Posted by: passedportsnyc | January 20, 2010

12 Reasons Not to Take the Slow Boat

The legendary slow boat.  Love it or loath it, all SEA travellers have their tales to tell.  Most seem to loath the boat but to love moaning about it.  We spent some days agonizing over whether to give it a go.  Virtually everyone crossing from north Thailand into Laos takes it.  Each morning the boat, with its cargo of 100 or more sunburnt farang, embarks on the two-day journey from the border at Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, tourist mecca.  Here are our 12 reasons not to take it.

1. Every single passenger aboard our bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong (the Thai side of the border) were headed for the slow boat.  Each had bought the transport package in Chiang Mai, and carried a booklet of coupons for each leg of their journey from the Chiang Mai departure to arrival in Luang Prabang 3 days later.  When we told them we were NOT taking the slow boat and explained the alternative route we devised, they questioned us in awe and wonder about our independent adventure (which, in all honesty, wasn’t even that adventurous).

2. Upon arrival at the border we checked in right away to whatever guesthouse we pleased.  They had to stand around in the throngs of people pouring off minibuses all over town, waving coupons and awaiting their lodging placement.

3. After a leisurely rest, we passed by our guesthouse restaurant, where the slow-boaters queued with their coupons for a mass-produced meal at the appointed time.  We wandered about town for a bit, watched local families run remote-control car races on the riverbank, then settled in at an adorable local shop for a fantastic bowl of noodles.

4. Ditto for breakfast, except instead of a noodle shop we chose a lovely spot by the river with the nicest Thai women imaginable. We already have a breakfast date next time we’re in Chiang Khong.

5. As I headed out to the bank and pharmacy, dozens of slow-boaters sat and waited in the courtyard for their transport.  When I returned, they were being herded, cattle style, onto cramped minibuses to the immigration office.

6. When we arrived in Huay Xai, on the Laos side of the river, the slow-boaters were still there, still waiting.  Only this time it wasn’t just the slow-boaters from our guesthouse, it was slow-boaters from all guesthouses.  Each had to wear a little sticker badge indicating the tour operator they had purchased from.  When we got through, they were still waiting.

7. Tour operators and border officials continually came up to us, reminding us to put on our badges, instructing us where to go, demanding our passports, trying to shuffle us around.  It felt so good each time to inform them that we were not with the slow boat.

8. We wandered into town and found a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the bus station, explaining that we wanted to go to Luang Nam Tha.  We were almost there when he came to a screeching halt on the side of the road, flagged down a bus, pushed us aboard and tossed our packs in behind us before we could protest.  For two hours or so we bumped along (in a very spacious and comfortable air-con bus), reveling in the fact that we had no idea where we were headed, speculating about all of the exciting possibilities.

9. Sometime about 3 hours in, we made it to our intended destination.  The driver made sure we knew to get off and asked for our fare – $2 each.

10. We spent a glorious day riding bikes around the incredibly accessible countryside, through tiny villages, to waterfalls, while the cattle – ahem, the slow-boaters – were still stuck on the boat.

11. We spent another glorious day doing the same thing in Nong Khiaw.

12. We took a stunningly beautiful boat ride, complete with stops and walks through villages, from Nong Khiaw down to Luang Prabang, arriving only 2 days later than the slow-boaters, and with a far better experience of Laos.



  1. Glad to know you still had the chance to redeem your trip. Imagine if you had to go back again in slow-boat.

  2. Sarah! I loved reading this post! Back in March ’09, I too spent days agonizing how to get from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. I must have read every single post about the slow boat on the Lonely Planet Thorntree Forum. Needless to say, it scared me enough that I ended up jumping on a plane, as I had already been to Nam Tha and people were waiting for me in L.P. Though I almost had a heart attack during the kamikazee-like descent into L.P., I remain convinced that NOT taking the boat was an awesome decision 🙂 Sounds like you guys are savvy travelers.

  3. Hi Sarah, really interesting post! I will be doing this trip soon and was wondering if it was worth going by road instead of slow boat, sounds like it definitely is! Did you do any organised tours/trekking in Luang Nam Tha and Nong Khiaw or was it easy to find your own way about?

  4. Sorry Sarah, this does scream a bit ‘I’m better than everyone else because I did it this way.’ Enjoy the choices you make by all means, but don’t look down on others for making a different choice. It makes you a less interesting writer. A different approach to this article would have been ‘beware this is what awaits you on the slow boat and here’s this awesome alternative’ rather than ‘these ‘cattle’/stupid people did this but we super-savvy ones took the road less travelled..’ which, by the way, is in the guidebook.

    • I have to agree with you.

      After doing my own research, I am choosing the slow boat as I don’t want to take the bus. Why? I want to journey down the river. I don’t mind about the length of journey. The Mekong River is beautiful in many parts. I have my camera and am pretty sure I can take some amazing photos an route.

      I am an independent traveller and not with a tour company and if I want a bus ticket or a boat ticket I will simply and easily go to the bus stop or pier to buy one. However, if I chose to go with an organised tour group, that would be fine too as many people choose that option to make new friends. Some people will even travel on with their new friends afterwards.

  5. Hi Sarah,

    enjoyable post! I did the slow boat a few years back and have to say I loved it, but booked it from Huay Xai the night before thus saving the coupon-wielding madness. A couple of cushions, an esky of beer and some wonderful company made it one of the highlights of my trip – stumbling into a town-wide party at the half-way stop didn’t hurt either. So its not necessarily all bad, you just need to be prepared. Enjoy the rest of your trip – are the 4,000 Islands on the list?

  6. thanks for the intresting and useful post!
    but you forget to mention the most intresting (for us, of course) description of the travel: how did you reach Nong Khiaw from Luang Namtha???

    we supposed via bus, but the only info we found was that you need to go first to Oudomxay (hub city) to change the bus HOPING to find the connections…
    did you do in this way?
    thanks a lot for giving us info

  7. I had been curious about if you ever considered switching the layout of your web site? It is well written; I really like what youve got to say. But maybe you could include a little more in the way of content so people can connect with it better. You have got an awful lot of wording for only having one or two photos. Maybe you could space it out better?

  8. This is not a list of reasons not to take the boat, this is just an explanation of what you did.

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