There are 2 popular ways to get to Luang Prabang, Laos from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand:
- The slow boat; a crammed, diesel chugging, sweltering jaunt down the increasingly developed Mekong river including passing through dams and sitting on hard wooden seats for 2 days solid.
- Venturing overland via Luang Namtha through mountainous lushly forested scenery dotted with rice paddies and different tribal villages on the best roads in Laos, then down to the stunning riverside town of Nong Kiaw, where you can boat the rest of the way on the much less developed Nam Ou river through the jungle clad riverbank to Luang Prabang.
Many people are pre-sold on the idea of a leisurely slow boat cruise down the mighty Mekong river from Chiang Kong, Thailand/Huay Xai, Laos all the way down to the popular world heritage city of Luang Prabang.
There are many vendors in Thailand who will sell you this option and tell you it is by far the best way (or even only way) to get to Luang Prabang…seeing as they make commission from ticket sales.
Unfortunately the reality is for many people quite different from this romantic vision of river scenery and old world comfort.
What to expect from the slow boat:
- The slow boats seating capacity is limited to 60 but it is often packed to way more than this forcing people to sit in the engine room or even hang off the side of the boat! This makes for a packed, noisy and uncomfortable journey.
- You will most probably be sitting on a hard wooden seat for 2 whole days meaning most people arrive in Luang Prabang far from refreshed and relaxed. Some people just drink the whole time just to get through the journey!
- It’s true there is some nice scenery but the mighty brown Mekong has gone through a lot of development on its banks (especially the Thai side), so the journey will be far from an insight into authentic rural Lao culture, so don’t be mistaken.
- You will need to pre-purchase all your food and water before the journeys to ensure you have enough, the toilets although western are very far from clean.
- The fast boat may seem like a better option as it does the whole trip in about 7 hours, but the cramped conditions and scary ride due to high speeds and submerged logs and debris make it a dubious choice.
- Queuing and crowding to get a good seat on the boat and accommodation in Pak Beng can be a real test on patience.
What to expect from Northern Laos, overland:
- You will get to experience northern Laos amazing mountain scenery, ethnic diversity and famous hospitality first hand away from the maddening crowd and heat of the Mekong. This is the most forested and ethnically diverse region of South East Asia.
- Buses and minivans depart Huay Xai daily for Luang Namtha every couple of hours (no hard seats!) and take about 3 and a half to 4 hours through stunning jungled mountains dotted with different tribes villages, for a scenic introduction to Laos. This is also Laos’s newest best-sealed road.
- From December 2013 you will be able to simply get a connection to Luang Namtha from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai as the new friendship bridge across the Mekong will be opened for border crossings, making getting to Laos much faster and easier.
- Luang Namtha is a great place to trek, kayak, raft or mountain bike in the immense and very scenic Nam Ha national protected area, from the pleasant town with many accommodation and dining options you can visit different ethnic minority villages by yourself, explore the stupas, waterfalls or rice paddies.
- Luang Namtha is emerging as the hottest new eco-tourism and trekking destination in SE-Asia because of its highly regulated Nam Ha national protected area. This community based eco-tourism set-up has vastly different and intriguing tribal villages and wild untamed jungle and beautiful pristine rivers.
- Travelling south to Nong Kiaw sees you going through more of Laos most beautiful scenery, to a stunning riverside town on the Nam Ou surrounded by limestone karsts, it takes 5 and a half hours to get there from Luang Namtha, you get to stop in the Chinese influenced town of Oudomxai for lunch.
- From Nong Kiaw you can get a daily public boat (or hire a private boat – there are always people looking to form groups to hire a boat) for the very scenic 6 hour trip to Luang Prabang through jungle and mountains. Or you can chill out for a few days and venture up river to the increasingly popular and very quaint Muang Noi.
In our opinion and the opinion of hundreds of travellers we have met, if you are missing out on northern Laos, you are missing out on the best part of coming to Laos.
So consider wisely before you blindly sign up to that slow boat ordeal