekong! The boat ‘leaves’ at 11:30am, but we were at the waterfront and had our tickets in hand for 9:30am. This left us enough time to grab a baguette and a juice from one of the riverside cafes,  keeping a close eye on when we could board.

Busy boarding

It’s a good idea get to the boat in good time – we got on and got a seat just after 10am, but by 11am it was packed. They oversold the boat and people were showing up when there were NO seats to be had. Turns out if you buy your ticket in town and are relying on an included tuk tuk ride, chances are you’ll be arriving later than everyone else. Many were packed in the engine room nestled among the bags. Some of the backpackers seemed to love this and spent most of the journey getting drunk back there, but I’m not sure we’d have wanted to sit with the extremely loud, vibrating engine! Turn up early to get a good seat.

The ticket conductor for the boat will spin a story about there being little accommodation left in Pakbeng, and try to get you to book with him. It’s not true, this is a scam – there’s plenty. And worse, there’s the possibility that if you pay him for a room, it won’t be honoured when you get there. Don’t be scared into booking with him!

After much arguing about cramming everyone on the boat, we left at 12ish and began our cruise down the river. Enjoy the ride with a book, some music, and sunglasses. It’s so calm! You can purchase beer and other drinks on board, for reasonable prices. We weren’t sure if there would be much in the way of food or drink, so came ready prepared. It’s good to know you can get some crisps or a coke if you forgot to bring anything with you.

A night in Pakbeng

Around 6pm we docked at our halfway stop, Pakbeng. The town primarily serves tourists on the slow boat, with plenty of places to eat and sleep. There are touts at the pier trying to get your attention. It’s easy enough to ignore them and walk into town to get a room – then you can see what you’re getting before you pay. We bagged a room for £7 just up the hill. In the evening there are plenty of places to eat – we perused travelfish and picked the best sounding one. 35,000 kip got us a plate of tasty curry and rice each. Not bad!

The boat leaves at 9:30am the next morning and we got there early at about 8:15 to get a good seat. It turns out that they’d decided to put two boats on, so there was plenty of room! It would have been so much easier to put two boats on the first day too! Southeast Asian travel is a mystery and law unto itself.

A second day cruising

The second day was a longer day on the water, approx 9:30 to 5pm, but time passed quickly. The boat now docks a few km outside of Luang Prabang. Older blog posts we’d read indicated that a lot of people caused a fuss about having to pay to get into town, but it’s just how it is. We were prepared for the folk on our boat to start a mini riot. Surprisingly it was fine and everyone got off in a lovely and calm manner. Crisis averted!

Bags retrieved and steps climbed, you are able to purchase a ticket for the tuk tuk into town at the top of the hill. 20,000 kip (£2) each and we were loaded into one of the many vehicles headed into town.

That’s all folks!

Welcome to Luang Prabang! The tuk tuks drop off outside Joma Bakery/the post office, which is almost in the centre of town and in easy reach of many guesthouses.

The slow boat is a scenic way to enter the country, although perhaps not the most comfortable. The easier option is to fly, although it can be pricey. There’s also a sleeper bus which is around 14-18 hours. It completely depends on how you want to arrive. We had read other blog posts painted the trip as being quite grim and not the best way to travel, but we found it to be fine. The scenery was beautiful!

Happy travels! Look out for more posts on Laos coming soon!

Related Articles