(Chiang Khong to Huay Xai and transit to Luang Prabang)
On the day we decided to cross from Thailand to Laos we woke up early in Chiang Rai. There was a bus that left every hour for the border town of Chiang Khong from Chiang Rai so we lurched our way, lugging our backpacks the mile and a half on foot toward the bus station at 6:30 A.M.
The bus was more “local” style so it was bench seating, not coach style that you typically see in longer journeys through Thailand, but it was only two hours and 60 baht so no big deal. We met a fellow traveler from Slovakia en route and chatted with him along the ride to the border. Sometimes it’s nice to buddy up with fellow travelers when crossing borders. That way you can all save yourselves money on transportation once you’re in the country if a share taxi or tuk tuk is in order to get into an actual city or town from the border.
You can get a 30 day Laos visa on arrival at the Chiang Khong/Huay Xai border for 95% of travelers depending on your country of origin. The price will vary as well from country to country. The current US passport rate is $35 USD and they accept USD, Thai Baht, or Laos Kip. I think you get the best rate with USD.
They have done some re routing with the border crossing however. You used to cross by boat (and currently you still can) but the “local bus” from Chiang Rai will now drop you at a tuk tuk stop on the side of the highway in Chiang Khong and you’ll either have to tell the bus driver you want to continue to the boat crossing or you can take a tuk tuk to the new border crossing. At the new crossing they give you an exit stamp, then sell you a 20 baht shuttle pass (bus pass) to be driven across the border to the entry point at Laos immigration. If you choose to walk, it will take you about 45 minutes. If you’re trying to make the slow boat that takes you down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, it’s best to pay the 20 baht shuttle pass or like I mentioned above tell the local bus driver to continue to the border crossing by boat. They may eventually not use this crossing by boat at all but for the time being it is still operational. I can’t verify the fees for crossing by boat as we went the other route.
Once we got across the border to the Laos immigration you must fill out an entry form. You submit your passport and entry form at one window and then wait by the other for them to hold up your passport so you can come up and pay for your visa and be on your way. You exit immigration and unless you are part of some organized tour group (they also exist if you’d like to pay more money for someone to do the thinking for you) you’ll have to negotiate a tuk tuk ride to the slow boat. We were charged 25,000 kip/person for 3 people and they took us about 6 miles to the boat. Not the most horrible transit rate.
The slow boat had two options. You can ride one day to Pakbeng and catch a bus from there, or you can ride 2 days and go all the way to Luang Prabang. We picked the two day option and it was 210,000 kip/person or about $26 USD. The scenery was beautiful the whole way but the ride is long and slow. There are no seat numbers so don’t be fooled by the number on your ticket. You can sit anywhere and the earlier you get there the better seating option you’ll have. There are food/beverage stalls along the road by the boat landing to stock up before the ride and they make take away sandwiches on baguettes I’d recommend as you’ll be on the boat about 6 hours each day. There are food/beverage options on the boat but they are at inflated rates and its chips, cup o noodles, and Nescafé so it’s best to pick up each morning before you board the boat. Same goes for beverages.
The bathrooms are not the nicest and depending on your fellow passengers can get worse as the ride goes along so try and #2 before you leave the dock. There’s a squatter bathroom by the ticket booth for the slowboat. That being said, you don’t have control over who you’re on the boat with so just try to be respectful of your fellow passengers as well as locals and their culture. You’re also, in fact traveling on a boat owned by and lived on by a real person and their family. You’re a representation of the country you travel from so try not to act like a total schmuck on holiday who’s just getting loaded. You can stay home and do that too. (Can you tell I’ve had my fill of basic twenty somethings?)
You’ll land in Pakbeng just before sunset and this is the halfway point if you’re on the two day ride. If it wasn’t for tourism, this style of boat travel might not exist anymore because of road development over the last 10 years or so. The town of Pakbeng doesn’t have much going for it and if it weren’t for this pit stop, the locals wouldn’t have much of a livelihood. You also wouldn’t be able to travel this way because there would be no guesthouse for you or townspeople to make you food…give and take. This style of boat travel used to be the only way to access some of these riverside villages before the main roads were developed. Thanks to tourism, everyone is able to stay afloat…no pun intended.
Things are a little more expensive here than you’d expect because it is only a one day stop off for 99% of travelers so just try to keep that in mind. These people are only trying to make a living and they don’t have much business besides who gets off the boat so spread the business around. Don’t go to a restaurant just because you see 10 other travelers in it. It means nothing, all of you are only here one night so nobody has the “heads up” on the best spot to dine. Every place has the same menu and variety in Pakbeng, so all are truly created equal when it comes to the restaurants.
The guesthouses are where you should be picky and there are plenty to choose from in all different price ranges and amenities so shop around, by all means. Maybe leave the super cheapies for the “gap years” as they have a tendency to stay up late and by extension so do others in their vicinity.
The 2nd day you’ll want to load up on water/beverages and take away food again as you’re in for another long ride. Usually they want you on board by 9:00 AM. The slow boat now drops you about 10km outside of Luang Prabang and theoretically you’ll make landfall around 3-3:30 PM. There you’ll take a tuk tuk for 20,000/kip per person or if you walk about a quarter mile down the road you can negotiate for 1/2 that price if there’s a group of you to be taken into the city center of Luang Prabang. There you can begin your quest for a guesthouse/hotel if you haven’t reserved ahead of time. We personally recommend Xaysana Guesthouse if you’re looking for clean, small and quiet with reasonable rates and a kind host family.
If you haven’t hopped on the wagon yet, follow our blog for our take on the best ways to experience the city of Luang Prabang and it’s surroundings.