How Come I Went on This Crazy 3 Day Journey?
My Thai visa was running out and I was looking for my next destination. I had a friend in Vientiane and Mike told me nice things about Laos. Decision made – I’ll check it out!
As I was in Chiang Mai, I had several options to reach Luang Prabang. Taking a plane (boring and expensive), a 15 hour bus (boring but cheap), a speed boat (dangerous) or a slow boat for 2 days on the Mekong from the border (interesting and cheap). For obvious reasons I chose this last option : as I read from several blogs, the boat ride itself was an adventure and worth the hassle of a 3 day journey!
I did plenty of research on how to do it in an inexpensive way and I’m happy to say that I was able to avoid almost all scams (thank you fellow blog writers). So if you have plenty of time, are up for an adventure, want to meet fun people on the way, and are on a tight budget, then you should read on 🙂
Of course, if you want to take the slow boat in a more relaxed way, you can book a package from any hostel or travel agency in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai but it’s going to be 40 to 50% more expensive.
What Is Going to Happen During Those 3 Days?
– Get to the bus station in Chiang Mai by bus or tuk tuk or songthaew
– Take the bus to Chiang Khong
– Stay at a hostel or guest house in Chiang Khong
Day 2 :
– Take a songthaew to the friendship bridge (border)
– Go through immigration on Thai side
– Take a shuttle bus to the Lao side of the bridge
– Get your visa, some cash and leave immigration
– Get your songthaew ticket to the slow boat pier and wait for it to fill up
– At the pier, get your ticket for the 2 day journey and some food
– Arrive in Pakbeng 6 hours later, choose a guesthouse and get comfy 🙂
Day 3 :
– Back onto the boat for 8-to-9 hours!
– Share a tuk tuk to the city with your new-made friends
– Relax at your hostel or check out the night market and bars of Luang Prabang 🙂
Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong
First of all: don’t buy online! It is way more expensive. The bus to Chiang Khong (border city in Thailand) is listed for about 300 baht on 12go, I paid 220 at the bus station (with the Green Bus Company). If it’s low season you can just show up (at the Chiang Mai bus station) 30min before the departure, the buses are never full. I would definitely book in advance at the Chiang Mai bus station during high season though.
There are 2 buses in the morning and one at 1:15pm, which I took, and arrives in Chiang Khong at 8pm (once the road works are done between Chiang Mai and Phayao it should be a little quicker).
To get to the bus station (named “Arcade Bus Station”), I took a songthaew from the upper east corner of the old city, it’s 30THB and 20-30min depending on traffic and how long you wait before one takes you. Another option is to take the bus for 20baht (it has a stop close to the upper east corner as well), but plan more time as they run irregularly.
On the bus there was only one other European girl, quite naturally we started chatting and Lucile from Belgium and I ended up doing the whole trip together 😀
The bus made a few stops to let people out, so you can get some snacks for the journey and stretch your legs.
When getting to Chiang Khong you can probably walk easily to your hostel or guest house. Mine was a few hundred meters away, 100baht for a dorm, and with a nice view of the Mekong in the morning.
You start your day taking a songthaew to the border. Even if your hostel/guesthouse says otherwise don’t leave later than 8am and just tell the songthaew driver: “Bridge” or “Laos”
In high season songthaews pick people up at their hostels. In low season, your host can tell you where you should stand (for us it was the main road next to the 7/11).
Once you get to the Thai Immigration at the bridge, you should have your departure card filled out, or you can do it real quick at the table.
If your visa expired one or a few days ago, go to the Police Office on the left side to pay your overtime fee. Careful, unlike at airports where the first overtime day is free, here you will have to pay 500baht!!
Then you go with all your documents to the Thai Immigration Office where they take your fingerprints and stamp your passport. You successfully left Thailand!
Now you need to take the shuttle to the other side of the bridge. It’s 20baht per person but there are exceptions where you pay more, as you can see on the picture below (for example 5baht extra outside of office hours, or 20 extra if your bag is too big)
Getting Your Laos Visa
Once you leave the shuttle, go straight to Desk1 and pick up the forms you need to apply for the Laos visa. Once you’re done, hand it all over to Desk1, including your passport and a picture (they say 2x3cm but bigger ones are accepted too). If you don’t have a picture, you’ll pay 40baht for them to scan your passport picture.
Desk1 keeps your passport and other documents and tells you to wait at Desk2. Once it’s your turn they will hand you your passport with your new Laos visa stamp, a paper telling you how much you have to pay for the visa (see picture below). They ask for $1 extra dollar if it’s the weekend or early morning / late evening. Desk2 is also supposed to give you change for your passport scan (which you paid for at Desk1), but they might not, so be careful. I gave 50baht and hopelessly tried to get my 10baht change. He didn’t understand a word, or at least he pretended not to, so I just gave up in the end. The guy before me also fought for 40baht, which he eventually got back… Don’t get too upset, try to remember that it’s only a few cents or a dollar in Europe or the USA.
If you already have a visa you can go straight to Desk2 with a completed arrival card.
There is an ATM and a place to exchange money before passing the visa control. I’d definitely recommend getting some LAK (Lao Kip) here instead of waiting. There are no ATMs outside of the building and you may have no time in Huay Xai center to get money.
It is possible to pay for stuff in THB or USD on the way to Luang Prabang, but everything is going to be priced higher in those currencies.
After passing the police control you go to one last desk where you pay the visa fee (I paid $30). It’s best to have USD with you for that one. They hand you a QR code paper and you exit the immigration building.
Yippee, you made it to Laos! Only a few steps until you can relax on the boat.
– Desk1: Handover Passport, Arrival Cards, Visa Forms, Picture OR Pay 40baht for Passport Picture Scan
– Desk2: Pay for overtime if necessary, Get passport with visa stamp, change for passport scan, Get paper with visa fee amount
– Police Control: Show your passport
– Visa Fee Collection: Pay $30-$35 Visa Fee
Getting to the Slow Boat Without Losing Your Nerve
Be aware of the tourist trap right outside the building: they want to sell you a combo “songthaew & boat” for 270,000kip. The songthaew alone is 20,000kip and the boat is 200,000 in low season (210,000 in high season). As I was leaving Immigration, there was a ticket-lady making up all kinds of stories: the ticket office closes at 10, the boat is more expensive in low season (wtf?)
The trouble with not paying the ticket-lady for the overpriced combo pack, is that they put you in a different songthaew than those who do. And songthaews don’t leave until they are full. As almost everyone who crossed the border on our day was either fooled by the lady or had already booked with a tour agency from Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai, our songthaew stayed empty for almost an hour (it was getting late and we were getting nervous – all the other songthaews were leaving). The Laos people were quite unfriendly when I asked why we were on different buses and we weren’t leaving… you are at their mercy and can’t do a thing! I was very close to going back to the exit of Immigration myself and try to persuade other travelers not to fall for their trap but I didn’t want to get in trouble with the locals…
Eventually we got the company of 2 local ladies and 2 Asian travelers who had done some research themselves (thank you!!). Unfortunately the songthaew only leaves if it gets a minimum of 100,000 so the two Asians paid 10,000kip extra each (it seemed as though the fair of the local women’s wasn’t a part of that 100,000kip minimum). I think this little misfortune is more likely to happen in low season with fewer people doing the journey.
We got to the pier at 10:55am after a 20min journey and obviously the ticket booth was still open (left side when looking down to the boats, go up some stairs). We paid 200,000kip each for the two days on the boat, as expected.
If you don’t have food and drinks yet, I highly recommend getting some before boarding the boat (the shops around the pier are around 50% cheaper than the boat and have many more choices).
Don’t fall for the sales guy selling rooms in Pakbeng at the shops and in the boat before leaving. He is going to try to sell you a room for 2 for 100,000kip! It’s much cheaper once you get to the village.
Relax on the Slow Boat – You Deserve It!
We left at 11:45am and at 11:35am the last, late, tourists got to the boat. They were still able to pay for their tickets just then, no need for reservations (this proves again how they try to scam you outside of the Immigration Center!). Again, this is in low-season.
During high season, you will have to sit where your ticket told you so. During low season, the boat isn’t full, so you can sit wherever you want. Board the boat early to choose a seat far away from the engines (go to the front of the boat). Be sure to check your seats are well fixed to the floor (those old bus seats are sometimes wobbling about during the boat ride, not really bolted down well).
Big bags go into a trunk at the front, so pack a small bag with food, drinks, camera, books and a rain jacket to keep with you.
During the 6 hour journey to Pakbeng you will enjoy really nice views, children playing in the river, and locals hopping on and off every 30 minutes at random places on the river.
The Night in Pakbeng
As soon as you leave the boat, guesthouse owners are going to run you over trying to sell you their rooms. If you look confused and can’t make up your mind, because it’s just overwhelming, they are going to cut the price. What started at 50,000kip for 2 people for us soon became 40,000! So only 20,000 per person as I was sharing a room with my new friend Lucile. Expect to pay maybe a bit more in high season.
To convince you, they will offer free transport to their place and make a big deal out of it. But it is a super tiny village and you won’t have to walk far to anything. Don’t expect to walk for more than 500m.
From what I heard from other travelers, all the places are decent and nobody had a bad experience. So it doesn’t really matter who you choose, but you can always say that you want to look first and decide afterwards.
For dinner you can either eat at your guesthouse, or they will recommend one of the 5 restaurants in the village to you. The food is okay, and the prices are decent too (15 to 20,000kip per meal). Don’t expect amazing food, especially after coming from Thailand!
Our guesthouse was also offering take away food for the boat, which I recommend doing (unless you’re a big fan of industrial noodle soup and potato chips – the only things available on the boat). I got a fruit salad and an omelet sandwich for 35,000 from my guesthouse. A bit overpriced and only okay-food, but it’s a village in the middle of nowhere so it’s fine!
After dinner you can go to one of the two bars in the village. Lucile and I started with the “Hive Bar” where we ran into half of the people from our boat. We met a few guys and moved with them to the “Happy Bar”. Happy Bar is cheaper (5,000 difference on the beer!), the music is not as loud, and they have a nice sitting area outside.
The Second Day on the Mekong and – Finally – Getting to Luang Prabang
After breakfast and getting takeaway food for the boat, make it to the pier 30min before departure to be able to choose your seats.
Now you can get ready for 8 to 9 hours on the boat…The views get nicer around the final 1 to 2 hours.
At 4:30 pm, we finally made it to Luang Prabang!
After getting your bags, putting on your shoes and climbing a few steps, the tuk tuk mafia is going to wait for you. They’ll be charging 20,000kip per person for the 10km ride to the city, no negotiations possible. This is the last scam attempt of the journey. Just walk the 500m to the big road – you’re gonna be happy you followed Mike’s advice and are traveling light 😉 Some tuk tuks will wait for you there, and magically drop their prices. We agreed on 10,000 per person without haggling much. If you are a group of 4/5 and fit in one tuk tuk you can expect to pay even less.
After a calm 15min ride, you will be dropped at the night market (they charge extra if you request to get dropped at your hostel).
Congratulations, you’re in Luang Prabang! Enjoy your stay in this nice little town, and check out this post(gotta write it!) to learn about my must do’s over here!
I show the cost breakdown in the table below. I’ve separated it out for each day based on the set categories. Since the costs are in both Thai Baht and Laos Kip, I showed the approximate USD value rounded to the nearest whole dollar. And all totals are in USD as well.
Cost Breakdown: Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang via Slow Boat
|Day 1 (Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong)||Day 2 (Immigration and Boat to Pakbeng)||Day 3 (Boat to Luang Prabang)||Total (USD)|
|Transport||Bus + Songthaew: 250bhat|
|Songthaew + Shuttle bus: 85baht|
Songthaew + Boat: 220,000kip
|Extras (beer, etc.)||/||35,000kip|
|Visa||/||$31usd + |