Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang

On my first trip to Southeast Asia, I did not make it to Laos. Just about everyone I met was either on their way to Laos or had returned from Laos and was raving about it. On this trip, after my flight arrived in Bangkok, I made a beeline for northern Thailand and the Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang.

Huay Xai Laos
A lone backpacker steps on to the slow boat at the Huay Xai dock.
Laos slow boat
Plenty of room on the Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang

Booked Laos slow boat tour in Chiang Mai

I booked the tour in Chiang Mai. The tour included transportation to the border, a stop at the White Temple in Chiang Rai, a night stay at a guesthouse in Thailand, transportation over the border to Huay Xai, Laos, and the ticket for the boat. I paid about $65.00 usd with another $35.00 for the Laos visa. The tour did not include lodging the first night in Pakbeng, which is the halfway point to Luang Prabang.

Laos boat
Another boat on the river in front of us

Related: Getting a Laos visa at the border of Thailand

The Laos slow boat a relaxing two days

The Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang was one of the most relaxing experiences ever. Watching the lush green mountainous landscape slowly roll by while listening to the soothing sound of the motor while sucking down a fe Beerlaos made for an unforgettable experience. Laos is notoriously hot and humid, but being in the middle of the river in an open boat while going about 20 mph made for the perfect air-con.

Mekong River
Typical scene of the Mekong River from the Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang

We coasted along the Mekong River with gorgeous jungle covered mountains on either side. The color of the river was dark brown. The brown mud contrasted against the verdant countryside made for an interesting scene.

Laos slow boat
Mekong River shoreline

The Laos slow boat description

The boat had everything one could need for conveniences. It had a bathroom, a bar, and sold snacks as well. I ate a sandwich while waiting for the 11:30 a.m. departure in Huay Xai. This was plenty of food as the boat pulled into Pakbeng around 4:30 p.m. You could buy more food and snacks if needed at the dock area. There was a restaurant that sold fruit and snacks. Travel in Laos is incredibly easy.

Laos countryside
The Laos countryside was mesmerizing
Laos grass huts
Loved these grass huts in the fields in Laos

The Laos slow boat had about 20-25 passengers. It was evenly split between Laos villagers and international travelers. We had travelers from Australia, Spain, England, the U.S., and Germany. There may have been a few other countries represented, but I did not meet everyone.

Mekong River valley
Laos Mekong River valley

The Laos slow boat can be a party

We had two travelers from Manchester, England who were heavy, heavy drinkers. They had already gone through a couple of rounds of Beerlaos before the boat even left the dock. They both seemed to be constantly at the bar waiting for another beer. I enjoyed several beers myself. I thoroughly enjoyed having a few cold beers and watching the Laos countryside slide on by while taking many pictures.

Mekong River fishing
Mekong River fisherman

For different perspectives, I moved around the cabin. This was the slow tourist season, so the boat was only half full. Perhaps there is assigned seating during the busy season, but on this day you could sit wherever you wanted as long as it was not occupied. You could also sit on the front of the boat and the back of boat.

Laos slow boat
Up front on the slow boat to Luang Prabang
Laos boat
The boat inclined upward, so sometimes all you would see is the green on the jungle mountain ahead of you.


Back view Laos boat
Looking out the back door of the slow boat

Arrival in Pakbeng

About 4:30 p.m we pulled into Pakbeng. A small riverside community built almost completely around the slow boat tourism. We exited the boat after stepping over the two British dudes who were passed out right on the floor of the boat by  the entrance. There were a handful of hotels right along the riverside. I booked a room at the BKC Villa and the owner was there at the dock to meet me and drive me to my room. There was no one else staying at the hotel.

The hotel was up on the hill looking over the river. The hallway to room was outside and afforded a gorgeous view of the Mekong. There was an elephant sanctuary across the river, and sometimes they can be seen in the morning when caretakers take them down to the river. The room was small, clean, and comfortable. The room was a little more expensive than others in town, but it had air-conditioning, so it was worth it.

Mekong River Pakbeng
Misty morning along the Mekong River in Pakbeng.

The next morning I opened the door and there was a beautiful mist hanging over the river valley. Elephants sounds could be heard across the river. I went down and enjoyed breakfast and also bought a lunch and snacks to eat along the river for day two of the journey.

Day 2

Day 2 was more of the same except the terrain seemed to get a little more craggy. Instead of tree covered smoothed down river bluffs, the terrain got a little more craggy with some rock face cliffs and more pointed mountains. The heavy drinkers from Manchesters were a little more placid on this day. They quietly sipped the hair of the dog and exchanged stories of past travels and past parties.

Mekong River
I loved the contrast of the dark brown water of the Mekong with the green lush Laos countryside.

One thing that really surprised me about this trip is the lack of birds. We did see a flock of egrets every now and then, but not much of anything else. We did not see any eagles or birds of prey. There were no hornbills and not really a whole lot of any small birds either. I remember visiting the Amazon in South America and while there were not as many birds as I expected, there were a whole lot more than I was seeing along the Mekong.

Laos water buffalo
Water buffalo along the Mekong River in Laos

This lack of bird sightings was quite a surprise because the jungle was lush with vegetation and there were not many people around. We would see fisherman here and there and evidence of habitation along the river at points, but for the most part, the boat went through a really remote area of Laos. There were plenty of domestic animals like water buffalo and goats, but no wild animals that I could see, and I was looking.

Mekong River Laos
Sun beating through the clouds over the Mekong River

Rapids and stops along the way

There were a couple of times the slow boat driver had to navigate through some rapids. The river was more than adequately deep and the rapids were more standing waves than actual rocks or impediments.

Laos Mekong River village
An example of the small riverside villages we sometimes would stop at on the way to Luang Prabang.

We made a few stops along the way at little riverside communities to drop off and pick up Laos passengers. The boats also served as transport for goods as sacks of food and other items were loaded and unloaded as we traveled down the river. The whole back of the boat was covered with green seaweed harvested from the river I assume and dried out in the hot Laos sun.

Laos boat poling
The Laos boatmen using poles to push off from the shore.

When we made these stops, one or two of the Laos people on board would pull these long poles that were situated on the front of the boat and use them to push off the bottom to steer towards shore. When pulling off they would push off on the other side of the boat to push us back into the current.

Cliff Mekong River
The terrain got a little more craggy as we neared Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Around 4 p.m. we arrived at the dock at Luang Prabang. The dock is actually not in the middle of town, but about 10 km outside. Transport in the form of an open bus with benches was waiting for us for 20,000 Kip per person. The bus dropped us off at the market in town, and I had to walk only a quarter of a mile to my hotel. Luang Prabang is a small town, so most rooms would be within walking distance to the drop off. There is an army of tuk-tuk drivers in case you need a longer ride.

Better in the off season

The Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang was a great way to see the countryside and enjoy my first couple of days in Laos. I think the experience is much better in the off season when the boats are not so crowded. This opinion is based on a different perspective of the trip during the busy season, and it seemed a lot more hectic with some travelers having to sit on the floor. I visited Laos in September, and it was the slow season. The high season for tourism in Laos is November through April.

Kuang Si Falls is a hot Rivendell

A must see natural wonder near Luang Prabang, Laos is  Kuang Si Falls. With its beautiful turqoise waters plummeting down into gorgeous pools, it will remind visitors of the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings. The comparison will not last long because Laos is freaking hot. I do not remember seeing Bilbo or Boromir in a swimming suit.

Kuang Si Falls Laos
Rivendell like scene at Kuang Si Falls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Related: Getting a Laos visa at the Thai-Laos border

Where to find a Kuang Si Falls tour in Luang Prabang

The question should be more like where can I not find a Kuang Si Falls tour in Luang Prabang. Tour packages and tour options to visit the falls are omnipotent. You can purchase the tour at your hotel, at a tour agency, from passing moto-bike drivers, at the market, at a bar, and many more places. It is not difficult to find a tour to see Kuang Si Falls as it is the most popular tourist option outside of Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang
In this overlook of Luang Prabang, there are probably 1,000 places to book a Kuang Si Falls tour

I stayed at Villa Mahasok on Kingkitsalat Road. I walked toward the river and soon found a travel agency near the market. Arriving in a pool of sweat, I booked the tour for a half day for around $30.00. In retrospect, I feel the half day was the perfect amount of time to spend at the falls.

Meet at the travel agency

The next day, I returned to the travel agency and soon a van came and picked me up. We made the rounds around town picking up other travelers, and soon bounced are way on the bumpy road to Kuang Si Falls. It took about a half hour to get there.

Kuang Si Falls Entrance
Kuang Si Falls entrance

Park entrance and trail to the falls

Our driver told us to be back in three hours and then let us go. There is a paved trail up to the waterfall that took about 15 minutes. The upper falls are spectacular. A bridge crosses the upper pool right in front of the waterfall, so that is a great place to take pictures. There is also a clearing to the left, which is great for photos.

Kuang Si Falls trail
Well paved trail to Kuang Si Falls

There was a trail that went up some stairs to one side of the falls. I began to follow this trail, but it soon narrowed and went up the mountainside. I did not find any good vantage points to take pictures from up here as it was in the middle of the jungle. It was so hot that I was soon sweating so much, that I lost interest in everything except finding a way into the swimming section.

Kuang Si Falls Laos
Straight on view of Kuang Si Falls

Find the lower pools for swimming

I stumbled back down the stairs in a humidity stupor looking for a swimming hole like a drunk longs for another gin and tonic. There is a trail that follows the river down the mountainside into a series of turquoise pools. They were all pretty, but I did not care as I thirsted for some cool water all over my body. The first set of pools are off limit to swimming.

Kuang Si Falls trail
The trail going up above Kuang Si Falls

Not too far down the trail, I ran into the swimming section of the falls. A gorgeous pool right below a lower waterfall was thronged with people enjoying the cool water. There is a couple of wooden tables for putting backpacks and shirts on, so I put my things there and jumped in.

Lower Kuang Si Falls
Lower Kuang Si Falls and pools – No swimming in these pools just below the falls, but a little farther down is where the swimming hole is.

Swimming in the lower pools

I definitely would recommend coming with a friend and having one person swim while the other person watches personal items. I had my camera and wallet in my backpack, so I was nervous someone might grab it. The likelihood of someone being this bold is pretty slim, but you do not want to put yourself in a position to lose your camera or money while traveling.

Kuang Si Falls swimming
Swimming hole in the lower falls and pools at Kuang Si Falls

I jumped in the pool and was immediately refreshed. I swam toward the lower falls and let the water cascade over my body. The water was surprisingly cool and refreshing despite the intense Laos heat. It was the perfect remedy for the cauldron like temperature. Even though I was visiting in the wet season, it was still insanely hot with mid 90s every day with max humidity.

swim Kuang Si Falls
People enjoying the cool pools at Kuang Si Falls

If you stopped moving for one bit, little fish would nip your feet and flesh. They were harmless, and in fact, some people pay good money to get fish massages. At Kuang Si Falls, the fish massage is free.

Kuang Si Falls selfie
Many places at the falls or in the swimming hole for epic selfies

What to bring to Kuang Si Falls

Since you can swim in the falls, you definitely want a swimming suit, and footwear that is wearable both on the trail and in the water. You do not need hiking boots unless you are interested in doing some serious trekking on the trails above the waterfall. The trails to the waterfall and along the river are well maintained or even paved.

Lower Kuang Si Falls
Lower Kuang Si Falls swimming hole

There are plenty of bathrooms and changing rooms if you want to wear something other than your bathing suit. Other than that, all you really need is your camera, suntan lotion, and some money. There are stalls at the entrance where you can buy drinks, food, and other tourist items.

Kuang Si Falls selfie
One more selfie

Picking the right tour

I thought three hours was the perfect time at Kuang Si Falls. There are some tours that stay there longer and some that are shorter. You can also arrange transport in town and go on your own. That way you can leave when you want. I preferred doing the regular tour as there was no haggling or hassle involved and the tour was the perfect time frame for me.




Getting a Laos visa at the Thai border

A couple of months ago, I crossed the Thailand-Laos border in northern Thailand. I stayed one night in Chiang Khong in Thailand and crossed the border the next morning. I booked a tour in Chiang Mai to cross the border, and I obtained a ticket on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. The visa was $35.00 extra, but the tour agency assisted in obtaining a Laos visa at the border.

Thai Laos border
Sunset in Chiang Khong on the Thai-Laos border

Laos visa and tour to Luang Prabang purchased in Chiang Mai

I arrived in Chiang Mai the night before. Immediately, I took a walk toward the night market and found a tour agency. I purchased a tour to Luang Prabang which included a bus trip to Chiang Rai, two hours at the White Temple, transportation to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong, one-night stay in Chiang Khong, transportation across the Mekong River to the Laos town of Huay Xai, and a ticket on a boat to Luang Prabang. This all cost about $66.00.

White temple Chiang Rai
The White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

What was not included

 The tour mainly included transport and a one-night stay in Chiang Khong. It did not include entry to the White Temple, food on the way to Chiang Khong, at Chiang Khong, and food along the boat tour. It also did not include lodging in Pakbeng, Laos. Pakbeng is the halfway spot along the Mekong River between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. The boat stopped there for the night at approximately 4:30 p.m.

Tour did not include Visa cost

 The cost for the Laos Visa was also not included in the price of the tour. It was $35.00 for the Laos Visa, which was purchased at the border. The guesthouse in Chiang Khong; however, provided everything needed to make the crossing. They provided change in both Thai Baht, Laotian Kip, and U.S. Dollars, and they even provided passport photos for a small extra charge. I did not have a passport photo, so I had them take a picture and print it on their small little printer.

Chiang Khong Thailand
Gazing at the mighty Mekong River, which forms the Thai-Laos border

Night in Chiang Khong

We stayed at the Nomadic Guesthouse the night before crossing the border. The guesthouse had simple and affordable rooms, but it also featured a beautiful seating area looking over the Mekong River. I sat all night and enjoyed a couple beerlaos while watching the sunset. It was cool to see the lights in Huay Xai, Laos turn on and knowing that the next day I would be experiencing a new country.

Thai Laos shuttle
Waiting for the shuttle on the Thai side of the Thai-Laos border

Crossing the border

 After making sure we had all our documents in order to cross the border, we got in the bus and headed for the border. We first cleared Thai immigration and then waited to board a shuttle across the Mekong to Huay Xai. There was a big Chinese tour group in front of us, and we had to wait about a half hour for the bus to shuttle them first.

Laos visa
On the bus crossing the bridge over the Mekong River to get into Laos and getting a Laos visa

Laos border

 I feared we would have to wait forever for the Chinese tourists to clear the Thai border, but they already had their clearance, so our wait was short once we arrived. We had to stand in several short lines. One to pay the $35.00 Visa fee and then another to wait for the Visa to be attached to our passport. Then we waited in another line to show all our documents, and then we were officially in Laos. We boarded another bus that took us to the docks, and we waited for our bus to Luang Prabang, which left at 11:30 a.m. We got there two hours early, so we had plenty of time to eat and relax while waiting for the boat to leave.