When you travel around Northern Thailand and mention to locals or other travellers that you’re considering visiting Laos, inevitably someone is going to tell you – “take the slow boat on the Mekong river, it’s a great experience”. And while the 2 day journey to get to Luang Prabang in Laos is indeed amazing, people skip a lot of details, which can save you a lot of money and hassle, and can make your journey way more enjoyable. It’s time to change this now 🙂
I decided to skip the agencies offering packages from Chiang Mai (a popular starting point for Visa runs and cross-country journeys) and do it my own way, visiting Chiang Rai on the way. For a full description, including time, cost and things to keep in mind, just keep on reading.
Getting From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
While most agencies tell you the journey takes 3 hours, it will be best if you prepare yourself for 2 extra hours, depending on your driver. The journey cost 350 THB with a pick up from your guesthouse (once again I stayed as Julie’s Guesthouse as I just love the vibe of the place) and for me it took a little more than 5 hours to get to Chiang Rai. Unfortunately, the mini bus did not leave us at the bus station in town, so I had to take a tuk-tuk to get there, which cost additional 20 THB. In town I booked a private room for 200 THB a night in a charming little hostel called The Shaman (much better than the popular Mercy Hostel, which charges 250 a night for a dorm). Chiang Rai as a town is nothing spectacular, but it’s definitely worth the visit of the White Temple, the Black House and the Wat Huai Pla Kung Temple. Total cost of transport and 2 nights accommodation – 770 THB. The visit to the White Temple costs 50 Baht, while the Black House is free. At the Wat Huai Pla Kung temple I paid 40 Baht to take a lift, which took me 25 floors up, into the head of the giant Chinese Goddess and treated me with some stunning panoramic views.
From Chiang Rai I got the local bus (65 THB) to get to the border city of Chiang Kong, from where I had to get a tuk-tuk to the immigration office (20 THB). First step is checking out of Thailand (I’d lost my departure card but this caused absolutely no problem) and then continue with the Lao immigration forms. This border crossing taught me a few very valuable lessons:
- You need new crisp US dollar notes for the Visa fee and THB is not accepted. As I didn’t know that, I had to swallow the unfavorable exchange rate that the customs officer gave me.
- Be prepared with a pen, unless you’re willing to wait for other people to finish or try to borrow one from fellow travellers.
- Be prepared for your customs officer to shamelessly and brutally hit on you… while holding your passport. I’m not sure if this applies for solo travelling guys, but the girls should defo be ready, as this came as a shock to me. Reminding myself that I can catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar, I came out of the situation and got my passport back (Hooraaay!).
- Paying every step of the way is part of the Lao experience – while in the past the border crossing was pretty straight-forward, now there’s a monopoly over the transport in order to make tourists pay more and more. Taxis or tuk-tuk are not available at the Lao border and everyone had to wait for a bus to be filled in and take us across the bridge for 20 THB. Once the bus took us over the bridge guess what? We had to take yet another tuk-tuk with standard price of 100 THB per person just to take you to the center of Huay Xai town where the pier is!
So to sum it up – only the transport around crossing the border and getting from one border town to the other was 205 THB and getting your luggage in and out of busses and tuk-tuk 4 times. The Visa fee for me was 34 USD but it depends on your country and the mood of the customs officer as well 🙂
Let’s Get On The Boat!
Before getting on the boat though, I had to spend one night in a guest house close to the pier where the average price for a double is 50,000 Lao Kip (around 6 USD, not bad) and I bought the boat ticket with my last Thai money for 1,000 THB. The next day had an early start and here’s my recommendation for the slow boat journey day 1:
- Be prepared with enough food and drinks for both days. The prices on the boat are higher, the choice poor and the quality questionable.
- Get a seat in the front – it’s worth it getting to the boat way in advance in order to get a better seat in the front. The engine room and the smoking are are in the back and there’s a lot of fumes and noise coming from over there. Sometimes the crew tries to arrange seat numbers, but don’t be shy and ask to change it if you’re not happy with yours.
- Don’t pre-book accommodation – some of the crew will try to sell hotel packages for double and triple the price, trying to scare people that it will be dark when we arrive in the village of Pakbeng and hotels might not be available. Absolutely not. It was well bright and we arrived and there were a bunch of locals waiting for us and waiving pictures of their guest houses for the average price of 50,000 Kip for a double room.
- Enjoy the trip! – sit back, relax and enjoy the view. Both shores of the enormous Mekong river offers fantastic scenic breathtaking views, which I could not get enough of. Thanks to this, the journey doesn’t feel that long or tiresome. Talking to other fellow travellers is also a nice way to get the time passing. Like it or not, you’re all stuck on that boat for the next 2 days, so just make the best out of it.
- The Happy Bar – when you arrive and settle in Pakbeng, the locals will tell you to go to the Happy Bar and get some weed and drinks – there’s no hiding or shyness about it. While it might sound very tempting to most, I’d recommend to stay away from the local green and cocktails (all with questionable quality and well over priced) and just enjoy a beer or two. I’ve heard of scam deals with the local police as well where they sell you the grass and try to arrest you after that, but pay 1,000 000 Kip you see, and we’ll forget about it. Up to you.
Arriving in Luang Prabang!
At the end of the second day pretty much everyone has had enough of sailing, but the journey is not over yet, as you need yet another tuk-tuk to town and finding accommodation.
- Don’t book a tuk-tuk from the pier. In order to make more money, the boat does not take you to town anymore and drops you about 15km away. There’s an official tuk-tuk sign right in front of the pier charging 20,000 Kip per person, but if you walk like 200 meters up the street you’ll find other tuk-tuk drivers waiting and charging only 10,000 Kip.
- It’s nice to pre-book accommodation – as a popular destination, room prices in Lunag Prabang can easily go over 200,000 Kip, which is a bit too much for a solo traveller. I booked a cheaper room in the city center in a place called Mao Phashok Guesthouse. It was not ideal, but it served the purpose.
Let’s Do the Math
As the whole trip from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang is paid in different currencies, I’ll use the US Dollar for common ground:
- Transport: $46,2 (Includes all the tuk-tuks, busses and the boat).
- Accommodation: $6,1 (Includes the required 1 night in Huay Xai and 1 night in Pakbeng for a shared double. If you want to have the room for yourself, multiply by 2. For the 2 extra nights for exploring in Chiang Rai, I paid $11,4 more and had a private room for myself).
- Visa: $34 on average, but it could vary.
This is the price for the absolute musts and provided you share a room with fellow travellers. I believe I did it quite well, but if someone has done it better, please leave a comment below and help out other adventurers.