The public slow boat experience from Chiang Khong in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos can be a curse and a blessing. It’s considered to be one of the epic journeys for backpackers in Southeast Asia, yet often, we hear horror stories — “uncomfortable,” “squashed-in” and “bed bugs” are phrases that pass fellow travellers’ lips.
Not only this, the town of Pak Beng where you’ll spend the night on your way to Luang Prabang was voted 12th worst place in Asia in a recent SEA Backpacker Readers Poll.
To us, as independent travellers, the private slow boat cruise along the Mekong River was a highlight of our travels in Southeast Asia. “Friendly guide,” “smooth gliding” and “tasty lunch” are how we describe our experience.
We get that not everyone can afford to take a private boat, but when it comes to travel, we believe that some things simply shouldn’t be compromised. We are here to encourage you to make the best choices for you and your memories of Laos. Taking the private two-day slow boat tour was one of the most expensive experiences on our South Asia trip, but it was also one of the best!
What is the Slow Boat to Laos?
Are you wondering what a slow boat cruise is? Let us guide you through some options…
Public Slow Boat
This is the cheapest option. If you’re lucky, you might have a great experience with the public boat. You board at Huay Xai, the border town in Laos, and sail toward Luang Prabang, your final destination. Or vice versa.
The public boats cost around $30 USD per person one way.
This option is for adrenaline junkies. If you’re in a rush, the speedboat will get you to your destination in just six hours. But why would you rush? The natural landscape along the Mekong River is absolutely breathtaking. Peacefully bobbing dowstram is the best way to get to Luang Prabang.
This option will set you back $40 USD per person one-way.
Word of warning: After taking the slow boat ourselves and seeing how many obstacles there are in the river, we do not recommend this option!
Private Slow Boat
This is the most expensive two-day slow boat cruise that you will come across in Laos. The boat will make a few stops along the way so you can stretch your muscles. Plus, they will serve a delicious Laotian lunch aboard. Our lunch was cooked by the captain’s wife, and it was delicious.
The private slow boat costs around $150 per person one-way (including one night’s accommodation in Pak Beng).
Why We Decided to Opt For The Private Slow Boat
As an independent travelling couple, we seek experiences that represent great value. To us, this was the best $300 we spent in Laos.
Although we love finding our own way when travelling, we also don’t mind a touch of luxury here and there. We were picked up in a comfortable van from our accommodation in Huay Xai and dropped off right at the mooring spot.
The best thing about the private slow boat is the limited number of seats. Each passenger gets a comfortable, reclining seat and a blanket—nice touch. We loved our peaceful early mornings with a cuppa, wrapped in a soft quilt. It was magical.
In comparison, a public boat will cram in large numbers of passengers aboard regardless of whether there are enough seats, let alone blankets. We’ve been told stories about broken chairs and people spending two days sat on the boat’s floor.
Lunches on our slow boat were great. There was more than enough food for everyone and it was really tasty! Sticky rice, chicken, plenty of greens. We couldn’t have asked for a better spread.
Accommodation-wise, you have two options: You can book your own or let the private slow boat company organize it for you. We opted for the latter and stayed in a lovely lodge on a hilltop, overlooking the Mekong river.
Have we mentioned our private guide? This is how good it gets on a posh slow boat cruise. He was very friendly and easy to get along with. It was great having someone local with you all the time to tell you about the places that we passed along the way. And it was a nice touch when he appeared at the dinner table with two complimentary, local whiskey bottles!
What Will You See On A Two-Day Slow Boat River Cruise?
To break the day on the slow boat, you’ll stop three times along the way. The first two stops include visits to riverside villages, but we caution you that they can spark different reactions.
The majority of the Laos population still lives in remote villages. They make a living from rice production, hunting or in some cases from children selling colourful friendship bracelets.
Although we enjoy exploring and learning about different cultures, we had mixed feelings about these two stops. The villagers were friendly, but it was somewhat uncomfortable wandering around with a camera, an obvious tourist peering into the daily lives of these local people. Seeing the rice-harvesting process was very educational, though.
The third and final stop before you reach Luang Prabang will be the Pak Ou Caves. The fantastic lime karst houses, Tham Ting (lower cave) and the Tham Theung (upper cave), hidden inside the rock. Each cave contains hundreds of delicate Buddha images carefully laid out over several levels.
Bear in mind that you will have to conquer 300 steps to reach the upper level, but it’s worth the effort! You will need some exercise after two days on a boat.
Take or Avoid The Slow Boat?
To answer the question honestly, we’d say take the private slow boat and have a cracking time. It’s better to have great memories of the place than leave the country with a bitter taste in your mouth (and a sore bottom).
We suggest detailing your expenses carefully when planning your trip to Laos. Budgeting for the right activities will result in a better overall experience. It paid off for us. After all, this is what travelling is all about — experiencing the best each place has to offer.
We hope this helps you select the right boat for you. Which slow boat did you take in Laos—public boat, speedboat or private? Let us know in the comments!