I knew I was taking a slow boat, but everything about this morning was slow, matching the lazy pace of the crammed boat that we somehow convinced ourselves would be a great idea. We got picked up from our hostel in Chiang Khong at 8 AM, and our slow boat was set to leave at around 11:30 AM. We were crossing the border into Laos, so we had to go through immigration and border control, but even with having to get our visas on arrival, it only took maybe twenty minutes total. There was a lot of sitting around and lounging around waiting for a tuk-tuk or a shuttle or whatever it was to whisk us to the next place where we were meant to wait.
When we finally got on the boat, it was about as cramped as it gets. Everyone gets their own seat, but they aren’t exactly first-class seats with ample leg room. Seven hours of this to go!
We were blessed enough to get the seats right next to the bathroom and the bar. Our seats were facing the bar, actually, meaning that any time someone needed to go to the bathroom or get food, beer, or coffee, we had to move out of their way. They were also the closest seats to the boat’s engine, meaning we could hardly have a conversation, let alone have any rest. How I managed to even sleep for an hour on this boat was beyond me.
Pray that you get better seats than we did, and take in all of the beauty that the Mekong River has to offer. The hills are endless and lush, some of the greenest scenery I have seen in my entire life. Aside from the occasional little village, the scenery hardly changed. It does get repetitive, but it never gets ugly. It rained the entire time, but I wasn’t too upset about it because otherwise we probably would have died in the heat.
The first day of the journey would take us to Pakbeng where we would spend the night in town before heading off the next morning to complete the journey to Luang Prabang. Most of the guesthouses in Pakbeng were very cheap but very basic. Ours was 25,000 kip per person, so between the three of us, our three bed private room cost only about $3 each. It smelled awful and had a giant spider in the bathroom, but they had internet and for that price, you can’t really complain. If you pay a little extra, they’ll also send you off the next morning with lunch and breakfast. I got chicken and fried rice for about 20,000 kip since there was no 7-Eleven to stock up on food like I typically do before any journey.
The second day is more of the same, more greenery, more hills, and more brown river. It’s still absolutely beautiful, but by this point of the journey, I noticed more people were interested in playing cards or finishing their books.
Anyway, onto some actual useful information.
The Impotant Details
Leaving from Chiang Khong cost 1350 Baht. You can save some money if you attempt to bypass booking it through an agency, but not too much. We just told our hostel that we wanted to take the slow boat the following morning and they were back in less than twenty minutes with all the necessary forms and tickets.
You can also book the slow boat from Pai or Chiang Rai or Chiangmai, but all that really does is also book the transportation to Chiang Khong or wherever you’re crossing the border at. I preferred to take on those cities at my own pace rather than get rushed onto bus after bus. Also saved a little bit of money by taking local buses instead of air conditioned minivans.
The Visa Situation
You’re probably going to need a visa to enter Laos, but don’t worry. It was one of the most lax border crossings I’ve ever gone through. Make sure you have $35 USD to pay the visa fee. It might be different depending on what country you are from. My friends brought passport photos to use for the visa, but I didn’t and I just ended up paying 40 baht for them to make a copy of the photo already in my passport.
How to Prep
If you want to save money, buy a lot of snacks and drinks beforehand. There is a big markup for all the food and beer you can buy on the boat. I don’t know why you would even want to buy beer for a day on a slow boat, but a lot of people did. People brought anything from chips and crackers to full on meals. Once you get on the boat, you’ll be stuck on there for around 7 hours. There is a bathroom though, but personally, I’d suggest going on land before you go.
It might get cold, but not uncomfortably cold. I brought a sweater and a raincoat and both came in handy a number of times. Even though it rained for about 75% of the entire journey, you don’t really get wet on the boat. If it rains too hard, you can pull down the little plastic curtain things over the window.
If you’re traveling solo, it’s not too hard to make friends on the boat, but it is a bit of a gamble because it really depends on who you sit next to. Bring a book or something else to pass the time because the slow boat is exactly what the name suggests.
Overall, it was an incredible experience and definitely a story to tell. You could also take a speedboat or a bus, but I think this was the most relaxed and scenic way to make your way into Luang Prabang.