How To Survive The Slow Boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang

Just about every backpacker at some point will have taken the journey via slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang.

The image everyone has of taking the slowboat between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang

The image everyone has of taking the slow boat between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang

It sounds like a great experience: a relaxing slow boat drifting along the mighty Mekong river, stunning, unspoilt scenery in every direction…

The cramped quarters get unbearable fast

The cramped quarters get unbearable fast

What most people won’t tell you is how slow the actual journey really is. It takes a total of three days to reach the shores of Luang Prabang and for two of those three days, you’re sitting on a cramped and uncomfortable longboat with a rattling engine so thunderously loud and smokey, a violent headache isn’t uncommon.

Beautiful views from the slowboat

Beautiful views from the slow boat

True, the longboat journey does give you spectacular scenery and it really is a special treat when you can have even just a couple of days to do absolutely nothing, but I was a bit upset that no one had warned me to be better prepared for the entire journey.

Being the awesome traveler that I am, I’m here with a few tips to help make your Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang slow boat journey a better one.

  1. Bring food with you. The boat will have a tiny snack shop on board, but if you get hungry between 8am (when the boat leaves and 5 or 6pm when it arrives on land) you’ll be limited to potato chips and cup noodles. So although you won’t starve if you don’t bring food with you, the offerings are hardly a better alternative.
  2. Have cards and a stockpile of card games handy. No doubt your fellow passengers will be bored put of their minds as well. You’ll be everyone’s hero and favorite traveler if you bust out a stack of cards and give them something fun to help past the time.
  3. Get your seats early. Despite what the boat crew tells you, there are no assigned seats; it’s first come first serve. Some seats are slightly more comfortable and offer a bit more legroom (until the boats stop along the way to pick up locals with bags of rice and other space stealing packages) so you want to make sure you get these coveted seats. Arrive at least an hour before the boat is scheduled to leave or else you’ll be squeezed into the wooden benches, or worse, the boat’s engine room.
  4. Do NOT prebook a guesthouse for the second night. Those guys are lying. There will be plenty of rooms to choose from when you get on land and most will be at a fraction of the cost on board the boat. And often times, they’ll be better quality too.
  5. Try to appreciate the situation for what it is. Enjoy the luxury of the inactivity. So rare in life do we get the occasion to truly unplug from the rest of the world. Take the opportunity to do so, especially since you don’t really have a choice in the matter.
Categories: Laos, Thailand


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