Turns out that despite reading many many horror stories about the slow boat from Thailand to Laos (and the reverse journey) it was actually not that bad at all. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s been one of my favourite long distance journeys on this trip.
Far from the blogs I read that told stories of sitting with dead bodies, or ending up in abject misery desperately waiting to reach the final stop, I found the Thailand to Laos slow boat relaxing, sociable and the landscapes were some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Okay, it’s probably not the most luxurious mode of transport, some boats definitely have better seating than others and there were probably about 20% more people on the boats than would have comfortably fit but it’s seriously not that bad. Compared with some bus journeys in Chile and Bolivia and when pitted against land border crossings we faced between Peru and Ecuador the slow boat it was pretty much a breeze.
What to Know Before You Go
We’ll start with some tips (words of warning) that we reckon are pretty useful if you take the slow boat from Thailand to Laos – some of which we didn’t come across when researching our journey.
1. Do not change money in Chiang Khong:
On your first night of the 3 day 2 night slow boat expedition you’ll end up in a quaint little town called Chiang Khong. This was a cool place to spend a night and a great chance to meet the people we’d be spending the next couple of days travelling with. The town however does seem to have a bit of a racket going on when it comes to money changing for tourists travelling from Thailand to Laos by boat – and many people we spoke to fell for this, including us.
We were told that there are huge restrictions on withdrawing money in Laos and that ATMs charge enormous fees with people going so far as to advise us to take out as much cash as possible and get it changed before crossing the border… a service handily offered by our hotel. Don’t do it – we changed only 100USD and got the worst exchange rate ever – these guys are making a fortune and the ATMs in Laos are no more expensive than anywhere else.
2. Try and book a slow boat package that includes at least some food and accommodation:
Yes it might not be the ultimate cheapest option but it’s not that expensive and it makes life so much easier. We were handed lunch boxes on our first day on the Thailand to Laos slow boat meaning we didn’t have to hunt around for food or eat the expensive and not so great snacks available on board. It’s also a massive relief not to have to search around for somewhere to stay after each full day of travelling.
3. Take plenty of layers:
The boat between Thailand and Laos is various degrees of freezing cold in the morning (this was early February) and whilst it can get warmer in the day, it wasn’t as slow as we anticipated leading to a decent breeze for most of the journey. The vast majority of seating is in the shade as well so if you feel the cold (like I do) then layer up to stay comfortable.
Our Experience on the Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos
Okay, with that advice over with, here’s what you can expect if you take the slow boat from Thailand to Laos:
On day 1 be prepared to spend pretty much an entire day on a minibus that may not be the most comfortable vehicle you’ve ever travelled in. Perhaps this was why I liked the slow boat to Laos so much more than expected as our bus seemed particularly grubby and hot. You do get to see this cool white temple in Chiang Rai though, so there are plus sides to day one of the journey!
Border crossings are a pita at least 99% of the time and this one was no exception despite it not being the worst one we’ve faced. It costs at the time of writing 35USD per person for a visa on arrival that’s valid for up to a month (50USD in advance). We also had to pay an extra dollar for crossing on a weekend and making the staff work overtime. It was all fairly confusing but you drop your passport and forms off in one window then wait until it’s held up in the adjacent window to go and pay your money and pick it back up. The downside of being in a group when you’re taking the Thailand to Laos slow boat is that whilst it took us around an hour to get ours sorted it was another two hours wait for everyone else to be finished.
The slow boats themselves look something like this – they’re fairly old and pretty basic, but the seats are mostly reclaimed bus seats alongside some wooden benches that have cushions on them. They’re a little creaky, quite cosy and can get loud with the engine going. Whatever you do, arrive on the docks on time if you have preference on seating – it was frankly ridiculous to see people rocking up at Pakbeng jetty at 9.15 when the boat was due to depart at 9 and being annoyed that there weren’t many seats left…
That said, everyone we met was pretty cool and the boat is really sociable. The solo travellers we met in Laos in particular said they found the boat an awesome way to meet people and sort out a couple of initial plans for their stay in the country. Typically people will be chilling out drinking beer Lao, enjoying the scenery, playing cards and chatting with fellow travellers so it’s a really sociable way to travel and we met some great people on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos.
One of the coolest things is the opportunity to get a bit of an insight into life in the little villages along the Mekong Delta and it’s a great introduction to Laos. From little kids playing on the sand banks, to trades between the boat men and local families for fish and other goods to traditional fisherman and weavers at work it’s a fascinating glimpse into a rural and isolated way of life.
The absolute best thing about the whole journey for me though was the scenery. I had no idea that Laos would be quite so beautiful. The river is surrounded by lush jungle and amazing mountainous landscapes whilst the river is bordered by striking rocky outcrops and is just stunningly beautiful in itself. I took a kindle loaded up with books and a full battery and it sat basically untouched as I gazed at the landscapes we passed and admired just how beautiful everything was. This trend actually continued throughout Laos so expect to read plenty of blogs about how crazily awesome the scenery is in this little country. This also helped to make the slow boat from Laos to Thailand a super relaxing way to spend a day or so.
Overall I’d definitely recommend the Thailand to Laos slow boat to anyone wondering whether or not to risk it. The benefits of travelling this section of the journey in this way far outweigh the negatives and whilst it does have its discomforts it’s definitely an experience to remember! I think the only people I wouldn’t recommend it to would be anyone who’s impatient or in a particular hurry to complete this leg of the journey or anyone prone to back ache etc who might find it more uncomfortable than most.