The amazing thing about traveling in Thailand is that it’s located somewhat in the middle of Southeast Asia and neighbors almost half a dozen other countries, making it incredibly easy to get a few extra stamps in your passport (let’s be honest everyone loves stamps!!) and explore and experience more of what Asia has to offer.
Bordering most of central and Northern Thailand, Laos is a popular destination for people traveling from Thailand. If you’re like me and have followed the ‘tourist trail’ you will now be standing in the middle of the Chiang Rai market wondering “where to venture next?” To save you time pondering this question, the answer is to cross the Mekong river in to Laos.
When traveling from Thailand’s Chiang Rai to the French Streets of Luang Prabang Laos there are three options – by bus (18 hours), speed boat (7 hours), or slow boat (3 days 2 nights).
If you sighed half as much as I did at the thought of another night train or bus ride and want a more uncharted way of getting to Luang Prabang. An expedition where you can indulge in the breathtaking views of rural Laos from the mighty Mekong river and experience a new mode of transport, then keep reading my pocket sized guide on traveling from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang via slow boat.
There are three legs to the journey:
Day 1: Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong by local bus (2 and 1/2 hours)
DAY 2: Chiang Khong over the border to Pakbeng by slow boat (6 hours)
Day 3: Pakbeng to Luang Prabang by slow boat (7 hours).
The first leg of the journey starts at the old Chiang Rai city bus terminal (terminal #1) where you board the local bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong (Check out my blog on Baan Dam a must see when in Chiang Rai). The bus departs every hours and costs 65baht per person. The local bus takes 2.5 hours and is nothing fancy, there isn’t A/C but on a hot day all the bus windows are opened so there’s a refreshing breeze running through making the ride bearable.
When the bus arrives in Chiang Kong there are two drop-off options: either being dropped off on the main highway opposite the Friendship Bridge, where tuk-tuks are waiting to shuttle tourists to the Thai immigration office, or if your like me and can’t stand the thought of waiting in a crowded line in immigration after a 2.5 hour bus trip, then depart the bus in Chiang Kong town center and spend one last night in The land of smiles.
Although Chiang Khong is a small town it has a multitude of reasonably priced guest houses for the hundreds of travelers making their way to Laos, so there is no need to book accommodation online before you arrive. I made the mistake of booking online and ended up with a room that looked like a woodshed with the added features of an unmade bed and dirty wet towels on the floor from the previous occupants. YUCK!
TRAVEL HINT – Laos is a lot more primitive than Thailand and has less Western conveniences. While in Chiang Khong take advantage of the local 7-11 store before departing and stock up on snacks and bottled water for the journey as prices almost double for food over the border.
Today is where the excitement begins! Hazy from our one-nighter on a bed that’s slept a hundred before us, we hustled down to the guest house reception where a prearranged tuk-tuk was waiting to take us to immigration (most guest house’s offer this service which costs approximately 50 baht per person). Once at the immigration office we were stamped out of Thailand and pushed towards the shuttle bus that was waiting to take people across the friendship bridge and into Laos. Tickets for the shuttle cost 25 baht and are purchased from the women with her hand out blocking the exit door leading to the bus. Once seated on the bus I saw a Thai women walk straight out the exit and on to the bus without paying which is kinda annoying, but I guess it’s just one of those things you have to deal with when traveling.
TRAVEL HINT – To beat the crowds through immigration arrive before 7:45am as people arrive by the bus load after 8:00am.
Once we arrive in Huay Xai immigration (Laos side of the friendship bridge) we had to fill out an arrival and departure card and also a Visa on Arrival application. All three forms contain the exact same information which is copied straight from your passport. Additionally for the visa on arrival one passport photo is required, I was told you can pay $1USD to waive that requirement and immigration will just photocopy your passport, but it all seems a bit dodgy and it’s easier to just pack the extra passport prints before you start traveling.
Processing the visa application took about 5-10 minutes (this is dependent on how busy it is), when yours is ready immigration calls out your name or holds up your passport and you go to the counter to pay. For me as a New Zealand citizen the Visa cost $30USD which is the lowest price all other nationalities are somewhere in between $30-45USD (Laos immigration only accepts USD for visa on arrival).
After clearing immigration we walked outside where a single tuk-tuk was waiting. Having read online that the pier was 12kms we offered the driver 10,000Kip per person for the journey thinking this was a fair price. WRONG!!! The tuk-tuk mafia was strong in force and demanded a non negotiable 20,000kip for the ride.
When we arrived at the pier we brought our boat tickets to Pakbeng which cost 110,000 Kip per person. There where two boats traveling to Pakbeng, the first boat was almost full at 10am when we boarded so we were pushed to the second where we got first choice of the recycled car seats.
By 11am the boat was completely full with no more than half a dozen spare seats, but in the eyes of the operators the boat was by no means at maximum capacity yet. After another hour of waiting the last group of people boarded, they had booked the trip at a travel agency and where told they had reserved seats on the boat. There are no assigned seats and way more passengers than seats so it’s not hard to imagine their rage when they realized they would be spending the next 6 hours on the floor.
TRAVEL HINT – Board the boat at least an hour before departure, as more tickets are sold than seats are available. The last people to board end up sitting on the floor.
Around 12pm the boat engines started to choke out fumes and we slowly began our voyage down the Mekong. The bar scene on board is easily ignored (if chain smoking and doing shots of Laos whiskey isn’t your thing) by simply looking out of the boat, the scenery is astonishing and forever changing as the boat drifted down stream. We passed small riverside villages, fishermen in traditional carved out wooden boats, lush jungle and a mahout walking his elephant to work.
I can’t lie and say that the trip was opulence or by any means comfortable, hours of having no leg room to stretch and sitting in the direct sun takes its toll on even the most hardened backpacker. The 6pm arrival at Pakbeng couldn’t come soon enough and the comfort of a hot shower and soft bed was well worth the 130,000 kip for our room.
TRAVEL HINT – When you arrive in Pakbeng there will be people waiting at the pier selling rooms for the night. Ignore them as you can get a lower price by walking up the hill and going directly to the guest houses.
There isn’t much to do in Pakbeng, it reminded me of the streets in old western movies where all the buildings are adjoining on a single cracked road. The majority of travelers only stay one night before continuing onto Luang Prabang. After our one night stay it was time to start the final leg of the journey. The boat tickets from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang are payed for on board the boat and cost 110,00 Kip per person.
As this is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic or ‘Please Don’t Rush’ the 8am boat didn’t leave until 10:30am. Today’s boat trip was no different from the previous day, the last to board sat on the floor, and the shots of whiskey were flowing.
The final stop and end of the journey was at the ‘new’ Luang Prabang pier, which is 10kms from the city. Once everyone disembarks and walks up the hill they are herded like sheep into a line of about 100 people to pay 20,000 Kip for a tuk-tuk to town. Not willing to pay 20,000 we walked up the road till we found a driver willing to take us for 10,000 Kip per person.
TRAVEL HINT – To avoid paying the 20,000 Kip join forces with other like minded travelers and walk up the road, the tuk-tuk mafia will see you and offer a lower price. The further you walk the lower the price gets.
The slow boat trip from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang was by far one of my most memorable and exhilarating journeys in South East Asia. In my opinion lazily cruising down the Mekong is a ‘must do’ for the adventurous who isn’t fussed by comfort levels.
BREAKDOWN OF COSTS
|Public Bus – Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong||65 Baht pp|
|Accommodation in Chiang Kong – 1 night||450 Baht for two|
|Tuk-tuk to Thai immigration||50 Baht pp|
|Shuttle Bus across the Friendship Bridge||25 Baht pp|
|Laos Visa on Arrival||30 USD pp|
|Tuk-tuk to Slow Boat||20,000 Kip pp|
|Slow boat ticket to Pakbeng||110,000 Kip pp|
|Accommodation in Pakbeng – 1 night||130,000 Kip for two|
|Slow boat ticket to Luang Prabang||110,000 Kip pp|
|Tuk-tuk from pier to Luang Prabang||10,000 Kip pp|