The slow boat to Laos is a very common way to get from Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang, and a very beautiful one too, so I sincerely recommend you consider it. It takes 2 days in total with an overnight stop in Pak Beng and is a very scenic route through northern Laos. Ok, so technically the slow boat to Laos does not take 2 days. One of the first stops is the border to Laos, and the majority of the journey is along the Mekong River in Northern Laos, but still.
I booked my ticket through my hostel and paid got picked up by minibus at half 6. We got to the border and were stamped out of Thailand, crossed the border by coach and then reached the Laos border. We bought our visas on arrival for 35 USD (which took minutes, easy peasy!) and were stamped into Laos. We got a tuk-tuk to a ‘tourist rest area’ where you can buy sandwiches and some snacks, drinks etc. You can use baht/kip/USD here but conversion rates from baht aren’t amazing. Also expect to hear a spiel from your guide about there being no guest-houses left in Pak Beng so you should book one through him to ensure you get a place (don’t listen, this is a scam). We didn’t book and there was loads of places to choose from.
On the slow-boat there are no seating arrangements despite seat numbers being on the tickets, so just sit anywhere. I recommend not too close to the back as the engine can get noisy, and try and get leg room as the seats are not attached to the floor so can be moved (stand your ground if the person in front of you tries to move their seat!) There are 2 western style toilets on board but bring your own toilet roll and hand sanitizer. You can also buy drinks and some snacks including hot coffee, crisps and instant noodles.
So, what can I tell you about Pak Beng? Well, don’t expect boutique hotels with swimming pools, that’s for certain. There are a couple restaurants and shops selling drinks, packaged snacks, baguettes made to order and some delicious pastries. Don’t expect much in terms of accommodation though, you’re looking at small poorly kept rooms with springy beds and the traditional Asian tiny ‘wet room’ as a bathroom. As it is only one night it’s not too much trouble, most people don’t bother with the temperamental showers in their rooms, just wanting to get going and get to Luang Prabang.
Be warned they do not tell you what time the boat leaves the next day! But we had read it leaves around 9 am. Pick up some supplies for the longer trip in the morning and got onto the boat (see your ticket for the boat number but don’t worry there are 2 that go to Luang Prabang (Make sure you keep your ticket, a receipt for your ticket may not be good enough! Our boat was delayed as a girl had lost her ticket.) We got on around 7.45, this was early but ensured we got great seats with lots of leg room. The boat left around half 9 so I would say between 8 and half 8 will give you enough choice of seats. The second day has better views so try and get a seat by the window to see some amazing sights such as these!
We arrived at Luang Prabang around 5pm and had to buy a ticket for a tuk-tuk for 20,000kip as they drop you 7km outside of Luang Prabang (ok, technically this is a scam as there is a dock in Luang Prabang centre but its about 2 pounds and otherwise you will have to stage a protest which could take 3 times as long as the tuk-tuk ride into Luang Prabang itself – soooo not worth it). And that’s it, you made it!
Have you had any interesting things happen on your journey to Laos? Let me know in the comments!