Backpacking around South East Asia is an amazing adventure, travelling through amazingly diverse landscapes and from country to country like a true explorer. But we always like to add to the adventure if we can, for example buying motorbikes in Vietnam added so much more to our time there than just a method of transport. So when we researched how we might go about getting from Luang Prabang in Laos over to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai in Thailand we came across the most amazing and picturesque two day boat ride down the Mekong… that trumps a bumpy and winding 18hr night bus any day! Here’s how to do the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat yourself.
The most relaxing, beautiful and local way to get between Laos and Thailand
Travelling from Laos to Thailand or vice versa 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 Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat.
The first leg: Getting to the boat station in Luang Prabang and buying your tickets
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 (£1.50) 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 is probably a good idea!
Similarly if you are arriving in Luang Prabang then there will be tuk tuks waiting for passengers and you should barter them down to get into the centre. Some people have complained that the boat hasn’t dropped them off in the town itself however it is now standard for the slow boats to dock here so I am not really sure what can be done about it.
Buying your tickets
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. Also some of those 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” for what is in reality a local boat service.
You will buy your first ticket at the docks in “Luang Prabang” and it should cost you 110,000 Kip (£11)
The ticket for the second boat from Pak Beng to Huay Xai will cost 110,000 Kip (£11) and you buy in on the boat itself.
There is also the option of paying around 320,000 Kip for the speed boat all the way in one day, however these are notoriously dangerous and uncomfortable. If you see a small thin boat fly pass you at speed whilst all the occupants are bobbing up and down with full face helmets, then that’s the speed boat!
Day One: A stunning ride to Pak Beng
The first day from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng is around 8 hours and 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. Over the course of the 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 (£5) 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 10,000 (£1) and sandwiches you could have made to take with you on the boat for 10,000 (£1).
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!
Day two: A relaxing trip to the Thai border
The second day is a little hectic at the docks as there will be quite a lot of boats all waiting for their passengers. The boat leaves again at around 8am but your accommodation should sort out transport to the docks or you can walk the short distance. You will usually end up on the same boat with the same people as the day before which is nice, especially on the way to Thailand as this way is less crowded, but in Pak Beng expect to meet many people heading the other way too! Yet another day on the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat was chilled out and enjoyable.
The 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!
When you arrive at the end of the boat journey you will still be in Laos, but for the majority of the second day you will actually have been traversing the border that runs through the centre of 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!
Now the more complex part: Getting over the border and to Chiang Rai or Mai!
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 15,000 (£1.50) to the border.
You will firstly pass through Laos immigration and officially leave the country.
Now you must take the shuttle bus across the friendship bridge for 10,000 (£1)
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 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 (£2) or to Chiang Mai.
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. Whereas the normal bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai should cost around 130 Baht for standard class (£3)
Cost, time and advice of the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat:
Day 1: 8-9 hours
Day 2: 7-8 hours
Total: At least 2 days, possibly 3 if you decide to stay in Huay Xai or Chiang Khong.
Tuk Tuk to harbour 15,000 (£1.50)
Boat total: 220,000 Kip (£22)
Accommodation in Pak Beng: 50,000 Kip (£5)
Tuk Tuk to border: 15,000 (£1.50)
Bus over the bridge: 10,000 (£1)
Minibus to Chiang Rai that evening: 350 Baht (£8)
Minibus to Chiang Mai that evening: 600 Baht (£13)
Tuk Tuk into Chiang Khong: 100 Baht (£2.30)
Accommodation in Chiang Khong: $3 – $5 for a dorm, $10 for a private room.
Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai with Greenway standard class: 130 Baht (£3)
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 as the journey is long but also smooth enough to write your diary etc.
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!
Have you ever taken the Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai slow boat
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