Slow Boat From Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
After Chiang Mai, it was time to make our way to the next country, Laos. There are a number of ways Luang Prabang can be reached from Chiang Mai – slow boat, fast boat, minibus or plane. We opted to take the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. We were told by a number of people, this was the best way to travel into Laos in terms of the experience. The journey does take 3 days, 2 night, so it’s definitely not the quickest journey. The minibus may be worth taking if time is not on your side as this can be done overnight. The fast boat also takes less time but is dangerous, due to the shallow rocks in the lake.
For the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, we bought a package through one of the many travel agencies which can arrange this for you in Chiang Mai. The package included;
- minibus to Chiang Khong (stop off at the white temple in Chiang Rai)
- Overnight accommodation in Chiang Khong, dinner that evening, breakfast the next day and lunch made for the slow boat
- Transport to the border and then from the border to the pier
- Slow boat ticket to Pak Beng
- Slow boat ticket from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang.
The package did not include;
- Laos visa costs
- Accommodation in Pak Beng.
The average cost of the slow boat packages in Chiang Mai seemed to be between 1500-1700 Baht ($42.60-48.30) per person. We paid 1600 Baht ($45.50)
We got a minibus from our hotel, picked up at 8 am. From our hotel in Chiang Mai we drove to Chiang Rai, where we stopped off for around half an hour at the obviously built with tourists in mind, but quite spectacular White Temple. Half an hour passed and we carried on our journey to Chiang Khong.
We arrived in Chiang Khong at 5 pm. The people who were getting the slow boat got off the minibus and a few others carried on to continue their journey in the minibus to Luang Prabang overnight. Our hotel was nothing to shout about but compared to what other people described they stayed in, it didn’t seem too bad. The hotel sorted out our Laos visa for us at a cost of $35 each. We then settled down for our dinner, provided as a part of the package. We also went for a little look around Chaing Khong, but there was nothing to see, to be honest.
At 7 am the minibus picked us up for the second leg of our journey. After breakfast at the hotel and choosing our lunch to take with us for the boat (both provided in the package), we made our way to the Thai/Laos border. We got off the minibus at the Thai side of the border and we were given a bus ticket to be used on the other side.
We went through Thai immigration and boarded a bus which took us to the Laos side of the border. As we’d already gotten our visas sorted out at the hotel, we didn’t have to queue in the crowd sorting out their visa on arrival. Instead, we just went through border control, 2 minutes later, we were in Laos. We had to wait around an hour when we did get across though, but finally, we were packed onto a tuk-tuk and we were on our way to the port on the Mekong River to catch the 11 am slow boat. We cut it short, but we made the boat in time.
The slow boat was narrow and long in length. The seats were a lot better than I expected. I expected wooden benches and a very uncomfortable journey. The seats were in fact though old car seats, so it wasn’t too bad at all. We were told at the ticket office we visited before we got on the boat – which handily had a shop – that there was no food or drinks for sale on the boat. We guessed that they were lying, and they were. Don’t feel pressured into buying anything there as it’s probably just as expensive as on the boat. There are shops near the harbour which are cheaper if you want to buy anything beforehand.
We set off along the Mekong River. The views along the river are incredible, it was also quite intriguing seeing all the small Laos villages alongside the river. A few big bottles of Beer Lao later, we were in the port town of Pak Beng in Laos.
The workers on the boat try scare you into booking the accommodation in Pak Beng through them by saying that there won’t be any left when you get there, to get their cut of commission. Of course, this wasn’t true and we sorted out accommodation when we got there for 60,000Kip ($7.40), rather than 80,000Kip ($9.85) on the boat. Pak Beng was little more than a single road coming from the concrete pier, with a few guest houses, restaurants and shops on it, so don’t be expecting too much when you arrive.
After breakfast at the guest house and choosing our lunch for the boat (included in the price for the guest house) we once again made our way to the slow boat. We set off the final leg of our journey to Luang Prabang at 9am, after seeing the unusual site of a goat being skinned in the river in front of us. The views along the Mekong during the journey were once again amazing and the slow boat journey is well worth doing instead of the minibus, in my opinion.
The only real negative of the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang was the well-known scam, which they successfully did to us all when we got to Luang Prabang. They drop you off at a muddy ‘pier’ outside Luang Prabang, so that you have to get one of the many tuk tuks waiting at the top of the muddy hill. To be honest, even if you didn’t know about the scam, it wouldn’t be that hard to work out, all the locals wait on or just outside the boat until all the tourists have gone. We did put up a bit of a fight and waiting on the boat for a good half an hour, until we realised they weren’t going to give in and it was going to get dark soon. So we paid the 20,000Kip ($2.50) each for the tuk tuk and made our way to Luang Prabang.
Slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang tips:
- Be prepared for the scam and more than likely, be prepared to accept that they won’t give up before you and you will (in most cases) have to pay the 20,000Kip ($2.50) tuk tuk ride to Luang Prabang.
- Bring something to keep you occupied for the journey. Although the scenery is incredible during the journey down the Mekong River, it probably won’t keep you occupied for 8 hours. Maybe bring a long a book, or an iPod.
- Try and be one of the first on the boat, we luckily had comfy seats on both of the boat journeys. However, some unlucky people were sat in the engine room, on the floor.
- Don’t believe the scare stories. Pak Beng has more enough rooms to accommodate everyone on the boat. The people trying to sell you a room on the boat will try to scare you into thinking there isn’t, charging you a higher price that you’d pay in Pak Beng, so they get their cut of commission.
- Buy food and drink before you get on the boat. Although you can buy; BeerLao, water, fizzy drinks, crisps and instant noodles on the boat, the price is near enough double than buying on land.
- Have US dollars prepared for your Laos visa payment. Ours was $35.