Backpacking around South East Asia is an amazing adventure, travelling through amazingly diverse landscapes and from country to country like a true explorer. When we discovered the amazing, picturesque and beautiful adventure that is the Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang slow boat we knew we had to do it. We always like to add to the adventure if we can, like when we bought motorbikes in Vietnam meaning that the method of transport is much more than getting from A to B, but an adventure in itself! so instead of the vomit inducing Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai (or reverse) night bus we decided to take the incredible two day journey down the mighty Mekong on the slow boat to Luang Prabang and here’s how you can take the same journey which ever direction you are travelling in!
The most relaxing, beautiful and local way to get between Laos and Thailand: The Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang slow boat
Travelling from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang or Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai is one of those necessary long journeys whilst travelling around South East Asia. The usual method for this region would be to just jump on yet another night bus and deal with the sleep deprivation the following day! However the route between the mountainous regions of Luang Prabang and Northern Thailand are notoriously steep and winding, the relatively short distance on the map is actually a vomit inducing 18 hour trip. We opted for a smooth and relaxing ride along the legendary Mekong river on the Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang slow boat which can also be taken from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai using the exact same method but in reverse!
Buying your tickets from Chiang Mai or Luang Prabang
Don’t be tempted to buy your ticket from one of the agents in town, they will only charge you additional commission for the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat, especially if you are in Chiang Mai as the boat leaves from another town.
Some of those on our boat who had paid up front ended up having to pay twice as their full ticket had been taken off them on the first day and the guys on the boat have no confirmation other than your paper ticket.
There are also many scams or just over priced and over sold “boat trips” when the slow boat to Luang Prabang is in reality a local a local boat service. Whether you are going from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang or Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai its best to get to the docks early and buy your tickets on the day from either the small office or on the boat.
The first leg: Getting to the boat station and buying tickets
Buying tickets in Luang Prabang
Firstly what you need to know is that the docks for the slow boat are now not in Luang Prabang centre itself but are around 10km outside of the town. The slow boat leaves in the morning at around 8am and you should arrive at least an hour before to get your tickets. You should take a tuk tuk from Luang Prabang to the docks for around 15,000 Kip (£1.40/ £1.80) each. Asking your accommodation to book it for you the day before and letting them know its for Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat so you make sure to get the right price and not miss your boat.
* In this direction it is much simpler as the boat leaves from just outside the town and there is an office at the docks selling the tickets.
* You will buy your first ticket at the docks in “Luang Prabang” (10km outside!) to Pak Beng and it should cost you 110,000 Kip (£10/ $13)
* The ticket for the second boat from Pak Beng to Huay Xai will cost 110,000 Kip (£10/ $13) and you buy in on the boat itself.
* There is also the option of paying around 320,000 Kip (£29.40 / $37.70) for the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai speed boat all the way in one day, however these are notoriously dangerous and uncomfortable. If you see a small thin boat fly past you at speed whilst all the occupants are bobbing up and down with full face helmets, then that’s the speed boat!
Buying tickets from Chiang Mai and getting to Chiang Khong and Huay Xai:
One thing to consider when coming from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang is that the actual boat leaves from another town a few hours away and you will have to firstly take the local bus from Chiang Mai to the small border town of Chiang Khong in Thailand then cross the border into Laos and getting a cheap tuk tuk to Huay Xai where the boat actually leaves from. You will need to stay overnight in one of these towns and get the slow boat to Luang Prabang in the morning, its best if you can stay in Huay Xai to make sure there isn’t a hold up at the border or with transport.
* From Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai you need to get the local bus to Chiang Khong, these are very cheap, do this the day before you want to get the boat. This bus takes around 5.5 hrs and costs around 250 Baht (£6 / $7.70) for the standard class.
* From Chiang Khong get a tuk tuk to the Laos-Thai friendship bridge and border. Here you will cross over and pay a small fee for the bus across the bridge.
* Take a tuk tuk to the town of Huay Xai where the Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang slow boat leaves in the morning
* Stay somewhere cheap in Huay Xai, expect to pay around 55,000 Kip (£5 / $6.50) for a room.
* Buy your ticket from the docks/ on the boat in the morning. Get there early and ask at your guest house for the time of the boat. They usually leave around 8am.
* You will buy your first ticket at the docks in Huay Xai to Pak Beng and it should cost you 110,000 Kip (£10/ $13)
* The ticket for the second boat from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang will cost 110,000 Kip (£10/ $13) and you buy in on the boat itself.
Day One: A stunning ride to Pak Beng
The first day on the Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang you will head for the same direction as the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat and both meet up in the small town of Pak Beng.
From Luang Prabang towards Chiang Mai the first leg is the most scenic of the entire journey where the Mekong is encircled by an every changing mountainous landscape, tiny villages and lush jungle surroundings. Sitting back on the comfortable seats with the breeze in your hair taking it all in is quite wonderful and takes around 8 hours.
From Huay Xai to Pak Beng the ride is a touch shorter but will still likely take over 7 hours and is more of a dress rehearsal for the amazing scenery on the next leg of the journey. It is still a wonderful introduction to Laos and a nice relaxing day after spending the previous day getting to and across the border.
Over the course of the 7-8 hours you will also likely get to know the other passengers on board, many of which will also be long term travellers and it becomes quite a social place too. We were also lucky that the boat wasn’t too crowed and so we could move the seat around for more space.
Arriving in Pak Beng:
There is no need to pre book any accommodation in the small town of Pak Beng. It is likely that there will be a hoard of people all touting for business as the boat comes in, this means a good price! We got a private room with a bathroom for 50,000 (£4.60 / $5.90) for the night and we were taken from the dock up to the hotel in a truck and back to the docks again in the morning for free. They also had breakfast for around 10,000Kip (£0.90/ $1.20) and sandwiches you could have made to take with you on the boat for 10,000Kip (£0.90/ $1.20).
Eating in Pak Beng is also relatively cheap and there are quite a few options for such a small place. However expect to pay more than you should for things like cans of coke, crisps and snacks for the boat the day after. If you can try and stock up whilst in Luang Prabang! The town itself isn’t the nicest of places and the accommodation leaves a lot to be desired, but it really is just somewhere to pass through for the night before heading off again in the morning on your Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai adventure!
Day two: A relaxing trip to your destination
At the start of the second day it can be a little hectic at the docks. Your accommodation can sort out transport but it is only a short walk anyway. Here people will be crowding around and travelling in both directions. It is important that you get there early, again the boat leaves around 8am, and make sure you are heading in the right direction! Often you will be on the boat with the same people as the day before which does makes it easier. The Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai route does seem to be less busy than the Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang boat for some reason too.
The Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang boat again takes around 7-8 hours and is again a stunning and fascinating journey down one of the great rivers of the world and the life blood of South East Asia. You get to witness everyday life on the river such as fishermen, farmers and their cattle and many stilt houses. It really is so much more rewarding to take the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat not to mention more comfortable than the bumpy bus!
One of the coolest things we found about the Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang slow boat what that the international border runs down the river. This means that you will actually have been traversing in and out of each country as you meander down the river, its quite a nice feeling to know that on one side of you is Laos and the other is Thailand, often there is some quite noticeable differences!
If you are thinking about
Arriving in Luang Prabang from Chiang Mai
If you’ve taken the Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang route this will be your last stop. You should know that the docks are around 10km outside of the city and you will need a tuk tuk.
Doing it this way you will probably pay more to get into the centre than in reverse as you can’t prebook the tuk tuk and the drivers know how desperate you are. Aim to pay around 15,000Kip (£1.40/ £1.80) each but expect to pay quite a bit more and do some heavy bartering.
Another idea is to take one of the many people offering accommodation up on their offer if the price is right an insist on transport being chucked in. You could also walk some of the way and pick up a tuk tuk from the road after the rush.
Book your Luang Prabang accommodation.
Arriving in Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang: Getting over the border and heading onwards:
Arriving in Huay Xai you have a few options, some choose to stay in the town over night and continue the journey the next day. We took a tuk tuk for around 15,000Kip (£1.40/ £1.80) to the border as we didn’t want to add an extra night onto the journey.
You will firstly pass through Laos immigration and officially leave the country.
Now you must take the shuttle bus across the friendship bridge for 10,000Kip (£0.90/ $1.20)
Then you will pass through Thai immigration and into the outskirts of the town of Chiang Khong.
Here you have a few options. The last local cheap bus from the border to Chiang Rai leaves at 5pm, so if you have come straight off the boat you will likely miss it, seems like bad planning to me!
So you can either spend the night in Chiang Khong and take the cheap bus to Chiang Rai the morning after for around 65 Baht (£1.50 / $2 ) or to Chiang Mai for around double the price.
Or if you want to get to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai that night you will have to take a mini bus. You will usually get enough people wanting to do the same route to be able to share the cost, the prices are set but there is some room for negotiation if there is a group that needs for example a bus and a car as we did. Expect to pay around 350 Baht (£8) each, steep considering how much the local bus is but it’s comfortable and will get you there that night. To Chiang Mai expect to pay around double this.
The normal bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai should cost around 130 Baht (£3/ $4) for standard class if you want to spend a day in Chiang Rai first and see the white temple before heading on to Chiang Mai.
Cost, time and advice of the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai/ Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang slow boat:
Each day on the boat will be between 7-9 hours.
If you are travelling Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang it is probably going to break down as such:
* Day 1: Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong (5.5hrs), tut tuk from Chiang Khong to the border, shuttle bus across the border, tuk tuk to Huay Xai. Spend the night in Huay Xai.
Book your bus here: 12go.asia
* Day 2: Tuk tuk from Huay Xai to docks, boat leaves around 8:00am buy tickets at the harbour and arrive early. 7-8 hours on the boat. Arrive in Pak Beng and spend the night. Accommodation easy to organise when you get there.
* Day 3: Get to the docks for 7:30am boat leaves at 8:00am, buy tickets on board. Pak Beng to Luang Prabang 8-9 hours on the boat. Tuk tuk from docks to Luang Prabang centre/ accommodation.
If you are travelling from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai it will be as such:
* Day 1: Tuk tuk from Luang Prabang/ Accommodation to harbour. Boat leaves at 8:00am, buy tickets at the harbour, arrive early. Arrive in Pak Beng 8-9 hours later and stay the night. Accommodation easy to organise when you get there.
* Day 2: Get to the docks for 7:30, boat leaves at 8:00am, buy tickets on board. 7-8 hours on board. Arrive in Huay Xai. Here you have three choices:
1. Take a cheap tuk tuk to Huay Xai centre and stay the night before crossing the border and heading to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai the day after. Accommodation is cheap and you can get the cheap local buses in the morning. Adds another day but is cheaper.
2. Take a tuk tuk to the border, take the shuttle bus across the friendship bridge, cross into Thailand, take a tuk tuk/ taxi to Chiang Khong. Spend the night before heading to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai the day after. Accommodation is cheap and you can get the cheap local buses in the morning. Adds another day but is cheaper.
3. Take a tuk tuk to the border, take the shuttle bus across the friendship bridge, cross into Thailand, organise a mini bus outside the border to either Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. These are expensive for the region but can often be shared with other travellers and will get you to your destination on your second day.
Local buses are cheap and often between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai or you could book your bus here: 12go.asia
Tuk Tuk to harbour from Luang Prabang 15,000 Kip (£1.40/ £1.80) Expect to pay more in reverse.
Boat total: 220,000 Kip (£20 / $26 )
Accommodation in Pak Beng: 50,000 Kip (£4.60 / $5.90)
Tuk Tuk to border: 15,000Kip (£1.40/ £1.80)
Shuttle bus over the bridge: 10,000Kip (£0.90/ $1.20)
Minibus to Chiang Rai that evening: 350 Baht (£8/ £10.70)
Minibus to Chiang Mai that evening: 600 Baht (£13/ $18.40)
Tuk Tuk into Chiang Khong: 100 Baht (£2.30/ $3)
Accommodation in Chiang Khong: 170 Baht (£4/ $5) for a dorm, 325 Baht (£8/ $10) for a private room.
Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai with Greenway standard class: 130 Baht (£3/ $4)
Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong: Roughly 250 Baht (£6 / $7.70)
* Bring your own food and drink with you for the boat, they do often sell noodles and drinks at a highly inflated price if you get desperate but they don’t have a lot of choice and some boats don’t carry anything. You also won’t be stopping anywhere on the way on the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat.
* Bring a hoody and some socks for the early morning or if it gets a bit too windy on board as it can feel chilly in the shade. Also bring some suncream for when the sun is on your side of the boat!
* Bring along a book or a movie or your kindle as the journey is long but also smooth enough to write your diary etc.
* Bring a travel pillow so you can get comfy and get some rest
* Get your camera out and ready, there are some beautiful scenes along the way!
* Arrive at the dock early to get a good seat. The very front is usually where the locals sit as they will often be getting off at a random places along the way and it’s usually wooden benches. The very back however is where the engine is and can be very noisy. Try to get somewhere in between on one of the bus style seats.
* Take your time and don’t stress too much, this is the long winded way to make this trip and can take 3 days, but it’s relaxing and enjoyable!
* Bring power packs for your phone as there isn’t usually power available on board.
* The boat is usually pretty calm being on a river but you should keep your valuables such as your passport inside a dry bag just incase!
Have you ever taken the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat or gone the other way from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang?
Still want to take the bus or fly, these are great if you are short on time or don’t want the hassle of organising all the different steps of the slow boat.
Find your bus here:
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