A quintessential method of travel in Laos is to take to the water and travel on the Mekong Slow Boat. The vast majority of travellers will take the mekong river cruise on the Huay Xai to Luang Prabang slow boat. You can also book through travel from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang. We headed north on a mekong river boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai slow boat (often called Bokeo) spending a night in Pakbeng en route
You can take the bus, it’s much quicker, but this is “a thing to do” and so we were definitely doing it. Just the wrong way round to the normal flow of traffic. But that’s good because first of all there are less people and it’s still shoulder season, so there are definitely less people.
We took the budget route on the Mekong River north from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai and we really enjoyed it.
If you decide that the 2 day slow boat journey isn’t for you, then you can easily book a minivan to go from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai. Check it out here.
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Buying Tickets for the Mekong Slow Boat
We booked our Mekong River slowboat Luang Prabang to Huay Xai at Galaxy Travel Agency on the main Sisavong and paid 280,000 kip each. All other places were charging at least 300,000 kip each, most more. Our ticket included a transfer out to the Mekong slow boat dock (10 kilometres from the city) and both days on the slow boat.
The trip started with our tuk tuk collection from our Luang Prabang hotel, the Bellvue Bungalows. It took a massively circuitous route to drop us at into the city where we piled into another tuk tuk with 10 or so other folks (all bags on the roof) and THEN we set off. So we pretty much went around in circles for nearly an hour before we headed to the slow boat dock, where we arrived at around 0840.
Mekong River Boat – Buying Tickets at the Luang Prabang Slow Boat Pier
If you decide to NOT buy in town from an agency, then you can expect to pay around 15,000 kip to get a tuk tuk from your accomodation to the slow boat pier. The Slow boat ticket price on the boat will cost around 110,000 kip to Pakbeng. A ticket from Pakbeng to Huay Xai will cost around 110,000 kip. You’ll need to be there earlier than those who bought tickets in town to ensure that you can buy an available seat.
There are no lunch stops on this trip, it takes a full day to head upriver to Pakbeng. At Pakbeng, where you disembark, you find somewhere to stay for the night. in the morning you head back to the boat dock to head north from Pakbeng to Huay Xai. There’s a small shop on board, where they’ll sell you a pot of noodles, coffee (3in1 only for 10k) and a bag of potato chips. Don’t make the same mistake that we did and assume that there will be someone trying to sell food at the slow boat Mekong river boat dock (there isn’t much). Take your lunch with you, buy it from Luang Prabang (and from Pakbeng on morning two).
Check out our recommended food and drink from Laos – they’re amazing.
Our tourist agency receipt was exchanged for boat tickets when we checked in at the slow boat dock. There is a building, a floating pontoon and a small shop selling expensive dry noodles and potato chips. There was also one vendor on the dock selling rice cakes. They weren’t good, although we did eat them.
Mekong River Boat Departure Time
The Luang Prabange slow boat boat departed at 08:55, about 75% full, half westerners, half locals who were dropped at various rocks in the river on the way north.
Luang Prabang to Pakbeng
On this option, the slow boat Luang Prabang to Huay Xai seating is free and open. The seats are old car seats.
They’re not bolted to the floor, so you can decide your layout. Yes, thats right you can move them around.
Some of the seats are definitely “back seats”, and some are joined front seats, which are bigger and more comfortable. Pick the MOST comfortable seat you can, because it’s a LONG, LONG day.
Be sure also to be in a controlling area for the curtains that you’ll need when the sun hits your seat. And if you don’t enjoy second hand smoke do NOT sit behind a local.
Bags go at the back of the boat in a covered in area (we kept our valuables with us) – and you need to walk past the open engine to get there and back.
There’s also a basic toilet on board.
It’s a somewhat relaxing trip, although the river was running pretty full and some of the rapids that you transit are a little scary if you think about how fast the river is running and how big the rocks seem to be.
There’s not a lot to see. Or do. Take something to read. Some sunnies to hide behind, as you’ll likely snooze away a couple of hours like we (and the rest of the boat) did.
Mostly the entertainment is when the boat stops to offload the Lao travellers, who’ve clearly been shopping in Luang Prabang. The boat pulls up to what looks like a random spot in the river, where there’s a rock. Or a sand bank. Or not really anything at all. The locals get off and just disappear into the bush.
Our slow boat didn’t arrive into Pakbeng until 17:40 on day one and it was dark. There were no “parking” spots left We milled around for a while until the skipper pushed his way in and created a spot and that was it. All we needed to do was hop off and find somewhere to stay.
The southbound boats were already in, so all the reading we’d been doing in the Lonely Planet about places to stay would more than likely be a waste of time as we were probably hours too late, as no one had booked ahead, so we resigned ourselves to walking from door to door to find room at the inn.
Hotels & Hostels in Pakbeng
When we travelled it wasn’t possible to pre book accommodation and I’m sure there will be a room available when your boat arrives. However, if you’d like to prebook and be assured of the room, its location and quality, then check out our recommendations and book now.
If you prefer to find something on arrival, then when you dock, touts or the owners of accommodation will be at the dock. Agree a price, and they’ll take you there. We haven’t heard any horror stories or awful accommodation.
Surround yourself with luxury here at the Sanctuary. There’s a free shuttle here – you’ll ust need to let them know you’re arriving on the boat. And I’d suggest a couple of nights, to truly enjoy this gorgeous place. There’s free wifi, massages and you can even get your hair done at the salon!
You’ll get a ceiling fan and a private bathroom and theres also a restaurant and a bar here for you to unwind in. If you’re heading off on the slow boat the next day ask them for a packed lunch too.
- Private bathrooms
- Packed lunches
- Restaurant and Bar
Grab yourself some luxury en-route here at the Sanctuary – book now
The Monsavanh Guesthouse
At the budget end the Monsavanh Guesthouse has a 24 hour reception, a sundeck and luggage storage.
- Laundry Service
- AC with Ceiling fan
- Inhouse restaurant
- Designated smoking area
- Wifi in public places
Mekong Riverside Lodge
Great views of the Mekong River here might make you want to stay a little longer. There’s in room wifi access and a sun deck too.
- Luggage storage
- Hair salon
- Massage services
- Restaurant and Bar
- Laundry service
We stayed at the Syvongsack Guest House, (Check Prices and Availability HERE) who’d pulled their open backed truck up to the dock, brandishing a laminated sheet with photos of their rooms, declaring 80,000 kip for a room. The truck filled pretty quickly. A few minutes later, we were ensconced in a room with a private bathroom (without a bathroom was 40,000 kip). There was free wifi available. Two beds in a clean room with a hot shower. Perfect.
Even better, the menu at the café downstairs looked typically Lao. We started with large bottles of cold BeerLao then had dinner and headed for a VERY early night. We ordered our next day’s breakfast and sandwiches to take with us on the boat before we went to bed.
Breakfast was good, the sandwiches arrived and we decided to walk down the hill to the boat dock. It really was just five minutes and we thought at least that way we’d see a little something of Pakbeng. Most of the places to stay and all the places to eat were in the opposite direction. As we left the boat dock, the road had forked and we had turned to the left to get to the Svyongsack.
Now we could see most of Pakbeng was to the right. No matter, we’d had a good night, eaten well and also had a hot shower.
Pakbeng to Huay Xai
We found the right boat simply by asking for Huay Xai and were pointed onwards and grabbed a seat. Folks waiting for the Pakbeng to Luang Prabang south bound boat were lined up waiting to get on. There were more of them than there were seats.. Ah, travelling against the tide with a pre booked ticket is good, really, really good.
And so, duly situated we pulled out. And spent another day on the river. Again uneventful. Fewer locals this time, the same fast running river and big rocks.
We arrived into Huay Xai around 16:30, where again all the spots around the boat dock were taken. Our boat nosed into the bank and had to clamber up and across a slope. It’s a reminder never to take a bag that you can’t easily carry on your back!.
Huay Xai Mekong Slow Boat Pier
The Huay Xai Slow Boat Pier is a short way out of the main “town” and there were tuk tuks available. However, after a second day of car seat coma we walked into the main town area in 25 minutes.. This was almost our final stop in Laos.
Huay Xai Hotels and Accommodation
Where to stay in Huay Xai depends on whether you are starting your trip from here (you’ll want to be close to the boat dock), or if you;re heading out on the Gibbon Experience, or just over the river to Thailand. Here are our recommendations for where to stay in Huay Xai.
Houayxai Riverside Hotel Phonevichit Guesthouse
Ban khonekeo Ban Houayxay, Huay Xai, Laos
Situated right next to the Mekong Slow Boat dock, this is a great spot for an early start or a late finish on the river.
- Onsite restaurant
- Swimming Pool
- Free Wifi
- Double and Twin Rooms
Ban Huay Xai Neu, Huay Xai, Laos
Right next to the Gibbon Experience offics and a great location for bars and spots to ear in Huay Xai.
- All rooms with AC
- Private bathrooms
- TV with cable/satellite
- Wifi on site
Huaysay Riverside Hotel
168 Centre Road Ban Huaysay Neua , Huay Xai, Laos
- AC in rooms
- Private Bathrooms
- Good Location on the River
- Cable TV
That evening we headed to the Bar How for cold BeerLao, Lao salad and laab.
We have one night here in Huay Xai, for tomorrow we’re heading on the Gibbon Experience, where we’ll hike and zipline through the Nam Kan National Park, sleep in tree houses and hope to see the endangered gibbons of Northern Laos. > Find out about our amazing Gibbon Experience here.
Buying Tickets for the Mekong Slow Boat
You can buy a ticket from tourist agencies in Luang Prabang, this will usually include your 10km transfer to the slow boat dock. Prices range from 280,000 to 340,000 to go all the way to Huay Xai. You can also just buy tickets from Luang Prabang to Pakbeng. (you can take a bus from there, or get the slow boat the next day heading north or south).
You can also buy tickets at the slow boat dock. They cost 110,000 kip at the slow boat dock to go Pakbeng. In Pakbeng, you can buy a ticket on the slow boat to Huay Xai (just get on the boat, get a seat and wait for someone to sell you a ticket). Tickets from Pakbeng to Huay Xai also cost 110,000 kip each. A tuk tuk from town to the dock will cost around 15,000 kip.
Take the Fast Boat Luang Prabang Huay Xai
The fast boats are small canoes with a huge noisy engine on the back. They take 6 people.
You can buy tickets in Luang Prabang or at the slow boat dock – they leave from there. They only leave when they have either 6 people on board, or when 6 tickets have been sold. So if you’re in a hurry, you can buy all 6. The fast boats go straight through and get you to Huay Xai in a single day. Probably deaf, and hopefully not wrapped around a rock, but you’ll be there in a day.
Food & Drink on the Mekong Slow Boat
Take some food with you! Options are very, very limited both at the boat dock and onboard. In Pakbeng there are plenty vendors of sandwiches and snacks.
Arriving in Huay Xai
The Huay Xai slow boat pier is about 20-25 minutes from the main part of town – where places to stay, eat and drink are. Tuk Tuks are available, but the walk is easy and flat. You’ll find most places to eat, drink and stay near the Gibbon Experience offices.
Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang Boat
If you want to take this trip, then you’ll take a bus from Chiang Rai to Huay Xai and then join the slow boat in Huay Xai.
Are you sure you saw everything that Luang Prabang has to offer? > check our guide on the best things to do in Luang Prabang to be sure.
Did you take the Luang Prabang to Huay Xai boat? How was your trip? Let us know in the comments or connect with us on social media! If you like budget, local river travel consider the Yangtze River on a Chinese Boat – it’s an experience!