Riding the Mekong River slow boat from Thailand to Laos is a one-in-a-lifetime experience…which I’ve done three times since 2017. My newest ride was in 2024, and boy were some parts of the journey different.

I’ve already written a complete guide for the slow boat in Laos based on my first two experiences. Many parts of the journey remain the same, but the pandemic also brought many changes, as did the new railway from China into Laos. Here are all the changes I observed, plus some additional tips to make your journey as smooth and enjoyable as possible.

Thailand to Laos Slow Boat Route in 2024

For years, the slow boat route was very simple for anyone wanting to travel without a tour company. Sleep in Chiang Rai, catch the 6:30 bus to Chiang Khong, take a tuk-tuk to the border crossing, samp out of Thailand, ride the shuttle bus across the Friendship Bridge, pay for your visa into Laos, jump onto a pick-up truck to the pier in Huay Xai, pay for the slow boat, enjoy your first day on the Mekong, spend the night in Pakbeng, and finish the journey to Luang Prabang by around 4:45 p.m. on the second day.

A huge change sometime around 2022 makes that route nearly impossible. Since the pandemic, the earliest bus leaving Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong is at 7:30. When I asked at the bus station, they couldn’t tell me why they no longer have a bus at 6:30. However, that means you might not make it to the slow boat in time if you take the first bus at 7:30.

The bus to Chiang Khong takes roughly 2 hours. Then it’s another 20-30 minutes on a tuk-tuk to the border. Getting through both sides of the border can take up to an hour, and finally you have a 20-minute ride to the pier where you’ll have to buy your ticket if there’s still room on the boat. That’s nearly 4 hours to get from Chiang Rai to the boat. As the slow boat departs around 10:30 to 11 a.m., you could make it if you left Chiang Mai at 6:30, but not 7:30.

Waiting for Passengers on the Slow Boat

So, in 2024, the only way to get to the slow boat before it departs is to hire private transportation from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong early in the morning (which is expensive), spend the night in Chiang Khong or Huay Xai (each town has a few hostels and other accommodations), or book a tour package.

Price Changes in 2024

Easily the biggest change with the Thailand to Laos slow boat in 2024 is the cost. When I first made the trip in 2017, my total cost was $34.50. The cost was similar on my second trip in 2019, but then jumped to $55.50 in 2022 (when you could still take a bus at 6:30). Had I paid for every segment individually in 2024, the total cost would have probably been closer to $100, factoring in the private transportation early in the morning from Chiang Rai, or overnight accommodations in Chiang Khong.

Sandwich Vendors in Huay Xai

Individual costs along the route have also skyrocketed. For instance, my guesthouse in Pakbeng in 2017 was $3 for the night. In 2024, the exact same guesthouse (although with a new name) costs $23! Similarly, sandwiches for the journey are 2 to 4 times the cost.

Prices in 2024 compared to 2017

Strangely, the cost of the slow boat itself is actually cheaper. While the price has gone from 210,000 Laotian kip in 2017 to 400,000 in 2024, the massive devaluation of the kip actually makes it cheaper. In 2017, 210,000 kip was roughly $26, while 400,000 kip in 2024 is about $19.

Loading Dock for the Thailand to Laos Slow Boat

So while food and accommodations are significantly more expensive in Laos, other costs for the tour are slightly cheaper. Most parts of the journey doubled in price locally, but due to the new exchange rate, the doubled price is still about 30% cheaper in USD.

Breakdown of Costs for the Thailand to Laos Slow Boat in 2024

In 2024, if you want to travel from Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos by slow boat, it will cost roughly the following:

  • Bus Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai: $11
  • Bus Chiang Rai to Chiang Klong: $2.50
  • Taxi Chiang Khong to the border: $5
  • Bus across the Friendship Bridge: $1
  • Laos visa: $40
  • Taxi to the slow boat pier: $2.50
  • Laos slow boat: $20
  • Accommodations in Pakbeng: $20
  • Food for the journey, plus dinner and breakfast in Pakbeng: $20
  • Total cost from Chiang Mai: $122
  • Total cost from Chiang Rai: $111

The total cost are nearly double what they were in 2022, and triple from 2017. You can see my previous breakdowns in my older article about the Laos Slow Boat. And considering how quickly prices are changing, I’m sure the trip will be even more expensive in 2025 and beyond, perhaps significantly more so.

Using a Tour Company vs Paying As You Go

As much as I was a fan of paying for each leg of the journey myself to save money, that’s really no longer an option and, surprisingly, not even the cheapest option anymore.

Sanasai Tours Huay Xai

When I first talked about doing the slow boat from Thailand to Laos, it cost roughly $80 for a tour. Somehow, that price has dropped significantly down to about $40 per person. That doesn’t include the $40 visa fee. However, the tour cost does not include accommodations, at least not with the company I booked. So the tour is really about the same price as traveling each segment on your own – $40 for the tour, $40 for the visa, and $20 for Pakbeng accommodations.

So Good Travel Slow Boat Tours

The company we used in 2024 was So Good Travel, and I have no complaints. They picked me up early at the guesthouse, got us to the border with plenty of time to get our visa, smoothly organized transport to the pier, and organized our ticket for the slow boat. Strangely in 2024, the tickets didn’t include assigned seats as they did in previous years.

Slow Boat Tours Chiang Rai

The bottom line is a slow boat tour to Luang Prabang is only marginally cheaper than paying for every part individually. However, the massive advantage of using a tour in 2024 is the transportation to the border in the morning. As the bus no longer runs before 7:30 a.m., you’re unlikely to make it to the border in time to catch the slow boat before it departs, without paying a fortune for a private taxi.

Luxury Slow Boat Tour

Luxury Slow Boat Tour Seating

Apparently, there are also luxury slow boat tours down the Mekong in Laos. These boats are limited to a few people, or perhaps just a private tour for one family. However, I tried booking with a couple different companies, and they never got back to me. So either they were fully booked, or they have horrible customer service.

How Pakbeng Changed After the Pandemic

Another huge change to the slow boat route is Pakbeng, where travelers spend the first night. In 2017, Pakbeng was one street with a dozen or so guesthouses each with half a dozen rooms. The settlement also had one “hotel” used by the tour companies. When I got back on the boat on the second day, nearly every guest at that hotel had a horror story, whether it was about bedbugs, horrible food, or something else.

Pakbeng Main Street in 2017

Pakbeng is not much bigger in 2024, but it’s more developed. At least compared to 2017. Perhaps I missed how big the town was on my first visit. Of course, slow boat passengers will probably only see the original small street leading up from the dock.

Pakbeng accommodations

A big resort to the west of the town opened at the end of 2018. The resort is now billed as one of the most luxurious in Laos! Of course, the price is a small fortune by Laotian standards. Still, I wouldn’t mind staying there someday, especially as a change to the other local guesthouses.

Villa in Pakbeng

The quality of accommodations in Pakbeng could certainly benefit from improvements, even by third-world country standards. Don’t get me wrong, I fully expect bugs, thin mattresses, no hot water, and instant coffee when I travel to Southeast Asia. But it seems some of the guesthouses put no effort into the comfort of your stay, and are only there to take your money. It’s not to say they’re all bad, but it seems the good ones are the exception to the rule.

BKC Villa Guesthouse in Pakbeng

Surprisingly, the guesthouse I stayed at in 2017 is still there. Well, sort of. After getting so many bad reviews, they just changed their name and listing on Google Maps and booking platforms. Yet even the new branding is getting bad reviews. Another guesthouse, after getting as low as 2.4 stars on Google Maps, “moved” its location on the map into the jungle, and created a new location in the correct spot to start fresh with reviews.

Food in Pakbeng

Where Pankbeng really has improved is in the food scene. Maybe I just didn’t notice the restaurants in 2017, but the street leading up from the docks now has a dozen restaurants full of passengers every night. I wouldn’t say they are fancy, but they certainly give a local experience.

Pakbeng Restaurant Menu

Salika is an Indian restaurant with decent dishes, but next door to that is the highlight of the town. Sabadee has the highest ratings, and for good reason. The food is very good quality, and the staff is super friendly. I was also mesmerized by the little kid dicing up the cabbage like a pro!

Luang Prabang in 2024 with the New Railway

Luang Prabang is one of my favorite towns in Southeast Asia to visit, especially with attractions like the Kuang Si Waterfalls. However, just like many other places, I would say it’s considerably different than before the pandemic. For one thing, they opened the new railway from China to Laos in 2021, and now the country is quite busy with Chinese tourists. I’m not saying that’s bad, but what was once a rather peaceful, quiet town is now busy and bustling.

Luang Prabang New Train Station

For instance, hiking up Mount Phousi at night to see the sunset is one of the most popular activities in Luang Prabang. On my first visit in 2017, there were perhaps a couple dozen people at the summit getting great shots. In 2024, the crowd around the temple at the peak numbered in the hundreds.

Crowd at Mount Phousi for Sunset

Prices have also gone up significantly in Luang Prabang, just like everywhere else in Laos. Despite the crash in the value of the Laotian currency, I would now say Laos is really on par with Thailand, whereas I used to say it was considerably cheaper.

Additional Tips for Riding the Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos

I covered many good tips in my ultimate guide for the slow boat, which is still relevant.

When is the best time of the year for the slow boat?

The best months for the slow boat are January through March. That’s when temperatures are best, you’re least likely to be stuck in the rain all day, and the burning season hasn’t started yet. However, this is also high season, so you’re going to pay more for everything, and you’ll also need to book in advance if you want a ticket for the boat, accommodations in Pakbeng and Luang Prabang, etc.

Huay Xai Slow Boat DOck

Is the slow boat to Luang Prabang worth it?

Absolutely! I think the fact that I’ve enjoyed the slow boat three times now is a good indicator. I would say it’s one of my favorite activities in Southeast Asia, although perhaps three times is a charm. For a two-day activity under $100, it’s a fantastic deal.

Water Buffalo Along the Mekong River

How long does the slow boat from Thailand to Laos take?

The slow boat is a 2-day trip. A tour company will pick you up from your hotel in Chiang Rai around 6 am, and you should be in Luang Prabang by around 4 pm the following day. On average, you’ll spend about 6 hours each day on the slow boat, cruising down the Mekong River.

Captain of the Slow Boat

Does the slow boat to Laos run every day?

Normally, but flooding and other major weather conditions can cancel the boat tours. A new dam is also being built near Luang Prabang on the Mekong, so we’ll have to see how this affects the route and sailing schedule.

Thailand to Laos Slow Boat Pin


Further Reading

Planning to visit Laos? Here are my other stories on what to do there, and some of my personal adventures.

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Author Skye Class

Hi, I'm Skye. Writer, photographer, adventurer, foodie, teacher, masseur, friend, dreamer, etc. I think "normal" sucks. Let's aim for extraordinary. SkyeTravels seeks to find the good around the world, focusing on adventures, food and wellness. Be inspired. Be yourself.

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