The Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos [2023 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 

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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, 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, they have been joined by crowds of backpackers, also looking to make the journey cheaply. While the slow boat is the most popular option, there are other boat services available between the two countries too. 

Types of Boat Available

1. Slow Boat – Backpacker Favourite

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. 

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 from tour agencies in Thailand. As these include the transport to the border plus the boat trip in Laos, they are an ideal option for travellers looking to take the stress out of the journey. From Chiang Rai, the Laila Group charges approx. 1,500THB (approx. $43USD) for a slow boat tour. (Pick up in Chiang Rai is at 5 a.m.) Please note that this doesn’t include the fee for your Laotian visa.

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

As you would expect, taking the slow boat independently is the cheapest way to make the journey. If you are going to do it this way, the approximate costs are as follows:

  • 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) 

Total DIY price minus visa fee = approx. $26USD

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. 

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. 

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. Luxury Cruise – Flashpacker Option

It is also possible to make the journey down the Mekong River on board a luxury cruise. Depending on the boat, they will usually operate on Wednesday-Sunday or Friday-Monday schedules. 

If you’re looking for a more comfortable experience, a luxury cruise could be for you. Meals are included for the two days on board, there are clean toilets, a sunroof and more space on the boat. Only a limited number of people are allowed to board at any time.  

The luxury cruise is the most expensive option, costing somewhere between $150-450USD per person. You will also be required to reserve your space further in advance. Cruises sometimes include a fancy homestay and/or a visit to the Pak Ou Caves.

Different Boarding Points

Please note: If you are catching the speedboat or heading off on a luxury 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.  

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. 

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 three ways to book the slow boat: 

  1. At your accommodation
  2. At a local tour agency 

Both of the above 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
  1. 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. 

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

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

Yes, however, you should be aware that the journey can take a little longer in wet weather.

If you do decide to hop on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos, you are unlikely to be disappointed! This rustic adventure showcases authentic Southeast Asian scenery and provides the opportunity to meet plenty of your fellow backpackers 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 [2023 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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