There was never a reason for Laos not being included within our initial itinerary however after we decided to cut short our time in Thailand by just going north (read all about it here!), we had two choices – fly straight to Vietnam and speed up our time in Asia or take it easy and see what Laos had to offer. We chose the latter and after a recommendation from a friend, we booked the 3 day adventure that would see us cross the border from Thailand into Laos and enjoy two days floating along the Mekong River.
Since a very sick filled journey to France via ferry when I was a teenager, I haven’t been a major fan of taking long boat journeys however a quick trip to the pharmacy and I was filled with confidence that if the unfortunate were to happen, the little yellow pills would knock me out for a good few hours and so, our decision was finalised.
We started our journey in Pai, where there are plenty of tour agencies to book the three day trip with. We paid 1,750 Baht (approx. £40) for the following package:
- Pick Up from Pai;
- Bus to Chiang Mai to change buses and travel to Chiang Rai;
- Visit to The White Temple (entry fee not included);
- Bus to Chiang Kong, overnight accommodation and dinner;
- Bus to the border and then onto the port to board the slow boat; and
- Two days aboard the slow boat.
After talking to a few people on our trip, prices vary slightly depending on whether you decide to travel from Pai or Chiang Mai. There are also a few variations of the package which may also alter the price.
6am and we’re wandering Walking Street in Pai trying to remember which travel agent it was we booked with the previous night. We are joined by a number of other travellers, all with the same confused look on their faces. We’re eventually boarded onto different buses based on our bookings. The long descent from Pai to Chiang Mai sees us facing the 762 curves again that we experienced on our way up to the little hippy town. Almost immediately everyone is asleep. The long winding roads and early wake up call justified the silence in the mini van. A few hours later and a loud slam of the door sliding open, we switched buses, much to our surprise and with not much explanation but would it not have been for the switch up in seating arrangements, we wouldn’t have met some of the amazing people we ended up travelling with through Laos!
The second leg of the journey took us to a local lunch spot where pad thai and chilli and basil chicken were delivered to our tables at lightening speed. Forty-five minutes later (a little too much later in my opinion), we were on our way to the famous White Temple located in Chiang Rai. I was pleased that our tour included this option as it was something we both had been wanting to see but didn’t justify the long journey just for one attraction. Unfortunately, we were rushed through this part of the trip (definitely due to the long lunch break) but the sun was shining and we took the opportunity nonetheless.
The temple itself is extremely impressive and I would recommend ensuring that any tour you chose includes a visit to it on the way to the Thai-Laos border. Created as an art installation rather than a religious site, the temple still bears offerings to Buddha. The most remarkable part of the temple isn’t the gleaming white walls, the ambitious art or the sheer beauty of the place, it in fact lies within, where photographs are not allowed. Inside the temple, the walls are covered in paintings depicting good and evil. Good being acts of kindness and evil including several well known characters such as Batman, Harry Potter and Care Bears – something we interpreted as signs of greed and consumerism but maybe the real reason is just as bizarre as the paintings themselves!
The third and final leg saw us arrive at Chiang Kong, a town located along the Mekong River – the geographical border between Thailand and Laos. As mentioned above, the accommodation in Chiang Kong was included within our package and as a result, we didn’t expect anything fancy but were pleasantly surprised when we arrived and found out that it wasn’t in fact a former prison (a little tale I’d been told). It was however basic. The rooms were small and the beds were as hard as a rock but it was social and we got to know very quickly the people we’d be spending the next two days with. Plenty of beers later and the bed felt like a cloud (well not quite, but we slept well enough!)
The second day saw us cross the Thai-Laos border, a process where you are left by the tour operators to deal with multiple immigration papers and a visa application before being picked up again on the other side of border control. A little tip for crossing the border – check before hand the cost of your visa as the price differs depending on the issuing country of your passport! For the UK, as of late 2017, the cost per visa was $35. You will also need to have a passport sized photo as part of your application. We were unaware of this prior to booking the slow boat trip however luckily, the accommodation we stayed at in Chiang Kong offered services in money exchange and providing passport photographs!
After what seemed like a lifetime, we arrived at the port and were dropped off outside of a large shop selling everything from fresh sandwiches and fruit to beer and snacks. The shop is adjacent to the river however we found that by walking up the road away from the river, the prices of the same products were significantly cheaper!
Armed with bags of food, beer and bottles of the local rum, we made our way onto the slow boat and began saving seats for the people we’d spent the previous night hanging out with. The journey to Pakbeng takes around 6 hours, time combined with mass amounts of alcohol gave way to a big party vibe on the boat particularly at the back where we found ourselves sat. It was like being back in school with all the rowdy, naughty kids at the back whilst the more quiet ones sat themselves towards the front!
We arrived in Pakbeng as the sun began to set behind the mountains lining the Mekong River and we slowly made our way to the hotel that we had booked for the night. The tour packages do not include overnight accommodation in Pakbeng however there are plenty of hotels and hostels for all kinds of budgets available. We would however recommend booking in advance to guarantee a room for the night as it can be quite daunting getting off the boat with 150 other people all heading in the same direction!
Day three on the boat was a lot quieter than the previous day, mostly down to a few more hangovers aboard compared to day two!
The boat departs from Pakbeng at 9:30am however we would advise getting there around an hour earlier to ensure you get a seat. The boat was already filling up with people when we arrived at 8:30am, with the majority of what would be considered more comfortable seats already taken. By the time we were ready to leave, a number of people found themselves having to sit on the floor as there were not enough seats for all the booked passengers… disaster averted for us but 8 hours of sitting on the deck for many people!
So, is the slow boat worth it?
In short, for us, YES! We absolutely loved our experience on the slow boat. Not only did it give us an amazing opportunity to meet some incredible people that we ended up continuing to travel with but the scenery and the adventure that comes with travelling along the Mekong River for two full days was unbelievable.
Yes it can get quite rowdy and at times reflective of a party boat at an 18-30’s resort BUT it is a hell of a lot of fun if you’re not too bothered about bottles of rum and whiskey being passed above your heads…
All in all this was one of the best things we did on our trip and I couldn’t recommend it more if you are of a similar age or willing to let a bunch of twenty-somethings have their fun at the back of the boat. And whether you join in, or seek calm refuge at the front of the boat, I can guarantee it will be an unforgettable three days.