After four days in Chiang Mai, and my Thai visa almost at an end, I decided to travel from Chiang Mai to Laos on the slow boat. I’d heard good things about the slow boat to Luang Prabang from fellow travellers so decided that was the best way to get there.
The White Temple – Chiang Rai
The bus collected me from my Chiang Mai accommodation (The Living Place 1 – I highly recommend staying here, the owner, Aree, is lovely and very helpful) at 9.30am. We had one stop off before going to the White Temple in Chiang Rai. I actually think the White Temple was my favourite temple in the whole of Thailand. It was a little bit spooky which I really liked and it’s so different to many other temples in Thailand.
We arrived in Chiang Khong, a Thai border town around 3.30pm. The town was incredibly quiet especially as it was low season. We were given a voucher for dinner, breakfast and lunch which was included in the ticket price. We stayed at a place called Portside which was supposed to have WiFi, but it didn’t seem to work. A group of us went to get the free dinner which turned out to be fried rice. Hardly the best food in Thailand. Fortunately, there was a 7-eleven a few minutes away so we could buy some extra food.
When we arrived back to the hotel, there were hundreds of bugs in the reception area which the staff didn’t seem too bothered about. I was lucky enough to have a room to myself and a working fan but other people in the group weren’t so lucky. Breakfast the next morning was some kind of omelette in a toasted sandwich. We went to the Thai border with our departure cards so that we could officially leave Thailand. We then took a bus across to the Laos border, which cost 25 baht, the price of which was already included in our slow boat ticket.
The Laos border is not a fast process. First, there are two forms to fill in. Then it’s a $35 fee (plus an overtime charge of $1 at weekends). Because this is done by the bus load, it ends up taking a while. On the bright side, there’s an ATM at the border which dispenses Laos currency (kip) and the fees are 20,000 Kip (£2). The owner of the hotel in Chiang Khong tried to tell us that there are fees of $10USD at Laos ATM’s, but I suspect that was a ploy to try to encourage us to change money with him at a poor rate.
Once we’d crossed the border, we got a minivan to the pier where we’d be getting the slow boat. A guy took our passports for a few minutes whilst he sorted out the tickets for the slow boat. There was a shop where we could buy snacks, drinks and alcohol for the journey. I actually recommend buying from here as it’s cheaper than the slow boat. It’s also possible to get sandwiches, which I also recommend, as the only hot food option on the boat is instant noodles.
Time passes really slowly on the slow boat so I definitely recommend bringing some form of entertainment, whether this be a book, cards or a journal.
Pakbeng… a.k.a Marco Polo’s Drug Hotel
At the end of the first day we stayed in a Laos village somewhere along the Mekong called Pakbeng. The accommodation there was basic, to say the least. The place became known as ‘Marco Polo’s Drug Hotel’ amongst the group because the owner was constantly trying to sell us drugs. In fact, many residents of the town were trying to sell us drugs before we even got off the boat.
As I just mentioned, the accommodation was very basic. Here are a few things we had to contend with:
- The door didn’t lock from the inside, causing us to barricade the door with our bags overnight.
- The transformer was incredibly dodgy so the power in the room kept going out because the switch kept falling off the wall.
- There were live electrics next to the shower.
- There were bars on the window, but no glass or mosquito net, leaving insects to come and go as they pleased.
From other travellers I spoke to, most accommodation in this village is of a similar standard. Luckily there is a bar -Happy Bar which is alright. They have beerpong and darts for entertainment and one of their drink options is a banana whisky shake.
The following morning we were eager to leave our accommodation, even with the prospect of 8 hours on the slow boat. We were the last group on the boat so got seats near the back of the boat. Again, the scenery throughout the day was spectacular. I managed to fill the day by playing Heads Up! with people and reading.
The boat stops 10km outside Luang Prabang. It also stops in Luang Prabang but all foreign passengers are made to get off at the first stop. I’d already read about this on other blogs, and whilst it is grossly unfair, there isn’t really much you can do about it. It costs 20,000kip to get into the centre of Luang Prabang in a tuk-tuk.
Accommodation and food might be basic but I actually had a great time on the boat. I made some really good friends, some of whom I ended up travelling further into Laos with. The scam at the end of the trip where foreigners are made to get off the boat and pay for a tuk-tuk isn’t fair. I would be embarrassed if British companies were treating foreign tourists in a similar way. After spending a couple of weeks in Laos, I would say that the slow boat is the most comfortable way to travel from Chiang Mai to Laos on a budget.