If you are an adventurous spirit travelling on a budget, going by slow boat from Chiang Mai to Laos is a great option for you.
Here are the main options for doing this trip:
- Air – the quickest and most expensive
- Bus – much longer, less expensive but also less comfortable
- Slow boat – less expensive, slow but also scenic
- Fast boat – more expensive, faster but also more dangerous because of the speed
Since we were not in a hurry and snaking along the Mekong appealed to us, we decided to take the slow boat.
We booked the ticket from Travel Hub Chiang Mai for 2.000 baht (60 $) / person with accommodation included for Chiang Khong, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you decide to book with another agency, check the reviews on the Internet because we read some bad stories. For example, a travel agency advertised in our hotel in Chiang Mai was ranked as low as 2,3 out of 5.
Day 1 – Minibus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong
We were picked from our hotel between 9 and 9:45 AM. Although they told us at the agency that we will travel in a bus with a toilet, we travelled in a minibus, with no toilet. It was full, but the driver was calm and drove properly.
Between 11:30 and 12:00 we stopped at a restaurant and we had lunch, which was not included in the price. The food was good and really cheap. We had two tasty Pad Thai ( around 70 Thai Baht) with two tasteless cappuccinos, as expensive as the food.
We were supposed to visit the White temple, but since the King was being cremated that day, the temple was closed. If you want to take advantage and also see the White Temple on a similar trip, please be aware that the stop tends to be very short.
After 3 more hours we stopped at a 7-Eleven at a gas station, which was closed for the same reason, but there they gave us free water and we could use a toilet.
After another 30 minutes, we arrived at our accommodation in Chiang Khong. We cannot call it a hotel, just a basic room with no other furniture besides the bed, damp air, but with a private bathroom with a shower. It didn’t have air conditioning, just a ceiling fan that we didn’t use since it was a chilly night. The terrace overlooking the Mekong and the Laos border was very nice.
We had dinner and nice music, people were relaxed, drinking beer and checking their phones (yes, they have good Wi-Fi).
The owner of the place explained several times the schedule of remaining trip.
Schedule for day 2
- at 07.30 – breakfast + Pad Thai to go for the lunch on the boat + will receive a sticker, so the guy from Laos will know that we are from their agency
- 08.00 – check out
- 08.30 – half of the group will leave with a tuk-tuk to cross the border
- 08.45 – the other half of the group will go to cross the border
- after crossing the border, we’ll go to a market where we can have a drink and/or a sandwich
- 11.30 – the boat will leave
- 17.00 – the boat will arrive in Pak Beng
Schedule for day 3
- 09.00 – the boat will leave from Pak Beng
- 17.00 – the boat will arrive in Luang Prabang
For the Laos visa, you will need a photo which you can get done in the “hotel” in Chiang Khong for a fee of about 20 Baht.
The visa fee is around 30 – 35 $, depending on your home country. The Laos visa officer did not accept imperfect dollar bills, so make sure you bring new ones. Although an exchange office was available at the border crossing, best avoid the hassle.
On the Thai side of the border, they will collect the second part of the immigration form that you filled in when entering Thailand. If you lost it, the Chiang Khong guy will provide you with a blank one to fill in. It won’t have the same barcode like the entry one but it’s accepted apparently.
A chain of scams
It’s obvious that every person involved in this process had only their interest in mind and had no problem giving false information about the next stages of the journey.
The agency lady lied about the (mini)bus and suggested that we book accommodation for Pak Beng before leaving Chiang Mai. See below.
Next, the Chiang Khong guy told us that for every withdrawal in Laos, we will have to pay a 10 $ fee and that many ATMs don’t work. The ATMs work perfectly here and we were charged only 2.41 $. He offered the “help” by changing money to Laos kip or US $ at a higher than normal rate. We just changed what we needed for a few meals and we used the working ATM in Pak Beng.
Third, the lady selling food near the slow boat pier told us that no food or drinks are available on the boat, but there actually were. Instant noodles, some fruit, soft drinks, water and beer are sold on the boat.
Last but not least, the tuk-tuk scam upon arrival in Luang Prabang is the most annoying one.
Day 2 – Border crossing to Huay Xai and Slow Boat to Pak Beng
On the second day, we crossed the border to Laos. Everything went smoothly for us, there were no other people waiting in line on this day, but this might have been because of the King’s burial on the day before.
The schedule above was followed to the letter.
On the boat, people talked, drank, read. played games and got to know each other. It was like an organized party on the river. The atmosphere was very nice and the hours flew by.
The hotel in Pak Beng is not included in the price of the agency, so you’ll have to find one on your own. The guy in Chiang Khong told us to book it once we get there because we will have many offers from the locals, disagreeing with the agency lady from Chiang Mai. Next, the lady on the slow boat pier tried to sell us a specific hotel in Pak Beng. To each his interest and percentage of the sale. We stayed at DP Guesthouse which be booked on Booking.com and was really ok, except there was a big dead bug in the shower and some tourists talked until midnight in front of our window.
Pak Beng is a small town, but you will find there everything you need, including a functional ATM.
Day 3 – Slow boat from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang
The third day started with a bad surprise. The boat much was smaller than the one on the previous day and as a result, it was very crowded. Somehow, maybe because of the scenery, the hours passed by very quickly. On this boat food, drinks, and a toilet are also available.
The boat left at 9 AM but we advise you to board sooner because the places have no number and you might want to reserve yours beforehand, especially if you travel with a group.
We arrived in Luang Prabang at 4 PM to face the last scam of the trip. Although the boat could very well dock in the city, they stop a few kilometres away to force the use of local tuk-tuks for the ride into town. Once again, they announced that the city is 10 km away, and our navigation app placed the hotel only 7 km away. The ticket is 20.000 kip (2,41 $) per person and if you insist the driver will drop you at your hotel, otherwise they take you to the centre.
Of course is not fair no one liked it, but for us, it was a great opportunity to meet a French couple in the tuk-tuk with whom we’ve spent most of our time in Luang Prabang.
This was our experience on the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. It was a nice but exhausting adventure, with nice people and beautiful photos. If we would have to choose again, we would not hesitate to go by slow boat one more time.
Ancuta & Cristian
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