When researching our options to travel from Chiang Mai to northern Laos, there were a few options to choose from, including a two day slow boat. We could take the 22+ hour bus journey (14 hour bus to Vientiane, Laos, transfer and then hop on another bus for 8 hours to Luang Prabang). We could fly or we could do the bus and boat combo. Each option came with its pros and cons, but much thought went into what was best for our family. Oh and don’t forget, for this portion of our journey, my 72-year-old mom is moving along with us.
Flashback to 2014:
When looking at the bus option, it was by far the least expensive. But it was just a bus journey and a long one at that. We would likely see some beautiful countryside, but we will be on many buses over the next few months. It was easy to rule this option out, as we do like a good experience.
Next was the flight option. A quick hop from Chiang Mai and we would be in Luang Prabang in a couple of hours. This was a more expensive option, when we add in our luggage. Some of the flights weren’t direct, so we would have had to change planes in Bangkok or another location.
The third option was to take the 6 hour bus up to the Thai Loas border and then take the two day slow boat along the Mekong. Well it isn’t actually 48 hours on a boat, more like 27 hour days and an overnight at a small town along the way. This seemed perfect for making a memorable experience. No matter if it was boring, too long, painful or scary, it was bound to be one of those times we would remember forever. I began looking into options and reading reviews and it was unappealing or a horrifying 2 days on the slow boat.
So many people complained about the long journey, having wooden benches to sit on and how it was so crowded they were sometimes on the floor. Apparently food wasn’t provided either, so you needed to stock up on snacks from 7-11. It also seems pretty common to have the party going backpackers along the journey as well. This is all good fun, but not for 2 solid days. Many people said they were harassed by touts upon leaving the boat and it just sounded like so much stress.
I kept changing my mind, from the slow boat to taking a plane several times. Each time I kept ending up with the slow boat. I knew there had to be more family friendly options for traveling from Thailand to Laos, so I kept digging. I wanted the perfect experience that would really meet our 3 generation family needs. We found it!
Nagi of Mekong!
The family friendly slow boat from Houi Xai to Luang Prabang
I know, you are very curious what that means. Well, today is your lucky day, because I am about to give you every detail you will ever want about it. I found their website and it all seemed too good to be true. It was a quite a bit more expensive than the public slow boat with its corresponding horror stories, but it was about the same price as a flight.
This one time, it wasn’t about how fast we could get there, it was about our experience along the way. Nagi of Mekong wasn’t just a public slow boat, no it was more like a cruise. We just knew the slow boat from Thailand to Laos was going to be the best option, especially when we read everything that was included in the price. We were going to be able to travel in comfort and enjoy our time, without all of the hassle of the public boat. This experience was going to be far more memorable than a quick flight over.
Included in the cruise price: Everything Door to Door from Chiang Khong Thailand to Hotel in Luang Prabang
- Boat – Special chartered boat with soft cushion seats, modern toilet and safety equipment on board. 2 days of travel for about 7 hours each day.
- Transport – Transfer from hotel in Chiang Khong (including ferry ticket) or Houi Xai to the boat. Including all transportation and assistance with visa / immigration and luggage handling.
- Accommodation– Hotel room and breakfast at Petsokxai hotel or similar in Pak Beng.
Guide – English-speaking staff
Tour – Admission fee and tour of Pak Ou cave (about 45 minutes before Luang Prabang)
- Meals – Hot lunch on both days of journey and breakfast at the hotel.
- Drinks – Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, water and seasonal fruits during the entire boat journey.
- An unadvertised added bonus was a power outlet on board, so we were able to charge up our electronics too!
Time to tell you about our experiences on the family friendly slow boat, from Houi Xai to Luang Prabang.
From the moment we made the reservation, I knew this was a well-organized operation. This was proven to be true many times throughout the journey. Part of the package was transportation from our hotel in Chiang Khog (at the Thai border) to the Laos border. The night prior to our departure, Nagi of Mekong called our hotel and had them provide us with all of the immigration paperwork required to enter Laos. They also informed the hotel staff that they would pick us up promptly at 7:45 am.
The Visa Process – Out of Thailand and Into Laos
Sunday at 7:40 am a driver arrived in a car and moments later a mini van arrived as well. They labeled each bag and also gave us each a sticker to wear on our shirts. He verified we had all of our correct paperwork and passports with us. Next all of our bags were loaded into the car and all of the people were loaded onto the mini bus. We were informed that they would drive all of our bags directly to the boat, so we would not need to deal with them while exiting Thailand and entering Laos. Yipeee bag free at the border! That is bonus number one!
We arrived at the Thai border and were quickly stamped out of the country. Once on the other side of the gates, we joined up with several others on our boat as well as another boat. A big bus took us all across the Friendship Bridge to the Laos side of the Mekong River. There we were brought to the front of the line, so our entire boat would be processed together.
It was a Sunday, so the visa fee was $1 more than the normal $35. They took all of our passports, inserted the visas and once complete they held them up at another window for us to pick up and make the payment. We also had time to get to know some of our fellow Nagi of Mekong travelers, as well as a little time to exchange some of our Thai Baht to Laos Kip. Once we all had our passports, sporting our new visas, it was off to another set of mini buses. They took us directly to the boat and all of our luggage was already aboard.
The Long Boat
Once aboard boat number 121, we needed to remove our shoes and find our spot to call home for the day. There were only about 15 passengers, so there was plenty of space, almost enough for us each to have our own table. This was one big difference from the public boats, we were going to have meals, snacks and drinks included. There were several tables with seats on either side, which was perfect for meals, chatting, working and playing cards.
There was another area up front with a row of six seats on either side of the boat, under the open roof. This was more of the hang out conversation area. It was great having so many different areas on the boat to move to. We had full liberty to walk around the boat and had of space to lay down, sit and have conversations as well. There was also a western style toilet in the back and it was clean!
We really enjoyed getting to know all of the other passengers and found them all so interesting. Once again we were graced with the opportunity for the kids to converse in Spanish. We met a lovely couple, Enrique and Beatriz, from Madrid Spain. It was great having so much time to talk with them and it turns out they are both writers, and Beatriz is also a storyteller, with a very popular YouTube channel. We all enjoyed talking videos, creative writing, education and travel with them, but most of all we loved talking Spain. They of course were speaking in Spanish with the kids and were impressed with their command of the language.
We also really bonded with another couple, Jeff and Georg. They are from California and had just spent a few weeks in India. There was fun and games for all with this couple. The kids loved playing cards and learning many life lessons and discussing Buddhism and much more.
My favorite moment was our son walking up to me, about 4 hour into the journey, and giving me a big hug. All while saying, “Mom, Thank you for this. It is awesome! All of the other passengers are so interesting, the scenery is great and they have food.” That just made my day! (By the way, he felt the same way after the full two days.)
I was very nervous about the trip and how the kids would handle 2 full days just hanging out on a boat. To be honest, the kids have been so absorbed in conversing with all of the other passengers on their own, I was able to enjoy some much-needed “alone” time. It was great that the entire Wagoner family was so busy socializing, that I didn’t need to be the planner/entertainer. We got to know all of the other passengers and found them all to be fascinating and inspiring with their stories.
In The Moment – enjoying the 2 day slow boat Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos
I finally had time to just stop, not plan, not research, just time to “be”. To think, to ponder, to dream to absorb the now. Thinking about how I love the breeze blowing my face, the hum of the engine, the soft chatter of others off in the distance, the laughter of the kids playing cards, the sound of them speaking Spanish with others.
I loved just gazing out at the water. It was incredible to see the personality of the river. We would have smooth calm waters one moment and the next we would be in swirls and rapids, I wondered what was going on below the surface.
Along the river’s edge was a mix of limestone protruding from the earth or water and soft powdery sand seeping into the edges of the thick lush jungle. The large trees towered up the hillside, many enveloped in bright green vines, as if it were a winter cloak. The sky was slightly overcast with moments of the sun rays shining into our path.
I was so surprised to see so much sand on the banks and I just wanted to go out and stand along the edge and let it break off. On occasion we would pass a small village or see fisherman out along the river. There was one sand bank with some kids sitting atop, waving at our boat. You just couldn’t help but to wave back with a smile from ear to ear.
The first day flew by and we arrived in Pak Beng around 4 pm. We were informed to just grab our toiletries and any personal items from out bags. The bags would remain on the boat over night. So off we went, with a few items and right at the base of a large sand dune.
Normally this isn’t a problem, but we all had a small backpack and it was straight up! With each step up you climbed, the sand was kind enough to give way and bring you back down half to three-quarters of the way. It was like being on an endless treadmill. Of course the kids bolted right up to the top, with no issues at all.
I didn’t have a free hand to put down in the sand for stability and I was about to break out laugh, when along comes mom. She too was having the same issue I was and I could no longer hold the laughter in. Rather than trying to help her, I break out in the giggles and reach for my camera to try to capture it on video. I wasn’t fast enough. A gallant fellow passenger helped her get over the hurdle of the moving sand, I on the other hand was still stuck in it. Eventually a strong-arm from above reached out to my rescue and it was Alan. We all made it up the hill and into our hotel.
We were very impressed with the rooms that were provided with the cruise and also thrilled that we didn’t have to walk around looking for a place to stay. We had two spacious and clean room,s adjoining via a very large terrace, overlooking the Mekong River. It was the beginning of high season and we were told that the boats were over-booking, so many times there aren’t enough rooms for all of the passengers. The week prior, people had to go sleep on the sand dunes, on the boat, or in some cases locals took people into their homes. We didn’t need to worry about any of this as our room was part of the package.
Pak Beng, Laos a one street town
This town became a town because it is about the midway point for the boats between Thailand and Luang Prabang. It is just one street, about 400 meters long, full of guesthouses, snack shacks and restaurants. We explored for about an hour, stopped for a quick bite to eat and it was back to our rooms. I am not sure why, but we were all exhausted from sitting around socializing all day.
Day 2 of the slow boat on the Mekong River
We were up early and enjoying our breakfast (included) by 7 am, with instructions to be on board the boat no later than 7:30 am. It was all like clockwork and 7:30 we were off for another day on the river. Once again it was full of great conversations, games, reading, working and stunning views.
About 2 pm, we arrived at the Pak Ou Caves and were let off the boat to go explore. This was a nice extra touch to the trip and it was great walking around. I am not sure we were all fans of the stairs, but it was worth it. Inside the caves were many Buddhas old and new.
After about 30-40 minutes of exploring, it was back on the boat for the final 45 minutes of the Mekong River journey.
We arrived in Luang Prabang, only to find we had yet another sandy hill to climb. This one wasn’t quite as bad with the loose sand, but it was just as steep. The only catch this time was that we needed to also take all of our bags. There were porters available to carry bags for 10,000 Kip each ($1.25), so we opted to have some carried for us.
Then it was on to the mini van, again part of the package to deliver us to our destination accommodation. I was so thrilled that we didn’t need to deal with all of the harassing I read about on the reviews from people taking the public boats. It was all prearranged for us and once again smooth sailing. The entire experience was very relaxing and enjoyable. We were amazed at how fast the time flew by and we were impressed with the full operation. Without a doubt, this is the way to go for traveling families.
Read more about our
Adventure333 (3 Generations, 3 Months, 3 Countries)
Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia