A child on a boat on the Mekong River removing water with his bucket Laos

WIT: Laos Slow Boat – the Ultimate Guide

The Laos Slow Boat seems to be a passage of rites for backpackers in South-East Asia. When you find yourself in Chiang Mai, Pai and Chiang Rai, you’ll discover that Laos really isn’t all that far away. It’s teasingly close, and an adventure well worth adding to any South-East Asian trip.

But don’t be fooled; getting there still takes time and some careful planning. Our Ultimate Guide to the Laos Slow Boat will explain how to cross the border, tell you everything you need to know about the experience, and will help make your journey a smooth one.

Your Options to Cross the Border

Let’s begin with the basics: the border crossing between Thailand and Laos involves three locations you need to know about. The first of these is Chiang Khong, on the Thai side of the border. Similarly, Huay Xai is on the Lao side. The journey takes two days, and the night between both sailing days will see you sleeping in Pak Beng.

WEE TIP: one important thing to note is that the Laos slow boat begins and ends in Laos. Many backpackers get confused and describe it as the Laos slow boat which crosses the Thai border, when in fact, you’re always in Laos. So uh, there you go, now you can be the petulant passenger correcting the others eh?

Blue curtains on the Laos slow boat with hills in the background
And set stress levels to zero

When planning how you’ll cross the border from Thailand in to Laos, you have a number of options to choose from. Each of them varies greatly in terms of cost, time and convenience and are as follows:

  1. Catching a flight
  2. Driving your rental car/motorbike
  3. Taking the bus over friendship bridge between Chiang Khong and Huay Xai

If you plan to take the Laos slow boat, you’ll need to take the bus over friendship bridge, and we’ll get in to that in more detail later.

CATCHING A FLIGHT

Air fare to and from Laos is notoriously expensive, government controlled, and not-at-all backpacker friendly. The cheapest flights tend to be out of peak season and in peak season they need to be booked months in advance. Furthermore, most of your flights from will also have a layover in Bangkok. So, if you’re in the north you’ll need to head back to Bangkok regardless.

DRIVING YOUR RENTAL CAR/MOTORBIKE

If you’re driving around northern Thailand in a rental car and only want to visit Laos on a quick fling, then we have bad news. It’s impossible to drive a rental car from Thailand in to Laos, as all vehicles crossing the border need to be registered in the owner’s name. If you really want to see Laos, we really believe you should commit to it properly, and cross the border and rent another car on the other side.

If you’re on your own motorbike, you may also find that you have problems as recent updates have restricted foreign bikes crossing in to Thailand. The rules change all the time: feel free to do your own research when you’re leaving for your trip but we think this will be a nightmare at the best of times.

From Huay Xai

After you’ve made it across the border to Huay Xai, there are two options for onward travel in Laos as follows:

1. Endure the bus journeys:

  • To Luang Prabang
  • To Luang Namphan

2. Take one of the following boats rides:

  • Slow boat
  • Speedboat
  • Cruise
BUS

Yes, you can grab a bus to most parts of northern Laos from Huay Xai, and there are a few options to choose from. However, in a country where you’ll be spending back-aching amounts of hours on cramped and crumbling buses, do yourself a favour and enjoy the Laos slow boat experience to Luang Prabang. Your alternative is the 9-12 hour bus to Luang Prabang and that’s not something we’re going to recommend.

WEE TIP: notice the 9-12 part of that last sentence? You’ve already worked out that that’s a 3-hour range, and that’s because you’re in Laos now. As fantastic as Laos is, any bus journey will require that you develop near impossible levels of patience and tolerance. ‘Highways’ throughout the country are more potholes than road and the weather, bus capacity, and the driver’s appetite all influence your journey time. Considering all of this, it’s definitely still worth it, we promise.

On the other hand, if you plan to visit Luang Namtha as part of your Laos trip for the best hiking, then we would highly recommend getting the bus straight there from Huay Xai. A recently completed highway makes this an incredibly convenient option (4 hours) and from what we’ve been told, it’s probably the best road in the whole of Laos. This means you’ll miss out on the Laos slow boat experience this time, but you can always exit Luang Prabang via the Laos slow boat if you really, really want to, and head in the reverse direction.

An old boat on the Mekong River which is used as a house, Laos
The river is still hugely important for local people in Laos
BOAT

The Laos slow boat from from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is a rite of passage for backpackers in South-East Asia. This two-day journey takes you through wonderful rural scenery and takes your stress levels to an ultimate low. You’ll find yourself floating through beautiful Laos countryside chatting with other backpackers over a beer, catching up on your diary or kicking back on the slow boat and doing nothing at all.

The Laos Slow Boat Options

You’ve done well to read through all of this so far, but there’s a bit more to go unfortunately. Even once you’ve crossed the border in to Laos, there are a number of slow boat options to choose from. We’ll summarise these as follows:

  1. Grab the speedboat
  2. Take a cruise
  3. Slow Boat DIY
  4. Take a packaged slow boat ticket

We’ll talk you through each of these boat options but first of all, you need to decide where you’re going to sleep the night before your slow boat (hint – it’s either Chiang Khong or Huay Xai)

We were delighted that we chose to sleep in Chiang Khong the night before. Plenty of other Laos slow boat go-ers got off our bus from Chiang Mai at the closest point to Friendship Bridge and decided to cross the border that day and sleep instead in Huay Xai. True, it gives you more time to relax in the morning before your slow boat experience, but we skipped sleeping in Laos and slept in Thailand instead.

Friends who had already crossed the border were pretty scathing about the quality of accommodation available in Huay Xai. After doing some research of our own, we decided we didn’t fancy it either. Although your to-do list the next morning will have a few more things on it, you’ll sleep comfier in Chiang Khong and your value for money will be infinitely better than over on the Lao side.

Valley views on the Mekong River in Laos
The scenery is pretty amazing for two whole days

Chiang Khong

Where to Stay

Namkhong Guesthouse our choice

This option is almost too good to be true, and an amazing way to relax the night before your Laos slow boat. The Economy Bungalow huts are comfortable and spacious, even if the walls are pretty, ahem, thin. You can also upgrade to superior bungalows if you’d like a little more peace and quiet. The low price and friendly staff add to its appeal, with a brilliant big pool a massive bonus. Relax by the poolside before setting your alarm for tomorrow’s early start.

Economy Bungalows from 180B

Other Options

Since there were two of us it made sense to share the cost of a private in Chiang Khong. Contrarily, if you’re travelling alone (or if Namkhong Guesthouse is full), there are two very well reviewed hostels in town. Dorms in Funky Box hostel start from 100B, while dorms in Sleeping Well hostel start at 190B. Sleeping Well Hostel also offers privates.

Where to Eat

You won’t be writing home about the food you had in Chiang Khong any time soon, but there are certainly some spots that’ll fill your belly on a budget. We ate at a local place called Padthai Baan Yim and their special curry of the day was completely fine (as was the Pad Thai). There’s also a morning market in town, but you’re unlikely to want to visit this before your Laos slow boat experience…since it starts at around 3am. Finally, and somewhat surprisingly, there’s a decent Mexican restaurant in Chiang Khong! Bamboo Mexican House Restaurant has only recently opened up shop, but other guests at our accommodation were really impressed with the value-for-money Mexican food here, all the way in Chiang Khong.

A young family board their boat from a beach on the Mekong River in Laos
How else do you get around here?

The Speedboat

Avoid taking the speedboat at all costs. Seriously. If you don’t believe us, have a quick google and check out some of the reviews.

Tempting as it may be to cut your Laos slow boat experience in half, you’re taking a serious risk in doing so. The cowboys running this seriously sketchy operation have been to blame for some serious injuries over the years. They give you a helmet and a lifejacket for a reason. Your Laos slow boat experience is supposed to be relaxing, enjoyable and most importantly SAFE. Skip this option and skip gripping on to the rickety boat edges for your life.

Take a Cruise

This one is the holiday-makers’ convenience option. For around $200 you can take a ‘cruise’ from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Essentially, you’ll be travelling on the same boat-model as the others, except there’s normally a maximum of around 25 passengers instead. Expect your boat to be less cramped, enjoy tea and snacks during the ride, but ultimately it’s the same experience as the traditional Laos slow boat. Sure you’re likely to have a nicer place to sleep in Pak Beng as well, but unless you have serious cash to spare, this doesn’t really seem like a value for money option to us.

WEE TIP: if your budget can stretch far enough to afford it, then make sure you find some time for the Gibbon Experience, which is right next to Huay Xai. Sadly we couldn’t figure out a way to get there on our budget, but friends who visited really, really enjoyed the experience!

The DIY Laos Slow Boat Experience

Ok, there a lot of steps involved in this one! Well done for reading this far, and we’re going to make this as simple to read as possible. Even if it doesn’t seem straightforward just now, if you want to DIY the Laos slow boat, you should be able to find everything you need below.

In To Laos
  1. Have your departure card ready for leaving! Get this done the night before. You don’t want to be the dummy at the front of the queue walking to the back to fill out a form you forgot.
  2. You can see the list of countries which need a visa to enter Laos here, and the respective costs. Our UK visa cost $35 for 30 days in Laos. We had our $ arranged before we arrived in Chiang Khong, and we suggest that you do too.
  3. From your accommodation in Chiang Khong, you’re going to need to get to Friendship Bridge. This is normally done on a tuk-tuk and costs 75B pp. This could probably be haggled down to 50B pp.
  4. Next, you’re going to join everybody crossing Friendship Bridge on a coach. There is no way to walk across this bridge. This is incredibly frustrating, and an absolute scam, but this 5-minute journey is sadly unavoidable. There’s a kiosk within the station where you can buy your ticket for 20B. Even more frustratingly, the ticket costs 25B if it’s after 4pm on a Saturday or Sunday.
Kids wave from a beach on the Mekong River in Laos
Some of the locals are happier to see you than others

WEE TIP: When you’re in the bus ticket booth, exchange the last of your Baht for Laos Kip. We got 1B=260K (Nov ’18) which was better than 1B=258K advertised on Google at the time. We don’t know either, but we weren’t complaining. Every penny counts on the Laos slow boat experience.

The Border
  1. While you’re waiting in the queue, make sure you fill out BOTH forms at Laos arrivals. We got stung because there were no Laos Arrival forms in the basket, but it was quickly refilled when we were turned away from the desk and complained.
  2. You’ll see others in the queue with their passport photos printed – to save the hassle of keeping these prints pristine in your backpack, just pay the extra $1/10,000K/30B and they’ll ignore that you don’t have one.
  3. If like us you’re travelling on a Saturday, you’re going to have to pay an extra 10,000K to the visa boys because well, it’s a Saturday. We gave them 50,000K total (20,000K for passport photos, 20,000K for Saturday) and somehow got given 120B back. For the second time in succession, we didn’t ask any questions.

WEE TIP: This is going to sound equal parts daft and dumb. But take it from us – make sure that the US$ you have are perfect. We mean absolutely perfect – no ink, no tears, no folds, no damage whatsoever. Wherever you exchange your local cash for US$, double check that they’re pristine, and ask for new notes if they aren’t. Our Laos immigration officer/dollar investigator found the tiniest fold on one of our notes and caused us quite a bit of pain. Thankfully, the couple behind us swapped it for a better note. If you’re less fortunate, you’re going to have to find somebody at the arrivals post that will take your skanky note, and that will not be easy.

  1. Do your best to make sure that you’ve not got any Baht left. Just have your US$ for the visa and some Laos kip ready – you’ll get shitty exchange rates for your Baht on the other side at arrivals.
  2. If however you do still have some notes left (we were left with some Baht after our tri-currency visa process), exchange them on the pre-visa side here instead. We exchanged our 120B to Laos kip and got 30,000K back. The numbers didn’t add up at all, but again we weren’t complaining.
  3. Pay for your visa, hand over your passport and wait on the other side while your papers are processed.
  4. Once more with feeling: get rid of all your Baht before your visa is approved and you pass through to Arrivals. A Dutch friend of ours got rid of a pretty chunky pile of Baht and got seriously ripped off here. Not the best way to begin your slow boat experience now that you’re in Laos.
  5. Through arrivals you’ll see Bo Sapphire booth selling boat tickets – they sell 140,000K/540B per day, but it’s cheaper if you wait until you get to the pier. There’s also a bus ticket stall here selling tickets everywhere in the country. This is also where you’ll get your bus to your first Laos destination if you’re not taking the slow boat.
A sign showing the fares for prices throughout Laos in the Huay Xai arrivals hall
Transport options from the Arrivals hall in Huay Xai (iPhone)
On to The Boat
  1. Next, you need to get your 25,000K tuk-tuk from the border to the slow boat pier. In typically lao fashion, an impossible amount of people will be crammed in to the back of the tuk-tuk, but at least your journey is only 15 minutes long.
  2. Finally! You’re here! You’re at the Laos slow boat jetty and you can see the boats. Jump up to the ticket office and get your boat tickets for the next two days. You should be paying 105,000K per day here, and pay in Laos Kip for the best rates. It seems like they only run one boat a day, but when it gets busy they’ll fire up another boat and get you there, so we reckon you’re almost always likely to get a ticket at this stage.

WEE TIP:  naturally, your tuk-tuk drops you off at the jetty restaurants. If you don’t have any snacks of meals prepared, then these are your only real option for food during the Laos slow boat journey. It’s a lot more expensive than it should be, but they don’t have any competition here. Stock up on sandwiches, snacks, and beers – it’s even pricier when you’re on the boat itself. Make sure you do this quick though – all the good seats on the boat go quick, so head down to the boat as fast as you can.

DIY Summary
  • Have your Thai Departure Card ready before you leave your accommodation!
  • Chiang Khong Accommodation – Friendship Bridge (Thai side)
    • 75B pp. Haggle this down to 50B pp on a trike
  • Friendship Bridge (Thai side) – Friendship Bridge (Laos side)
    • 20B coach ticket. 25B if it’s after 4pm or Saturday/Sunday
  • Exchange your Thai Baht for Laos Kip at the bus station
  • Hop off the bus (now that you’re in Laos!) and fill out your visa forms in the queue at Laos immigration
  • Make sure you fill out BOTH forms at Laos arrivals
  • Pay your fee in the most perfect, pristine, freshly-pressed US$
  • Pay extra for the passport photo print that you don’t have
    • $1/10,000K/30B
  • Don’t exchange any Baht post-visa on the Arrivals side
  • Don’t buy the Bo Sapphire bus tickets at 140,000K/540B per day, it’s cheaper at the pier
  • OR if you’re travelling by bus, then you can buy your bus tickets here from the stall
    • 25,000K tuk-tuk from border to boat pier. Roughly 15mins
  • At the jetty, the boat ticket is 105,000K per day. Pay in Laos Kip
A sign showing the fares for minivan transfers throughout Laos in the Huay Xai arrivals hall
The bus (minivan) fares and schedules (iPhone)

WEE TIP: if you want the cheapest bed in Nam Kan, you’re going to have to hold your nerve. It seemed that everybody around us had pre-booked their Laos Slow Boat accommodation; we were one of the few that hadn’t. Just before the boat departs a lovely captain/chancer will jump on board and warn that there aren’t many beds left in town – buy one of the last ones from him to avoid disappointment. Understandably, a lot of people crumbled and paid 100,000K for their  reserved bed. When we turned up in Nam Kan, plenty of locals were waiting for us with beds to spare. We got a bed in the exact same place as the pre-bookers for half the price. They’ll always find a bed for tourists.

The Packaged Laos Slow Boat Ticket

Your final option for the Laos Slow Boat is to buy a packaged ticket and book through any number of tour operators or through your accommodation. They don’t sort out every detail for you, but you can rest assured that you already have your slow boat ticket. You’ll also have your transfer to Friendship Bridge (from your accommodation) and your tuk-tuk from arrivals to the jetty all sorted. Therefore, the only transport you have to pay for is your coach across Friendship Bridge.

This option works out slightly more expensive, but it’s convenient and you have the guarantee of getting on the boat. We were worried about the boat selling out with swarms of other travellers heading the same way after the Loy Krathong festival in Chiang Mai, so we went for our hotel ticket. We needn’t have bothered – there were still tickets available at the jetty ticket office.

Still, for 1250B, it only worked out a few $ more expensive for us and it guaranteed us a seat on the boat. Bear in mind that with this option, you’ll still have to pay for your 25B coach across Friendship Bridge. Our transfer from the accommodation to Friendship Bridge left at 08:30 sharp.

Boat Advice Day 1

Seating

Once you’ve been dropped off at the restaurant (as you read before), grab your snacks quick and head downhill to the boat because the good seats go quick. The front of the boat is generally for locals and their cargo (you’ll see plenty of transfers along the way). The engine is at the back of the boat and is pretty damn loud and noisy – try get somewhere in between.

Your level of comfort is going to depend on the boat you get. The first day of our Laos slow boat experience was pretty comfortable; we each got a full row/bench to ourselves. Some of the seats are old bus/aircraft seats, some are wooden pews, and some are four seats sharing a table as you’d find on a train. It really comes down to luck, but the earlier you get there the more choice you’ll have.

Slow boats docked at the jetty near Huay Xai in Laos
Once you’re off your slow boat, head down to the boats for the comfiest seat you can find!

WEE TIP: before you chuck your bags in at the back of the boat, make sure they’re zipped tight and padlocked properly. Too many people spoke about their bags being tampered with, and things going missing.

Atmosphere

The small ‘bar’ at the back of our boat was selling large, cold Beerlao for 20,000K. It’s a little pricey, but you’re on a slow boat in the middle of Laos, so that’s how it goes. There were plenty of people drinking on our boat on the first day, and a nice social atmosphere from front to back. Still, there was plenty of time for peace and quiet. Do try not to be one of the big-mouths that never shuts up though – there’s always one.

On arrival in Pak Beng, don’t panic. It’ll be slightly chaotic forming queues and passing everybody’s bags through the boat, but you’ll get your bag eventually. Then you’ll face the swarm of locals looking to sell rooms and hand out flyers (hand on to the Happy Bar Bar one!). If the tuk-tuk up the hill sounds too crammed for you, it’s only a 100m walk, but it’s pretty sharp uphill.

Pak Beng

Where to Sleep

If you’ve stayed strong and haven’t pre-booked your Pak Beng accommodation, then you’ll be of great interest to the locals waiting for your arrival on the pier. There are around 3-4 inns that are of similarly poor quality, and charge 50,000K for the room. Just to re-iterate: arriving without a reservation will mean paying half of what everybody else paid, and sleeping in the same place. Emma and I don’t often get to be smug, but we were when we arrived in Pak Beng.

Cram in to your third tuk-tuk of the day (some people were even hanging off ours!) and you’ll be taken up the steep hill to your home for the night.

WEE TIP: furthermore, if you’ve booked your room on Booking.com or other online booking sites, you’ll have paid too much. Why pay $20+ when you could be paying $5? If you’re looking for peace of mind, we really believe you’ll find a bed when you turn up in Pak Beng. This applies to basically all the budget accommodation in Pak Beng – except for the one or two ‘luxury’ options.

We stayed in Bounmee Inn for 50,000K. There was a reggae-themed bar next door and fellow guests said the food wasn’t bad. In hindsight, we wish we’d eaten there. We had to leave the restaurant we chose after they forgot our order, after an hour, and three reminders.

Children play in the water at a beach in Laos
Huge smiles from happy kids
Everything Else

You’ll find a smattering of restaurants and cafes on Pak Beng’s main street. We ate at the local joint across from one of the furthest-up restaurants and had some not-bad noodle soup and rice. Breakfast/dinners in town are generally 20-30,000K and are all pretty average in all honesty.

WEE TIP: look out for the PR for Hive Bar. One, two, three and many more girls we met had a lot of complaints about his behaviour. Their stories ranged from him being a bit annoying to him basically stalking them all the way back to their accommodation and waiting outside their window. So, this being said, don’t take a flyer from him and do your best to ignore him. If he’s pestering you, tell everybody and anybody near you about his behaviour and kick up a fuss.

Happy Happy Bar is a pretty fun place to spend the night. Even if the free banana whisky shot is pretty tame and the free ‘Laos cocktail’ is un-drinkably sweet, you’ll find other slow boat go-ers here. Grab a beer, enjoy the bonfire, pot some balls on the pool table and forget the questionable Wi-Fi.

Come the morning try get as early as possible to get some breakfast, then buy your food for the slow boat journey today. The sandwiches which are on offer all the way along the main street are all the same, and a little bit shit but you don’t have too much choice. 10,000-15,000K.

A view of the Laos slow boat from the back
The comfort of your boat really depends on your luck

Boat Advice Day 2

The same principles apply for your seating on Day 2 of your Laos slow boat experience. Get up early and have a quick breakfast. Then, grab your snacks and head down to the boat as early as possible for the best choice of seating. Somehow we ended up on a different boat on the second day, and it was nowhere near as comfortable, as all the good seats (on the other boat) were gone!

Today you’re likely to see a lot more of the locals and their cargo coming and going from the boat. Laos still uses river transport as a key method of transport throughout the country. One stop on the second day took you to a village where the children tear down the hill and try sell bracelets to anybody near them.

WEE TIP: Plenty of people were taking photos, and not many people were buying crafts from the kids. We thought this was actually pretty sad to see – it’s cute that the kids were selling the crafts, but if you’re going to take photos please spare a few pennies and buy something. Afterall, they’re not animals or an exhibition. We really weren’t sure how we felt about buying the bracelets, so it’s up to you. Regardless, we didn’t take any pictures.

There were also plenty of kids putting on a show for us and doing their best flips and somersaults in to the water, all of them with huge smiles on their faces.

A kid somersaults from the jetty on the Mekong River in Laos
It’s a 10 from us
Arrival

When you’ve arrived at Luang Prabang pier, you’ll have to battle through the chaos to get your bag then hop back on to land. Your Laos slow boat experience is over, but there’s still one final stage.

Walk up the stairs to the ticket office and get your ticket for the tuk-tuk to Luang Prabang downtown. It’s a regulated price of 20,000K per person, and the journey only takes around 15 minutes to the centre.

WEE TIP: as you’re approaching the pier i.e. within 15-20 minutes of the pier, jump to the back of the boat and find your bags. If you’re unlucky like we were, they’ll be at the very bottom of a pyramid of other backpacks, and you’ll have to battle through to find them. However, once you’re back in your seat with your bag you’ll be the first ones off the boat and the first ones on to the tuk-tuks. We arrived at our hostel a full hour before other Laos slow boat passengers!

So that’s our Ultimate Guide to the Slow Boat through Laos. This experience was absolutely a highlight for us during our time in the country, and we hope this guide gives you all the information you need to help plan your trip.

If you’re taking the slow boat please get in touch in our comments below and let us know what you thought! Once you’ve arrived in Luang Prabang, why not read our WIT here and get a heads-up on the best 11 things to do in town? Tired of reading guides and itineraries? Read our more creative take on the Laos Slow Boat experience in our RAG here.

Laos Slow Boat Budget Breakdown

Chiang Khong Accommodation:

Namkhong Guesthouse

Total: 180B ($5.50)

Laos Slow Boat Packaged Ticket:
  • Transfer from Namkhong Guesthouse – Friendship Bridge (Thai side)
  • Tuk-tuk Huay Xai Arrivals – Slow Boat jetty
  • Slow boat ticket (x2 days)
  • 1,250B pp
Coach Across Friendship Bridge:
  • Friendship Bridge (Thai side) – Friendship Bridge (Laos side)
  • 25B pp

Total: 2,550B ($80)

Laos Visa:
  • UK Visa: $35 pp
  • Passport photo fee: 10,000K
  • Saturday fee: 10,000K

Total: 640,250K ($74)

Pak Beng Accommodation:

Boun Mee Inn

  • Twin Private
  • 50,000K price per night (x1 night)

Total: 50,000K ($6)

Moving On:
  • Luang Prabang Jetty – Luang Prabang (downtown)
  • Tuk-tuk
  • 20,000K pp

Total: 40,000K ($4.60)

Total for 2D/2N: 5387B/1,462,832K/$170

The above budget is for x2 people. Food and drink is not included.

This budget breakdown isn’t meant to be an exact record of what we spent, but should give you a rough idea of what you’re likely to spend.

*all currencies accurate at the time of writing*

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