Slow boat from Thailand to Laos

If you want to take the stress out of your life and simply be in the moment, watching how lush nature passes you by, you should take the slow boat from Thailand to Laos. It will take two full days,  with one night in the Laos highland town of Pakbeng.

Where to take the slow boat from Thailand to Laos

Since Chiang Rai is such a lovely town, I’d recommend staying there the night before your trip and not at the border town of Chiang Khong.

chiang rai temple

Your tour options:

  • You can pre-book the transport from Chiang Rai to the pier in Laos and then the boat ticket as well. At my hostel, the transport would have been 200 Bht and the boat 1600 Baht, which is about $60. If you talk to a tour office in town or google online you’ll also find complete packages with accomodation, lunch and tables on the boat. This will be a bit more expensive.
  • Do everything yourself, which will come to about $35 (read the explanation below).

How to get from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong

Board the first public bus in the morning at 6 a.m. It costs 65 Bht and takes two hours. You’ll pay on the bus, two minutes after leaving. Then, the guy showed us a sign on which was written that we could pay  110 Bht in total. So that he’d drive us to the border directly instead of the town center. We couldn’t believe it that the last 5 minutes before the border would be as expensive as the whole trip before and so we declined and paid the 65 Bht. There were four other backpackers on the 6 a.m. bus and we thought we’d find a cheap tuktuk together. Unfortunately, the tuktuks in Chiang Khong have a fixed price of 50 Bht per person. Oh well, there wasn’t anything we could do about it. Since we wanted to get to the slow boat in time, we let us transport to the border on the Thai side of the friendship bridge.

At the border, I had to hand in the departure card I had received at my arrival at the airport and my passport. They stamped my passport and kept the departure card. After that, I had to buy a bus ticket for 25 Bht to be transported across the friendship bridge. The bus leaves every 30 minutes or as soon as it’s full and then takes 5 minutes.

Golden Clock Chiang Rai

How to get into Laos

I tried to get off the bus as quick as possible in order not to get stuck behind all the other people who also needed a visa. The visa fee needs to be paid in USD and will be around $35. Check the Laos visa policy of your country to be sure. Secondly, you need to bring a passport size photo but they don’t take it very strictly about what shape or size the picture is in. If you don’t have a picture, you’ll have to pay about 45 Bht extra and will receive your visa as well.

Funnily, I didn’t need a visa. I don’t know what kind of relationship Laos and Switzerland have but they just waved me past the visa window. A bit perplexed, I first got money out of the ATM as I heard that the exchange rates at the money exchange would be bad. 1’500’000 Kip later, I proceeded as the first person to the border box, as the others were still waiting for the visa.

I had to fill in my arrival card and they stamped my passport. They forgot to give me my departure card but luckily, I read on an other blog that you have to pay attention that they stamp your passport and do their job correctly, as you otherwise might run into troubles when leaving the country again. I asked whether I don’t need the departure form and he laughed and handed it to me. And with that, in two minutes, I had left Thailand and entered Laos.


slow boat thailand to laos

How to get to the slow boat pier

Again, there was a guy who wanted to sell me a tour package with transport to the boat plus boat ticket for 280000 kip. He actually wanted Thai Baht which would make a worse conversion. But we are in Laos now, so if you have Kip, always insist on paying with Kip.

He said that we’d have the good seats in the front of the boat as we could pre-book them and who knew when I’d arrive if I went to the pier on my own. However, I didn’t want to wait for the tour group and until everyone had their visa and hence took the shared tuktuk for 20k kip per person. We waited for a few more people, the Polish girl from my bus in Chiang Rai in the morning also joining my tuktuk. 20 minutes later, we arrived at the pier in Huay Xai. We did not have a choice for our boat as they said it was the only one leaving today. So, we bought a ticket for the boat at 11.30 for 210’000 Kip.
It was only 10 a.m. and therefore, I had some time to eat a freshly made noodle soup at one of the shacks along the road.

mekong river slow boat

The slow boat on the Megkong

We boarded the boat at 11 a.m. and actually had the perfect seat (33 and 34) in the front middle of the boat. They were a pair of soft car seats, facing the front. I wouldn’t have wanted the seats in the front. They were facing sideways and you’d be looking at the people opposite of you. In the back it’s pretty noisy from the motor.

There is a toilet on board as well and you can buy drinks and snacks. So, it’s possible to survive the 7 hour trip without any preparations. Unlike on the other boat trips in South East Asia, no other boats with locals who wanted to sell us things approached our boat though.
But guess what? The group from the tour who were with the guy who wanted to sell me the ticket at the pier arrived at 11.30. They couldn’t get the good seats after all. They had stopped at the guy’s family’s restaurant to buy sandwiches.
So, better go to the pier yourself.

slow boat from thailand

We then left quite on time and for the next seven hours there really wasn’t much more to do but to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the Megkong river. The water unfortunately is as muddy as you know this river from pictures. Yet it stands in a nice contrast against all the green along the river. Hills, palm trees, tea plantations, lonely stilt houses, water buffaloes, and children playing in the water were the sights along the way. How different the life of the people who lived out here must be compared to city life.

We stopped a few times at small villages to drop off or pick up locals and arrived Packbeng at 5.30.

Where to stay in Packbeng

If you check booking websites you’ll see that accomodation is more expensive here. However, once we arrived, they offered us rooms starting at 40k kip per night. Without breakfast but with a private bathroom (for example BW Guesthouse). My seat neighbor shared her room with another girl from the boat. I said goodbye to them for the night as I had booked a resort with a wonderful view and infinity pool. It’s definitely worth it to come up with the $50 per person per night to stay at Le Grand Hotel Packbeng.

Le Grand Hotel Pakbeng

Le Grand Hotel Pakbeng

They picked us up down by the pier and drove us up the steep hill in a tuktuk. The view from the top was so amazing that I didn’t put down the shades of my glass room front all night. I wanted to be able to enjoy the sunrise across the Megkong from my very comfortable bed. The view from the infinity pool is spectacular and worth the visit on its own. It must get cold up here sometimes because the pool was heated. I really enjoyed my swim at the top of the world.

grand hotel packbeng

Dinner options (big portions) start at $5 but I recommend taking the set course meal for $15. The beef jerkey was mouth watering and all the other Laos specialties were delicious as well. We felt like kings and queens eating our lovely dinner above the dark valley.

Breakfast was included and consists of a plate with baguette, ham, bacon, sausage and egg. However, you can order whatever combination of those items you like and however much you want. Also, they brought us tea, cappuccinos and orange juice, and a small fruit plate. While enjoying the food, we could also observe elephants bathing on the other side of the river below us.

mekong elephants

At 8.30 they brought us down to the pier. We continued our journey to Luang Prabang at 9 a.m.
The scenery was the same and therefore it’s just another relaxing day. We reached Luang Prabang at 4.30 p.m. There, we had to buy the tuktuk ticket for 20k kip for the 10 min ride into town.

Would I recommend taking the slow boat from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang? If you don’t mind sitting for two days, absolutely! It was a very nice experience, meeting great people along the way.

Read more about Thailand in my I love Thailand travel guide. You can buy it on Amazon in English and in German. There also is an I love Laos travel guide.

thailand travel guide