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The 2-Day Slow Boat in Laos: All About it + Pros & Cons (2024)

Have you backpacked in Southeast Asia if you haven’t taken a boat ride at least once?

What better way to tick this off the list than by sailing the Mekong – the longest and most important river in mainland Southeast Asia?

You can take a slow boat in Laos! This unorthodox form of transport has been used for millennia. The slow boat will take you from Huay Xai (on the border with Thailand) to Luang Prabang or vice versa, stopping in Pakbeng for a night.

The slow boats in Huay Xai

It’s a romantic way to slowly sail down (or up) the mighty Mekong, watching jungle scenery, wildlife, and the regular daily routine of rural Laotians.

However, it’s an arduous journey. It takes over 16 hours of sailing spread over 2 days. The boat is packed with people and luggage. The smell of burnt gasoline and exhaust gases fills the air.

So is it pleasant or not? Yay or nay as I say? Here’s everything you need to know about the slow boat in Laos to make this decision for yourself.

The Logistics of the Slow Boat in Laos

The slow boat connects Luang Prabang (LP) with Huay Xai via the Mekong. It goes both ways:

  • Upstream from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (many continue overland to Thailand);
  • Downstream from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang (more popular thus more crowded);

The slow boat takes 2 days and stops overnight at Pakbeng. It is possible to take it for only half the journey but most people travel the whole way.

Tickets

Practically every guesthouse, hotel, and hostel in LP, Pakbeng, or Huay Xai sells tickets to the slow boat. If you book through them, you may pay slightly more but they also organize transport to the dock.

You can buy a ticket for the slow boat at any dock for 400.000 LAK (~20$) for the 2-day trip or 200.000 LAK for just 1 leg.

In Luang Prabang, the dock is some 8 km north of the city, exactly here. Thus, it might make sense to pay extra for a tuk-tuk. If disembarking at LP, tuk-tuks are pretty well organized and the price is set at 40.000 LAK (~2$) per person.

In Huay Xai and Pakbeng, the dock is a walking distance away from either center. Thus, I recommend you book a ticket directly at the dock.

Slow boats docked in Huay Xai
The Huay Xai Dock

Departure and Duration

  • In Huay Xai, the slow boat departs at 10:30 AM every day. It takes around 6-7 hours to reach Pakbeng.
  • In Pakbeng, the slow boats in each direction officially depart at 9:30 but sometimes as late as 10:30. It takes 6-7 hours to reach Luang Prabang and 7-8 to reach Huay Xai.
  • In Luang Prabang, the slow boat departs at 8:30 and takes 7-8 hours to reach Pakbeng.

In all instances, but most so in Pakbeng where nobody honors the assigned seats, arrive earlier to secure a good seat. Trust me, you don’t want to be stuck at the back near the engine (more on that later)! How much earlier? I’d advise an hour.

Slow Boat on the Mekong: What to Expect

Most people take the slow boat out of necessity. On the contrary, I really wanted to do this 2-day boat trip. I thought it was very romantic and picturesque.

I came to Huay Xai from Luang Namtha so I could go down the Mekong back to Luang Prabang. I will share my experience taking the slow boat downstream.

Day 0 – Arriving in Huay Xai

Most Banana Pancake travelers arrive in Laos from Thailand. It is standard to cross the Friendship Bridge border in the morning, rush to the slow boat pier, hope for empty seats, and take it the same day.

There is some merit to that because apart from the Gibbon Experience (Very expensive, but reportedly super worth it jungle+treehouse+flying through canopies+watching gibbons experience) there really isn’t much to do in Huay Xai.

It’s a small sleepy town where the biggest attraction is the Mekong itself. And maybe Wat Manirath because of the nice views.

Stairs leading to Wat Manirath in Huay Xai
The stairs at Wat Manirath in Huay Xai

I arrived in the early afternoon by minibus from Luang Namtha. I walked to what I thought was the pier to book tickets only to find out it was for the speedboats, not the slow boat.

Then I hitchhiked to the center of Huay Xai (a tuk-tuk doesn’t cost much, maybe 30-40k LAK /~1.5-2$) and found a place to sleep for 150k LAK for a private room (the hostel in town was fully booked but is otherwise a good choice).

You can book a ticket for the slow boat from EVERY hotel/hostel/guesthouse in town. They will add 20-30k LAK for a morning tuk-tuk to the pier. The pier is only 1.2 km from the center of town, so you decide if that’s worth it.

Alternatively, go to the pier and book a ticket there.

As of 2024, the price for the slow boat is 400k LAK for the 2-day journey to Luang Prabang. The booking office closes at 16:00!

Day 1: Huay Xai to Pakbeng

My ticket clearly had a seat written on it so I wasn’t too worried about going early but I still did and was one of the first 5 people at the pier at 8:30.

I bought coffee, 2 sandwiches, and a few sweet snacks both for breakfast and for the next 8 hours on the boat. Food on the boat is pot noodles and Snickers bars at 3 times the price.

I left my backpack in the compartment under the wooden planks. Those who came last piled theirs at the back of the boat.

Empty slow boat before departure
The empty slow boat and the luggage compartment ‘hole’

I took my seat and waited for the boat to fill. And fill it did. To the brim.

We left 30 minutes late, around 11:00. Once the engine started, it became loud. So loud! After a while, your brain filters it as background noise but it’s there, buzzing, until you get off the boat and once again realize just how noisy it was.

Looking out towards the coasts is pretty cool but it gets boring after a while. You’ll see many water buffalos, kids playing in the water, women doing laundry, and men fishing. Don’t get me wrong – it’s interesting, but not for everyone. Prepare to be a bit bored after the novelty wears off.

There’s no jungle to look at either. What used to be lush vegetation along the river has been destroyed and replaced by barren hills and brownish-gray rubber plantations.

Slow boat in motion
Cruising…

It’s mostly young backpackers on the slow boat. I’d like to think I’m still in this camp too but I’m past the drinking beers at 11 AM phase. They weren’t too rowdy though, so it was fine.

The journey to Pakbeng took 8 hours.

Pakbeng

There is no need to book accommodation for Pakbeng in advance. Every house is a guesthouse. All slow boats stop there, demand never dwindles, so supply keeps up.

Everyone takes their luggage with them for the night. I got off the boat, climbed the steep stairs, and went on to find out what was available. It’s not long before you get the first offers – usually around 200k LAK (~10$) with breakfast included.

With some bargaining, I managed to bring it down to 120k (~6$) without breakfast. That’s for a single room. There are many bakeries, eateries, and small food stalls for food in the morning.

view of the mekong from Pakbeng
View of the Mekong from my room in Pakbeng.

There are hostels, for example, the Mekong Backpackers, but it was full for the night. You may want to book this one a day in advance.

There’s nothing to do in Pakbeng. Find a nice place to eat and take it easy. Or make some friends and go for a drink.

funny indian restaurant sign in Pakbeng
This Indian restaurant in Pakbeng is worth a visit. Unless you want the owner to starve 😀

Don’t forget to stock up on food/snacks the next morning!

Day 2: Pakbeng to Luang Prabang

I can’t stress this enough: GO TO THE BOAT EARLY!

Nobody cares about the assigned seats on day 2 anymore. There are also MORE people on the boat as some locals also join the fray.

I didn’t know either of these two details and even though I was there 25 minutes in advance, I still had to sit at the back of the boat, next to the engine and surrounded by piles of luggage and cargo.

Full slow boat in Laos

The boat was loaded to the brim with passengers and cargo.

It was noisy and crowded and the gasoline exhaust went directly to my nostrils.

To add to that, it was mid-March, the peak of the burning season in Laos. Scenery? What scenery? We couldn’t see anything past 100 meters. It was smoky, hazy, and blurry.

Mekong river
This is most of the scenery you get on the Mekong Slow Boat

I didn’t have a nice experience on the second day at all.

Arrival at Luang Prabang

I have a slight suspicion that the reason the slow boat terminal is so far away from the city is to create some easy business for the tuk-tuk/taxi drivers in Luang Prabang.

In all fairness, it’s very well organized. You queue, buy a ticket (40.000 LAK/2$), and then hop on the next available tuk-tuk/minivan.

It’s overpriced but you don’t have any other choice. It’s too far to walk and there are no independent tuk-tuks – all of the drivers participate in the scheme. Pay up!

In Luang Prabang, I stayed at DownTown Backpackers Hostel and I can recommend it!

The Slow Boat in Laos: Yay or Nay?

It’s too crowded, too noisy, too smelly, too long and too expensive.

That’s a clear “Nay” for the slow boat in my books.

See the last section for the other options you have to travel between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang.

Simon on the slow boat

Tips and Tricks

Here are some tips to make your journey a bit more bearable.

  1. Go to the boat early to secure a ‘window’ seat;
  2. Pack snacks and a sandwich. Boat food is only pot noodles;
  3. No need to book lodging in Pakbeng unless it’s the hostels;
  4. Do NOT book accommodation on the boat. A man will come and offer rooms, claiming everything else is fully booked in Pakbeng. It’s a lie – it’s not. You’ll save at least 5$ by booking in person on shore in Pakbeng.
  5. If you have a Thai sim card, you will be able to use it for the first 3 hours from Huay Xai. After that, a Lao sim card will work only now and again.

Alternative ways to travel between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang

So if the slow boat is a crappy experience, then how should one travel this very popular route?

Four main ways: Luxury slow boat, 1-day speedboat, overland 1-day travel, or taking your time with stops.

Luxury Slow Boat (Shompoo)

The Shompoo Cruise was created exactly because the regular slow boat is so unenjoyable. It brings back the style to slowly drift on the Mekong enjoying the views (outside of the Burning Season, nobody can stop this).

All of this luxury comes at a cost: the Shompoo Slow Boat will set you back 230 USD for the Huay Xai -> Pakbeng -> Luang Prabang route. Ouch!

Speedboat

Do you want to reach Luang Prabang in 8 hours while also getting your adrenaline up? The speedboat option is for you.

Full disclaimer: if you think it’s all fun, think again.

The speedboat is cramped too: it’s quite small with 8 passengers on board and nowhere to stretch your legs. You must be still for 8 hours straight!

It’s going too quick for pictures and it’s quite dangerous when you think about it – a small unseen rock in the way can be disastrous.

If you still want the speedboat, enquire at the dock or your accommodation. You’re looking at around 700.000 LAK (~34$) per ticket.

Huay Xai to Luang Prabang overland in 1 day

You need to get a bus from Huay Xai to Nateuy Train Station then hop on the speed train to Luang Prabang. Make sure you get an express shuttle bus because the slow local buses may take so long that you not only miss the train but lose your sanity too.

crowded minibus in Laos
Laos minibuses get packed!

You must book the speed train in advance. One day is enough between March and September and Monday to Thursday. But if it’s October to February or the weekend, try to book 3 days earlier (the maximum).

If the train isn’t an option, you can take a minivan from Nateuy or Luang Namtha directly to Luang Prabang.

The other way around (Luang Prabang to Huay Xai) is pretty much the same but in reverse.

Travel slowly with stops from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang

Why hurry?

Northern Laos is overlooked and underrated but hides some very cool places.

For example, you can split the journey by making stops at Luang Namtha and Nong Khiaw. Both places are awesome to do jungle trekking and visit authentic villages.

A traditional house in a remote village in Nong Khiaw
Somewhere in a remote village near Nong Khiaw

Frequently Asked Questions about the Slow Boat in Laos

Where do I take the slow boat from?

The slow boat stops at Huay Xai, Pakbeng, or Luang Prabang and you can take it at either.

Most people take it from Huay Xai (just across the border with Thailand) downstream, stopping at Pakbeng and arriving at Luang Prabang 2 days later.

How much does it cost?

The slow boat costs 400.000 LAK (~20$) for the full journey. Take it from Pakbeng and you’ll only pay 200.000 LAK.

What days does it run?

The Laos slow boat runs every day. In the high season between October and February, there may be more than 1 boat departing at the same time.

What time does it depart?

It departs at 9:00 in Huai Xai and Pakbeng and at 8:30 in Luang Prabang. These times are quite flexible and in any case, arrive early to get a good seat.

How long does it travel?

The slow boat takes 2 days to travel between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. It runs for around 8 hours each day.

Can you get seasick on the slow boat?

Yes, you can, but it’s unlikely. The boat is quite stable. If you get dizzy easily, it may be a good idea to look forward and not on your phone/a book.

Is the slow boat the best way to travel to Luang Prabang?

The slow boat is not a very enjoyable way to travel but it may actually be the best.

  • The Shompoo Cruise is too expensive;
  • The speedboat isn’t any more comfortable and is a bit dangerous;
  • Overland bus travel in Laos can leave your head in ruins.

I guess, you may have to bite the bullet. You decide.

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