When you are looking to go to Laos there are several options to choose from such as by boat, plane or bus and each of them have their positive attributes. However, for many years there has been a staple route that most backpackers take to get there. For many, taking the slow boat across the border is the quint essential experience travelers must have. However, for many this can be a stress inducing time because they do not know how to get across the border. Do not fret my friends because I will lay it out on what to expect during the crossing and how to make this the most efficient and smooth experience crossing overland!
Deciding How To Cross
There several option that you can choose from on how to cross the border but I will cover the most common option which is by boat. When crossing by boat there are two options:
- Fast boat– This is the fastest way overland but it is crazy dangerous. It’s about 3 hours on each leg with brief stop in Pakbeng. If you choose this option hearing protection and waterproofing you bags is an absolute must. Expect to pay around 45 USD.
- Slow Boat- The slow boat is the cheapest option and the one I decided to take. You spend about 8 hours each day on the boat and you spend the night in Pakbeng. Expect to pay around 34-44 USD.
After spending some time trying to figure out how to make the crossing on my own and figure out all the logistics I decided to look into a tour agency to make all the arrangements. After discussing with a few people who had already done the crossing on their own and hearing about how bad it could go if you miss your bus or boat I decided a tour agency was the best and smoothest way across the border.
I stayed at the Mercy Hostel in Chiang Rai which is a city located about 4 hours north by bus of Chiang Mai. It is worth staying at for a day or two to check out the sights before heading to Laos. Check out my travel guide on Chiang Rai.
At my hostel they offered a tour package that included all of the transportation for 1650 baht. You have to pay for your accommodation at the river town of Pakbeng. That should run you anywhere from 50,0000 – 100,000 Kip. While I was in Chiang Mai the tours that I was seeing for the same package going from there were around 2400 Baht and up. I figured it would be nice to spend a few days in Chiang Rai before crossing the border and I also figured that I would cost less to cross from there.
The morning of the crossing they show up at the hostel between 0600-0630 in a van. My group consisted of 5 other people from my hostel and we all loaded up in it. After we got underway the driver made sure we all signed in with our passport numbers and information for security checks. Before we got out-of-town he stopped by an ATM that dispensed USD. Once we all figured out what he was saying we were on our way. There was a mass confusion on what he was trying to tell us but essentially he wanted to make sure we all had USD for the border crossing because it was the easiest way to pay for your visa fee.
The Border Crossing
Once underway, we cruised our way up to the border and stopped about 10-15 minutes before the border for a restroom break. We stopped for a 10 minutes then headed straight to the border. Our driver told us to have all the proper documentation ready to go before we arrive at the border so it would be quick and easy. This is when you need to make sure your Laos visa/customs paperwork is put away because if the Thai immigration officials see it they will destroy them and you will have to do them all over again. When we arrived at the border we unloaded everything from the van and grabbed our belongings. Our guide led us to the immigration line to cross and waited with us. However, this is when I realized I had misplaced my passport photos. This was not good! While in line I just ripped open my bag and scrambled through it in a slight panic because if I could not find them I had to return back to Chiang Rai to get new photos! Apparently, they will not let your through the border without one!
After a few minutes of searching I finally found them. Just in time to pack it all up hastily because I was up next for immigration to leave Thailand. I walked up and presented my card and again encountered trouble. Apparently, my giant beard makes me look like a completely different person from my Passport picture so they were really doing their diligence to make sure it was me! After a bit off nervous worrying they let me through and I headed to our bus.
When you are in the gray zone between the two countries there is a bus that shuttles you between each country. Since I was part of a group that pre-paid for all my transportation it was included in my fee. If you are crossing on your own this is an addition fee but they wouldn’t give me a straight answer on how much.
They shuttled us through then dropped us off at the Laos visa line. Since we already had the visa application and immigration document filled out we jumped right in the line. There were two lines. First, you turn in you documents with your passport and passport photo. They take everything and then you go wait in the next line for them to stick your passport out the window for you to collect it and pay the visa fee of 35 USD. This whole process took about twenty minutes and then you go clear customs. Essentially, you just walk through and they make sure you have your visa.
You are now in LAOS!! Once across, we gathered in one spot and waited for the whole group. I took advantage of this time to exchange 20 USD to Kip just to have a few dollars of local currency on me. We then all loaded up into a Tuk-Tuk that took us to a small grocery store and booking agency before heading to the slow boats.
This was a good opportunity to grab some food for the ride because there is very limited options on the boat. They also offered the option to book accommodation for the night as well but I decided to wait and book something in the town we were stopping at called Pakbeng.
We left for the boat around 1045 because it departs the pier in Huai Xai at 1130. Upon arrival there are a lot of people and your ticket will have a seat number but that doesn’t matter. It is essentially a free for all on the boat. You should really try to get a window seat near the front of the boat because the back of it is really loud due to engine noise. Also, the boat goes really slow so you won’t have to worry about being splashed. You will have to take your bags to the back of the boat in the engine room to be stored so getting there early is key to getting your bag stored so you can grab a good seat!!
THE TICKET THEY GAVE YOU TO BOARD THE BOAT IS REQUIRED FOR THE NEXT DAY’S TRIP AS WELL!! SO DON’T LOOSE IT OR YOU WILL BE STUCK IN THE RIVER TOWN!!!
On The Boat
Once you have found your seat get comfortable because you will be here until around 1730. The ride itself is quite nice. I went during the dry season so it was not too hot and the views were absolutely amazing. You will see so much along the way such as stunning rock formations all along the river, local wildlife grazing by the riverfront, many of the local merchant boats floating by doing their daily runs and so much more. The best part is being able to sit back and experience a slower pace of life. You can get lost in the beauty around you, play cards with fellow travelers or even break out an impromptu river band like my boat did!
Arriving in Pakbeng
Once you arrive you will be hit with lots of locals trying to pitch you a place to stay with fancy laminate cards with pictures of the room and FREE WIFI!! However, don’t be fooled by this convenience. The town is incredibly small and I mean like 5-10 minutes to walk through it. They will pitch you at 100,000 kip for a night which is pretty reasonable but don’t do this unless you just want to. I did and found out later we could have gotten a place way cheaper. The driver took us to our guesthouse and pointed us to the only ATM in town. Where I pulled out A MILLION KIP!! I felt like a baller!
I would say you could find cheaper accommodation from some of the guys I talked to at the ATM. They said they found a place for 40,000 Kip which is a pretty good deal! Also, beware of the locals trying to sell you drugs! I had a guy straight up ask me if I wanted to buy drugs?! Just say NO! The penalty for drugs in Laos is pretty steep! Just in case you can say to the cops “ya sep tit lao naan bo maen khong khoy” which means those drugs aren’t mine!
We went and paid the owner and decided to eat at our place. All the local restaurants were priced the same and had pretty much the same menus. If you are looking for a bar there is only one in town but most of the people on my boat just drank at their respective guesthouses.
The boats were scheduled to leave at 0930 so I made sure to get there early to get a good seat. I would say get there 30 minutes to an hour early to get a seat at the front of the boat. This is going to be the longest day on the river so it pays to have a good seat on this day. You can expect to spend about 7 hours on the boat. There is a bathroom on the boat but it is small and lots of people are using it so make sure you don’t go all crazy drinking the night before or eating some crazy food. That will definitely ruin a 7 hour boat ride!
Once you are settled on the boats get comfortable and enjoy the ride! Have your camera ready as well because there are some good photo opportunities along the way!
Arriving in Luang Prabang
When you arrive in the port of Luang Prabang you will need to collect your belonging and this is where it pays to have a backpack verses rolling luggage! The climb up from the boats is quite steep!
Getting to the center of town
Once, you reach the top you will need to have 20,000 kip each to pay for a tuk-tuk to the center of town. This was definitely arranged to squeeze more money out of tourists. From what some locals told me is that it used to drop people near the center of town but they moved it back there to make more money. You will have to fork over the money unless you want to walk the 10 km to the center of town. The tuk-tuk will drop you off at the round about next to the night market and you will be on your own to find a place. If you are running low on money there are a bunch of ATMs located next to the roundabout. From here you can walk to almost anywhere you booked if you had already pre-arranged something but if you are like me you can just wing it!
When I arrived it just happened to be Chinese New Year! This was essentially the wort possible time to arrive with no place booked. Every single guesthouse was full and when I finally found one it was 150,000 Kip!!! Geezz!! So definitely do your research to make sure you don’t show up to a UNESCO World Heritage Site with nothing booked. Rookie mistake right there!
The next day I found two streets that had a bunch of budget friendly guesthouse or dorms for around 50,000 kip and the place I ended up staying at was 30,000 kip a night for dorms and they had a double bed private room for 60,0000 kip! That was the cheapest I found or heard of the whole time I was there.
While this was my experience with the border crossing yours could be drastically different depending on how you decide to get to Luang Prabang. I would highly recommend taking the slow boat there if you have the time. You will meet so many travelers and you will see them through out your travels in Laos!
I hope this gives you some better insight on what to expect on the slow boat journey from Thailand to Laos. While this one is much more detail on what I did you can also see my quick guide on the Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos Using A Travel Agency.
Also, be sure to get all the gear you need including a good camera before you leave! I found that getting gear on the road outside of major cities is quite difficult depending on what you need! Check out my travel gear page to see everything that I carry with me.
I hope this helps!! Be sure leave questions and comments below! Also, please like and share this with any people who may be interested!!