A two-day journey down the Mekong, from Chiang Khong (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos), is a standard part of the itinerary of many Western backpackers. And even a more moneyed tourist may feel a glimmer of romance for a two-day cruise down this famous river, passing by rustic villages and through jungle-covered hills. But be warned....
Backpacker-focused travel agents in Thailand will arrange travel for you to Chiang Khong (in the northern province of Chiang Rai), plus accommodation there, and a Lao guide who will help you through the chaotic border crossing, and hand you your boat ticket.
Once you have booked, the travel agent has their money, so their job is done; they will then hand you and a group of fellow Western travellers over to a succession of other companies, who may or may not treat you well.
The real value that you get here is the camaraderie of being part of a group, and the peace of mind of having someone help you through the border crossing. Even if the latter does seem as though no one has a clue!
On the other hand, if you organise your own transport to Chiang Khong (regular public buses run from Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai), you will save a little money, and also have the opportunity to pick your own hotel or guesthouse in Chiang Khong. There are some perfectly pleasant places to stay there but if you've pre-booked the trip through a backpacker-oriented agent then you can expect to be somewhere rather basic.
The downside of organising it all yourself is that the lone traveller might find the border crossing itself bewildering.
Either way, you will still have to deal with two potentially harrowing challenges. First, the journey takes two days, with an unavoidable stopover at the village of Pak Beng – which, in my opinion, is a thoroughly horrible place to stay, and a very poor introduction to the Lao people.
There are plenty of guesthouses and hotels, so pick your spot carefully, and ignore the pestering of the drug dealers... not least because should you decide to buy their wares, you are likely to find yourself a little later confronted by someone claiming to be a police officer, demanding a bribe to not 'arrest' you. Mostly the police badges are as fake as the people claiming to be officers of the law but do you really want to risk it? Should you fall for this scam, you will be relieved of the 'drugs' you purchased too... which of course can then be 'sold' to someone else.
The touts at the riverside are not the only people who will try to sell you drugs however; owners of certain guesthouses will not only offer you 'happy pancakes' and opium-laced beverages but will often get rather angry if they discover you have bought drugs from someone else, and not from them.
(I'd like to point out that neither of us takes drugs, nor do we encourage or condone the use of them but we did laugh our butts off at the thoroughly obnoxious old lecher in our party, who bought some hash from someone in the village, and got read the riot act by our guest house owner, who was sorely vexed that he'd missed out on doing some business.)
Second, the slow boat is an intriguing example of developing-world ingenuity (old car seats are recycled to make seating on the boats, and it's a marvel that the old, noisy engines work at all) but it is far from luxurious.
Travel agents who tell you the boat trip takes five hours each day are simply lying; it is around seven hours on the first day and nine the second.
This is also the public boat service for locals, and depending on how many there are on board, and how many wish to board or disembark along the way, there could be many, many stops, all adding to the overall time of the journey.
There is no guarantee that there will be enough seats, despite what your Lao guide may tell you, so on day two you could spend nine hours sitting on the hard wooden floor, surrounded by backpackers who are all in a less-than-happy mood.
And if the night before, you were over-charged for bad food in a guesthouse which turned off their electricity at 10.30pm (killing the room fans and lights, leaving you melting in 40°C/104°F heat), and if you had been kept awake all night by motorbikes, barking dogs, crowing roosters, and loudly expectorating staff members.... then you, too, will be in a rotten mood.
Not that I'm in any way bitter about the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is Pak Beng.
The slow boat is an experience. Watching the Lao going about their business on and by the river can be extremely interesting, and the wildlife is beautiful. But luxurious, it is not.
The slow boat's destination, however, Luang Prabang, is a remarkable tourist spot.
A UNESCO heritage city, with some stunning excursions and a unique feel, it is absolutely worth a visit if you are in Southeast Asia. And fortunately, you don't have to take the slow boat to Luang Prabang because it has a tiny airport, with daily flights to a dozen Asian cities. Or you can get there by bus, with regular departures from Bangkok.
The cost of taking the slow boat, if booking through a travel agent in Chiang Mai is around 800 baht per person (18 GBP/25 USD/20 euro). This includes air-conditioned mini bus transport from wherever you're living or staying in Chiang Mai, up to Chiang Khong (a distance of around 300km/186 miles), with a stop in Chiang Rai to have lunch (included in the cost of the ticket), and a very quick 20 minutes to wander around Wat Rong Khun.
Overnight accommodation in a small resort in Chiang Khong, plus an evening meal, are also included, as is the ferry across the Mekong into Huay Xai (Laos), and of course, the two-day slow boat trip itself.
Not included in the price is the 10 USD fee for your Laos visa stamp, overnight accommodation and food in Pak Beng, refreshments in Huay Xai while you wait for your passport to be stamped, or beer and snacks on the boat.
(We actually took our own food - a sizeable basket of home-cooked yummies, courtesy of our friend, Arn!)
Your Laos guide will tell you that for 5 USD, he will reserve you a great seat on the slow boat, and book you into a really good family-run guesthouse in Pak Beng... but you'll need to make your mind up quickly because they only have eight or so rooms, and they go really quickly. It's up to you whether you believe him, and hand over your money, or wait until you get off the boat, and take your chances with the touts.
Spoiler: we believed him. 🙁
If you want a memorable experience on the Mekong, then of course, take the slow boat. Whether you book through a travel agent or make your own way will depend on whether you want a little security and assistance (booking through an agent), or more chance to pick your own options (going your own way).
If you're on a tight budget but would prefer to minimise your discomfort, take a bus from Bangkok. If you want genuinely pleasurable travel, and can afford it, take the 'plane.
My advice? If you want adventure and camaraderie, and aren't too bothered about where you'll be staying, then take the slow boat. I'm really glad we did it, despite elements of discomfort.
Some travel agents will also arrange for you to have a boat to yourself, which comes with your own chef, and decent accommodation during the stopover; it's something that does actually appeal to me, having done similar in South India.
However you get to Luang Prabang, do be sure to stay a for few days, and enjoy the city and surrounding countryside. It's well-worth it!