Like most journeys in South East Asia, there is a hard way to do it and an easy way to do it. Taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang definitely counts as the hard way. You can travel by bus from Thailand to Luang Prabang and you can all fly direct to Luang Prabang. Both the plane and the bus are quicker and more comfortable but the price you pay for more comfort isn’t just financial, it is also the cost of missing out on an experience. I don’t think many people would travel this way twice, but doing it once will leave lasting memories.
About the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
There is more than one option is terms of exactly how uncomfortable an experience the slow boat to Luang Prabang is:
- Cheap Option: Local people and backpackers on a shoe string budget will take local buses and tuk-tuks to the start point for the boat journey, buy a boat ticket when they arrive, and sit in a cramped decrepit boat for two days. The standard cheap slow boat to Luang Prabang costs 210,000 Lao Kip (about $22.5 USD) per adult for both legs of the journey. On top of this you need to get to the town where the trip starts in Laos, pay for one night’s accommodation on route and then a fairly small amount to get from the dock where you arrive into to Luang Prabang town centre. From Chiang Rai the total cost will be around the equivalent of $45 USD not including your visa for Laos nor your drinks and food on route.
- Expensive Option: For more comfort take an organised tour. From Chiang Rai they cost around £180 USD per person not including your visa for Laos, but the price will include some meals, some drinks, your hotel on route and all your transport. Families and older people should seriously consider doing this rather than taking the standard boat. Organised tours run more smoothly with less hanging around and there will a local guide you can sort any problems that you encounter on route. The boats also are better, with more comfortable seating and more space. You also get to avoid the younger traveller who tend to do what most younger travellers should do, which is have a good time and this often means drinking alcohol, smoking and talking loudly. Being stuck in a confined space with a lot of drunk backpackers for two days is likely to detract from your enjoyment of the journey if you are not also a drunk backpacker.
Whether you go on a organised trip or you travel on a standard boat independently your trip starts from the same place and follows the same itinery:
- Day 1: Huay Xai to Pakbeng. Huay Xai is a small scenic town very close to the border with Thailand. To get from Thailand you need to go to Chiang Khong and then over the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River into Laos. Once you cross over the border into Laos you can easily get a tuk-tuk to the slow boar pier. The standard boats depart around 11:30 and then meander slow up the river arriving in the tiny town of Pakbeng from around 17:30 to 18:00. Tour boats tend to depart a bit earlier and stop on route to pick up hot food for lunch and allow passengers a short time to stroll around a village with nothing in particular to see. If you are on a tour there will be someone to pick you up at the pier in Pak Beng and take you to some some of the better accommodation in town. Independent travellers can either go with the touts at the pier to the guesthouse they are pitching or wander into town and find their own for a slightly cheap price. More expensive guesthouses have their own restaurant, and there are a couple of independent restaurants, including a good Indian restaurant, and a single bar called the Happy Bar.
- Day 2: Pakbeng to (nearly) Luang Prabang: This is a longer day. The standard boats depart at around 09:00 and arrive at their final destination at around 16:00. Luang Prabang Slow Boat Pier isn’t actually in Luang Prabang anymore, its about 10 minutes away by road. People on a tour will get a transfer to a hotel in Luang Prabang or at least into town if they haven’t pre-booked a hotel. Independent travellers have the pleasure of negotiating with a tuk-tuk driver who will try to charge as much as they can but will generally agree to take you from the pier into the town centre for around 20,000 Lao Kip.
Location of Huay Xai Slow Boat Pier
Huay Xai Slow Boat Pier is located 20.5 km by road from the Chiang Khong – Huay Xai Friendship Bridge.