Barry was a bit concerned about the long trip from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang but I was really looking forward to it. When faced with the choice of an expensive flight direct from Chiang Mai (on an airline that had recently crashed into the Mekong), I know which option I was always going to go with (also I promised mum not to fly with said airline).
Friday 13 December, the day our Thai visas expired, and we were up at the crack of dawn to get an early bus to Chiang Rai, the first of many legs in the day’s journey. We really needed to get on the 8am bus in order to be at the border crossing well before 6pm, when we were told it closes for the night. Unfortunately, we didn’t get on the 8am bus. It was sold out by the time we arrived at the station at 7.30am.
We ended up with tickets on the Greenline X class bus at 10.15 (185 Baht per person). I believe most farang take the VIP bus but I’m not sure that there’s a major difference. The X class is still air conditioned, not rammed with bags of rice or chickens, and you still get a snack and bottle of water. The VIP bus might have nicer seats but I’m not sure.
It’s probably best to buy tickets in advance.
I tried to sit still in a nearby cafe while we waited for our bus but I have to admit I was getting nervous. There were mixed reports on the length of the journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and from there it’s another three hour ride to the border and any delays might mean us staying another night in Thailand, illegally. I believe there’s just a fine if you overstay by a day or two but I’m still not keen on that sort of behaviour.
Our journey to Chiang Rai was uneventful and took three and half hours. There are two bus stops in Chiang Rai, if you’re heading on to Chiang Kong and on to the border, or planning to stay in town, make sure you get off at the second one.
Luck was on our side when we arrived and the rickety old local bus heading to Chiang Kong was waiting at the bus terminal when we pulled in. There was just enough time to go to the toilet (that’ll be 3 Baht, no toilet paper) before it left promptly at 2pm. Phew.
Two and half hours later we got to Chiang Kong. I started to relax, confident that we’d make it before the border closed. We were all set to get a 30 Baht tuk tuk ride or walk the two kilometres to the ferry port where we could take a long boat to Loas. However, we learnt that two days previously, the border crossing had been moved to a brand spanking new terminal with bridge crossing, 10 kilometres and an 80 Baht (per person) tuk tuk ride away. The most annoying thing was that half the tuk tuk ride was back in the direction we’d came from. Try and get the bus to drop you at the junction of the new road 1356 (it might be tougher to find a tuk tuk from here but I’m sure it won’t be long before the stage moves there).
Before getting stamped out of Thailand at the new immigration building, you need to buy a bus ticket for the ride across the bridge (25 Baht per person). We got our stamps and the bus took us across the bridge spanning the Mekong and dumped us at the fancy new Laos immigration building. We had done enough forward planning to have US$ and a passport size photo with us. If you don’t, you can still pay the visa fee in Thai Baht (it’s a little more expensive that way but not horrendous) and there is an extra fee of 40 Baht for the absence of a photograph. After 4pm there’s also a ‘late fee’ of 10 000 Laos Kip to exit the terminus. Luckily there’s an ATM on site. You can also pay in Thai Baht (40 Baht).
Because of the new border crossing, we also found ourselves in an unknown location, in the dark, with no sense of how to get to Huay Xai, the border town where we would need to get the slow boat the next day.
Naturally, there were tuk tuks ready to take us anywhere. For 100 Baht per person. We had gathered a group together while waiting for passports, we did our best negotiating but this seemed to be a fixed rate. The tuk tuk ride took a reasonable amount of time through the wet streets to deposit us at a guest house in Huay Xai.
We’d made it.
Huay Xai isn’t nearly as weird as some border towns (possibly because there’s a river in between the two lands) and has some nice restaurants but it’s still probably not the kind of place you want to linger.
The port where the slow boat leaves is only a short walk (maybe 15 minutes) from the town so you can wander down to buy your own tickets if you like for 220 000 kip to Luang Prabang (or 110 000 kip if you’re only going as far as Pakbeng) but if you’re in a hurry or it’s bucketing down rain (like it was for us), guest houses organise the ticket and transport to the dock for 250 000 kip.
There are two minute noodles, crisps, water and beer available on the boat but you should buy your own snacks and sandwiches from the street vendors in Huay Xai before you get on the boat.
All the falang seem to have read the same Lonely Planet post about getting to the boat early. The guest houses have also caught on so your transport will likely pick you up at 9.30am for a scheduled 11am departure (though I’m not sure the boat has ever left at 11am). Depending on the season, this might not be necessary any more. We arrived at the boat early, got our tickets and then milled around the restaurants and grassy areas with the rest of the passengers until boarding time. If you purchased your ticket in advance (the night before or first thing in the morning), you could probably go back to bed for a few hours. There was not a scramble or fight to get on the actual boat.
There is also an attempt at assigned seating – the bus seats in the front half of the boat all had a piece of paper with a number written on it, which correspond to the order in which you purchased your ticket. Assigned seating is not enforced but most westerners (who make up at least 70% of the passengers) are good, rule abiding folk who won’t steal your seat. It is good to sit as far to the front as possible, away from the rumbling engine and toilet.
Don’t worry too much about overcrowding either. Without any fuss, the boatmen sent a second boat out onto the water (this one had booths of wooden tables and chairs) and there were no people sitting in the aisles or sharing seats.
The boat finally left around 1pm and I settled in for a long and boring trip.
It actually wasn’t too bad. It was really nice not to be connected, there were no emails to check, no work taunting us. We could just watch the river take us swiftly south, stopping at small villages (or even just a stretch of river bank) along the way to deposit passengers.
About six hours later, we pulled into Pakbeng. I had also read about the dives you can stay in and share your bed with fleas. I’m sure they exist but there’s also no shortage of clean, basic, decent accommodation available. There may even be a guide on the boat selling accommodation for 500 Baht for a double room with ensuite (which is clean and nice enough). There’s no need to jump for this though. You will also be greeted by a number of guest house workers at the ferry port and you can inspect the rooms and bargain your rate once you’re on the ground.
I had read that Pakbeng is not a particularly nice village but I disagree. There were plenty of restaurants and bakeries (a sure thing to make me like a place) and I noticed a small ‘tourist information’ with pictures of caves, mountains and other activities in the area. If you had the time, it’s probably not a bad place from which to explore some of the area.
The next morning, the boat left early – we got to the dock at 8.30am, after purchasing our snacks and sandwiches and watching the rain tumble down.
Again, the five or six hour journey was comfortable and I whiled away the hours reading, watching the mist circle the mountain, the rain come down, and elephants walk down to the Mekong.
Like the beginning, the end of the journey also changed two days prior. The slow boat no longer stops in Luang Prabang, but deposits you outside of town. A slippery, muddy slope and rickety stairs took us from the boat to a concrete building which seems to exist for the sole purpose of selling 20 000 kip tickets for a shared tuk tuk into Luang Prabang. This was a surprise for some, particularly a Dutch couple who had spent all their money on snacks for the boat, thinking they would be in Luang Prabang with an ATM before needing cash again. We helped them get into town and luckily they weren’t destitute for long as the tuk tuks dropped us in the middle of town, near the night market and numerous ATMs.
The bus and slow boat trip to Luang Prabang from Chiang Mai is slightly more expensive and may be slightly longer than it used to be because of the changes of the border crossing and the boat docking points, but it’s a comfortable and fairly painless way to travel. Don’t worry about the boredom. Just enjoy that there’s no Facebook on the slow boat!