After arriving at Luang Prabang on a pretty tight schedule we began with a quick-fire tour of the ancient city (backpacks and all). Arriving in any city after a hefty night bus can be daunting and disorientating, but Laos’ Northern gem made us feel welcome and intrigued. It is a relatively small city, with a calming atmosphere and a peaceful vibe. Temple hopping is a tourist must in Luang Prabang, and you’ll be spoilt for choice. All in all, it was an easy city to discover and explore, but moving onward to Thailand was when the difficulties kicked in…
Information about how to reach Thailand’s Northern cities from Luang Prabang seemed sparse. The hostel we stayed at didn’t offer up any information on transport and the bus terminal itself was quite far out of the city (and the complete opposite side to us, obviously) The only transport information I could find online consisted of crazy expensive luxury cruises which were, needless to say, out of our budget. Disoriented and pessimistic, I wandered to the port in hope of some advice on catching the slow boat and that’s when the next leg of our adventure began.
Leg One: Luang Prabang to Pakbeng
To begin your journey from Luang Prabang, make your way to the slow boat terminal at Luang Prabang Port. The unassuming little office down a dusty path may not look particularly hopeful at first glance, but this is where a ticket can be purchased. The boat towards Thailand leaves at 8 am every day, I would recommend arriving around an hour early to secure your ticket. Per person, the ticket will cost you around £20-25, and this will secure your travel to Huay Xai (a town on the Laos side of the Laos/Thailand border, from which you will go by bus to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai).
As well as the transport cost, you will also have to account for two night’s accommodation (one in Pakbeng and one in Huay Xai) but no need to book in advance as there are plenty of cheap hostels in both places.
After boarding the boat there will be a sense of relief- everyone here is doing the same thing and going in the same direction; once you’ve taken your seat the journey is very straight forward.
‘Slow’ however, is definitely the word. You will spend two long days aboard this boat. But with the sun beaming down, and the beautiful mountain landscape surrounding you, time will hopefully fly. The boat will sail past remote rural scenery and small Laos communities, parts of this stunning country that you would never glimpse from a bus window on a main road. Even if it takes a little longer, this is the best way to see the Northern region of the country.
When you arrive at Pakbeng on the first evening you will most likely be surrounded by hostel owners offering you cheap rates. It’s a small place, and most hostels will cost a similar amount, so you can’t go too wrong here. A private double room was less than £10 and there are plenty of places to get a cheap and delicious meal.
Leg Two: Pakbeng to Huay Xai
Day two will be another early rise. The slow boat leaves Pakbeng port at 8 am, so after a brief breakfast or grabbing some baked goods for the journey, you’ll be back on your way. This leg will be a similar length to the first day’s journey (approx. 10 hours) and you should reach the Laos own of Huay Xai around 6 pm. Unfortunately, you are unlikely to reach the border (which is across the river and could be a pricey taxi ride) before it closes at 6 pm. So instead of rushing through to Thailand, enjoy one more night in Laos. Similarly to Pakbeng, Huay Xai is a small and functional town, full to the brim with affordable hostels and nice places to eat.
Leg Three: Huay Xai to Chiang Rai
If you’ve got this far and are now just not feeling another looooong boat ride, then you’re in luck: this is the simple bit. Most hostels in Huay Xai will be able to book you on to daily busses which cross over the border to Thailand. We chose a bus to Chiang Rai, which took roughly 5/6 hours (this will depend on how smoothly the border crossing goes), but many tourists chose to go straight through to Chiang Mai, a favoured city in Northern Thailand.
If you have time to spare (and are on a tight budget) then the slow boat is the best way to see Northern Laos, and it makes such a nice change to stuffy bus journeys. This fantastic journey will become one of those adventures that you’ll be retelling over ad over again!