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I smiled to the captain – our only form of communication – and stepped onto the bow of the boat. I stood in the sunlight, surveying the solitude of our surroundings. A herd of water buffalo cooled themselves in the muddy shallows near the riverbank. A flock of white birds occupied the tallest branches of a leafy tree. A waterfall, nearly concealed by thick forest, tumbled into the river. A lone butterfly the size of a sparrow fluttered by on the wind. Puffy white clouds dotted a brilliant blue sky that was free of the smog that plagues the cities. Interwoven layers of lush green mountains stretched out before us, crisscrossing the deep valley carved by the milky brown Mekong River. This was the backdrop to our two-day cruise on a slow boat as we made our way from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang.
Getting from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang
In the days leading up to our departure, we were indecisive about how to get from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang. The two cities are only 150 miles apart (roughly the same distance between New York and Baltimore), but a quick and efficient route was eluding us (as transport is rarely neither in Southeast Asia). There is no direct Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang flight; to fly would have required a bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai and then a flight on to Luang Prabang. It is possible to take a bus from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang, but the thought of a 15-hour ride – most likely in a non-air-conditioned bus – over bumpy, neglected roads was highly undesirable. The third option involved a slow boat to Luang Prabang – and although the journey takes two days, there was something utterly alluring about floating down the Mekong River in a wooden boat.
A Slow Boat to Laos or Mekong River Cruise
Once it was decided that we would take the slow boat to Laos, we still had to decide which boat we wanted to take: the public slow boat to Laos or a Mekong River Cruise to Laos. The public boat option better aligned with our travel style; not only are we budget-minded, but we appreciate the challenge of deciphering processes and schedules in foreign languages. However, this time around we weren’t feeling up to the task. Blame it on the stifling heat, the negative public boat reviews or simply the desire to feel a little spoiled, we uncharacteristically opted for a Laos Mekong River Cruise. We booked our 2-day Laos slow boat with Mekong Smile – and let them sort all the various details of getting us from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang.
Day One: Chiang Rai to Pakbeng
Getting from Chiang Rai to Laos
Although the boat ride is often referred to as the ‘slow boat from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang’ the boat does not depart from Chiang Rai, Thailand; the Mekong River slow boats to Luang Prabang leave from Huay Xai, a border town in Laos that is 65 miles east of Chiang Rai. There is public transport between the two cities, but rather than organize a Chiang Rai to Huay Xai bus, Mekong Smile hired a personal driver to transport us from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong – where we would cross the border from Thailand into Laos.
Our driver promptly arrived at dawn. He spoke English, but we mostly rode in silence, watching as the towns and villages we passed stirred from their slumber. On porches, men lit small fires for the women to prepare breakfast. Monks walked barefoot through the towns collecting alms. And, later, children dressed in uniforms walked along the roadside to school. We followed a meandering river past an empty floating market and traveled through the countryside, which was an endless landscape of patterned rice fields, interrupted only by an occasional karst mountain protruding from the farmland.
Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos Border Crossing
After an hour and 45 minutes, we arrived at the Chiang Khong Border Crossing. The station was eerily vacant; at the early hour, we were the sole travelers crossing from Thailand into Laos. Our driver escorted us to an officer who collected our departure cards and branded our passports with the all-important exit stamp, then handed us tickets for the bus to the Huay Xai border crossing in Laos, pointing us in the right direction through the empty building.
We boarded a bus and, with only one other passenger, we crossed the Friendship Bridge into Laos and the Huay Xai Immigration Office. The Mekong Smile Cruise owner and guide – Mr. Pheng and Choy – were awaiting our arrival. Together with the forms they had prepared, we handed our passports and $35 USD (each) to an officer manning the ‘Visa On Arrival’ booth. While we waited for approval, we met the four other passengers on our Laos Mekong River Cruise and exchanged the remainder of our Thai Baht to Laotian Kip. Once we were officially permitted to enter the country, we bid farewell to Mr. Pheng. Choy led us to a van that would quickly take us to the docks to board the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Our journey so far – from Chiang Rai to Huay Xai – had taken less than three hours.
Huay Xai to Pakbeng
Long, slender Laos slow boats lined the docks like sardines in a can. Busy crew members lugged boxes onto boats and teenage boys sat on the boat rooftops, waiting to aid in untangling the boats at departure. We found our Huay Xai to Luang Prabang boat and Choy introduced us to the crew – a family of four, with one on the way.
We boarded the boat from the bow, which was small considering the length of the vessel, but big enough for a bench that could accommodate three people and a small spirit house. We passed through the door into the wheelhouse, which wasn’t enclosed and opened into a lounging area that had a retractable roof. Two steps down on brilliantly polished, creaking wooden floors led us into the belly of the boat. Four-top tables lined the sides of the boat back to a small bar, the toilets and the family’s private quarters.
Within minutes of boarding, the captain was maneuvering the ship away from the dock and our Mekong Laos boat trip officially began. Still morning, clouds hung low in the sky, blanketing hilltops and nestling in valleys. By 9:00am, it was already humid, but as the boat motored down the Mekong River, a cool breeze circulated through the open windows. Choy apprised us of the itinerary for our slow boat Huay Xai to Luang Prabang trip: our two-day voyage included two stops in riverside villages, a short visit at a cave and an overnight stay at the half-way point in the town of Pakbeng.
We fell into easy conversation with our fellow shipmates: a British couple on an extended honeymoon traveling through Southeast Asia and an American father-and-son duo traveling for the first time together. We swapped travel stories, shared tips and sat in comfortable silence as we floated downstream.
Whether we were chatting at a table, lounging on mats or standing on the bow, we were engrossed in the river scenes that passed by like a Mekong documentary. Choy provided the narrative filled with facts and interesting details about Laos, the region, people and religion. He pointed out temples and farms, named a variety of tree species and showed us where both banks of the Mekong River turned into Laos, no longer representing the border between Laos and Thailand.
We witnessed fishermen in wooden canoes tending to nets, children splashing at the river’s edge below their ramshackle villages, golden temples peeking through hillside trees and taxi speedboats zipping upriver with loads of uncomfortable passengers.
It was surreal. Humbling. Peaceful.
Mekong River Village: Ban Houy Pha Lam
Within a couple of hours, we arrived at the village of Ban Houy Pha Lam – the first stop on our Mekong River slow boat trip. We followed Choy up a muddy slope into the quiet community of wooden, stilted houses and roaming chickens. As Choy dictated a brief history of the town – a town that just two years ago had no electricity – a group of teenage boys passed us by, ignoring our presence.
We moved further into the village, where pigs, dogs and goats wandered freely and curious children peered at us intently through dark doorways and from behind trees. Villagers bathed in the clean – but not potable – water that is piped into small platforms; the new source of water creating public squares of sorts. Houses in the village don’t have running water, yet – quite perplexingly – satellite dishes and mobile phones were prevalent.
Similar to small villages around the world, there was a school, a community gathering building and a rustic mini-market that was housed in a wooden shack and sold basic individual necessities – like toilet paper, flour, sugar, oil and soap – that were broken out from larger economy packs.
Afternoon on the Slow Boat
Back on board, we continued our Huay Xai to Luang Prabang slow boat cruise. Prepared and waiting for us was a scrumptious lunch of classic Laos noodle dishes and fried chicken drumettes made by the captain’s family. After the filling meal, we resumed our observation of the simple, but fascinating, life along the Mekong.
We arrived in Pakbeng, Laos – the halfway point in our journey – with plenty of light left in the day. We scattered to our hotels, as none of us booked at the same one, and rejoined Choy a half hour later. He showed us around the city that seemed to exist solely for the purpose of accommodating travelers taking the Huay Xai to Luang Prabang slow boat.
The main road is a cluster of simple guesthouses and restaurants. Kids, dogs and chickens played in the streets and couples stood in the late afternoon shade playing badminton. At the top of the street, Choy guided us through the local produce market, where women sold fresh vegetables, herbs and rat-on-a-stick from blankets spread in a row on the ground.
We walked to the town’s small temple, which was slightly faded, but still striking in detail. Choy shared more about Buddhism, telling us about when he was a novice monk and how all males are expected to don the saffron robes for a period of their lives. Two young novice monks, probably not yet teenagers, watched us from the temple window but disappeared when it was time to begin chanting.
On our own, we wandered through Pekbang to the riverside Peace Bar that has the reputation of being the only bar in the city. Before we had even descended the steps, the bartender was handing us shots of local Lao Lao whiskey, which we would later learn is a custom in Laos. We were the only patrons in the outdoor bar, perhaps due to it being shoulder season or maybe because of the early hour. We chased our shots with a round of beers and bobbed our heads to the cliché Bob Marley soundtrack and then retraced our steps to one of Choy’s recommended restaurants on the main street for dinner. Greeted with another round of Lao Lao, we sipped this one slowly while waiting for our traditional Laos meal of chicken and bamboo shoots.
Day 2: Pakbeng to Luang Prabang
We had an 8:00am departure on Day 2 of our slow boat Mekong cruise with the same boat, crew, guide and fellow passengers. The sky was mostly clear with a just a few wispy clouds clinging to mountaintops. Across the river from the docks, two elephants from a nearby sanctuary were getting a morning bath. The boat’s retractable roof was open when the captain steered us away from the Pakbeng docks and continued our downriver journey by boat to Luang Prabang.
Mekong River Village: Ban Kok Eak
When we docked in Ban Kok Eak, we were greeted by townspeople waiting for a boat to take them to a market. One man carried a small squealing pig in a bag, hoping to sell it that day. The children that had been playing in the river ran ahead of us – one small boy stopping often to launch rocks from his homemade slingshot with incredible precision. The kids led us into a village that was bigger than the one we had visited the previous day. Hmong (Highland) people live in the village and Choy told us of their unique alphabet and courting customs (one of which involves kidnapping a wanted bride…a frightening tradition that is now frowned upon, but still occurs).
An elderly woman watched us from her doorway as we passed her house; she smiled and posed – just like the children – to have her picture taken and then wanted to see her portrait on the screen of our devices. Another woman sat on a low stool stitching a pattern for a dress while young girls stood around her looking on. Children appeared holding bracelets for sale and young mothers hurried to display handmade scarves and bags, in hopes we would buy one.
Floating down the Mekong
After another delicious on-board lunch, I stepped onto the bow of the ship. I marveled at the captain’s skill as he navigated the boat through rapids. It was rainy season, which meant the landscape was lush, but the river was swollen and moved swiftly downstream, often carrying natural debris like large tree trunks along with it. There is no formal training for slow boat captains; the trade is passed down from father to son. Captains must know every rock on the Mekong in order to safely transport passengers from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang – and our captain maneuvered the boat effortlessly.
Although our eyes had been glued to the water for the past two days, we hadn’t tired of the scenery. Every bend in the river, every cloud in the sky, every fisherman in a canoe captivated us.
We sensed that the river has remained untouched for centuries, but noted that changes are soon coming. Train tracks are being laid on the riverside. Bridges are being built across the river. Plans are in the works for dams to stop the natural Mekong River flow. While the changes are touted as bringing progress to the area, we can’t help but wonder how the changes will alter the landscape and affect the people whose livelihood is dependent on the Mekong.
As our boat headed east, tree-covered hills gave way to rocky karsts; the craggy monoliths a striking contrast to the rolling hills and tree-covered mountains of our journey so far. Inside many of the rock formations are hollowed caves. Pak Ou Caves (Buddha Cave) – of which there is an upper and lower cave – have been visited by river boats for centuries.
In ancient times, the lower caves were used as a place to offer sacrificed animals to the river spirit. In the 16th century, the cave was transformed into a temple and now more than 1,000 Buddha statues, brought for good luck by believers, reside in the lower cave. The upper cave is accessed by a steep staircase and has a door, as monks at one time lived inside. We walked the depth of the dank cave, using our phones as flashlights, to the end where Buddha statues stood on altars.
Storm on the Mekong
Back on the boat, we were ready for the final stretch of our journey from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang. The sky to the north – and in front of us to the east – was picture-perfect for the ride. But, creeping over the top of the Buddha Cave karst was a dark, foreboding storm. For most of our trip, we had evaded rain only enduring a few, short passing showers. When we set sail from the caves, however, a black cloud was following us and there was no way to outrun the downpour.
Whipping wind blew huge drops of rain into both sides of the boat. We hauled bags away from the windows and positioned ourselves in the center of the boat for stability and the captain calmly steered us closer to shore. The fast-moving storm quickly diminished visibility; the mountains we saw so clearly a few minutes before were shrouded by a deluge of water.
The captain seemed unfazed by the sporadic weather; his entire life has been spent on the Mekong. Just as rapidly as the storm approached, it dissipated. And, a few minutes later as the captain docked the slow boat in Luang Prabang, the sun was shining again.
Our top tips for your trip from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang
Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang Routes:
We chose to book our Laos Slow Boat on the Mekong River with Mekong Smile Cruise (official website here), but there are other ways of getting from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang – and vice-versa from Luang Prabang to Chiang Rai.
To take the cheap Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang Bus, you can find some details here, but it will be best to ask around for current schedules and information before you go.
It is possible with a little bit of effort to travel from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang via public bus and public slow boat, which costs less than a luxury slow boat cruise. The boat won’t make stops in villages or at the caves and there is no provided lunch. Your hotel can help arrange the specific details, but this post answers some common questions about the public slow boat option.
More Mekong River Adventures
We absolutely loved our 2-day Slow Boat Cruise on the Mekong River…but it’s not for everyone. There are several options for exploring the Mekong River – from day trips to fishing trips to kayaking – from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Check out these Mekong River adventures, which you can book in advance!
Where To Stay in Pakbeng, Laos
During our stay in Pakbeng, we stayed at DP Guesthouse. Our room was small, but sufficient with a large shower and – most importantly – air conditioning. Free wifi and breakfast were available in the ground floor open-air cafe.
There are many Pakbeng hotels to choose from in the city (take a look here!). Check out these top-rated hotels (based on guest reviews!) for your upcoming trip: The Sanctuary, BKC Villa and Mekong Riverside Lodge.
Before You Go
- We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos (that can later be beautifully compiled into a travel photo book). We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!).
- We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.
- Looking for things to do in Chiang Rai? Take a look at our list of the top 14 things to do in the city! And for our best tips for Luang Prabang, check out 13 Things To Do in Luang Prabang!
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