If you plan to travel from Chiang Mai to Laos then you will have an interesting (and perhaps difficult) choice to make.
You can go to the Thai-Laos border and travel onward by boat along the Mekong to Luang Prabang, or you can take a bus up north through the Nam Ha National Park in Northern Laos.
Most bloggers have only done either the slow boat or the bus. I have now experienced both on two different journeys through Laos, so I can compare the two and maybe help you decide which is best for your route through Laos.
So, here are my 2 cents.
Taking the slow boat
The so-called slow boat is a classic 2-day journey dating back from the days when this was actually faster than traveling by road. Nowadays the roads are vastly improved, but people still do this river trip because it’s a wonderful way to see the Mekong, as well as a gentle way of traveling to the city of Luang Prabang.
The slow boat starts at a pier in the border town of Huay Xai. This town is not so remarkable, serving mainly as transit point for the slow boat and buses.
The town and pier are about a 10-minute drive from the actual border crossing, so you’ll need to take a tuk-tuk to get there. You can either stay overnight in Huay Xai (though it’s a very dull transit hub) or you can grab an early bus from Chiang Rai and still make it to the pier in time for departure.
There is no need to book in advance (and I’m not sure if this is actually possible). You can get your ticket from an office in Huay Xai.
The boat is more or less comfortable, but expect it to be basic. They usually have wooden seats with only a thin cushion, or if you’re lucky they’ll have some repurposed bus seats for you to sit in. I spent the second day actually crunched up in the back in the kitchen and engine area. This was a bit awkward but I did make some nice friends that way. While the boat is slow and not exactly a luxury cruise, it’ll get you there eventually.
The boat takes you down the Mekong, passing only a few minor settlements along the way. So you’ll mostly be looking at green hills, jungle, and the odd stilted fishermen’s huts along the riverbank.
At the end of the first day, you’ll stop in a town called Pakbeng. It only has a bunch of guesthouses, two bars, and not much else. Pakbeng is just a transit town, but it’s a decent place to catch some sleep. The bars fill up with pretty much just slow boat passengers, so they’re great for having some drinks or playing card games with travelers you’ve just met. The second day you will continue the trip, arriving in Luang Prabang by mid-afternoon.
There are also speedboats which take only 6 hours instead of 2 days. But they have a questionable safety record, and I think they kind of defeat the whole purpose of going by river. It’s difficult to enjoy the experience over the deafening noise of a speedboat engine! So I don’t recommend the speedboats; either take the slow boat, or take the bus.
By the way, a new dam is currently scheduled for construction just a few kilometres before Pakbeng. Some travellers seemed to believe the slow boat’s days must now be numbered, but in my research, I found no sign of this. The dam will apparently have a gate for boats, and it seems the slow boat will continue as-is. (If you have any other info on this, please let me know!)
Entering Laos by bus
Taking the bus is a much simpler affair, especially since the border crossing at Huay Xai got upgraded a few years ago with a bridge and a proper immigration terminal. Some buses are international (and go straight from Thailand into Laos at Huay Xai), though if yours doesn’t go any further than the border, it’s also fairly easy to transfer to another bus.
There are some sleeper buses that go straight from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in Thailand to Luang Prabang. This takes at least 16 hours. Your sleeper bus may not actually have any beds (just reclining seats). It’s probably still the best option if you need to get to Luang Prabang in a real hurry (apart from flying).
If you have at least a day to spare, consider taking either the slow boat, or to go by bus but break up your journey by stopping in Luang Namtha. This is a nice little town that’s best known as a base for trekking and hiking.
I can also highly recommend renting a motorbike in Luang Namtha and doing a day-trip to Muang Sing. I think Luang Namtha is quite a worthwhile stop if you’re exploring northern Laos, and it can be a good reason to decide to skip the slow boat. From Luang Namtha you can take a bus onwards to Nong Khiaw, which is possibly the most scenic town in Laos, and from there on to Luang Prabang or elsewhere.
The road from Huay Xai to Luang Namtha actually goes all the way through the Nam Kan National Park and Nam Ha National Park and I think is very scenic. Many travelers even do this trip on motorbikes or bicycles.
I would say the river and this road are about equally scenic, so neither has to give you any sleepless nights about making the right choice!
Comparing the options
In conclusion, these are the options you have to travel into northern Laos:
Taking the slow boat makes for a relaxed and scenic 2-day introduction to Laos. It makes it very easy to meet people. (You can honestly meet travelers everywhere, but being stuck on a boat with a bunch of people for two days makes it especially easy
Forget about these. They offer zero advantages!
Do this only if you’re in a rush. It’s not a great option as it will be a tiring journey and you won’t see any of the scenic landscapes. I enjoyed taking the bus by day and felt like I’d have missed out by doing it at night.
If you’re going hiking in Nam Kan or Nam Ha national parks or wanting to stay in Luang Namtha, then it makes especially more sense to take the bus — or at least, if you wish to avoid backtracking on your route.
I should mention that if you’re doing the 3-day Gibbon Experience near Huay Xai, it can be more efficient to continue onwards by bus afterwards! Instead of backtracking to Huay Xai, you can take a bus on to Luang Namtha. The Gibbon Experience lets you store your luggage near the park entrance. (The shorter 1-day Gibbon Experience is in another location closer to Huay Xai so in this case it’s moot.)
By the way, if the slow boat doesn’t quite fit your plans, then you can still take a boat trip somewhere else in Laos! There are nice river boat experiences from Nong Khiaw for instance, or from Pakse down to the 4000 Islands.
Ultimately there is no wrong choice though and whether you go by bus or by boat, you’ll see some lovely parts of Laos.