Asia,  Destinations,  Laos,  Trains, Planes & Rideshares,  Travel Diary

Taking the Laos Slow Boat to Luang Prabang (2023)

The slow boat trip is one of those things that every backpacker does eventually– it’s not the fastest way to get to Luang Prabang, and it’s not super comfortable, but it’s almost a rite of passage to do the slow boat run at least once.

Well, I happen to like boat trips and I have all the time in the world, so I decided to go to Luang Prabang via slow boat! I also went the ultra budget route, which is the cheaper standard boats. There’s some luxury ones available as well, but I think it’s similar to the budget ones where you get off every night and then reboard the next morning.

Anyway! Onward to the post:

Laos Slow Boat FAQ

What is the slow boat route?

The trip starts in Huay Xai at 9:00 am, stops in Pakbeng for one night, and then continues to Luang Prabang the next day, arriving around 4:00 pm or so.

At the moment there’s only one trip per day.

How much does the Laos slow boat cost?

From Huay Xai to Pakbeng it’s 200,000 kip one way. From Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, it’s 400,000 kip one way. These prices are accurate as of October 2023.

What does the ticket price include?

The Laos slow boat ticket price ONLY includes a seat on the boat. If you can book early enough, you can pick your seat for the first part of the trip which has assigned seating. The second half is a free-for-all and the seats are not assigned.

The ticket does NOT include food, transit to/from the ports, hotels, etc. If you buy a package tour, you may get something through the tour company such as pickup from Chiang Rai.

What are the amenities on the Laos slow boat?

The slow boats have some food in a small canteen, and toilets onboard. Food is more on the instant noodle/chips/soda side of things. You can buy food at the towns and bring it onboard, which is recommended. Toilets have toilet paper and a sink, but might be out of soap. Bring your own and/or hand sanitizer.

There is NO air conditioning (the side of the boat are open) and there’s no fans. Luckily the boat moving on the water keeps things relatively cool inside!

How much luggage can I bring on the slow boat?

The fewer bags, the better.

I also recommend NOT bringing a suitcase, especially not a hard-sided one.

Luggage goes under the floor in the hold, so soft sided things like backpacks or duffles will work best. You also have to go up/down stairs at the ports, so backpacks will be easier to carry than a suitcase.

Personal Experience on the Laos Slow Boat

Day 1: From Chiang Rai to Huay Xai by bus

I left my hostel in Chiang Rai and went to the bus station at the pre-sunrise hour of 5:30am.

A traveler I met on a tour the other day had told me there was a 6:00 am bus to the border, but unfortunately that seems to have been a pre-COVID thing. Now the earliest bus to Chiang Khong leaves at 7:30 am!

Luckily there’s a 7-11 right across the street from the bus station, so I was able to grab some breakfast and one last Thai tea.

The bus costs 70 baht— but if there’s at least 5 people who want to stop at the immigration building, the bus will do that for an extra 30-40 baht per person. Luckily our bus had exactly 5 travelers, including me! We were three Canadians, one French, and one American. Everybody else was a local.

It wasn’t a bad bus ride, though the actual bus was pretty worn down. The driver stopped often at little stores and restaurants to drop off packages, which was very entertaining to watch.

What was supposed to be a 2 hour ride took closer to 3, and we arrived at the Chiang Khong border control at 10:00 am.

Exiting Thailand was very easy, just a quick check of my passport and on I went. To get over the Thai-Laos Friendship bridge you need to take a shuttle which costs 20 baht (though it might cost more later in the day?).

Entering Laos was also easy: filled out two forms, handed over my last extra passport photo and 40 baht for a processing fee, then paid the $40 USD at the exit for the actual Laos visa.

There’s a money changer window in the same building that gave very good rates, so I swapped my extra baht for kip before getting in a tuk tuk to take me to the boat pier for 50,000 kip.

By this point it was 11:00 am and we’d definitely missed the boat.

Slow boat ticket prices as of October 2023.

Right now (at the tail end of the rainy season) there’s only one running each day at 9:00 am for 400,000 kip to Luang Prabang. There’s basically no way to get to Huay Xai in time if you’re doing a DIY transfer, so if you’re short on time then book a transit package with a company in Chiang Rai.

You can also pre-book a package online through one of the bigger bus ticket websites.

Luckily, Huay Xai is well set up for travelers, so I got a room in a guesthouse with air con for $7 USD/night or so, then went out to do some admin. I got my SIM card from Little Hostel for a good price (30 GB for about $8) and ordered some food for pickup the next day as well.

In retrospect I wish I stayed at an actual hostel, because there were a lot of backpackers hanging out in the ones I walked past, and none in my guesthouse at all. However, the hostel dorms were the same price as a private room, so the choice was easy as I really wanted some privacy for a bit.

There’s not much to do in Huay Xai itself, but it’s nice to wander around for an afternoon and catalog some of the differences between Laos and Thailand.

Day 2: From Huay Xai to Pakbeng by slow boat

The boat leaves from Xuay Xai at 9:00 am, and you don’t have to get there super early to save a seat because it’s all assigned.

Our boat for the day was NICE: the front half was tables and the back half was van seat benches. Because I’d booked my ticket myself at the Huay Xai ticket counter, I got seat number 1 right at the front and well away from the engines.

Inside the first boat.

We actually left after 10:00 am as we waited for at least two groups of backpackers to show up. I suppose they booked a transfer package back in Chiang Rai and the boat will wait for them to get through the border, etc.

The delay didn’t bother me, as this sort of thing is typical in Southeast Asia– generally, you’ll have a better time if you don’t worry too much about how long things take.

My seatmates were the three Canadians I met on the bus from Chiang Rai the day before. We got along pretty well and they even offered me a can from their Beerlao stash! I’m not usually a beer drinker, but Beerlao is one of those local drinks that always get favorable reviews, so I tried it.

It’s surprisingly good! It doesn’t have a strong hops flavor, and it’s only 5% alcohol content so it doesn’t have a major kick like some other drinks.

We kept ourselves entertained for the next 6+ hours as we slowly meandered down the Mekong River. The Canadians played gin rummy and drank through their Beerlao stash, while I stared out the window and occasionally read.

I ate all my food and snacks about 3 hours in and had to resort to buying a cup of noodles from the “cafe” at the back of the boat: 20,000 kip for one, about $1 USD. They also have water, beer, soda, chips, and other small snacks but no fresh food available.

Eventually, we pulled into Pakbeng and disembarked.

One night in Pakbeng

You do NOT have to pre-book a hotel and in fact you SHOULDN’T, because it was much cheaper to book in person.

A horde of touts waited for us at the pier, offering coupons for restaurants and binders with available rooms in guesthouses. I picked the first one that had air con and got loaded into the back of a pickup truck with 9 other guests, and up the hill we went to Sivongsack Guesthouse.

The room was about what I expected for 150,000 kip a night in a tourist-heavy town: basic, pretty clean but obviously run down. The air con stopped working sometime in the middle of the night but there was a fan on the wall which worked well. With breakfast and an order of fried rice for take away lunch, my total was 220,000 kip / $10.78 USD.

Pakbeng is a very small town. I suppose technically you can stay there to visit a nearby nature reserve, but most tourists seem to only be there on the boat trip down to Luang Prabang (or the other direction). Still, there’s plenty of restaurants, mini marts, and even a bar or two to waste time at while waiting for the next day’s travel.

I ate dinner at a nice local restaurant called Alisa, and ordered another sandwich for pickup the next morning.

Note: Google Maps has incorrect directions from Sivongsack Guesthouse to the main strip of town: it goes on a winding route that makes it seem like it’s 40 minutes to town (and the pier) but really it’s maybe 5 minutes. You DO have to go down a fairly steep hill, but it’s not bad.

Day 3: From Pakbeng to Luang Prabang

The boat leaves from Pakbeng at 9:00 am but of course we left closer to 9:30 am.

This one was different from our first boat, much more basic and with the standard van bench seats instead of the nicer tables from the day before. Seat assignments were thrown out the window, so those who got on the boat early and STAYED got the better seats.

The Canadians had put their bags on seats to save them at 7:45 am, but by the time we actually boarded the boat around 8:30 am, locals had moved them and taken over the seats. I managed to snag a seat in the front while the Canadians convinced the local to give them their seat back, and the boat staff flipped one bench so the Canadians could face each other. They spent the entire boat ride playing gin rummy and drinking Beerlao– very relaxing day for them!

Meanwhile, I sat next to three ladies from Jakarta who had actually been in the same guesthouse with me the night before. I didn’t get a window seat, but at least I was up at the front and away from the engine. I was also able to put my backpack underneath my seat, so I had much more leg room than the day before. (Big backpacks get stored beneath the deck, but my small 27l backpack stays with me always.)

I’d also bought a LOT more snacks from a Pakbeng mini mart before boarding, plus a few pre-ordered fresh food choices. I spent my time eating, watching the river, and talking to my seatmates.

Like yesterday, the first three hours on the river were great. Somewhere in hour 4 I got tired, grumpy, and ready to be OFF the boat. Unfortunately I was stuck there for about another 2 hours, when we arrived in Luang Prabang around 4:30 pm for a total 6 hour trip.

The boat pier is 10km from the main part of town. There’s a tuk tuk scheme where you buy a ticket into town for 40,000 kip / $2 USD and they drop you off at the Night Market area within the main part of Luang Prabang. From there you can either walk to your hostel, as I did, or get another tuk tuk to take you to your hotel.

Luang Prabang

I booked 3 nights at Barn Luang Prabang Hostel, at one end of town about 20 minutes walking from the Night Market area. It’s a nice hostel with free breakfast, air con (though not very strong, as is typical here), and a good porch to sit on and people watch. Very empty when I stayed; I had the dorm to myself for 2 nights.

Barn Luang Prabang Hostel, located at one end of town about 20 minutes walking from the night market.

My first night in Luang Prabang was decompressing from the boat trip. I had dinner at Bamboo Tree Restaurant and Cooking School, an upscale Laotian restaurant just down the road from Barn Hostel. I had chicken laap (sometimes spelled laab or lab), a local “chopped meat salad” kind of dish served with sticky rice, lettuce and veg. Very delicious, and it was a lovely restaurant overall.

I also stopped by one nearby temple, free to enter and somewhat under (re)construction. To be honest, I was a little tired of temples by now and really only wanted to see exceptional ones, but I have to admit that this one was very pretty lit up at night.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I enjoyed my adventure on the slow boat and would do it again– though a different route, or on a different river. It was really fun experiencing travel without having pre-booked anything; it gave me a taste of what it must’ve been like to travel before the internet. If you’re interested in a slightly more adventurous kind of transit than the standard bus, train or plane, then I’d highly recommend trying the slow boat out!

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Anastasia is a former librarian turned digital nomad. She's been traveling the world full time for two years and has visited 18 countries so far! Just Gone Wandering is a travel resource for solo female travelers on a backpacker's budget-- or slightly more-- and highlights amazing places to visit as well as providing tips and tricks for traveling smart and frugal. Read more...

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