VIDEO: Slow Boat to Luang Prabang, Laos

To cross into Laos from Thailand we decided to take a three day tour that included a bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong and a two day Mekong river slow boat tour to Luang Prabang with a overnight stay in Pak Beng.

Our slow boats that we'd be taking down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang, Laos

Introduction:

If I were to post a photo essay right now from our slow boat journey down the Mekong, I’m certain I could fool you into thinking this was as scenic and idyllic of a journey one could ever possibly take.  However, the truth is that our three day tour (one day in a van + two days on board of a slow boat) was filled with hassles, scams, false promises and annoyances that cast a bit of cloud over the entire experience.

I had serious reservations our trip might turn into a total gong show on our first night of staying at substandard inn in the frontier Thai border town of Chiang Khong.  This former prison, which is now housing package tour backpackers, was as spartan of a room that I’ve stayed in since my cheapskate extraordinaire backpacking days .  Our tiny beds featured mattresses harder than rocks.  In fact, I would have rather have slept on a rock ;)  The bathroom was disgustingly filthy and the cold showers and bucket flush toilets encouraged me to hold my bladder and  skip a shower the following morning.

Crossing the border was an exercise in futility where disorganization and understaffed Immigration officers ensured our line looked more like a Black Friday blowout extravaganza than a border crossing.  Moreover, bribes and complete lack of obeying an orderly queue made for a total free-for-all experience.

The makeshift passenger seats on our slow boats

The two days we spent cruising down the Mekong was the only pleasant/redeeming aspect of the journey.  Armed with a full charged iPod, Kindle, camera and camcorder, I alternated between listening to music, reading, taking photos/videos and drifting off to sleep when I wasn’t admiring the views of the murky water, lush jungle and randomly scattered hillside settlements.

The one night spent in Pak Ben, Laos was at another substandard hotel with untidy rooms, suspiciously stained bed-sheets and a shower/sink combination that was out of order.  Indeed, when I decided I’d like to take a shower on the second night not a drop of water (hot or cold) came out of the tap.

The final nail in the coffin, of our wayward journey, came on the final day of our trip when we were let off at a pier 10 kilometers away from Luang Prabang.  The solution, an overpriced 20,000 Kip tuk-tuk ride, was a scam that has been in effect for apparently the last seven months.  Sometime last year the boats stopped going all the way into the city center and passengers/tourists have been getting roped into paying this extra fee ever since.

Murky waters of the Mekong

Overall, our substandard tour made us wish we had of done our journey independently.  Aside from all of the problems we encountered we also had to contend with some rather obnoxious backpackers who were more than boisterous about their overzealous enthusiasm towards doing drugs in a developing country.

In hindsight, we’d travel back in time and either do this journey independently or join a higher end tour.  Having the flexibility to choose our hotels and board boats less crammed with tourists would have made the journey exponentially more pleasant.  If you’re considering doing a slow boat trip to Luang Prabang, Laos don’t make the same mistakes we did ;)

Full a more in-depth and detailed explanation of our journey check out Audrey’s slow boat tour down the Mekong post on her site.

A full view of our slow boat

Video Transcript:

The journey to Laos is actually a three day trip. Day one involves driving from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, which is at the border between Laos and Thailand. On day two we finally get on the boat and travel from Chiang Khong across the border and arrive at Pak Beng. The last day (the third day) is nine hours on a boat all the way from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang.

We’re going to tell you all about our journey – the pros, the cons, the things that were great and what wasn’t so great. First, this is the actual trip.

Overall conclusions about this trip – we’d definitely recommend taking the slow boat from Thailand to Laos; however, doing the three day tour is definitely something we’d reconsider.

Perhaps a lot of our negatives come from the fact that we did a budget tour and we took the option that is only 2400 Baht. Some of the things we didn’t like so much is that we were always leaving behind schedule and sometimes we’d be waiting around for an hour before anything happened. Also, when it came to accommodations the hotels weren’t amazing. Our first night was spent at a former jail and it kind of felt a bit spartan. There was no hot water so we couldn’t shower. In terms of food, I would call it prison food. It was boiled cabbage and just overcooked rice. Those were some of the cons.

Locals on a smaller vessel

I think you’re being a little bit too kind with your description of the hotel. That was literally the hardest bed I’ve ever slept on. I would have been more comfortable on a rock.

If I had to do this trip over again I would definitely do it independently. You can take a bus from Chiang Mai (or other Northern Thai cities) all the way to the border. You can cross it yourself and find your own accommodations. You can find something that is a little bit better and more suitable than what we stayed at. Also, you can buy your own boat tickets as well and by showing up early at the pier and purchasing it yourself ensures you get a good seat. That is the key to enjoying your experience going down the Mekong.

A few tips to make the trip a bit more pleasant would be to show up early. You want to be the first person on the boat so you can choose the best seats. You don’t want to be near the front because the views aren’t that great and you’re kind of sitting sideways. You don’t want to be near the back because the engine is rambling and it is incredibly loud. You want to choose a seat in the middle. Also, you’ll want to bring a cushion or a pillow just in case you end up sitting on the wooden seats. Those are not very comfortable and you’ll also want to stock up on lots of food and bring sandwiches, pastries and whatever it is you’ll want to eat because it is a long trip and on the boat they just have chips and tea and cups of noodles.

Final Thoughts:

Do you have experience taking group tours?  Should we have done anything differently?  Let me know in the comments section below:

VIDEO: Slow Boat to Luang Prabang, Laos

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Maria February 10, 2014 at 3:24 pm

Awesome way to go!

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Samuel Jeffery February 11, 2014 at 1:01 am

Thanks Maria!

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Adam @ Round the World we go February 10, 2014 at 10:09 pm

Ouch.. An expensive tuk-tuk ride! Hope the trip down Mekong made up for it!

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Samuel Jeffery February 11, 2014 at 1:01 am

Thanks Adam!

Luang Prabang has been fantastic and although the Mekong tour was annoying we’ve quickly recovered :)

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Mike February 11, 2014 at 1:46 am

I grew up on and/or around boats. I love them and am very comfortable with them. But, after watching your video and with your summary I would likely pass on this trip. Thank you for taking one for the team (us other hopeful travelers), Samuel and Audrey ha ha! On the video I did notice that folks had heavy coats on. Was it that chilly?

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Samuel Jeffery February 12, 2014 at 7:45 am

Hey Mike,

It was really chilly in the mornings and then it got warm in the afternoons. It was one of those trips where we kept peeling off our layers :)

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Mary @ Green Global Travel February 11, 2014 at 4:29 am

I’m sorry that this trip ended up being less than ideal for you. Thanks for giving us the heads up. :-)

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Samuel Jeffery February 12, 2014 at 7:46 am

Thanks Mary!

For those who do decide to go much better options (albeit more expensive) are available.

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Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren February 11, 2014 at 7:40 am

Oh man, sorry your experience wasn’t the best! But I always appreciate your honesty and travel tips so thanks for sharing!

Happy travels :)

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Samuel Jeffery February 12, 2014 at 7:46 am

Thanks Lauren!

Not every trip is stellar and we tend to learn a lot from our mistakes on the road ;)

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Craig Lewis February 11, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Thanks for the refreshingly honest review – as you say, could easily have been fooled by some of the amazing pictures.
It does look beautiful, but I’m well past those backpacking days so I don’t think I’ll be sleeping on a rock for anyone!
Independent travel is so often the best way to go. Avoids over-priced tour groups in a sterilised environment as well as experiences like this one.
Hope you’ve recovered!

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Samuel Jeffery February 12, 2014 at 7:48 am

Thanks Craig!

I couldn’t have said it better myself. We got a little lazy and we’re now reminded just how much we prefer to figure things out on our own :)

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Jen February 11, 2014 at 9:18 pm

That’s so disappointing for you guys. The problem I find with tours is you never really know what your going to get until you get there. I have been on 4 multi day tours in various countries now and have been lucky enough to have 3 of the 4 at the higher end of my expectations. The one that wasn’t so great was because the guide was completely incompetent. I just try to ask around and read up on the tours before booking and then cross my fingers it is what I expected.

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Samuel Jeffery February 12, 2014 at 7:50 am

Thanks Jen!

I totally agree with you. Most tour agencies tell you what you want to hear (and even show you fake pictures at times) in order to get you to purchase. Once you’ve handed over your money you’re at the mercy of the operator, which often leads to many dodgy turns ;)

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Catherine February 12, 2014 at 10:17 am

Sorry to hear your tour wasn’t as good as you’d hoped, but glad that you still recommend taking a slow boat! Will keep all these tips in mind for when I’m in SE Asia later this year :)

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Samuel Jeffery February 12, 2014 at 10:38 pm

Thanks Catherine,

It’s a wonderful experience (scenery wise) so choosing a good tour or boat company would make all the difference in the world :)

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Ivana February 12, 2014 at 1:33 pm

We bought the same adventure package and was great experience in terms of views and some scenes when we almost crashed into the rocks because we were picking the lovals from unofficial pier in the middle of nowhere. Same story for us in Pak Beng and welcome taxi in Luang Prabang.
Hopefully you are enjoying now more sun and chill-out in LP!!

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Samuel Jeffery February 12, 2014 at 10:37 pm

Thanks Ivana,

We both had the same experience in recent times :) Luang Prabang more than made up for the long trip. It’s a wonderful city to relax in :)

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Marek Indietraveller February 12, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Pak Beng etc seem like the kind of places where they can get away with a lot because it’s remote and the only way to go through. Sorry you had such bad experiences!

When I did the slow boat in 2012 an issue that I had was that they packed *way* too many people onto the boat, which even led to a little revolt among the passengers.

It’s still a very nice way to enter Laos I think but it can be a little stressful as well…

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Samuel Jeffery February 12, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Marek, I’m not surprised to hear they packed too many people on your boat. I think our boat was filled way beyond capacity as well (at least from a safety standard).

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AlainSojourner February 15, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Slow is better. You’ve got see a lot more and enjoy the views.

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Ruthi February 24, 2014 at 5:23 am

hi Samuel We are going to be crossing into Laos from China (Kunming) and I was considering doing the boat trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang.But after several blog posts about the crowded conditions and that it gets boring I am leaning to getting buses and stopping en route since we are not in any hurry.Any thoughts? Have already done a cruise (private) in the Mekong delta area of Vietnam so maybe it’s just more of the same..
Cheers from Xiamen,China

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Samuel Jeffery February 27, 2014 at 7:15 am

Ruthi,

It is certainly worth it but you should consider taking a more luxury boat tour. They actually don’t appear to be much more expensive and it would be SO WORTH IT! :)

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