This post – Travelling by Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos – is in collaboration with The Dragon Trip. This piece of content is produced in exchange for, and based on my experience in joining one of their tours.
Travelling by slow boat isn’t exactly the most luxurious way to travel, nor is it the fastest or most convenient. However, taking the slow boat from Thailand to Laos is a must if you truly want to nail the quintessential South East Asia backpacker bucket list. I travelled between northern Thailand and Luang Prabang, via Pak Beng, across two days back in May as part of The Dragon Trip. I’d be lying if I said I loved it but it is an economical, eco-friendly and experience-led way to make the journey with lots to see along the way.
Arranging the coach and boat tickets
As I was travelling as part of an organised tour, the hassle of arranging my own boat and bus tickets was handled for me. They used an agency called BO Sapphire. You can easily use an agency to book the journey for you from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai or Pai, or ask at your hostel. This makes life really easy as you pay once and it will include everything from pick up to transfer to the border, to a transfer the other side and the boat journey itself.
Of course, you could self-organise your slow boat from Thailand to Laos. It would undoubtedly be cheaper but less convenient; there are lots of parts of the journey to align. You’ll need to arrange:
- Get the bus to Chiang Khong (ask for the Laos border and consider arriving and staying in a hostel the night before)
- Shuttle over Friendship Bridge
- Visa on Arrival
- Shuttle from border to boat
- Slow boat from Huay Xia
- Night in Pak Beng
- Tuktuk from the boat into Luang Prabang
The Friendship Bridge Border Crossing
Whether you’re crossing independently, as part of a tour or organised through a local agent, your journey will begin in Chiang Dao in northern Thailand. There are plenty of buses here from Chiang Mai and indeed all the way if 14+ hours on a boat doesn’t take your fancy.
You’ll need to arrive at Friendship Bridge early with your passport and your Thai departure card. Exiting Thailand is easy and pain free, you then hop on a bus (tickets sold within the immigration hall) across Friendship Bridge to the Laos immigration point.
Obtaining a Laos Visa
This is where things can become slow and a little hectic. You’ll need to fill out multiple forms – all relatively straightforward – including your address in Laos and your exit date. A visa on arrival allows you to stay for 30 days.
The cost of the visa varies from country to country but for most it’s $35 plus $1 for a ‘health check’ (the latter being a total farce). You will need to supply a passport photo of yourself; many hostels near the border will take and print these for you or you can pay a $1 at the border and they’ll just use your actual passport. I’d suggest the latter is the cheaper option; I was charged $3 by the hostel who insisted I needed it in advance.
Note: it is essential that the notes that you pay with are pristine. They will not accept currency with the slightest of tears, wrinkles or ink marks, even though they will give them back to you as change!
Wait for your passport and your snazzy new full-page visa to be returned to you. Hey, it’s pretty expensive but at least you get a cool new page as a souvenir.
Reaching the Slow Boat
Once you, or your entire group, have their passports and visas safely back, make your way out of the immigration hall. When booking the transfer you may have been given a sticker assigning you to a bus. Don’t be surprised if it’s not there waiting for you or if nobody seems to know when it will arrive! Wait patiently and eventually it will turn up. They should have your name on a list and may require your passport number.
The bus to Huay Xia takes about 45 minutes. When you arrive you’ll likely wait at a small cafe-cum-shop, but don’t feel pressured to buy anything.
The Slow Boat Experience
Across our two day Thailand to Laos Slow Boat journey we experienced two sizes of boat, one significantly larger than the other. It goes without saying that the bigger boat was a more pleasant experience with somewhere to keep luggage near you and room to move around. The smaller one was much more cramped and bags were piled high wherever possible, so make sure you have everything you might need on you in a day bag.
This is a local method of transport; depending on where people want to get on and off along the way there may be a lot of stops which elongates the journey. The engines are old and incredibly loud so pick a seat early so that you’re not stuck by them!
Random Thai Snacks
What to See
As you float gently along the Mekong you’ll, at times, be rewarded with beautiful views and an insight into life at the local villages along the banks. There are water buffalo grazing or swimming, kids waving and splashing in the water and lots of luscious forest.
At other times, you’ll be bored shitless. Hey, I’m only here to tell the truth! It does indeed get very tedious so make sure you bring some entertainment and perhaps a few beers to pass the time.
I’d suggest taking a good book, a charged iPad with a downloaded movie or two, podcasts, music or cards to keep yourself busy. Chances are you won’t be the only tourists on the boat so it’s a good opportunity to make friends with some fellow budget-travellers too. You could try and nap but it’s not the comfiest or spaces. Those who succeeded best in this just lay on the floor of the larger boat!
Food and Drink
Take plenty of snacks, water and drinks with you. There’s little to buy on the boat and rumour has it the cup noodles they sell are made with river water. Chicken Mekong Ramen, anyone?!
It’s quite customary for backpackers to board with small crates of beer so if that’s your thing, go for it. Just be aware that the bathroom facilities on the boat are of course very basic.
Seats are mainly two by two and appear to be ripped out of old cars, campervans and buses! Don’t expect any kind of comfort. On the larger boat legroom isn’t a problem but on the smaller one you’re likely to have bags and all sorts under your feet.
Be prepared for it to be very warm; the boat isn’t travelling fast enough to create any real sense of ventilation.
Spending a night in Pak Beng
The two day slow boat from Thailand to Laos stops via the port town of Pak Beng. It’s a pretty crap place to stay and you should definitely discount it as your first Lao experience.
Things are a bit crazy when you alight the boat with frantic offers of taxis and help with luggage. Be careful with the latter; my friend thought someone was just being kind lifting her bag off of the boat until he expected several dollars for it!
There’s not much to Pak Beng. A few restaurants, a few bars; perhaps if it were busy with backpackers it could be quite a fun stop off but the atmosphere was pretty dead when we went. The one thing to note is that it’s teeming with drugs. Just say no. I mean, seriously; it’s known for scam situations whereby locals will then sell you out to the ‘police’ (or fake police!).
We stayed at Donevilasuk Rest Home (yes, it sounds like an undertakers office) which was clean and comfortable enough, I had no complaints about the private room.
This is a good chance to purchase a Laos SIM card from one of the small corner shops. It costs about $3 for the SIM plus a small amount for a top up card for data.
We ate at the Indian Restaurant which was filling, if not somewhere to write home about.
Be sure to arrive early the next morning for the boat if you want to pick a seat.
Would I take the slow boat from Thailand to Laos again?
In short, no. I’ve been there, done that and don’t see it as an experience I’ll ever need to repeat. If you’re strapped for time I’d recommend looking into a faster option, like a night bus all the way from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang.
The slow boat from Thailand to Laos is best viewed as an experience rather than a convenient means of transport. I’m definitely not rushing back on board and found the journey quite tedious at times, however it’s all part of the backpacker life if you want to experience travelling like a local.
The Dragon Trip
I travelled SE Asia with The Dragon Trip, who offer budget tours of varying lengths across several Asian destinations. It’s a fun and affordable way to backpack with likeminded travellers and enjoy the ease of having someone else organise your trip for you.
The Dragon Trip Discount Code: Use ‘bethsandland/TDT19′ at checkout for 10% off any trip*!
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