If you plan to travel from northern Thailand into Laos then you will have an interesting (and perhaps difficult) choice to make.
From the Thai-Laos border you can:
- Travel onward by slow boat along the Mekong River to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, or…
- Take a bus through Nam Ha National Park in northern Laos. This means you’ll miss the boat ride but you can see some places in northern Laos or simply travel overland to Luang Prabang.
Most travellers will have only done either the slow boat or the bus, but I have now experienced both on two different journeys through Laos. I’ll compare the two here to help you decide which is best for your travel route through Laos.
(Psssst, don’t miss my complete Laos guide to help plan your trip!)
Taking the slow boat
The so-called slow boat is a classic 2-day journey. It originally rose to fame during the days when this was actually faster than traveling by road. Nowadays the roads in Laos are vastly improved, but people still do this river trip because it’s a wonderful way to see the Mekong River, as well as a gentle way of traveling to the city of Luang Prabang.
Usually, travelers want to travel from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Laos by slow boat. However, you’ll first need to take a bus from Chiang Mai to the Laos border before you can start the boat journey.
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. Most travelers will either only transit in Huay Xai or stay just one night to catch their bus or boat the next day.
The Huay Xai border crossing is about a 10-minute drive outside of Huay Xai itself, so to get to the town and the docks you’ll need to take a tuk-tuk or taxi from the border. You can either stay overnight in Huay Xai (though it isn’t a very interesting place) or, schedule permitting, you could grab an early bus from Chiang Rai and still make it to the pier in time for the slow boat’s departure.
You can get a ticket for the boat from an office in Huay Xai after you arrive. These days, you can also book the slow boat online using the local travel site 12Go Asia. It’s also possible to book combination tickets at local tourist agencies in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, or even in Pai, that will take you the whole way by bus and boat.
How much does the slow boat cost?
The price is $18 / 220,000LAK for the 2-day journey to Luang Prabang. This is the price when you book in person at the docks in Huay Xai.
The boat is more or less comfortable, but you can 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 actually spent the second day crunched up in the back in the kitchen and engine area. This was a bit awkward but I did make some nice friends through our shared ordeal. While the boat is slow and not exactly a luxury cruise, it’ll get you there.
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. On the second day you will continue the trip, arriving in Luang Prabang by mid-afternoon.
Taking a speedboat into Laos
There are also speedboats that take only 6 hours instead of 2 days. I’m told they have a questionable safety record and I think they defeat the whole purpose of going by river anyway. 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 under construction just a few kilometers before Pakbeng. Some travelers seemed to believe the slow boat’s days must be numbered, but in my research I found no sign of any changes to the journey. The dam will have a gate for boats and it seems the slow boat will continue as-is.
To Luang Prabang by sleeper bus
Taking the bus is a lot simpler, especially since the border crossing at Huay Xai got upgraded a few years ago with a bridge and a proper immigration terminal.
Not all travel connections in Asia can be booked online, but 12Go Asia offers the most options for online booking:
Some buses are international and go straight from Thailand into Laos at the Huay Xai border. If your bus connection doesn’t go any further than the border, it’s also fairly easy to transfer to another bus in Huay Xai.
There are some sleeper buses that go straight from Thailand all the way to Luang Prabang; for instance from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang or from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang. This takes at least 16 hours. Your sleeper bus may not actually have any beds (just reclining seats).
This is clearly a long journey and I think worth it only if for some reason you need to get to Luang Prabang in a hurry, though for this I might suggest booking a flight instead.
Laos via Luang Namtha by regular bus
If you have at least a day to spare, consider breaking up your journey by stopping in Luang Namtha. There are plenty of bus connections between Huay Xai and Luang Namtha.
It’s a very nice and authentic town that’s best known as a base for trekking and hiking. I stayed in Luang Namtha for a couple of nights and really enjoyed it. Traveling via Luang Namtha lets you see more of northern Laos before continuing to Luang Prabang.
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 also 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 goes all the way through the Nam Kan National Park and Nam Ha National Park and 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 you won’t have to worry too much 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 when traveling in Southeast Asia, 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 to get to Luang prabang. It’s not a great option as it will be a tiring journey and you won’t see any of the scenic landscapes at night. All things considered I think the night bus is also a poor option.
If you’re going hiking in Nam Kan or Nam Ha national parks, want to stay in Luang Namtha, or want to travel to other places in northern Laos, then it may make sense to take the bus. Travel by day so you can see the wonderful landscapes.
I should mention that should you be doing the 3-day Gibbon Experience near Huay Xai, it can be more efficient to continue onwards by bus afterward! 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 doesn’t matter.)
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 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.
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