Where do I begin? I unexpectedly caught a slow boat boat from Thailand to Laos and it’s been one of the best decisions I made on my trip. I got to slowly soak in the beautiful sites along the Mekong river, relax, write and stay in a cute homestay with adorable puppies while getting to know a bunch of beautiful people which became my travel buddies in Laos.
I am SO GLAD I decided to take this route despite the cost ~ the bus would have been comfortable…but to be honest, the slow boat was REALLY comfortable, spacious and we could walk around the boat at any time (it helped that it was the low season and there weren’t many tourists on this boat – they filled up on the other one first and we arrived late ~ a great blessing in disguise!)
25 October 2018 – Decisions, decisions…
I wanted to make it to Vietnam as soon as possible because my e-visa started on the 27th October and it was the 25th October when I decided to leave so I wanted to make use of all the 30 days I had on my visa (yes I made a big mistake ~ I miscalculated the date I would arrive in Vietnam. In retrospect, I should have just got a 3-month visa because it was really good value for money and then I wouldn’t have had to rush so much to get there).
Tip #1 if you suspect you’re going to stay in Vietnam for a while, organise the three-month visa instead of the one month visa.
Tip #2 make sure you know which date you will arrive in Vietnam if you apply for an e-visa ~ the e-visa starts from the date it is granted, NOT the date you arrive.
I was certain that I was crossing the border by land to Vietnam because it was so much cheaper than flights and initially planned to go through Cambodia to get to Ho Chi Minh but because I was in Chiang Rai (north of Thailand), it made more sense to go through to Laos instead. Once I made an executive decision to go to Laos instead of Cambodia, I had to make the next decision of whether I should catch the bus or the slow boat to Laos.
On one hand, the bus was a direct and shorter route (about 16 hours), dirt cheap (about 900 baht) and would have saved me from getting overnight accommodation…but then on the other hand, the slow boat seemed to be a unique experience which would give me two days worth of site-seeing of the Mekong river…but at a much higher cost (around 1650 baht). It also would take two days which would have cut into my time in Vietnam.
It was such a difficult decision for me because I had a strong desire to stretch out my time in Vietnam as much as possible but the slow boat sounded really nice. After asking all of my friends especially from a good friend of mine (thanks Julia!), I was convinced to take the slow boat.
When I asked Julia about which route I should take, she said the following words:
“Catch the slow boat! I’m making an executive decision for you. You’re going to be on a lot of buses through your travels and you won’t get many opportunities to catch a slow boat down the Mekong River. I wish I did the slow boat.”
Once I made that decision, the rest was history. I did some basic online research and asked the staff at the hostel I stayed at how I could catch the slow boat. There were two options:
- Go for the conventional tour where pick up and transfers were organised for 1650 baht; or
- Do it myself via Thailand and Laos public transport and direct booking system for cheaper (approximately 300-500 baht)
Of course I was determined for the challenge ~ as you know, I’ve never liked conventional tours because I just find them boring and a waste of money – going on the less conventional route always proves for a much more interesting experience and you always feel more accomplished (not to mention it gives you more confidence in traveling).
So there we had it – I had to wake up at 5.00am to pack my things and get to the bus station by 6AM (with 10 minute allowance to make sure I was there on time).
I initially wanted to wake up at 4/4.30am to get to the morning markets and buy delicious cheap snacks but then I ended up staying up way too late so I prioritised my sleep.
Crossing the border to Laos
I woke up at 5am to get ready to go because I knew from my research that the first bus left at 6am and you needed to get to the pier very quickly otherwise you wouldn’t get on the slow boat at all.
I left the hostel at 5.30, made a pitstop to 7-Eleven and stocked up on snacks because I knew everything would be more expensive at the border and on the boat (if they provided any food at all).
I got two different kind of chips, yoghurt and cereal, almond milk and 2 bananas and then a snack wrapped in banana leaf which I thought was sticky rice at the time.
I was ready to go! My bottles of water were filled and I had a lot of food to last the whole day 😊 Surprisingly I wasn’t tired either.
I got to the station and the red bus I was supposed to catch to the pier was already there, waiting ~ the driver and ticket collector knew that I wanted to go to Laos (probably because that was the only bus that left at that time). There were many other tourists waiting.
Journey from the hostel to the bus station in Chiang Rai
I’d have to say this was probably one of the first times the bus was on time in Asia for me.
After waiting for about 10 minutes, we all hopped onto the bus and ventured off for a two-hour journey. There were mostly foreigners on the bus with maybe a handful of locals which were dropped off along the way (none were crossing the border). We also picked up some more foreigners along the way.
As soon as I sat down and the bus went – the lady came to collect our ticket. I was expecting to pay 65 baht as I was told from the hostel and the internet but we got offered to be taken straight to the border for an extra 50 baht (115 for the total journey). The price had gone up considerably from just recently (maybe a few months), which kind of sucked.
Everyone tried to sleep including me and I must say it was a pretty uncomfortable ride (I definitely didn’t get any sleep). I introduced myself to the girl behind me (Stephanie) and we chat for a bit.
Once we got to the border, we also introduced ourselves to a guy named Edu from Spain and formed a little group, agreeing to cross over to Laos together. We all were in the same boat (pun intended lol) – we didn’t really plan anything, pre-purchase any tickets or book any accommodation, etc.
Meeting my new friends at the Thailand-Laos border up north
When we got to the border, Edu and Stephanie got through almost straight away….but I wasn’t so lucky.
Officer: “Your visa finished yesterday.”
Shit, I overstayed my visa by one day
Me: “Oh…I didn’t realise” (but to be honest I didn’t really care because I knew it wasn’t a big deal)
Officer: “It’s ok it’s ok, you just pay a fine – follow me”
He led me to the fine department where I was asked to pay 500 baht.
“Please sit down, have a banana!”
They took my money, wrote a receipt and stamped my passport.
The lady who did all this then gave me a souvenir water bottle from the immigration department and we took a photo (lol!! The fine was worth the experience)
Me getting fined in Thailand for accidentally overstaying my visa
Tip #3 Check the date you have to leave written on your passport!
I then had to line up again and finally got through the gate and had to go to another counter to buy a ticket for the bus to go across the Friendship Bridge into Laos for 20 baht.
Since I took so long, I thought Edu and Stephanie left on an earlier bus without me but I was so happy that my new friends waited for me (bless them!) 😊The trip literally took like only 10 minutes before we were on Laos land.
Once we got to the immigration/arrival department, I exchanged all my baht and $200 Australian dollars to make sure I had enough for the slow boat. Yay! I was a millionaire.
After waiting for what seemed like a lifetime (because I lined up and then realised I had to fill out the immigration form first), I finally paid my USD$30 and got my Laos visa.
You have to complete the immigration forms and then pay the fee
They take ur passport and you have to go to counter 2 to collect your passport.
I made it!!! Woooooo!!!
We then had to get a tuk tuk /songathaew to the pier to catch the slow boat. Before we found one, people were already trying to sell us slow boat tickets but we knew it was cheaper to get the ticket directly at the pier (They were trying to sell us the foreigner price for 250,000 Kip).
We nicely declined the tickets, got a tuk tuk ride for 20,000 each (I think) and waited (again) for about 15-20 minutes for people to join us before our driver decided to go.
Tip #4 South East Asian drivers like to wait for as long as possible for a vehicle to fill up before driving, so you have to be patient.
Luckily, there were two other people which wanted to join us (along with a local and 2 Italian people).
The tuk tuk ride to the pier
After about maybe 20-30 minutes, we finally reached the pier where we could go to the toilet, buy our tickets from the ticket office and get some food.
We got our tickets for 220,000 kip each.
The pier and ticket office to get your slow-boat ticket
Tip #5 Buying your ticket at the pier is cheaper than organising it through anybody else
The toilets were in pretty horrible condition but having something to relieve yourself is always better than nothing
Tip #6 If doing the slow boat, make sure you bring tissues with you because they are not provided
Food at the pier was also very expensive – I was kind of glad I brought my own but to be honest…I don’t feel it was substantial enough. I ended up paying AUD$8 for one coffee!
Tip #7 Bring your own food and make sure it’s filling and satisfying
I was happy with my coffee (before I realised how much I paid after converting) and the group waited a very long time for their food.
I tried my “sticky rice” only to realise it wasn’t rice at all…
The boat was due to leave at 11.30am…
When Stephanie and Edu finally got their food, it was already 11.18 so we went straight to the pier….but the only boat that was available was about to leave and was already at full capacity.
There were a whole bunch of people were standing out waiting – without any seat. Some people even got kicked off the boat.
We all were worried because we read that there was only one boat that left at 11am….so we would be stuck in the little town for an extra night…but I still had faith – I was feeling optimistic.
Nobody told us anything about what was happening and nobody could speak English. We spent quite a while asking around to find someone who could speak English to explain the situation.
Eventually we found someone that could speak English
Staff: “Please all wait, we are trying to sort it out another new boat, you already paid for a slow boat so it doesn’t matter if your journey is really slow. Of course we will not leave you here because it’s bad for tourism and you’ve already paid for your ticket.”
Yayyy 😊 Hope was given to us.
About 15 minutes later – they pointed to another boat and told us we could go on that one – YAYYYYYYY!!!
Hopping onto the boat
The beauty was – this boat was far emptier than the other boat which we missed.
It was such a lovely ride with beautiful nature surrounding us all the time…and to be on the boat..was just so…relaxing.
The beautiful natural surrounds of the Mekong River
They served food, beer and water. We were able to freely walk and sit anywhere. It was amazing – we had music playing in the background as well. It really felt like a private party boat 😊
The amazing environment on the first slow boat
We were starting to get really tired and worn down but we pushed through and the boat eventually started slowing down. I looked around and saw some civilization. It was around 6pm so the time was right – we were there at the town of Pak Beng. We finally reached halfway and to our destination.
There were a whole bunch of people waiting at the pier for us with signs. At first I thought they were guest houses which people pre-ordered, ready and waiting to pick people up from the boat.
Tip #6 Do not pre-book your accommodation, it is much cheaper to buy it directly at Pak Beng
We were all hurried off the boat – once we got our luggage, we all kind of lost each other for a little bit but found each other again. We were all getting approached by different people with the signs who were trying to sell us with accommodation.
Each person had pictures on their signs with things like “FREE WIFI”. All of them included the price of the tuk tuk to the accommodation on offer.
I really wanted to walk through the town and find a guest house directly myself but nobody in the group wanted to walk and I didn’t really want to lose everyone. On this occasion, I felt more comfortable being with a group.
The first guy that approached us was a middle-sized man with very dark skin. He was a little bit aggressive and offered us a room for 50,000 kip. Edu started playing the bartering game and asked for a lower price if he could gather up lots of people. The guy promised us a room for 40,000 kip each if we could get lots of people. So there it was ~ Edu was walking around trying to round up a bunch of people for the lower price (and succeeded too). It took some time but we got there in the end!
We all got in the tuk tuk and went to the guest house…
Initially Stefanie and I were going to have a room but one of the girls which joined our group (Angela) asked to bunk with us. Of course we accepted!
It was actually quite cute and cozy (minus the cold showers and old and not well maintained bathroom) but I was very happy with it especially after living in hostels for a while. We had our own private bathroom, three separate beds with solid bed frames. A table, towels provided, soap, toilet paper and water. The beds were super comfortable too!
The best part was that they had 4 puppies that loved to come up to play with us
First thing I did was check for bed bugs (as I have made it into my routine now)
Everything was all good!
We all relaxed, had showers, etc. and joined each other for dinner at the guest house. There was an assortment of Western, Thai and Laos food. I opted for the most traditional and it was pretty good.
Dinner at the Guest House in Pak Beng
We had one drink there as well before walking to a bar (Hive Bar) to join the others we befriended on the boat. As we were walking down the dark street, lit up only by the surrounding guest houses and restaurants, kids were lighting up fireworks everywhere…and we stumbled upon a group of little kids lighting up a floating lantern (a lantern that floats in the sky). We helped them and saw the whole process of them lighting it up and releasing it into the sky
We started walking towards the Hive Bar again…and found it within minutes. It was an old, run down, blue, kind of empty and poor lit room with loud music. It was strange because the sign leading to the bar was across the road instead of where the venue actually was. They had hilarious and also smart promotions
“Today’s Special – buy one beer for the price of two and get one beer absolutely free”
The music came from a laptop where you could play any song you wanted from Youtube. As soon as we walked in – the staff poured all of us a free whisky shot.
To be honest, I wasn’t fond of the atmosphere/vibe but it was enjoyable drinking with the group after traveling together for so long, making it past the first half of the journey together and playing drinking games …but eventually, I got tired, wanted to go to sleep and made my way back to the guest house.
Day 2 – 26 October 2018
I had interrupted sleep and woke up at 4am…but kind of snoozed along the way…until it was 6am and I just really couldn’t sleep at all.
Once 6.40am hit, I decided to get up and start my day as soon as I walked into the restaurant area, I noticed that the staff (probably all family) were busily preparing our lunches that we pre-ordered the night before. The main host came up to me and offered me coffee for a whole 10,000 kip! (Great value).
I sat and started working a bit on my laptop and observed the elephants across the river, admiring the view from where I was sitting. At night, you couldn’t actually tell that we actually stayed at a guesthouse with an amazing view of the Mekong River…but it was absolutely bliss to sit there and eat breakfast from where I was and do a little bit of work. At that point nobody else was up so I had really nice me-time 😊
Eventually we all had breakfast, got ready and packed our bags with our packed lunches of course. The tuk tuk was already ready to take us to the pier.
Tuk tuk journey…back to the pier for Day 2
We were all hoping for the same fate as yesterday but sadly…the boat was quite full..but not full enough to warrant getting a second boat so we had to say goodbye to our dreams of having a ‘private boat’ like the one before ☹
The crowded boat for Day 2
This time – we practically had to sit next to each other, with not much leg room at all….there were people everywhere, the boat stopped so many more times and there were maintenance issues.
We even stopped at a point where all these little girls were trying to sell us bracelets.
Unfortunately, this boat was much older than the last so it’s had to stop a couple of times for the staff to temporarily fix the boat to continue our journey.
Maintenance issues on the boat…
As I was off the grid at the time (no data on my phone), I wasn’t able to listen to music so all I was left with is the beautiful gift of observation and conversation.
At some points, I just sat and watched the boat pass all the rolling hills around us, admiring the beauty of the world, the rubbish in the river and the local families on this boat.
Trying to get comfortable and mingling with local Laos families – the kids were so shy but we managed to share some Pringles
Admiring the Mekong River on Day 2
Other times, I napped…
And other times, I stood to chat to my fellow travelers 😊
All up, it was been quite boring but definitely bearable…
The 8 hour journey went by very slowly…but we finally made it to Luang Prabang
Arriving in Luang Prabang…finally!
We all got our bags, found a tuk tuk to take us to the city center which took maybe about 30-40 minutes.
Making our way to find accommodation in Luang Prabang
Once we got to the center, we lined up to stay at the same hostel as everyone else on the slow boat but because the queue was so long, our group on the tuk tuk gave up and walked to find a guest house close by which would accept us for a fraction of the cost. We ended up having a room to ourselves with a bar and exploring the beautiful city together.
The beauty of being on the slow boat together for two days was that when we saw the different sites and went to bars or the markets, we kept on bumping into people we met from the boat 😊
And that…is my story of my journey from Thailand to Laos.
Even though the journey took a long time and cost me double the money, the experience I received in return was 10 times more valuable than the cost and it’s a memory I will fondly keep with me forever. Sometimes you need to give a little to get a lot more back.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed it.
I certainly got a lot of fuzzy warm feelings and smiles when I looked back at the pictures and videos.