- “It’ll be the highlight of your trip around South East Asia”
- “You’re going to have the best time ever”
- “Take loads of booze it’s going to get messy”
Just some of the lies we were told prior to booking what would turn out to be 3 fairly excruciating days of travel between Chiang Mai in Thailand and Luang Prabang in Laos on the slow boat.
We booked through our hostel Spicythai in Chiang Mai and paid 1800 baht for the whole thing. This included one breakfast, one lunch and one dinner, plus one night’s accommodation.
A visa for Laos varies in price and is paid in US dollars (you can pay in Thai Baht but you will get an awful rate). For UK citizens it’s $35 and for Australians it’s $30. You will need 2 passport photos.
You will stop off in Pak Beng for the night, a twin room here will set you back 50,000-60,000 kip for a twin room.
We were picked up from our hostel at 9:30am and driven to Chiang Rai by minibus – stopping at the white temple for 20 minutes to admire it. It is a very nice temple I’ll give it that, but we weren’t allowed inside because it was raining and we apparently couldn’t be trusted on the bridge. ‘Maybe an accident happen’, the sign said.
After this it was back on the minibus to Chiang Khong where we’d be spending the night in a guesthouse – Portside Hotel (included in the price). We arrived at around 4pm and we were pretty pleased with the room as we’d both been in dorms for a month or so. Dinner was at a very strange nearby bar at 6pm (but actually came at about 6:20pm) and was thankfully vegetarian but not particularly substantial, so we headed to the 7-eleven after for a toastie and to stock up on snacks for the next day.
We woke up for 7:30am breakfast the next day at Portside Hotel – an omelette sandwich which was fairly pleasant. Next, I realised I needed US dollars for my Laos visa (why not their own currency, the kip? Who fucking knows). So a light jog to the nearest cash machine before we had to leave was in order. Unfortunately I hadn’t topped my card up, so a light jog back to the hotel in the rain was next on the agenda. After a slightly heavier jog back to the cash machine, I finally got some money out. The hotel was offering exchange into US dollars, which seemed more convenient than doing it at the border (they actually told us there was no exchange there which is a big fat lie). Once I’d exchanged I realised that the exchange rate was atrocious and I had got $50 when the rate listed on xe.com should have given me $56 (obviously, it would never be perfect).
At 8:45am we got onto minibuses to get a big bus to cross the border into Laos. At 9:30 we were at Thai immigration, then it was straight to Laos immigration. It took a little while to sort our visas out, and cost me $35 as a UK citizen, but my Australian friend was charged $30. It varies from country to country. At around 11am we’d all got our visas and were on the bus. We then drove to the boat and got some food from the shop near where the boat departs. We’d been given pad thai for lunch but against popular opinion, I actually don’t like pad thai. I got a sandwich and some crisps, plus a couple of beers for this wiiild ride, and we boarded the boat at 11:45am.
The boat was a bit of an old mish mash, the seats were old car seats, and I couldn’t put my back against mine without it suddenly fully reclining and hitting the boy behind me. So that was uncomfortable. There was only one person who seemed to be having a party on this boat, and it was an extremely obnoxious Australian guy. This guy was, for reasons unknown, carrying around 2 small birds in a wooden cage. He was drunk and falling all over the place, sitting on people’s laps and generally being a nuisance. Everyone else was very subdued and was reading or listening to music. I unfortunately only had 2 Spotify playlists downloaded and no book.
We arrived in Pak Beng at around 5:40pm, and were greeted by many locals offering guesthouses for the night. We went with one that was 50,000 kip for a twin room. A pretty sweet 25,000 kip each (£2.50). We also were accosted by a man telling us to come to his restaurant, offering us free whiskey and dessert. We got a ride to the guesthouse and put all our stuff down before going out to find this restaurant. We got our free banana whiskey as was promised, and good lord was it fucking disgusting. But hey, free alcohol is free alcohol. And it didn’t stop at just one, the waiter was going round refilling everyone’s whiskey when they were empty. We ended up having to refuse free alcohol, and that does not happen often. Some other guys from our boat invited us to play a game with them and soon we had a big crowd all playing drinking games. Including this Irish couple in their 50s, who were absolutely loving it and ended up staying out later than us.
When we got back to the hostel we realised we never got the wifi password and so, extremely tipsy, we wandered round the hotel whispering ‘pssst anyone got the wifi password???’ outside people’s doors, in case anyone was awake and willing to help us check Facebook. Luckily, a girl came back while we were in the lobby and told us it was, of course, the classic ‘12345678’. Just before bed I noticed I had come up in massive hives, in clusters and lines. A quick google assured me these were the classic signs of bed bugs. I’ve since seen people on various forums claim to also have got them from the Portside Hotel – so watch out if you stay there.
Another excruciating day of slowly cruising along the Mekong River awaited us on day two. First we had breakfast at 7am in our hotel’s extremely dirty restaurant, which put me off my scrambled eggs. We’d ordered a packed lunch off them the night before too, which we picked up before going to the shop to get more snacks. The snacks at the shop in Pak Beng were not cheap in the slightest. After all, there’s not really much choice of shops and they’re taking full advantage of the tourism the slow boat brings. After dropping a whopping £7 on snacks that I honestly could have got cheaper in the UK, we boarded the boat at around 8:15am, with it departing at around 9am.
Again, I’d forgotten to download any more Spotify playlists or apps so I was slowly going crazy. At one point we resorted to looking at Google Maps for entertainment. We finally arrived at Luang Prabang port at about 5pm. This isn’t actual Luang Prabang so you need to get off the boat and go and buy a ticket for a tuk tuk there. It’s 20,000 kip per ticket, no negotiating. You go inside and buy it and then get in a tuk tuk and tell your driver where you’re staying in Luang Prabang. I’ve heard of people refusing and asking to stay on till Luang Prabang – don’t do this, it’s not a giant scam, just get off.
In conclusion, this was not the most fun part of my trip. But, I have heard from other people that they had a great time and their boats were wild. At the end of the day it’s going to depend who you end up with on the boat, but if you have a big group you can definitely make it fun.
Advice for the slow boat
- Change your money to US dollars in a bank before you leave Chiang Mai to get the best rate
- If you forget to get US dollars before, get them at the exchange at the border
- Don’t bother getting Laos kip before, there’s an ATM on the Laos side of the border
- Buy all your snacks and booze in the 7-11 in Chiang Khong, snacks in Laos are not cheap
- Get to the boat early both days if you want to sit in a group
- Download some games apps to your phone – my favourites are Words With Friends (you can play against the computer offline), Word Cookies, and Hidden Game
- Take alcohol on with you – you may well end up with some super fun people, and beers are a lot more expensive on board