Despite being a very slow boat in somewhat cramped conditions, when I look back on it the border crossing between Thailand and Laos was actually one of my favourite border crossings, and it doesn’t surprise me to learn that it is one of the most popular border crossings for backpackers in the entire region. It seems everybody does it these days, but if you can find a good travel buddy (or don’t mind the long journey on your own), then it really is a right of passage!
There are many arguments on the merits of the slow boat to Luang Prabang. Some backpackers will tell you that it is one of the best experiences they have ever had, whereas other travellers will shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes at the very mention of the journey. I personally think it is a good way to travel, although you need to be fully aware of the length of the journey and the often cramped conditions aboard the boat (especially on the second day from Pakbeng). When you have crossed the Thai/Laos border at Chiang Khong/Huay Xai, you will need to purchase your ticket at the boat pier. Some tour operators may have sold you a ticket in advance of arriving at Huay Xai, but you should never have to pay more than 220,000 Kip for a slow boat to Luang Prabang.
Arrive more than an hour before the boat leaves, as many of the tour operators sell more tickets than there are seats available. As such, many backpackers end up standing at the back of the boat breathing in the toxic engine fumes! There is a small snack bar that sells basic supplies such as beer, soda, ramen, and cookies. Your backpacks are stored under the boat throughout the journey, and you won’t have access to them, so it is important to have your essentials (plus anything valuable!) in your carry-on luggage. My slow boat to Luang Prabang had cushioned seats, which I wasn’t expecting, so that was a nice surprise, and I had a spare seat next to me which meant I could chill out a bit more easily. Onboard the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang the atmosphere was pretty jovial, but nothing like a party. It is very sociable and even a solo backpacker like me found it easy to fit in with people. I met a few Scottish lads who were backpacking in between finishing college and beginning university, so for a lot of the journey we were just drinking Beer Lao and admiring the Mekong scenery!
More tips on how to survive the slow boats from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang.
The slow boat should arrive into the half way point of Pakbeng around 6pm (after around 7 hours on the river). When I got off the boat in Pakbeng there were swarms of people harassing me to sign up to their hostel/guesthouse. As it was getting quite dark by now (it may have been naturally diminishing light, or it may have been the thick haze from fires in the jungle nearby) I accepted the first person who made a genuine offer. This tactic isn’t without risk, but for just $15USD I had a nice place to rest for the night, and I even got a packed lunch by the owners of the guesthouse to take back on the boat the next morning! The journey from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang on the second day (7-9 hours) is a smooth one and the views of the Mekong River are much more lush and green the further you head south.
When you arrive in sleepy Luang Prabang, take at least 3 days to enjoy the city and its famous culture. I found the Buddhist temple of Wat Xieng Thong to be a great attraction, and of course climbing to the top of the moderately sized Mount Phousi to observe the surroundings below is also a great way to pass some time – just don’t forget a bottle of water! Most people continue south from Luang Prabang (maybe with an additional stop at Phonsavan in the east) to Vang Vieng and then on to the capital Vientiane. From there, you must decide if Laos is worth more of your precious backpacking time. If not, you can hop back over the Thai border at Nong Khai, which is pretty close to Vientiane anyway, but if you want to continue in Laos, then you should head straight to Savannakhet and Champasak to experience rural Laotian life!