Two Day Slow Boat Down the Mekong to Luang Prabang

The taxi boat you take from Chang Khong in Thailand to Laos. 40 Baht/person

We were picked up from our hotel and then driven 1 hour outside of the city to meet up with our minibus which was coming in from Pai.  The van was almost full when it arrived which meant we got the leftover seats, including the middle seat next to the driver.

Amando was in the first row on the left behind the passenger seat – an 20 inch gap between him and the door and no arm rest to lean on. The driver was screeching wheels around a mountain in the middle of the night, which meant he was getting tossed off his seat.  He eventually took off his belt, grabbed his pillow, and wrapped his belt around the headrest and his forehead with the pillow as a forehead cushion. Genius and dumb looking, but he was then immobile (basically in traction) and could catch a few winks. The bad seats and windy road left us pretty sleep deprived by the time we arrived in Chang Kong at 2:30AM.

The next day after we hurried to cross into Laos, Amando bought our provisions for the boat ride. 300 baht ($10) got us this:

2 chicken sandwiches, 2 bags of chips, 2 apples, 2 limes, 1 pint of coke, 1.5 liters of friend making whiskey

How the day started off....for one of our friends.

He walked onto the boat proud of the money he saved by buying provisions a bit further from the boat dock and having enough whiskey for two days. It was already scorching hot outside, and even though the boat was in the shade and it was 10:30AM, people were already sweating. As he sits down, I ask, “Where’s the water?” He says, “sh*t!” I run up the hill and spend another 100 baht on 3 waters and a BeerLao.

Inside of the boat. Minivan seats, two by two, not nailed down to the floor.

The ride was lovely, yet hot (a fan is a necessity); scenic, yet the same; super fun, yet equally boring; but it came to an end at just the right time. By the time we got to the halfway point we arrived at a lovely little town, Pak Beng, and got to dinner in time for sunset. The Danes and us played cards until bedtime, and we were excited to have learned two new games to share.

Landing in Pak Beng for sunset.

The boat people, or just one guy who spoke English, had mentioned the ride would be nine hours! oi vey! It was hot with blue skies which left us wondering what rainy season actually meant? We rearranged boat seats, played cards, had whiskey, and shared stories. Every now and then we saw someone fishing in a remote area, kids running around naked and playing in the water, and massive buffalo grazing at the river’s edge. The little boat in the middle of the massive brown river surrounded by bright green jungle and limestone cliffs made the second day magnificent, and we even arrived 2 hours early.

Make sure to get on the boat early and turn your seats around so you can have more leg room.

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**Traveler’s Tip**

HOW TO TAKE OR NOT TO TAKE THE TWO DAY SLOW BOAT RIDE FROM CHANG KONG/HOUEI XAI TO LUANG PRABANG: WITHOUT  BUYING A PACKAGE AND STARTING AT NIGHT.

We had questions and no resource had answers (tourist agencies really just want you to buy a package for the whole trip), so here’s the process.

  • Overnight minivan from Chiang Mai, leaving at 9pm.  Because we booked six tickets/people at once, we paid 500 Baht for the minivan ride and overnight hotel in Chang Kong (no breakfast). . 
    • The hotel we stayed in once we got to Chang Kong was apparently not the one they told us at the tour agency, but it was a bed (albeit rock hard) so we didn’t care.
  • We were told we’d be woken up at 7:20 AM to get a taxi ride to the river.  What happened was we woke ourselves up and waited until 8 AM when a pick up truck packed us in like sardines and took us over to have breakfast.  If you take the night bus, you will wake up not knowing where you are. If you take the day bus, we assume you can better get your bearings, pick a place to stay, and make way to the border crossing solo without help. In this case, we stayed 4km from the border, so even though we tried not to be, we were at the mercy of the pick up truck driver.
  • We had all heard differing reports on when the boats left on the Laos side of the river, 9:30, 11, 12,. We didn’t want breakfast so we broke apart from the rest of the people and took a taxi to the boat dock.  In Chiang Mai, everyone wants you to buy a ticket from them so they tell you there are only 40 seats on the boat and one boat per day. Since we didn’t have tickets, we were in a hurry. There was a guy at the dock who had us fill out our Thai departure card, told us what we needed at Laos immigration and how much to pay, but he didn’t take care of any of it.
  • We then walked across the road and down the hill on the Thai side of the river, handed over our passports and departure cards to the immigration officer (who was on Facebook and never looked at us) and paid 40 Baht each to cross the Mekong to Laos.
  • When you get to Laos immigration, push your way to the front of the line, grab the two forms you need and fill them out ASAP.  Its a bit of a mess with people waiting to pick up passports and thinking they have to wait in line, but just grab the forms and start writing. Then take your two forms, $35 USD, and passports up to the window.  Again, don’t wait in line, just hand them to the immigration officers at the window.  You wait about 5-10 minutes for your visa and they paste your picture page on the window when its ready, which is why it’s crowded. Everyone is wondering if the passport is theirs or not. Check to see all is kosher and head out and up the hill to the border agent on the left who just had to take a quick glance at your visa and passport.
  • We decided that we’d just buy boat tickets from the lady on the left side of the road, about 4 doors up from the border agent.  We weren’t sure about buying tickets AT the boat area but wanted to just get it done with.  900 Baht each person (for the boat for 2 days) which included our tuk tuk ride there.  Again, we weren’t sure on the time (the ticket lady said 10AM) and it was 900AM.  Its about 2 km from where we bought the tickets.  Once there we did find out that the boat left at 11 AM, which really turned out to be 11:30AM and then 12 PM.  But here was why it was important we bought our tickets early(ish)….your seats are numbered.  And you want to be towards the front of the boat (low seat number). 
    • And….the people from Pai and Chiang Mai that were with us at night who actually stayed and had breakfast didn’t get seats and had to sit in the engine room.  They oversold the boat and no one knew that we (given enough people) could charter another boat.  Actually as we were pulling away we saw about 30 more people show up at the boat area, so we can only assume that they got their own boat. So the one boat 40 seat thing EVERYONE told us about in Thailand, was just one more load of BS we got along the way. The reason this post is just about the process is because no one else described it in any detail so you knew what you might be in for. We can only guess almost everyone bought the expensive package where almost everything was included for about 2000 baht and still sit in the engine compartment.
  • We were happy that we bought tickets right after immigration/the border because I don’t think you could have bought them at the boat area and it ensured we got a decent seat.  We are also happy that we didn’t pay (in Chiang Mai) for the entire trip (minivan, hotel, breakfast, boat, overnight in Pak Bang, and 2nd day boat) and did it along the way because it would have cost a hundreds more in baht.  Make sure to stock up on all your provisions for the day near the boat area because buying things on the boat is more expensive.
  • A guy in the boat will give you a 10 minute description about why you shouldn’t trust Laos people, blah blah, and that for extra security and comfort, he could book you a room at a safe place. Later he walked up to everyone and claimed it would be unsafe to find a place ourselves. BS! We stayed at _____ up the hill on the left for 200 baht/room and it was lovely and safe. There are plenty of places available to rent in town.  Buying from the guy wandering the boat in Houei Xai, you’ll pay 100 baht more.
  • The second day of the boat ride was great as they took our huge group and finally gave us two boats so that we could spread out a bit more, although the two boats were full.  Get there at 8:15-8:30 because the 2nd day people just sit where they want and we got smart and turned the seats sideways so we actually had leg room. 
  • When you arrive in Luang Prabang, most guest houses are within walking distance, so unless you know you need a tuk tuk, just walk the 5-10 minutes to your guest house.  We stayed at Phousi Guesthouse (go left at the top of the boat walkway and then take your first right) for $20 a night for 2 people/per room.  We were booking 4 rooms, but they gave no discount.  With breakfast included, it would have been $25/night, but there are so many good spots in town, don’t bother.  The rooms are dark wood with minifridge, aircon, tv (which wasn’t turned on once), fan, and each room either faces the courtyard or has a lovely little balcony like ours overlooking the national museum and Mekong River.  We loved it.

2 thoughts on “Two Day Slow Boat Down the Mekong to Luang Prabang

  1. the logistics of your travel leave me a little breathless. reminds me of hitchhiking in south america. you are really savvy travelers. love, mom

    • It sounds harder than it usually is….although this boat trip is blogged about a lot, a few key points were missing. i.e., how many seats the boat has, therefore whether we could get tickets that morning or should buy them before? But its been fun.

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