As mentioned previously, Lori and I opted to arrange travel from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang via the Mekong River through a travel agent in Chiang Mai. Contrary to what you may think, this seems to be the most common way of doing the slow boat from the Thai border rather than trying to piece everything together yourself. We usually prefer to travel independently, but in this instance it seemed to make sense to purchase a joint ticket in which all transport and the first night of lodging was arranged through a travel agent.
The Chiang Kong to Luang Prabang portion of the trip was a unique experience passing by beautiful scenery with relative comfort. Though I was a bit disappointed to learn that the boats would be so comfortable and touristic (deep down I was hoping for a repeat of our overnight cargo freighter to Koh Tao experience) it still ended up being one of the transport highlights of our entire trip in Asia. I mean, how often to you get to spend two days floating down one of the world’s great rivers?
Here’s a quick rundown of our joint ticket itinerary which took us from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang:
DAY 1 — Depart guesthouse in Chiang Mai around 11am; stop at a cashew factory store for lunch (local food) and the White Palace in Chiang Rai for 30-40 minutes; Arrive in Chiang Khong around 3-4pm; Dinner at guesthouse and overnight stay in Chiang Khong.
DAY 2 — Eat breakfast at 7am and depart guesthouse between 9-10am for the ferry to cross the river; Cross river to Huay Xai, Laos; get visa and pass through immigration; Depart on river boat to Pakbeng around noon. Arrive in Pakbeng around 5pm.
DAY 3 — Depart Pakbeng around 9am, arrive in Luang Prabang around 4pm.
There are a couple of things worth noting regarding the itinerary above. For one, times listed here are actual times, not the times we were told, which is important given that we were told something very different than what actually happened in reality. For example, we were told that we’d be picked up in Chiang Mai between 10 and 10:30, but it ended up being closer to 11:20 and some of our crew had to wait til noon. We were told that the slow boat would leave Huy Xai at 9am, but it was in fact closer to noon. The boat basically leaves when the boat leaves. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise. We were also told that it would take 7 hours to get to Pakbeng and 10 hours to get to Luang Prabang. This was a drastic over-estimation but we actually think this had to do with the speed of the river (it was right on the heels of the rainy season and very high) than any other factor.
Something else to take into consideration is that, regardless of being called the “slow boat” it can be quite the speedy trip, especially if it is the rainy season and the waters are running high. This time of year (October), I wouldn’t take the boat expecting a mind-numbing lazy amble down the mighty river. We found the boat refreshingly swift, yet never felt it was anything close to dangerous. I think the main reason it is called the slow boat is to differentiate it from the other travel option: the very aptly named “fast boat” which we saw on a number of occasions buzzing by at lightning speed dodging barely visible boulders, logs and other craziness. The fast boat covers the same amount of distance as the two-day slow boat journey but in a matter of hours. But the time saved comes at a price and Huy Xai is full of people with tales to tell of grizzly accidents.
Prior to buying our tickets in Chiang Mai, some travelers had urged us to buy seat cushions for the long trip as the slow boat seats were wooden benches and could get extremely uncomfortable after several hours of traveling. Yet, we heard from others that bench seats were a thing of the past and now all boats were outfitted with comfy airline-style seating. Turns out, neither camp was exactly right or wrong. The day we departed from Huy Xai, two boats made the journey. We were on the first boat which was outfitted entirely with seats transplanted straight from a couple of dozen minivans. They were indeed quite comfortable and far more luxurious than we had expected. However, the second boat, which left right after us, was not pimped out to the same degree and most of its passengers made the journey on wooden benches or even the floor.
Not sure of which type of seating we could expect (and being the chronically frugal travelers we are), we thought we’d split the difference and buy one cushion that we both could share back and forth (they were sold at our guesthouse in Chiang Khong). As we found ourselves with comfy seats on the second day as well, we didn’t end up needing the cushion after all. But my feeling on the matter is that as long as the guesthouse is selling the cushions then there’s a chance that some of the boats running the route are still outfitted with wooden benches.
Something else worth noting is that we were given assigned seat numbers on our tickets. While there were handwritten numbers on small pieces of paper laid out on many of the seats the first day of travel, many of the other passengers did not have assigned seats and no one seemed to pay any attention to the pieces of paper. We were some of the last passengers on the first boat out, but didn’t worry much about it because we knew we had assigned seats. By the time we boarded, the pieces of paper had been shuffled all around and we got stuck up in the less desirable seats toward the front which face each other. We didn’t mind too much in hindsight though because this meant that our luggage was left easily accessible in the overflow room while the rest were buried under a hatch. This meant that we had a head start on securing accommodation when the boat arrived in Pakbeng given that everyone else had to wait for their luggage to be unearthed.
Lies, Filthy Lies!
With nearly all joint ticket transport that we had purchased through travel agents in Thailand, we again felt that we had been lied to quite a bit. Given the price and the relative ease of getting from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, we would do it all over again. However, if you are planning to take the trip, there are some untruths to be aware of:
#1, Lunch is included. **FALSE** The joint ticket generally covers dinner on Day 1 and breakfast on Day 2. Depending on the company, they may also give you a small muffin and a juice box for a snack. If they tell you you get a lunch, this is said lunch. Plan accordingly.
#2, Times are set in stone. **FALSE** Take all times given to you with a grain of salt. Factor in +/- 2 hours.
#3, Boats only have hard wooden bench seats. **FALSE** Don’t necessarily believe your fixer/guide when s/he tells you the boats all of bench seats while s/he is holding a cushion for sale in his hand. Yes, the cushion is insurance, but out of all of the passengers we talked to only a small minority ended up on the boat with benches. If it’s slow season, chances are good you’ll have comfy seats.
#4, Budget lodging in Pakbeng is booked up tonight. **FALSE** Somebody at some point will probably tell you that all of the budget guesthouses in Pakbeng (the halfway stopover on the Mekong) fill up fast, or better yet, that they are already full! Then they will probably tell you that the only accommodation choice you’ll have are expensive hotels which cost $50+ USD per night — so naturally you should prebook with him/her at Guesthouse A or B to avoid disappointment. DON’T FALL FOR IT!!! They will charge you two to three times the going rate and you will not have a problem securing accommodation. Pakbeng is full of dozens of budget guesthouses and have far more rooms than even the busiest nights’ worth of passengers can take. Don’t bother booking ahead, just get off the boat and head to your guesthouse of choice, or do like we did and take a stroll up the main road and check out a few for yourself. Granted, if you have a strong preference you should try and be first off the boat, but even our place, which was a top pick, never filled up completely with over 120 passenger from 2 boats about town.
#5, No food or drink available for purchase on the boat. **FALSE** your fixer/guide may also tell you that there is no food or drink available for sale on the boat. While the selection was limited and prices were a bit steeper than shops on land, our boat had a variety snacks, noodles, baguette and a full bar with water, beer, soda, coffee, and hard liquor in the rear. We do recommend bringing lunch and snacks which can be easily purchased at any of the small shops and restaurants on the main drag in Chiang Khong or Huy Xai and there are also a couple of really nice bakeries in Pakbeng on the main road.
#6, There’s no place to change money in Huy Xai before immigration. **FALSE** there’s an official money exchange kiosk in the same building as the visa official. This one is a flat-out lie.
#7, There are assigned seats on the boat. **FALSE** This was covered above. As far as we could tell, there was a half-ass attempt to assign seats for some individuals but the system is extremely flawed. In a nutshell, chances are you’ll probably get a seat but they probably won’t be the one that has been “assigned” to you. There’s also a slight chance you’ll be sitting on the floor on one of the days. Our understanding is that it doesn’t happen much, but it happened to a girl we talked to who spent an extra day in Pakbeng and had arrived there the day before we did.
Selected Costs :
1600 baht per person (~$54 USD) — Joint ticket including transport from Chiang Mai guesthouse to Chiang Khong guesthouse via minibus; ferry from Chiang Khong to Huy Xai; River boat from Huy Xai to Luang Prabang via Pakbeng; 1 night accommodation in Chiang Khong; Dinner on Day 1 and Breakfast on Day 2 (and possibly a small snack).
150 baht ($5) — Double room for two people at Donevilasack Guesthouse (walk-in).
80 baht ($2.50) — Noodle and chicken lunch at cashew factory.
10,000 Kip ($1.20) — large bottle of water on the boat
20,000 Kip ($2.40) — BeerLao beer on the boat