The big question asked by travellers making their way from northern Thailand to Laos is should I take the slow boat or the overnight bus?
When you’re on a budget the lesser cost is usually the decider, but in this case another couple of things need to be taken into consideration.
Taking the overnight bus is exactly that, overnight, and you’ll be in Luang Prabang, Laos, the next day. Fine if you’re on a tight schedule, but then again it’s just another uncomfortable South-East Asian bus journey. Perhaps more so as I’d heard it wasn’t a sleeper bus.
Taking the slow boat is a chance to cruise down the famous Mekong River, but it takes a whopping 3 days in total including the overnight stops. Stories of being stuck on cramped wooden seats for nearly 2 days put me off at first but I like to judge for myself most of the time!
So after hearing mixed reviews from fellow travellers and getting our Google on, Adam and I took a chance and booked up the slow boat. Our schedule just about allowed for it and we fancied trying out something other than buses and trains.
Day 1: Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong
Our journey began in Chiang Mai where we were picked up by mini bus to be taken to the border town, Chiang Khong. The drive lasted 5 hours and went relatively quickly compared to other journeys. We also got to stop off at Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai on the way – an added bonus for us, as we didn’t think we’d make it there.
~ At Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand
The accommodation at the border in Chiang Khong was organised and paid for as part of the trip. It was comfortable enough for a quick overnight stay, most of our group just took advantage of a movie being shown and then headed to bed for an early start.
When we arrived at the hostel in Chiang Khong we’d handed over our passports, fee and passport photo to the staff. They were waiting for us, complete with Laos visa in the morning. Easy!
Day 2: Chiang Khong to Pakbeng
The next day the journey to the boat was a mix of mini bus then boarder control then bus then tuk tuk. Once in Laos we clambered onto the boat to find things a little over crowded. Some people struggled to get seats but this just meant you perched on the edge and made friends with your neighbour! People cracked open the Beerlao and turned up the music for a fun ride down the Mekong. We had a few drinks and made friends with some people also from the UK.
~ Day 1: On the boat to Pakbeng
At about 3 hours in I’m not going to lie, it started to get uncomfortable but the beautiful surroundings made up for it. Tension grew between a group of people playing loud drinking games and those getting annoyed with said people, i.e. the rest of the boat!
~ Can’t really complain with that view
By early evening we finally arrived in Pakbeng, our halfway point along the river and base for the night. Your accommodation isn’t pre-arranged here but the village consists mainly of budget guesthouses and a few restaurants so it really isn’t an issue rocking up and finding something.
That being said you have to be prepared for a mad scramble off the boat, with everyone struggling to get their bags off and up a steep dock. Guesthouse touts and local kids were on us straight away, a couple of kids even grabbed a bag of Oreos off me!
~People waiting to get their bags on the steep dock at Pakbeng
Day 3 Pakbeng to Luang Prabang
We were told to be back at the boat for 8am the next morning and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves boarding a different boat with more comfortable seats and less people. (Turns out they had split the people between 2 boats which was obviously better for everyone involved). We didn’t in fact depart until 9am though. We were also told the journey on the second day would only be 4 or 5 hours, getting us into Luang Prabang around 1pm. By 3pm it was clear that this wasn’t the case!
~ Leaving Pakbeng
We finally arrived in beautiful Luang Prabang at about 5pm. The dock was a little bit out of the city but with so many people to be transferred there, we all squeezed into tuk tuks and split the cost.
~ You’ll occasionally spot a few locals between miles of scenery
In summary: Slow boat vs overnight bus
Takes 3 days (if leaving from Chiang Mai). Involves a 5 hour mini bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong (border) and over night stay, 6/7 hour slow boat ride the next day, over night stay arranged by you in Pakbeng then 7/8 hour boat the next day to Luang Prabang.
Total cost includes
One dinner, breakfast and lunch, transport and 1 night accommodation.
We booked our trip at our guesthouse in Chiang Mai – Eagle House 1 (Annette and Pon tours).
Over night bus
We shared the journey to the border at Chiang Khong with travellers getting the over night bus. We arrived in Chiang Khong at 5pm and their bus wasn’t leaving for Luang Prabang until 12am.
I know if I were to do it again I would still opt for the slow boat, but it of course depends on your schedule. Yes it wasn’t the most comfortable experience but neither is an overnight bus most of the time. Sacrificing a bit of comfort is all part of the backpacking on a budget experience! Cruising down the Mekong is something I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.