Taking the slow boat to Laos from Thailand is quite the experience! I had a great one (mostly)! I went with two new friends I met at my Workaway in Chiang Mai. Below is how to get there from Chiang Mai and my experience.
*Note: all prices were what I paid for my trip June 2015. Current prices subject to change.*
We took the Green Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong. The bus leaves twice a day (8:00 am and 2:30 pm) and is a 5-hour trip. The bus is in great shape! Snacks and water are given throughout the trip too. It also stopped about an hour in at a food stall market so you can grab breakfast/dinner. I purchased our tickets a couple days ahead at the bus station (which I recommend). When you purchase the tickets, you will also pick your seats on the bus. At the time of publishing this post, prices were 406 Baht for the morning bus and 261 Baht for the afternoon bus.
Once the bus arrives in Chiang Khong, you will need to take a Tuk Tuk to your hotel (~30baht). Chiang Khong is a cute small town (one road) on the river with a street market and plenty of choices for food. This town was super cute! If my visa wasn’t expiring the next day, I could have easily stayed another day or two.
Before you settle in for the night, you will need to have your guest house arrange a taxi for you. Our guesthouse gave us a ride at 7:00 am for 250 Baht and also had all the immigration forms for us to fill out the night before. All we had to do was show up, get stamped and walk through. Super easy. We stayed at the Day Waterfront Hotel (Aircon and a view of Laos – picture above was taken from my balcony in the morning).
The new policy is you can no longer cross the border by ferry. The new immigration office for everyone that is not either of Laos or Thai nationality is now at the friendship bridge, which is about a 20-minute ride from Chiang Khong. I didn’t see much in the way of hotel options on our drive there, but there may be more options coming as the immigration office was just opened in 2013.
Get to immigration early. I’d suggest at least 45-60 minutes before the shuttle bus leaves. Once there, they will stamp you out of Thailand, and then you’ll get on the shuttle to cross the bridge. The shuttle costs 25 Baht and leaves promptly at 8:30 am. When you get to the Laos side, go directly to the VOA (Visa on Arrival) office and apply for your visa. Take note that they only accept US dollars. The VOA is $30 but will cost an extra $6 if it’s off season for ‘overtime’ fees. After they give you your passport back, head through the gate and grab a songtaew (25,000 Kip) to the slow boats at Huay Xia.
There is only one ticket office, located right at the boats. They take both Kip (220,000 Kip) and Baht (1000 Baht), but you’ll pay a little more if you’re paying by Baht.
After you have your tickets, drop off your backpacks and grab food for the ride. There are many places close to the boats that will make you sandwiches for 10,000 Kip.
Once on the boat get a seat near the front. The engine is in the back and is obnoxiously loud. Right before you take off a guy will come on the boat to give you a briefing and try and sell you his hostel. He will tell you the whole town doesn’t have electricity except his hostel and should book his because he has electricity. This is not true, everyone has electricity in the town. There are just some places where it doesn’t turn on until 6 pm, but there are outlets, lights, and working fans in the guesthouses. Don’t book his option. I heard from a few guests, the accommodation was sub-par at best. There are plenty of options once you get to Pakbeng. We, unfortunately, picked a bad guesthouse which didn’t have a name (should have taken that as a clue). There were bed bugs and dirty sheets. Glad it was just for one night and it was only $4 for the room. Split between 3 people, that’s pretty cheap!
Here’s a list of guesthouses that are decent. Again, this is a small stopover town, so accommodations are not going to be 5 star quality. The rooms are basic, but keep in mind you’re only staying one night.
Pakbeng Lodge – $35-40/night
Mekong Riverside Lodge – $20-25/night
Sarika Guesthouse – $20-25/night
We left Huay Xia at 10:30 am and got into Pakbeng at 4:30 pm. Right at the boat dock is a street market with many food stalls. These stalls open at 7:00 am so you can get your sandwiches made fresh for the next leg of your trip before you jump on the boat in the morning. Your guesthouse may offer to pack your lunch for you too.
The next morning you will get on a different boat that leaves at 9:30 am. Again, get there early to get a good seat. We got into Luang Prabang at 5:00 pm.
The ride itself is beautiful, green hills the whole way. The 1st two hours of the ride you can see Laos on the left and Thailand on the right. The boat stops off along the way to pick up and drop off locals at their villages. It was so awesome to see the kids running to greet their families and playing in the water. We also picked up someone off a speed boat in the middle of the river!
The ride is about 25% locals and 75% tourists. I loved the slow boat ride down the Mekong River. There are water buffalo and goats all over and grass huts and fishing boats. Between the beautiful scenery and seeing the locals in their country. It’s a photographers dream! If you’re up for an adventure and have the time, I’d highly suggest taking the slow boat to Laos. It’s an experience you won’t forget!