Simply put, our trip from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos was uneventful and actually quite pleasant. Rather than flying or taking a bus, we chose to take the infamous slow boat. After reading so many horror stories from bloggers online, I was a bit wary and may have had very low expectations for our journey. Even so, I would like to share our journey as we crossed the border on land, and floated along on the calm waters to Luang Prabang. The best part is our border-crossing journey only cost $35 US each. Compared to one-way plane tickets (which cost $100 – $200 each), we found this to be a great alternative.
Step 1: We caught the local 6am bus from Chiang Rai bound for Chiang Kong, Thailand – the bus happened to be half filled with western tourists such as ourselves on their way to the same boat. For 100 baht each, which is about $3 US (the sign says 65 baht, but they charge 100 baht to go all the way to the bridge rather than the bus stop a couple kilometers away), we took the 2-hour ride to Thai immigration at the Friendship Bridge. We easily passed through Thai immigration (don’t forget to complete your departure card properly) then boarded the shuttle to go across the bridge; I think it was 25 baht each ($0.75 US) for the shuttle.
Once on the Laos side, we filled out the forms provided at the desk for our Laos visa. We handed over our passports, photos, and forms to the officials and then waited by the second window for the visa to be completed. I used this time to withdraw a bit of Laotian cash (Kip) from the only ATM at the border and came back to wait a total of about 10 minutes for my passport to be ready. The official eventually held up my passport to the crowd with a barely audible call for, “Jeremy Boyd!” I recognized my passport, approached the window and paid the fee of $35 US; it was the same call out for Whitney. (Keep in mind, although Baht and Kip are accepted at a high exchange rate, this fee should be paid in USD for the cheapest amount).
With the visa in hand and my arrival card completed I now passed through Laos Immigration. Once on the other side, the Songthaews were waiting for passengers with a set price of 100 baht each ($3 US) to the slow boat pier in Huay Xai.
Putting it together, the journey from our hostel in Chiang Rai to the slow boat pier in Huay Xai took a little over 4 hours as we arrived not long after 10am. Once there, we easily bought our slow boat tickets for the standard price of 210,000 kip each ($26 US) to Luang Prabang with the scheduled stopover in Pakbeng. Now, armed with some fresh fruit, a sandwich, and some cold drinks we found a couple empty seats on the boat and waited for our departure. Of note, it was good to arrive to the dock early to secure a good seat and avoid the ones in the back near the loud sometimes smoky engine.
We left just as scheduled and began the slow ride to Pakbeng. From the comfort of our car seats, now converted to boat seats, we cruised downstream occasionally stopping at small beaches where locals would disembark and trek off into the jungle. The weather was quite warm, but not unbearable (we were there at the end of November). There was a light enough breeze off the river to keep us cool as long as the boat was moving. Aside from looking out over the river there is nearly nothing to do, so I buried myself in a book for most of the 6 hour journey.
Next thing I knew we were docking at Pakbeng, which is basically a village built for the slow boat to stop on the way to and from Luang Prabang. There is one road lined with guest houses and a few restaurants. We opted for the first place that was presented to us by one of the people on the boat, which was a private room with a double bed and a fan for 100,000 kip ($12 US) for the night. There was the option to pay extra for the air conditioning in the room, but it wasn’t too hot so we declined.
The next morning, we got to the boat extra early to get good seats again. The boat was scheduled to take off at about 9am and we were nearly the first ones on board at 8am. After putting our things down we bought some breakfast, a few snacks, and some more drinks to get us through day two of the journey.
Day 2 was a little longer, 7 hours, and a bit warmer. We were able to sit on the shady side of the boat, which certainly helped keep us from overheating. The lush green landscapes lining the river gave way to a few beaches where people, just as before, would occasionally disembark with their families welcoming them home. It was another pleasant ride that ended at the docks about 15 minutes north of the city of Luang Prabang. From there we caught a shared tuk-tuk to our hotel for a set price of 20,000 kip per person ($2.50 US).
Overall, it was an easy self-guided trip from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. I’d highly recommend making the transfers yourself rather than through a travel agency as it was well organized from start to finish and cost only $35 US each (not including the cost of the Loas Visa or the overnight accommodation in Pak Beng). The local travel agencies nearly double the cost to make it one easy ticket, but it’s definitely not necessary.
Hope this helps.