The Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos [2024 Guide]

Backpackers board slow boat

Taking the slow boat from Thailand to Laos is nothing short of a backpacker rite of passage. These river taxis which run along the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang are an exciting yet budget-friendly way to travel from Thailand to Laos. 

Most travellers journey from A to B in Southeast Asia on board buses which weave down long, winding roads. The slow boat offers a great alternative to exhausting overland journeys and allows intrepid adventurers to enjoy a cool breeze, stunning landscapes and, of course, tick a box off their bucket list!

If you’re curious about the journey, read on brave adventurer! This article, put together with help from countless backpacking aficionados from our community will tell you everything you need to know about taking the slow boat from Thailand to Laos! 

Related: (opens in new tab)

A Guide to Taking the Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos 

Disclosure: Some links on this page are affiliate links. We always write our articles before checking if affiliate links are available.

What is the slow boat?

The slow boat is the name given to the water taxi which services transport between Thailand and Laos via the mighty Mekong. The Mekong acts as the spine of Southeast Asia and doubles up as one of the world’s most famous rivers. It connects Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China. 

The journey from Thailand to Laos onboard the slow boat takes around two days in total, with boat travel time maxing out at around seven to eight hours each day. Those on board the slow boat will spend the evening in Pak Beng village in Laod, allowing them a glimpse into local life.

Two Children in a Laos Village
Children in one of the village stops along the route.

The journey is famed for its breathtaking scenery which showcases jungle foliage, towering limestone karsts and authentic Southeast Asian scenery, from village communities to water buffalos. 

Although many of the surrounding villages are pretty off the beaten path, make no mistake – the slow boat journey itself absolutely isn’t. The boats have been long used by locals heading from Thailand to Laos and over the last few decades and more recently, they have been joined by crowds of backpackers, also looking to make the legendary journey.

👌 Looking for a Slow Boat Recommendation?

Nagi of Mekong are a reputable slow boat company for travellers looking for more comfort and assurance of safety. Their boats are serviced regularly and there are life vests on board for every passenger. Their tours include freshly cooked food on board and there are several stops at interesting sights along the way like Pak Ou Cave. The boats are comfortable and spacious compared to other vessels – there’s much more room to stretch your legs! Nagi of Mekong also organise your night’s accommodation in Pak Beng as part of the package. 👉 Reserve your place in advance here.

Where does the slow boat start and end?

The slow boat departs from the Northern border of Thailand and Laos. The border towns are called Chiang Khong (on the Thailand side) and Huay Xai (on the Laos side). The boat itself departs from the Laos side (Huay Xai) as passengers on the boat will need to complete their visa application before heading any further into Laos. (Read more about the Laos visa process here.) After two days, the final destination of the slow boat is the pretty town of Luang Prabang in Laos where many travellers like to spend several days relaxing by the river, enjoying the markets, array of delicious food (croissants!) before exploring further.

As the slow boat departs early in the morning from Huay Xai, most travellers choose to spend the night in either Chiang Khong or Huay Xai before setting off on their slow boat adventure. Some of the more expensive slow boat companies will offer free pick-up in Chiang Khong and assistance with the visa process.

🛌 Looking for a guesthouse recommendation in Chiang Khong? Check out Sleeping Well Chiangkhong.

Types of Boat Available

1. Budget Slow Boat – Cheapest Option for Backpackers

The slow boat is the most budget-friendly way to travel from Thailand to Laos by river. Expect the boat to hold around 100 people. There are basic facilities on board but you should be prepared to rough it! 

Boarding the Slow Boat
Boarding the slow boat to Laos.

Recycled car seats and benches make up the seating arrangements. You’ll find a small snack bar on board the slow boat which sells pot noodles, beer, soda and crisps. Bear in mind that prices here will be significantly higher than on land so you may want to stock up on snacks beforehand. Lunch is not included.

There are toilets on board but don’t expect anything fancy – they often run out of toilet paper (make sure to bring your own) and occasionally flood. If you need to do a number two, we recommend getting in there sooner rather than later! 💩

Slow boat packages are available to book at tour agencies across Northern Thailand, particularly in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. As these include the transport to the border (via bus) plus the boat trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang in Laos, they are a good option for travellers who want an easy way to get from Thailand to Laos. Expect to get picked up very early in the morning (about 5am)!

💰 COST: You can expect to pay around 1,500 THB (approximately $45 US) for a slow boat tour (the transport bit only). The cost does not include the fee for your Laos visa, food on board, nor your accommodation at the mid-way stop-off point of Pak Beng.

People on slow boat from Thailand to Laos
Onboard the slow boat from Thailand to Laos. 📸: Úna O’Brien

Here’s a breakdown of the cost if you wanted to do everything DIY without a tour (as cheaply as possible):

  • Bus travel from Chiang Rai to the Chiang Khong border = approx. 70THB ( $2USD)
  • Shuttle bus over Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge = approx. 25THB ($0.80USD)
  • Laotian visa = approx. $50USD (must be paid in cash in euros, US dollars, Laos kip or Thai baht – there is a cashpoint at the border.) 
  • Shuttle from the border to the pier = approx. 40THB ($2USD)
  • Slow boat ticket purchased directly at pier = approx. 400,000-500,000 kip ($21USD – $26USD) 
  • Accommodation in Pak Beng (mid-way point) = dorm room accommodation from approx. $10 USD

Some suggested hostels in Pak Beng

If you take the normal slow boat, your accommodation in Pak Beng will not be included as part of the package. Here are some hostels which have good reviews:

  • Cheapest option: Mekong Backpackers – Basic dorm beds from $8 USD.
  • Budget option: Monsavanh Guesthouse – Close to the slow boat pier, double and twin private rooms from $15 USD.
  • Budget option: Janh Ya Phone Guesthouse – Clean and friendly guesthouse with attached restaurant from $18 USD.
  • Premium option: The Sanctuary Pak Beng Lodge – Beautiful hotel with stunning views over the Mekong. Private rooms from $90 USD.
  • Luxury option: Le Grand Pakbeng – The best hotel in Pak Beng. Beautiful location, swimming pool and views. You might want to stay for more than one night! Prices from $145 US for a private villa.

Laos Visa Info: Good to Know! 💰

If you use US dollars to purchase your visa, the notes will be inspected. If they are ripped or creased, they are likely to be refused. It is worth making sure that you carry both Thai baht and Lao kip for the journey as some costs can only be covered in the local currency e.g. shuttle/tuk-tuk rides.

2. Speed Boat – Not Recommended

If you don’t like the idea of sitting on the slow boat for two days, there is also the option to hop on board a speedboat. While the journey only takes six hours, we do not recommend it due to the lackadaisical approach to safety. 

While the drivers seem to wear motorcycle helmets, the passengers don’t always appear to be in safety gear. Life jackets and helmets are sometimes provided but there is no guarantee. There are no facilities on board the boat, however, there will be a stop for food halfway.

The speedboat holds six to eight passengers plus the crew and there is no roof. This means that you are completely exposed to the elements, be they scorching sun or rain. When water levels are low, the speedboat can be dangerous as it is easy to hit objects, making for a bumpy and uncomfortable ride. 

YouTube video

If you do opt to take the speedboat from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang, bear in mind that they don’t always run in the off-season. Despite this, a tour agency may still sell you tickets, leaving you high and dry once you’ve handed over your money. To avoid this, book your tickets directly from the pier in Chiang Khong so you know for certain the speedboat is running. 

💰 COST: It costs in the region of 750,000-1,000,000 kip ($38-51USD) for a trip on the speedboat. Bear in mind that this method of transport will be easier to arrange if you are travelling with a group and can fill the whole boat. 

3. Premium Cruise – Perfect for Travellers Seeking More Comfort

It is also possible to make the journey down the Mekong River on board a premium cruise boat. If you’re looking for a more comfortable experience and want more space for the kids to roam around the boat, a premium cruise could be for you. These boats are also more equipped in terms of safety, with life vests on board for everyone and boats that are serviced regularly. If you’re travelling as a family with children or you’re at all concerned about safety, the extra cost can be worth it for peace of mind.

Depending on the boat, they will usually operate on Wednesday-Sunday or Friday-Monday schedules. Meals are included for the two days on board, there are clean toilets, tables for playing games, a sunroof and much more legroom on the boat. Only a limited number of people are allowed to board at any time, which avoids the ‘tin of sardines’ experience that can be more common on the budget boats. There’s also the option to include your accommodation in Pakbeng if you want everything organised for you.

Recommended Tour
Nagi Of Mekong Slow Boat
  • Spacious & comfortable.
  • Boats regularly serviced. Life vests for every passenger.
  • Freshly cooked lunches & refreshments.
  • 1 night's accommodation in Pak Beng.

💰 COST: The premium cruise can cost between $140-450USD per person, depending on the specific cruise. You will also be required to reserve your space in advance. Cruises sometimes include a fancy homestay and/or a visit to the Pak Ou Caves in the itinerary.

Different Boarding Points

Please note: If you are catching the speedboat or heading off on a premium cruise, you will depart from a different pier in Huay Xai.

Laos Slow Departure Points & Border Crossing

Let’s address the elephant in the room – the slow boat doesn’t actually depart from Thailand. Most travellers usually start their journey from Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai or Pai. However, the Thai leg of the journey will all take place overland. 

If you have signed up for a slow boat tour, you’ll be transported to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong to make the border crossing between Thailand and Laos. 

Immigration at Chiang Khong
Chiang Khong is home of the border crossing. 📸: Gustav Valdemar Østergaard

Independent travellers will need to make their own way there. The easiest way to do this is to catch a bus to Chiang Khong. Once you have made it through immigration, you need to hop on a shuttle across the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge border crossing. From there, you need to get your visa. Once the bureaucracy is sorted, take another shuttle (approx. 40THB) or tuk tuk (approx. 150THB) to Huay Xai pier, where the slow boat departs.  

Doing the Journey in Reverse? (Luang Prabang to Huay Xai)

If you are doing the journey in reverse and travelling from Laos to Thailand via the slow boat, the most popular departure point is Luang Prabang. However, some people also depart from Pak Beng. Fewer tourists travel the route in this direction so this is great for those looking to experience the slow boat without the bulk of the crowds. Bear in mind that you will be travelling upstream against the flow of the river, meaning that while the journey will still take two days, your arrival time may be slightly later.

Slow Boat Itinerary – Huay Xai to Luang Prabang

  • The boat departs Huay Xai at around 10.30 am and the journey on the first day will take between 7-8 hours. Travel tip: Be at the boat at least half an hour before departure to guarantee good seats. The engine at the back is very noisy and the petrol fumes can be suffocating!
  • Once you board the boat, take off your shoes and backpack and store them under the deck.
  • Arrive in Pak Beng around sunset. This is the main stop, however, if you want to get off between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang along the Mekong River, you can.
  • Depart in Pak Beng for your overnight stay. You can either book somewhere to stay online in advance or barter with the locals once you arrive. Generally, prices are negotiable. Many of the hotels and guesthouses have minibuses that wait to pick up guests when the boat arrives. The following accommodation options in Pak Beng are well-recommended by travellers:
  • The boat will depart Pak Beng around 8 am so make sure you’re ready! If you’re an early bird, head out early to see the almsgiving ceremony at sunrise. You can also grab breakfast or purchase lunch from a local restaurant to enjoy on board the boat later. 
Looking Out From Our Slow Boat
Looking out at the Mekong River from the slow boat.

Be aware that you may not be in the same seat as you were the day before. More people are likely to have boarded at Pak Beng and there are no seat reservations. 

It is possible to stay a couple of nights in Pak Beng (specify you are disembarking at Pak Beng when you purchase your ticket at the pier) and then pay for the last leg of your journey in Pak Beng once you’re ready to leave. A ticket for this final section costs around 110,000-200,000 kip ($5-10USD).

  • You will arrive a couple of kilometres outside Luang Prabang in the afternoon. 
  • Tuk tuks and pick-up trucks wait for arrivals on each pier. Expect to pay somewhere around 20,000 kip ($1USD) for the short journey into town. 
Sunset views from slow boat from Thailand to Laos
Beautiful sunset views on the journey from Thailand to Laos. 📸: Hayden Burke

What to Bring on the Slow Boat

  • Snacks
  • Water
  • Entertainment e.g. book, phone, tablet etc. 
  • Camera
  • Powerbank
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun cream
  • Passport
  • Jacket or jumper 
  • Ear plugs
  • Toilet paper
  • Cash for visa (or card to withdraw money at border)

Tips for Taking the Slow Boat

  • Be Prepared for the Visa Process

Do a bit of research beforehand so you know whether you need to apply for a visa in advance. Be aware that the available entry points differ for the eVisa and VOA!

  • Arrive at the Port at Least 30 Minutes Early

This means that you have a better chance of getting to choose your seat. This is recommended if you are travelling in a group and want to sit together. Some seats have curtains alongside them to block out the sun so make sure to try and grab one of them if your skin is prone to burning!

People on slow boat from Thailand to Laos
Arrive early to sit with your pals! 📸: Salam Zaied IG: @kiwi.skinn1
  • Watch Out for Scams

Some travellers have reported people attempting to sell rooms in Pak Beng to those on the slow boat. They try to persuade backpackers to panic-reserve a room with the threat that all accommodations are nearly fully booked. This is a scam and you will end up paying well over the odds! 

  • Don’t Exchange Money at the Border

The exchange rate at the border is a rip-off. To pay for your visa, withdraw money at the ATM or make sure you have the correct amount in the appropriate currency beforehand.

  • Avoid Buying a Local SIM on the Boat

Local SIM cards are overpriced on the boat. You’ll pay around $10USD on board compared to around $4USD on land. It is far better to buy when you arrive on Laotian soil – most of the time you’ll get no connection on the boat anyway! 

Also read: 

How to Book the Thailand-Laos Slow Boat

There are several ways to book the slow boat: 

At your accommodation / At a local tour agency: Both of these options will add a commission to the price of the boat ticket. However, if you are booking from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai or Pai, transport to the pier will be included. It is a hassle-free way to arrange the journey. 

Views from slow boat from Thailand to Laos
Buying a slow boat package is hassle-free. 📸: Matus Strnad
  • Independently (direct at the pier): Taking the slow boat independently is the cheapest way to make the journey, however, if you want a guaranteed seat, it is worth buying your ticket in advance for the following day and staying overnight in the area. 
  • On this website: You can book our recommended Nagi of Mekong Superior Cruise via South East Asia Backpacker.

Slow Boat FAQs

How long does the slow boat from Thailand to Laos take? 

The slow boat takes around two days.

How do I get a slow boat from Laos to Thailand? 

Ask your accommodation to arrange it for you or book your space directly at the pier a day in advance.

Does the slow boat to Laos run every day?

The boats operate every day, except for the luxury cruises, which tend to operate on Wednesday-Sunday or Friday-Monday schedules. The slow boat departs around 10.30 am from Huay Xai on day one and 8 am from Pak Beng on day two.

How much is the slow boat to Luang Prabang?

The slow boat that costs between 400,000 and 500,000 kip (approx. $21USD – $26USD). Bear in mind that the high-class cruises can empty your wallet, with some cruises exceeding $450USD!

How much is the visa and what are the requirements to enter Laos?

It depends on your nationality. Most people will pay around $50USD – check out our Laos visa guide for more information. 

What is the best time of year to do the slow boat from Thailand to Laos?

High season starts around October/November and runs through to around February/March. This is the most popular time to do the slow boat with the best weather. The weather is sunny and dry and there is little chance of rain. If you plan to take a premium boat during this time of year (such as Nagi of Mekong) you should book at least a week in advance as seats do get booked up.

Things start to slow down in April and May when it gets very hot and the water level of the Mekong River is very low due to no rains.

The whole of June / July / August is the rainy season and there will be fewer departures for the premium cruises (some might stop altogether). Bear in mind that rains (heavy downpours) are highly likely during this time of year.

In September, many of the premium boat companies take their boats out of the water for maintenance and to get ready for the high season starting in October. 

Does the slow boat run every day in the rainy season?

Yes, the basic slow boat will still be running. However, you should be aware that the journey can take a little longer in wet weather. For the premium cruises like Nagi of Mekong, there will be fewer departure dates throughout the rainy season May – August.

How do I get from Chiang Rai to Huay Xai, the place where the slow boat departs?

The cheapest and easiest way is to jump on the red local bus headed to Chiang Khong from Chiang Rai Bus Station. It runs between 7:30am-4:30pm every day and costs 90 THB. Tell the driver you would like to go to the Thai/Laos border for an additional 50 THB. Pay on the bus. The ride takes about 2 hours.

At the border, get your exit stamp, exchange your Thai Thai Baht to Laos Kip (but don’t forget to save 25 THB for the bus into Laos). Take the bus to Laos and get your arrival stamp. There will be tuk tuks waiting outside to bring you to Huay Xai. Drivers ask between 50,000-100,000 Lao Kip. The whole journey will take you around 4 hours but do allow for delays. (Thanks to Rachel Villamayor Huang for the info!)

Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong
Local bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong, Thailand. (Photo: Ned Brown.)

A Must Do Adventure

If you do decide to hop on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos, you are unlikely to be disappointed! This rustic adventure showcases some of the best Southeast Asian scenery and provides the opportunity to meet plenty of your fellow travellers while getting from one country to another. 

Choose the right boat for you and arrange your ticket either through a tour company or independently. This epic river cruise down the Mekong is sure to be a highlight of your trip!

Have you taken the slow boat from Thailand to Laos? Share your experience with our community of backpackers in the comments below! 

📸 Header image credit: Úna O’Brien.

6 thoughts on “The Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos [2024 Guide]”

  1. Hi, thanks for the info. As I will be travelling with kids I think I will aim for a private trip. Who did you travel with?

  2. We did the public slow boat about 10 years ago. but we’re travelling north hence against the river flow so sometimes a bit bumpy. Even so a not to be missed experience. When we got to pak bend it was dark. Which resulted in several interesting experiences finding somewhere suitable to crash out.

  3. Kanika Bakshi

    The slow boat experience is the best and i’m glad you got a private one. If a touch of luxury makes your journey more comfortable, you should take it. Planning about the ride became easier after reading your article, beautiful photos as well. Thanks for sharing, keep posting .

  4. Hey Helen, wow sounds very different to our experience. The stops really helped to stretch our legs, just like you say, there’s only so many card hames you can play on a boat, ha ha. We were also very lucky to have had nearly a whole boat to ourselves. It was only 6 of us (excluding the crew) so we had a lot of space to move around. I think this also added to our overall experience. We are so glad we decided to take the private slow boat, it was definitely a highlight! 🙂

  5. Helen - The Lite Backpacker

    Wow! It sounds like you had a great time. When I did it (nearly 8 years ago) I don’t think there was a slow boat option… or else I didn’t know about one. My boat wasn’t crowded and instead of a wooden bench my travel buddy and I grabbed two old car seats to sit in, but I must say, after the first two hours it became very repetitive and boring. We didn’t do any stops and there are only so many card games you can play on a moving boat. Love that you had a completely opposite experience.

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