Juanito’s Travels 50 yr backpacker – Chiang Rai to the border of Laos, tips for going on the very slow (and rather crappy) boat from Huay Xai to Pakbeng pt29

juanitos travels mekong slow boat Laos

17 April.


The slowboat down the Mekong starting at Huay Xi and then stopping off overnight at Pakbeng (which I also call Pak Beng, which is actually closer to the name) and then onto Luang Prabang.

It sounded like a romantic thing to do. See some tigers, jungle animals – monkeys, elephants and the like. Chilling on the pristine river for a couple of days like Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on the African Queen.

Well. That wasn’t how it was, at least for us.

But let’s start from the beginning. If you really want to go on the slowboat you can do it, fairly easily and reasonably cheaply. I thought it may be difficult but it’s actually literally a piece of piss to organise. You can buy tickets in Chiang Rai (Thailand) at every travel agency, or just straight from your hotel. Then you can get a bus or taxi from Chiang Rai through to Huay Xai (Laos) where you get on the boat that takes you down river to Luang Prabang with a night stopover in Pakbeng (also Laos). Unless you’re crazy enough to go the other way, up river, then you’d get a ticket from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai with a night stopover in Pakbeng. I mean I imagine that way is just as easy to organise but it’s just probably even slower than the already slowboat given it’s fighting against the natural current.

We did it a little differently, we went from Huay Xai and then booked three nights in Pakbeng. The difference being we had to buy two tickets, one from Huay Xai to Pakbeng, which we booked through our hotel in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand, along with a taxi ride we shared with Francisco and Nathan. Hi Nathan and Francisco if you’re reading this!! I know you’re not reading this so hopefully the ‘hi’ vibes make it to you some other way. I might just send you both a message on Instagram later. Maybe we can hang out in Phoenix one day. Or do you live in Tucson? Anyway, we’ll work that out on Instagram some time.

IMG_0016 2

So my wife and I started our slow boat trip in Chiang Rai. We got picked up around 4-5 am, dunno exactly but it was still dark and wasn’t light until around about an hour into our trip, which was about halfway to the Laos border or maybe later. Huay Xai is just over the border between Thailand and Laos. So after chatting with Francisco and Nathan for around two hours – who both loved Songkran by the way (unlike my wife which you may have read about in the previous post), like they couldn’t get enough of it, they kept going for days with the water fights and were happy to see in Chiang Rai the festivities were still going – we arrived at the border.

Jan and I had organised our border e-visas when we were back in Australia so when we got there we got across the border pretty quick after paying a few baht to the border official as some sort of ‘administration fee’ in cash that most likely went straight into the guy’s pocket. Well, actually, come to think of it, I think we first met up with other tourists and we all piled into a big bus and drove from the border (on the Thailand side) to the border crossing immigration area on the Laotian side. No! Hang on. We went through the Thai immigration bit and the guy said to Jan, ‘hey this is the last day of your visa’ and smiled. Then we jumped in the bus and drove across to the Laos immigration bit. And then we got out our e-visas like pros and we like looking at all the non e-visa people filling out their forms and I was thinking ‘losers’ as I’m very childish.

Well, we didn’t have to look at them ‘losers’ too long we had our e-visas so we practically just walked through, paid the dude the kinda of bribe ‘tip’ thing and we were in Laos not having to look at all the non e-visa dudes – including Nathan and Francisco, who we liked, and certainly didn’t consider ‘loser’ if they are reading this, and still like we hope we can hang out sometime, maybe you guys come come to Guadalajara when we’re there or visit us here in Australia? Jan will be back at the end of next week (depending of course on when you read this, she could be already back (in fact she is). Or we could be in Guadalajara again as we’re going to go for Christmas/ New Year one year. We’ll message on Insta and organise). Anyway we kicked back on the Laotian side as we waited for all the poele filling out their forms and waiting in lines and such then finally got back on this truck thing to continue our journey.

slow boat 1 thailand: laos

So once Nathan and Francisco and the others we don’t know the names of – well Jan might, but I doubt it as we didn’t ask anyone’s names, so Jan won’t know either – got through they gave us all these pin on badge things that said (or maybe stated is more correct): Daily transfer to Laos, Slow Boat to Luang Prabang. We then stopped off at a little tour office where we could got to the toilet, get some Laos money (the good old Kip, fine currency!), SIM cards for our phone, and some supplies for the trip. This was mostly organised by the tech and business savvy kids of the office, who I assume were the owner’s children. We were to find that Laotians love having many children, and they are very often put to work! Though when not working they just chill do colouring in, like the one in the photo below. In all seriousness they were a great help and super friendly. And it was all run from this nondescript little shop down the road a bit from the border crossing.


They gave us all a roll with egg and salad or something, and a drink to take with us. But since we were in mid-April and the temperatures were around 35 degrees everyday, we also got a few more bottles of water. Oh, and the hotel gave us these huge doggy bag breakfasts with heaps of other food. And I bought a beer.

We asked the guy at the tour place to book us the Pakbeng to Luang Prabang leg for us so we didn’t have to work out how to do that in Pakbeng. Apparently it was easy to buy the ticket in Pakbeng, but he still took our money, after being up front and telling us it’d be cheaper to buy it in Pakbeng he literally said, ‘if you pay me it will be more expensive, you can buy the tickets in Pakbeng, but I can take your money if you like’, but we didn’t want the hassle (I also found it wasn’t neccessarily that easy to buy a ticket in Pakbeng, but it is possible at the tourist point just up the hill from the ferry departures and arrivals place if you want to do it). He didn’t give us a ticket or anything, he just got our WhatsApp contact details and told us to send him a message and a photo of us when we were ready to get on the ferry in Pakbeng for the Luang Prabang leg so he could tell the people on the boat we’d already paid.



We organized all that stuff and then got back into the truck and chatted to Nathan and Francisco on the way to the slow boat, which was only maybe another 20-30 minutes away. We stopped around 30 minutes at the shop while everyone got SIM cards and supplies.

Once we got there we found the river was low, being the dry – and I can’t emphasise enough, HOT – season. So, we had to walk down a big hill with all our luggage to reach the boat and the river, which was just below the boats, all the time sweating like sprinklers. Then we got on the boat, found some seats in the chaos and headed off down the Mekong for Pakbeng. Even though we had numbers they didn’t seem to correspond to anything so we just grabbed some free spaces. This was all mostly organised by the tag system. Tourists tagged in a certain way got on our boat, while others I think, but can’t honestly remember, we shuffled off to other boats. I think a few people had fancy boat tickets for example so they were sent off to the fancy private boat while we got on the public ferry.

There was a mixture of locals and tourists. At least half to three quarters were tourists though. As it was a public boat, anyone with a ticket could hop on. I suspect tourists paid a lot more than the locals. I kind of hope we did given the average annual income for Laotians is only $356 Australian dollars. I think we paid around $25-30 Aussie dollars for the trip, maybe less. I think if you know where to go you can get a trip for much less.

By the way, before I go on, apologies to locals for which the slowboat is an essential way of travelling between towns. Forgive my whining touristy ways! I’m sure it’s not too surprising how soft westerners can be though. I hope for your sakes you get an improved service one day as you are more important than tourists, though the money they bring in is probably welcomed.

IMG_0042 2 IMG_0044

The slow boat seats were crappy, uncomfortable and not level. I mean one side was up a bit and the other side was sagging down towards the ground. My butt often straddled the two areas and one cheek often went to sleep and I had to slap it from time to time so it didn’t lose feeling forever. On top of that there was some sort of hard metal thing that was in the middle of the little that remained of the cushion – very little of that soft fluffy stuff you expect to find in a cushion was to be found. There was some shade overhead, enough. later in the day, to keep the scorching middle of the day sun, albeit mostly stuck behind a firey haze of smoke, off our heads. The boat had open sides so what little stiflingly hot breeze was around could waft through. Kind of the way air-fryers work I imagine. Sweat poured from every crevice despite it still being early morning upon departure.


But a short break from our first day in Laos, which was now five (now 8) months ago. I’m writing this now in front of a TV where I’m watching a show about YouTube (and in fact since I’ve taken so long to finish, I’m now doing this in front of my work computer as I wait for some work to do). Yes I’m watching actual TV on a TV, I actually got out on the roof and hooked up the TV to a rooftop aerial, mainly because I can’t decide what to watch on any streaming services. Which is partly because there seems very little worth watching on the paid streaming services. So I’m watching actual TV again. It’s kinda retro, like the slowboat, but it does have the advantage of not having to think about what to watch, there’s just always stuff playing and SBS TV Australia has a world movie channel, plus an endless range of Scandinavian crime dramas (SBS also have a streaming service by the way, mainly for Australians). It makes me want to go back to reading books. Which I do a little. I’m reading one about Ho Chi Minh at the moment (well now, as I’m nearing finishing this post, I’ve also finished the book!). I’ll get to how I got into Ho later on (he’s cool, pragmatic, and deserves to be on every Vietnamese banknote, is my summary). Unlike YouTube (which was the show I started to tell you about on SBS) I’m not trying to gently lead you down some path of radicalization (although Ho was certainly a revolutionary, just against a bunch of pricks from France and later the USA). I was just interested in Ho after visiting Vietnam and the Vietnam part of these travels didn’t happen until after Laos, which I will get to one day. Anyway, there’s no algorithms in books that control their content (unlike YouTube). As far as I know that is. I asked ChatGPT to confirm this and it said: books themselves do not have algorithms that control their content. Which is good enough for me.

IMG_0041 2

Oh, where was I? The slowboat, down the Mekong. Yeah it really, really sucks as a boat. You do, however, get to see a bit of life along the Mekong. Unfortunately one of the first things you notice is that Laotian people dump loads and loads of rubbish in the river. Along the way I watched a kid eating a few seats ahead of us. He’d eat something and then chuck the plastic packaging straight into the river, with his mother sitting right next to him, totally unconcerned by the littering of the Mighty Mekong. I wanted to throw the kid and the mother in. After throwing several empty chip packets, he had a bowl of noodles, I watched him for a few minutes, watching the plastic bowl, watching him, and pretty much as soon as he was done he chucked the bowl over the side and it drifted along in the boat’s wake – I think that’s a boating term, wake.

And I got even hotter. And we still had almost 6 hours to go to get to Pakbeng. Which was only roughly the halfway mark to Luang Prabang (which we’d take in a few days time).


Because it was April, the scenery was dry and dusty. Because everyone was dry it made everything easier to burn, and apparently Laotians love a good burning off in April (and maybe May) and the place was covered in smoke with the culprit fires sporadically springing up along the steep hills that lined the banks. And what’s worse of all, there were no tigers! I kept looking and not one freakin tiger to be found! Not even a monkey!

There were plenty of water buffalo though. The ones below were from the second day of our river trip (if you have a keen eye and realise they’re not on the Mekong between Huay Xi and Pakbeng), which, unlike most of the tourists, we weren’t doing on consecutive days. We stayed 3 nights in Pakbeng so we could go visit the Mekong Elephant Park in Pakbeng, across the river from where the slowboats drop you off and pick you up.

IMG_0161 IMG_0162

The waterbuffalo were really cool.

Anyway, eventually we made it to Pakbeng. Honestly the worst day of boating I’ve ever experienced in my life (again, whinging tourist, guilty as charged). It was so bad I haven’t had the energy to actually finish my post on the experience for a good 8 months now (at the time of writing). Once we got to Pakbeng we had to lug our luggage (well mainly me with the heavier stuff as my wife was just able to cope with one or 2 of the smaller bags) up the narrow steps that led up the very steep banks of the river. My shoulders threatened to pop out of my sockets on several occasions as we inched our way up from the water’s edge.

When I got up my wife said, ‘oh I sent some guys down to help you’. Some guys had asked me to help with the luggage but I assumed they were going to hassle us to go to their hotels so I said no. I now dearly wished we’d paid someone just to take the stuff up! I mean we probably only needed to give them a dollar! Why?!! Oh well, regrets, I’ve had a few. But surprisingly few on such a long trip (which still had Vietnam, Cambodia, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Mexico to go at that stage!).

On arrival accommodation providers swamp you and try to get you to go hither and thither. There’s not much to Pakbeng though so most of the accommodation is just on the main street, which is just a couple of hundred metres of dirt road with a slight bend in it.


We were staying at the hotel associated with Mekong Elephant Park (just across the river from the park) but they hadn’t arrived. An Indian guy who ran the only Indian restaurant in town – which was pretty decent, and which we frequented for every meal, apart from the hotel breakfast and the first night where we went to a Loatian place where I went for buffalo laab (a Laotian dish), kind of minced buffalo Loatian style which was a bit chewy but nice (sorry buffalo!). Some of the restaurants had signs saying ‘my wife cooks very well’, and indeed the buffalo laab was made by someone’s wife. Anyway the Indian guy called the hotel for us and they came picked us up.

This is the laab, with a delicous Beerlao (not too cold, you may have to add ice!):


And so, we had arrived in Pakbeng, after over 7 gruelling, boring, uncomfortable, hot and smokey hours. And since it makes me hot just thinking about the slowboat, I will finally, after 8 months finish this post with a few tips!

Tip 1 – bring plenty of water for your trip. Food and drinks are surprisingly expensive on the slowboat. Well, by local standards.

Tip 2 – don’t go on the slowboat if you can afford it. It is not at all romantic! Splurge on the nicer private boast where they have meals and stuff!!

Tip 3 – if you’re going on any boat down the Mekong between Huay Xi and Luang Prabang (with that stop in Pakbeng), slow or otherwise, don’t go in April. The smoke is horrendous, the heat is horrendous.

Tip 4 – if you’re something of an influencer, or you organise tours down the Mekong, maybe get the locals to stop dumping all their shitty rubbish in the Mekong! You’re going to make it so no tourist wants to visit the place if there’s crap everywhere.

Tip 5 – bring cash to Pakbeng! We were lucky to have Thai baht on us we could use at the Indian restaurant. There were only 2 ATMs in town when we were there and neither of them had cash, so we had to survive on what money we had with us for the 2 days we had in Pakbeng.

I also have one reflection. Despite the hassles of getting there, Pakbeng is actually worth a few night’s stay, if only to visit the Mekong Elephant Park! Man, that is amazing! And if you’re going to suffer hours and hours on an uncomfortable boat down a littered river, in the heat and smoke, you might as well spend at least two nights halfway! Anyway, next post I will do the Elephant Park, and maybe some more Pakbeng. I think if it wasn’t for that Elephant park my wife may still have been upset with me for taking her down that damned river on that damned boat!

And I’m done with Slowboats – except I will have to mention the next leg from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang in a post.