In preparing for the Southeast Asian leg of my RTW trip, I read a lot of horror stories about the slow boat to Laos. The three-day journey from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos seemed to have been a trying experience for many. At the same time, it seemed the most reasonable way to get into a landlocked, less developed country. A bus between the two cities would have been unbearably long, and a direct flight wasn’t quite in my budget. Plus, deep down, I felt the need to see just how bad it really was.
Either things have changed or the blogs I read about the slow boat were way overblown accounts of people who didn’t manage their expectations well. The couple of days I spent cruising down the Mekong River were an absolute highlight of my time in Southeast Asia! But if you don’t know what you’re getting into, I can see how it would be a shock to the system. Read up on the details of taking the slow boat to Laos and decide whether it’s for you.
Most packages are the same.
Having read all those horror stories, I wanted to make sure I booked my trip through a reputable operator. Chiang Mai is filled with tour operators, plus most hostels arrange tours at the front desk. (In fact, the owner of my hostel was kind of snippy about my not booking the boat through her.) The internet was no help on this front. I settled on blugecko and was happy with it, but at the end of the day, everyone pretty much ends up on the same boat, no matter where you book.
My package included transportation by van (with about a dozen passengers) to Chiang Khong, which sits near the Lao border, with a brief stop in Chiang Rai to see the White Temple. Accommodations for the night in Chiang Khong and dinner at a local bar are included. Breakfast and lunch the second day are included. Dinner and accommodation for the second night are not.
Chiang Rai isn’t really all that.
The White Temple itself is breathtaking the first time you lay eyes on it. The architecture is so intricate and, shall we say, unique? So used to the classic view, above, I had no idea that on the way in, you’re greeted by grasping hands from the pits of hell.
Photos of the colorful interior are not allowed, but it’s also worth a mention. Despite the architecture of the temple, however, the overall site is one of the most touristy places I’ve ever been. The crowds, the tacky souvenir stands… Beyond the attraction itself, the area is utterly devoid of culture. It’s like the Leaning Tower of Pisa of Asia.
Don’t grieve the lack of inclusions
There may only be a couple meals and one night of accommodation, but they’re really not anything to write home about. The hotel in Chiang Khong I stayed in had stained sheets (thank goodness for silk sleeping bag liners). The dinner voucher that night took us to a local bar for a very basic stir fry dish with rice. (Though we all admittedly spent a fair amount on beer. Skip the more common Chang and upgrade to the better quality Red Horse.) I actually never touched the packed lunch for the second day – sitting for hours on a hot boat didn’t seem like the best option for pad thai. Having the freedom to pick my accommodations and food for the rest of the trip was ultimately better.
Keep a pen handy for immigration forms
The morning of the second day, you’ll be given the included lunch, money for a bus ticket, and instructions for crossing the border. You’ll also have the opportunity to change any Thai baht you have to USD or Lao kip. A tuk-tuk will take you across the Friendship Bridge to the border. Make sure you have the Thailand departure card you were given upon entering the country. To enter Laos, you’ll need a visa on arrival. Fill out the arrival form and visa application, then hand it over with your passport to the agent at the right-hand window. The agent at the left-hand window will call out names as visas are processed. When your name is called, you can collect your stamped passport and pay the fee of $35 USD. You’ll then buy a ticket for the bus which will take you to the riverfront.
Pack a first aid kit
Spending all day on a boat for two days isn’t that bad. The boats are fitted with bus seats – three on either side of the aisle – so as long as you aren’t the last person to board, you’ll have a comfortable place to sit. The true misery factor kicks in if you get sick. Have Pepto Bismol and Immodium on hand just in case of digestive complaints.
Bring bug spray
The village the boat stops in on the second night of the tour – Pagbeng – had the worst mosquitoes I’ve seen anywhere. There were plenty of guesthouse owners and employees waiting at the dock with photos of their properties, so finding a place to stay the night is no problem. (I shared a double room with a fellow passenger and we each paid $5 USD.) The main street in town also has plenty of restaurants and bars, so you’ll be able to find an affordable dinner without any difficulty. If you need an ATM, there are a couple at the far end of the street. In the morning, there will be booths set up with cold water and snacks. There is clearly a solid little industry built around slow boat passengers stopping there for the night. The only major con is the mosquitoes.
Get up early
When you check into your guesthouse, they will ask you to order breakfast and a packed lunch for the next day. It’s not included in the price of your room, but it’s not really optional either. No matter how much you argue you don’t want one or both of those meals, the owners will act like they don’t understand. Or they’ll act like you’re confused and don’t understand what they’re offering. At the end of the day, it’s easiest to just accept and pay a little bit extra for the food.
Having breakfast, of course, means getting up with enough time to eat and still make it to the boat on time. The last folks to board the boat may have to sit on wooden benches rather than the more comfortable bus-style seats.
Bring a book
The Mekong is pretty firmly off the grid. You won’t have access to internet or an outlet to charge your phone. Have some analog entertainment on hand. I picked up a couple books for cheap at a used bookstore in Chiang Mai and blew through them both on the boat. You might prefer to bring a journal, a deck of cards, or a guitar. Just don’t rely on electronics to occupy your day. There is a book exchange in Luang Prabang, so no need to worry about being stuck with the extra weight of books you’ve already read.
Don’t be cheap
Once upon a time, slow boats docked directly in Luang Prabang. A few years ago, they built a new dock just outside town so local tuk tuk drivers could get more business. The price is fixed at 20,000 kip – about $2.50 USD. This has been one of the biggest complaints travelers have about the slow boat to Laos. Not expecting to pay to go from port to town, passengers get defensive and do pretty much anything to get out of paying. Some refuse to pay full price and walk into town until a desperate driver agrees to take them for less. Some refuse to get off the boat unless the captain takes them to the old dock closer to town at no extra cost. This is never successful and results in folks getting thrown off the boat.
Guys, it is really the end of the world to pay less than $3 at the end of the trip? Given the cost of living in Laos, that money could easily be putting a meal on your driver’s table that night. If you’re willing to put $50 toward a slow boat package in the first place, there’s no way you’re so hard up that you can’t afford to pay a couple bucks more to give a local a job.
Enjoy the ride
The slow boat down the Mekong has so much camaraderie and good feeling aboard. This isn’t a destination for vacationers – most passengers are on longer trips, traveling for a month, six months, a year. I even met one person who had been traveling nonstop for four years! Having most people be long-term travelers, it’s easy to get along, make friends, and enjoy a leisurely trip through one of the most beautiful and off-the-beaten-path places in the world.
Spending more time in Thailand before braving the slow boat? Read my guide to Chiang Mai.