Whenever I travel by boat or a motorbike, I enjoy the actual journey. I am not simply looking forward to the destination, I savor the way there. Yet the most popular way to travel between Thailand and Laos, on board of a wooden boat, was a difficult choice.
The slow boat trip from Chiang Mai (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos) takes 3 days and 2 night, and I only had 5 weeks to visit 3 countries. Besides, now that I have been on a few boats in Southeast Asia, I am aware of the inconveniences they offer. Not to mention that this is not the safest means of transportation. Most of these vessels are old fishing boats, equipped with seats and stronger engines, to become questionably fit for passengers.
Two monotonous days on a boat seemed like a waste of time, even if you’re traveling down the mighty Mekong. And, when you are stuck in the middle of a river for 2 days, you become an easy, delicious target for hordes of hungry mosquitos. Yet after reading reviews online, I decided that whether I liked it or not, the best way to move between Thailand and Laos was by taking the slow boat.
The fast boat is another, less time-consuming option. However, travelers who have already experienced it say it is dangerous and unpleasant. The engine’s obnoxious roar makes it impossible to share stories with fellow travelers, you are a nuisance to everyone who lives by the Mekong river, it’s uncomfortable and downright dangerous. As one backpacker described it, “Nobody in Laos ever wears a helmet, no matter what. Yet they make you wear one on the fast boat. Imagine the confidence they have in this journey’s safety.”
Of course, there are other options as well. You can fly but that will cost you. You could also take a 20-hour bus ride but that is the kind of self-inflicted torture that everyone warns you to stay away from.
So, the slow boat became my home, work station, and social environment, over the next few days.
It’s Not a Boat, It’s a Small Universe
At 8 AM, while still trying to wake up after the previous night’s party, I met the people I was going to share my life with, over the next few days. They shared stuff like, “I’ve always been a free spirit” and “Dude, that time I carried Ketamine condoms through the border…”. My mind contoured a Picasso-like image of what was about to unfold.
Up until the boat trip, I had spent my days in sleek hostels, amongst lawyers, digital nomads, stock brokers, and other well-educated, upstanding members of society. In contrast, the lot on the boat was diverse, and for the most part – a bit nuts. So, if you decide to embark on this journey, expect some unique stories and, if you’re able to relax and join in, quite a bit of fun.
Chilled Out Asian Life
The trip takes 3 days and 2 nights. If you leave from Chiang Mai, Chiag Rai, or Pai, you’ll spend the first day on a bus, which will take you to the shores of the Mekong River and a town called Chiang Khong. If you book with an agency, the first night’s accommodation is included in the price. The town is small, quiet, has a few secluded temples, and offers some simple entertainment along the banks of the river, at sunset. My new travel mates and I found the spot where locals go to kill the time in the afternoon and chilled out there, local beers in hand.
Chiang Khong is a good stop to relax and enjoy the slow pace of Asian life, especially if you luck out with decent accommodation. The travel company split up our group into a few guest houses and most of us had dire sleeping conditions. Make sure you check your mattress for bed bugs. A few people arrived with red, stinging bites all over their bodies, the next morning.
At the Border
As this blog elaborately explains, you can organize the trip by yourself, or do it through a travel agency. I chose the latter, since it’s just a little bit more expensive (I paid 170 000 kip or 18 euros), yet it’s much more convenient. You don’t need to book anything online though – there are a ton of agencies in Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang. I am sure that the same is true for the smaller cities as well.
The agency also provided a shuttle bus from my accommodation and across the border.
The Thai-Laos border is simple enough to cross but there are two important things to keep in mind:
- Before you exchange any money, make sure you know the exchange rate, to avoid becoming an easy target for scammers. Naturally, exchange rates at the border are not particularly favorable and it’s best to exchange your money beforehand. If you haven’t been able to do so, make sure that you use the official booths at the border. Laotian currency is of very little value (1 EUR = 9,648 LAK) so it’s easy to get confused.
- If you’ll be going back to Thailand, and you have a single-entry tourists visa, you need to get your re-entry permit at the border. Use this trick and you’ll save on the expensive multiple-entry visa.
How to Choose Your Seat on the Boat
The best spots are on the bow because this is the highest bit of the boat and thus offers a magnificent view of the river and its shores. Besides, the seats in the front get more wind, which can be a lifesaver during Southeast Asia’s dry season. You get to mingle with both backpackers and locals, which is a treat. The bow is also an excellent place to observe the captain’s skill – the Mekong is a difficult river to navigate and it was interesting to watch him do it.
If you’re willing to substitute comfort for views and adventure, then try the very back of the boat, where the makeshift kitchen is. You’ll be sitting on a plastic chair, between buckets, and the floor will probably flood. Yet it’s the most chilled out spot on the boat, you have an uninterrupted view of the river, and can engage in recreational activities, away from stern looks.
The seats in the middle are where most people go. They are relatively comfortable, but you can only socialize with other tourists, since the locals don’t sit there. It’s difficult to see the river from here and it’s quite hot as well.
We spent the second night of the trip in Pakbeng, Laos, where I had booked a room through Booking.com. Don’t do that! There are dozens of locals at the harbor, who wait for the boats and offer accommodation. All the guest houses have basic amenities but I paid 6 times more than everyone else (120 000 kip, instead of 20 000). Not to mention that I had all manner of bugs for roommates. And a guy who had rented the room next door, found a scorpion in the shower.
At least the room was close to the only bar in town – “Happy Bar“. Sure, every bar is happy, but this one is especially so. It’s a small, wooden Rastafarian shed, where almost everyone from the boat came together, to share cocktails, local Beerlao, and whatever else was on offer.
In the morning, the town comes alive with the calls of stall-owners, selling croissants, muffins, fruit, and baguettes. Everyone claims that they have the best breakfast, even though they are all offering the exact same thing.
You might be surprised by the abundance of French baked goods here but they are popular in Laos, since the country was a French colony.
Don’t Expect Direct Passage to Luang Prabang
The following day, we were told to be at the dock before 9 AM but when my friend and I arrived at 8:45, every single seat on the boat was occupied. I was just getting ready to spread my sarong on the floor (a large and extremely multifunctional piece of fabric) when the crew produced a few seats out of thin air. In Southeast Asia, there is always a way, as long as you keep a genuine smile on your face.
Even though the tourist agency will tell you that the boat is to Luang Prabang, don’t expect to actually get there. Only the locals are dropped off at the central port. Everyone else is asked to leave the boat about 15 km before the city and take a tuk-tuk downtown. It’s the crew’s way to share the tourist wealth with their tuk-tuk driving compatriots. While it is a bit annoying, the ride costs only 20 000 kip (2 euros) and you can split it with other travelers, so it’s no big deal.
I admit that I set off on the journey with plenty of negative expectations. At the end though, it turned out that it really was the best way to travel between north Thailand and north Laos. The Mekong river is a mighty monster, with dangerous currents, but it’s also beautiful and serene. The boat is the best way to enjoy it. Besides, everyone finds their people on the boat and the rest of my trip was heavily influenced by them. You can read more about that here.
What is your favorite boat trip? Tell us about it in the comments below