Laos

Once in a lifetime experience: Slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos

The slow boat to Luang Prabang is no doubt the most popular way to travel between Northern Thailand and Luang Prabang, Laos. The 2-day journey takes you from the Laos border town of Huay Xai all the way down to Luang Prabang and is the perfect opportunity to slow down and breathe.

Are you thinking about taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang? This article tells you everything you need to know about the slow boat experience in Laos such as what to expect, costs, what to bring, common scams (and how to avoid them) and other important information. This way your slow boat experience will be as stress-free and easy as possible!

a river between mountains
Photo by Magic K on Pexels.com

Types of (slow) boat journeys

First it’s good to know that there are different types of (slow) boat journeys you can choose from. There’s a public slow boat, fast boat or you can book one of the luxurious slow boat tour packages.

The public slow boat is the most popular one and the one I did during my trip in Laos. Most backpackers will choose this option as this is the cheapest. Though as a result these boats are usually full and you just sit for the entire ride on your seat and get up to use the bathroom every so often. Regardless of being called a slow boat it can be quite a speedy trip.

Public slow boat

The fast boat covers the same amount of distance as the two-day slow boat journey but in a matter of hours. The drivers wear helmets, but most passengers don’t (from what I saw). Even Though it’s a fast option to reach Luang Prabang, I do not recommend this option.

Alternatively you have the cruise boat tour packages. These are a lot more pricey, ranging between $150 and $450 per person. These are much more of an experience than just a simple ride from A to B. The group sizes are small and there’s space to walk around the boat. Meals are typically included, toilets are often clean, and most of the tours stop at the Pak Ou Caves. Some packages also include a fancy homestay.

Buying tickets for the slow boat to Luang Prabang

There are different options to buy tickets for the slow boat to Luang Prabang. You can buy a ticket directly at the pier, buy it at your accommodation or arrange it via a tour agency. When traveling from Thailand, for example Chiang Rai, you can also buy a complete package including transportation to Huay Xai and a slow boat ticket to Luang Prabang.

Most prices for slow boat tickets vary between 210.000 and 330.000 kip. The cheapest option is to buy a slow boat ticket directly from the pier. If you are on a strict itinerary it will be best to book tickets for the boat the day prior. Though you can risk it and simply turn up on the day and hope for the best. When you organize a slow boat ticket via an agency or accommodation you pay a few more dollars for the luxury of a third party organizing it for you. 

Most tickets include a transfer from the accommodation to the Mekong slow boat dock and both days on the slow boat. Note that you’ll still need to pay for accommodation in Pakbeng on the way and that you need your passport for the booking.

Slow boat facilities

The slow boat facilities really depend on the boat you get. Each boat will have seats, a toilet and a little shop where you can buy food and drinks. The boat we took on the first day had one toilet and a bucket next to it to flush the waste through the pipes or directly in the Mekong River (not sure where it went). The boat on the second day had two flushing toilets. The little shops sell things like water, beer, instant coffee, instant noodles, crisps and other basics. Best is to buy drinks and snacks beforehand, as the shop runs out of drinks and food fast and you pay a higher price than usual.

Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

First day on the slow boat from Huay Xai to Pakbeng

After spending the night and a delicious breakfast at Little Hostel in Huay Xai, we were picked up by a tuk tuk and dropped off at the dock. At the dock there were plenty of options to buy sandwiches and drinks, but our bag was already filled with fried rice, snacks and fruit from the hostel. There are no lunch stops on this trip, so make sure to either bring a packed lunch or buy some sandwiches at the dock.

We got on the slow boat at 10:30am, one hour before the departure time. There, we were asked to remove our shoes and our backpacks got stored under the deck. We only kept a small back with us for entertainment, food, and drinks.

Although the tickets have seat numbers, the numbers are just pieces of paper thrown on the seats and nobody really paid attention to them. Papers got switched, so couples and groups could sit together. The earlier you arrive, the easier it is to guarantee a seat next to your travel companion. Don’t wait till the last minute or you will end up sitting at the least desirable seats on the boat, facing each at the very front.

The seats are essentially recycled car seats and they aren’t fastened to the floor. We chose a nice seat in the back and moved the seats in front of us a little so that we had plenty of legroom during the trip. Most tourists sit in front of the slow boat, because the engine would bother you in the back. This was not so bad. At the back it was nice and quiet and the seats were surprisingly comfortable.

The slow boat holds about 100 people and the first day only 70 people joined the trip, so we all had plenty of space. The speed we were traveling provided an extremely enjoyable breeze, a great relief from the hot temperature. The first half hour we saw some small villages and fishermen around the Mekong. After this, it was all nature and all very pure. The green surroundings and the mountains were great to see. Here and there we saw some cows walking next to the Mekong or people working on the banks. But mostly what we saw was untouched nature, tall green mountains, rocks, and the soothing flow of the Mekong. It was relaxing and a great experience. For lunch we had some fried rice.

The Mekong itself is a dirty river. For those unfamiliar with the Mekong, the river is believed to be 4909 kilometers long and is considered one of the most important rivers in Asia. The river runs through the countries of China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Millions of people depend on the river. They catch fish, pick weeds, trade food and drink in boats, wash their clothes and use the river for cargo shipping. Unfortunately, there is also quite a bit of (plastic) garbage floating in it. We even saw a dead dog and dead cow floating. Iew! That smelled disgusting haha.

Overnight in Pakbeng

After 6 hours we arrived during sunset in Pakbeng, a mini village on the Mekong. Numerous people were standing around the river’s edge holding signs with available rooms. Pick-up trucks waited on the road to take people to their guesthouse. We booked at the Monsavanh Guesthouse for $11.00 total (excluding breakfast). It was a fine stay and very near to the dock. Although there are plenty of accommodation options in Pakbeng, I do recommend booking one in advance. It’s great to be able to check in right away after a 6-hour slow boat trip and not have to spend time walking around and looking for accommodation first.

For dinner, there were plenty of options around. We sat down at a restaurant with a good view over the river. The food was reasonably good and we also ordered our breakfast and lunch for the next day.

Second day on the slow boat from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang

The following day we were awakened by saffron-robed monks and novices who emerged onto the streets with their alms bowls. As they were meditating they collected their daily alms from devotees. 

Back down at the same restaurant as the previous night we enjoyed our breakfast and grabbed our lunch packages. Afterwards, we grabbed our bags and headed down to the slow boat pier. 

This time a smaller boat waited for us.The boat was full this time, so we were a little more crammed together this day. The railing was also a little higher, so we couldn’t see as well as the previous day. Because the boat was a bit smaller, it rocked a bit more and the ride was less relaxed than the day before.

Despite the boat, it was another fantastic trip. With a constant stream of fresh air, we were able to take in the surroundings. We watched the water buffalos play on the shore, saw the locals who live along the river, enjoyed the pristine nature and looked at the landscapes changing along the way. Sometimes we saw fast boats passing by, which was a funny sight, because the captain wore a motorcycle helmet. We also saw a cargo ship and a luxury cruise ship passing by. Halfway through we saw limestone karst jutting up out of the ground and the surrounding became a lot more mountainous. Personally, I think this was the most picturesque part of the journey.

Arriving in Luang Prabang

After 7 hours we arrived in Luang Prabang and got dropped off just outside the city center. Once we received our bags it was a short, but steep climb up the river bank. At the top plenty of tuk tuks waited for us and for 50000 kip each we were dropped off at our hotel (all bags on the roof). It was extremely organized and no one was demanding.

What to pack for the slow boat to Luang Prabang

Your backpack will most likely be stored under the deck or at the back of the boat and will be unreachable until you get to Pakbeng. As a result, you probably want to bring a day pack with all your necessities. Here are the things I took with me and why:

  1. Jacket: the mornings can be foggy and cold. 
  2. Sunblock: you might be stuck under the sun, so bring some sunblock to prevent yourself from getting burned.
  3. Sunglasses: so you can protect your eyes while enjoying the scenery.
  4. Toiletpaper: in case there’s no toilet paper on the boat.
  5. Water: so you don’t get hydrated.
  6. Lunch/snacks: because there’s no lunch break included and you probably don’t want to eat overpriced noodles.
  7. Entertainment: for example a book, some paper to write on, games, or a tablet to watch a movie.
  8. Ear plugs: just in case the motor is more loud than expected.

Some tips for taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos

  • Arrive early, so you can choose a seat you like. Choose a spot at the back of the boat if you don’t like crowds and take one with a curtain, so if you’re stuck in the sun, you can use the curtain.
  • Make sure to pack all your belongings and necessities in your daypack, because your backpack will be stored under the deck or at the back of the boat.
  • The toilets on the slow boats are not great. Try not to drink too much, so you avoid going to the toilet. Bring some toilet paper with you.
  • Do not listen to the man who will come onto the slow boat at the beginning of the journey and start selling accommodation. He states to be an official guide and tells you that almost all the accommodations in Pakbeng are fully booked, but this is a scam. These beds are overpriced.
  • Buy some lunch and snacks to bring onboard.
  • Your Thai SIM card will not work for most of the time on the slow boat. You can buy an overpriced SIM card in Huay Xai or just leave your phone for what it is and enjoy other things on the boat. Do also not listen to the man who is selling Lao sim cards at the beginning of the journey, these are overpriced. Just buy a sim card when you arrive in Luang Prabang.

Conclusion

The slow boat to Luang Prabang was one of the highlights of my trip to Laos. Please don’t let the potential inconveniences and discomforts that I’ve outlined discourage you from taking this boat trip. If you finally decide that the 2-day slow boat journey isn’t for you, then you can easily book a minivan to go from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai.

Author: Daphne

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