After spending a little over two weeks in Northern Thailand, Cam and I decided it was time to move on and figured Laos would be the best next destination. (It’s a route very common among backpackers traveling Southeast Asia). Our options were to bus to the border then get to Luang Prabang either by a 24-hour bus, a 7-hour speed boat, or a 2-day slow boat. After a bit of research online, we found most people recommended the slow boat, as it’s the best way to experience Laos. People also tended to call it a “party boat,” but clearly that played no part in our decision… ;)
Tuesday we were picked up in Pai by a shuttle bus at 2pm and endured the winding drive back to Chiang Mai. After dropping a few others off, our driver finally stopped at 5:45pm, allowing us only 15 minutes for dinner. We grabbed some quick street food and made it back to the shuttle in time for our 6pm departure for what was supposed to be a five-hour drive to the border town of Chiang Khong…
Seven hours later, it’s now 1am and we’re just arriving at our “hotel” for the night. And by hotel, I mean a room with a mattress surely carved from stone, no AC or fan, no toilet paper, no hot water, and a bathroom sink that drained directly onto the floor so that when you brushed your teeth, your spit ended up on your feet. Yep, we had clearly booked the budget option to Laos.
But no worries, we were so exhausted and there was no wifi in the room anyways to occupy us, so we passed out immediately. The next morning our group met at 7:30am and had an hour to eat breakfast and get our visa requirements ready. This turned out more hectic than you’d probably imagine, with everyone needing to exchange money (since they only take USD), some people running to ATMs to withdraw more Thai Baht and then change to USD, others taking passport photos, and others frantically trying to find their departure cards that had somehow disappeared from their passports. All this while the driver is telling us to hurry so we would make the boat in time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about traveling Southeast Asia, it’s to never expect anything to go smoothly.
Everyone finally got things sorted, and we hoped onto the van again for a ride to customs to stamp out of Thailand, then were led to another bus that drove us across the river to Laos to get our visas on arrival. This was another lengthy process as there were no directional signs telling people where to get the forms or where to line up. We could hear people asking things like, “Did they take your passport?” and “Have you paid yet?” and “Where do we go next?” It was complete chaos everywhere, but the pickup window was the worst. There was a mob of travelers surrounding the window as the clerk held up one passport at a time, and each person had to push through to pay the fee and collect their stamped passport. Then there were some people who mysteriously disappeared for awhile… We found out later these were the people who had overstayed their Thai visa and were taken to the back to pay a hefty fee of 500 baht (~ $15) per day.
Cam and I luckily had been some of the first ones through the lines and didn’t have to deal with too big of a mob. We reached Laos, where we waited about an hour for the others to finish and were finally put on yet another bus down to the slow boat. This was our 5th and final bus from Pai.
We reached Huay Xai, the slow boat departure town, and everyone hit the markets to stock up on food and drinks before boarding. Cam and I found a bottle of whiskey from one vendor for 30,000 kip – that’s $3.75 for an entire bottle. Amazing. We purchased that along with some sandwiches and walked down to our boat:
Only joking. This is what our boat actually looked like:
We showed our tickets and noticed that our assigned seat numbers were 49 & 50. Our driver had said that tourists were usually given seat numbers near the front of the boat since they were away from the noise of the engine and usually also had better views, and he was right – 49 & 50 were very close to the front. Unfortunately, pretty much every seat was full, including ours. Looked like nobody paid attention to seat numbers…
We walked all the way to the back to put our bags in storage, and since there were no seats, some of the Laotian workers grabbed some portable metal seats for us and sat us down in the back. At first we were thrilled with the amount of space we got and the fact that we had a fridge right next to us to keep our drinks cold, but as soon as the boat started to move, we found out that 1. Our seats received no breeze as the rest of the seats did, and 2. We were directly next to the roaring engine and could hardly hear each other speak. We looked at each other wide eyed as we realized seven hours of this lay ahead of us… We’d have to get better seats tomorrow.
So what exactly happened on this slow boat? 5 minutes into the journey… “Ugh, there’s no wifi… I’m bored.” We played a few card games with another traveler named Billy, read a bit of our Lonely Planet Southeast Asia book, but were bored again within the hour. It was around that time that other travellers started to explore the boat and ended up coming back to see that we had a fridge next to us. “Oh, can we store our drinks in that too?!” they asked. “Yes, of course!” we replied, as if it belonged to us.
There was one other little area a bit further back from the engine, so we ended up taking our chairs out there and setting up a little circle so that we could socialize, and people started cracking open their Beerlaos or mixing whisky & cokes. This back area we were in had a little kitchen, and even a washing machine, so it was pretty cramped, only enough room for maybe 8 max. But we used the kitchen to our advantage by putting a speaker into a pot to play music, and suddenly the time started passing a lot faster.
I wouldn’t call it a “party boat,” but could certainly see how some boats turned into a party depending on the people and amount of young travelers. Most of the travelers had the same idea that when you’re stuck on a cramped slow boat for hours, a few Beerlaos and some cruisey music seemed to cure the boredom.
We arrived at Pakbeng, our stop for the night, around 6pm, and everyone in the back started saying, “Nooo, we’re there already?!” But we still had day 2, so we packed up and went to find accommodation for the night. We all ended up staying at the same guesthouse, and it was much nicer than the previous night – a soft(er) bed and working fan! But hey, our standards were pretty low at this point.
Day 2, Cam and I walked down to the boat early and scored some better seats up front, so it was much more peaceful than the previous day, and the views were amazing! The scenery became greener and much more lush as we traveled south deeper into Laos. Steep rugged mountains adjacent the calm water, buffalo hanging out on river’s edge, and children bathing in the water made for some amazing photo ops.
Though the trip was supposed to be 8 hours that day, we arrived after only 7 (since when does public transportation ever arrive early in Southeast Asia?!) We were a bit confused, as it didn’t look like Luang Prabang, and Cam used data to check Google Maps and found that we weren’t quite there yet. But the captain and crew were telling us it was the last stop, so we had to get off.
We found out later that recently slow boats have started dropping tourists off outside of Luang Prabang so that they have to pay for tuk-tuks to get into town, while the locals remain on board and get dropped off directly in town. It’s not a big deal since the tuk-tuk into town was only 20,000 kip ($2.50 USD) per person, and on the one hand the slow boats are helping create jobs for Laotian tuk-tuk drivers who probably need the money, but it’s the principal of the matter that annoyed us. We’d paid for a slow boat to Luang Prabang and had been misled into getting off early. This was one of the first instances where the corruption in Laos became very apparent.
But anyways, it was only $2.50 so no big deal. One hostel had a guy handing out flyers to all the travelers as we got on the tuk-tuks, so most of us ended up staying there to save time walking around town looking accommodation.
Finally, 52 hours after leaving Pai, we’d finally arrived in Luang Prabang! A long and slow journey, but everyone we’d spoken to was right – it was a great way to see more of Laos, it was cheap, and after experiencing shuttle busses around Laos, I can attest that the slow boat is still much more comfortable.
Interested in taking the slow boat? A few tips:
- Buy packaged lunches beforehand as there are only snacks and Ramen on board
- Bring your own drinks if you want to save money – a large Beerlao is 10,000 kip ($1.25 USD) on land but 25,000 kip on board
- Bring something to do – books, games, music, etc.
- Don’t book accommodation in Pakbeng before you arrive – you’ll find it cheaper if you bargain it down on arrival. Some of the vendors that hop on board will try to sell rooms for 150,000 kip, but you should be able to get a decent private room for around 70-100,000.
- Arrive early to score good seats. Nobody adheres to their assigned seats.
As always, keep on livin’ pura vida ✌