Note: this post has been updated as of February, 2015. Please see those updates at the bottom of the post.
If you’re traveling from Luang Prabang, Laos, to Chiang Mai, Thailand, there are a number of options available, including flying or taking a bus and ferry combination. But if you’re not on a tight schedule and you want to do a little cruising, then taking the slow boat up the Mekong to the Laos/Thai border is a great option. The entire trip takes about 2 ½ days, but gives you the opportunity to ride the mighty Mekong, cast your eyes on some of the riverside villages, while moving you along on your travel itinerary.
Depending on how much time you plan on staying in Thailand and the method in which you enter the country, you may or may not want to apply for a visa in advance. Visas are available on arrival free of charge, but if you’re coming overland you will only be given 15 days in the country. If you fly into Thailand, you’ll get a free 30-day visa on arrival. Since we knew that we were going to spend at least 4 weeks traveling from the north to the south of the country, and because we would be entering Thailand overland, we had to apply for a visa in advance.
While we were in Vientiane, Laos, we took the time to apply at the Thai Consulate. Side note: to get a visa, you must go to the Consulate, not the Embassy. Applications for visas are accepted between the hours of 8:30am and 12pm, Monday to Friday. You need to fill out the application form, which you can get inside the Consulate (don’t listen to any of the tuk tuk drivers outside who say you can’t get one inside), provide 2 passport-sized photos, as well as a photocopy of your passport photo page and Lao visa page. If you can’t get access to a photocopier, there is one available on-site for a fee. You’ll also need to pay for your visa fee in Thai Baht (so make sure to have Thai currency on you). A 60-day visa cost us 1,000 Baht each (roughly $33 CAD).
Make sure to grab a ticket number when you first arrive, then fill out all the paperwork. When your number is called, take your documents to the window and an attendant will look at your forms and take your passport (to attach the visa to). You’ll then receive your numbered ticket back and be directed to head inside the main building of the consulate. You’ll then likely have to wait again, this time to pay. When your number is called, head to the ticket window and pay your fee. You’ll then get an official receipt.
Your visa will be ready for pickup the next day between the hours of 1pm and 3pm. Total processing time between dropping off and picking up your passport is two days; pretty quick!
Luang Prabang to Pak Beng
The first day of our journey took us from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng, roughly the halfway point to the border town of Huay Xai. We arrived at the pier at 7:30am and bought our tickets from the ticket window at a cost of 110,000 kip each (roughly $14 CAD). We were directed to our boat and quickly claimed some seats.
In the past, the slow boat along the Mekong was pretty much a synonym for discomfort. The lack of seats and 9 hours on the river resulted in very sore and aching bottoms. When we boarded our boat we were pleasantly surprised to see that there were in fact seats, albeit ones that looked like they belonged in passenger vans. The seats were mounted on wooden bases and could be added or removed, depending on how full the boat was. We found a set of seats that had ample legroom and stowed our bags on the floor in front of us. One crew member asked to take our bags to the back of the boat, away from our line of sight, but we insisted on keeping them with us.
During the next hour, locals and tourists alike were slowly finding their way on board. Many of the locals were transporting a lot of things, including fresh foods, bottle water, and even furniture. We had a complete living room set strapped on to the top of our boat!
Our boat was scheduled to leave at 8:30am but we didn’t pull out until about 8:50am. Luckily for us the boat wasn’t full, as it’s common for these boats to be crammed with people and cargo alike. There was sufficient room for everyone to feel comfortable.
Cruising along the Mekong was picturesque and relaxing. Passengers were passing the time reading a book, working on laptops, listening to music, chatting with one another, or sleeping. Most of the locals seemed to opt for the latter option.
The scenery was beautiful with mountains framing the riverbanks, sharp jagged rocks jutting out of the water, sandy shorelines where children could be seen playing, fish traps set up hoping to catch the day’s dinner, and a river that twisted and turned around the corners, leaving you wondering what might appear on the other side. The days were hot and the early mornings and evenings were cool, sometimes even downright cold!
We arrived in Pak Beng at 5:30pm where a group of touts were eagerly waiting for the fresh arrival of tourists. We walked right past them and headed up the hill to shop around for a room for the night.
There’s not much to say about Pak Beng, except that it’s pretty much a dive of a place, mainly set up to cater to travelers on their stop-over going to, or from Huay Xai. You really wouldn’t want to spend more than a night here anyways.
We popped into a bunch of guesthouses along the road and finally settled on a very basic room at Phonethip Guesthouse. The room cost us 50,000 kip for a double bed with a fan and private bathroom. Make sure to bargain with the guesthouse owners, as they’re likely to quote you a higher price to begin with, and check out the room before you agree to anything.
Pak Beng to Huay Xai
The following day we woke up bright and early and headed down to the pier at 7:30am to claim a good seat. This time we didn’t have to purchase tickets from a booth but instead paid for them on the boat. Again we paid 110,000 kip each for the second leg of our journey. Be sure to double check you’re on the right boat, so you don’t end up heading back to Luang Prabang!
We were scheduled to leave at 8:30am, but again we didn’t depart until 8:50am. We had even more elbow and legroom on the boat this time, as it was barely half full.
The journey was much of the same as the previous day; rolling mountains, sandy shorelines, a few bamboo huts perched on the slopes, and locals tending to some of their crops.
As we neared Huay Xai, the river had made its way right alongside Thailand, so we were now smack in the middle of the two countries. There was a noticeable difference between the two sides of the riverbanks, as the left side (Thailand) had electrical wires running along the shore, a visible paved road for trucks and cars, and larger areas cordoned off for crops.
Don’t Take the Speed Boat!
Now it’s worth pointing out that there is a high-speed boat that can do the trip in about half the time. But this option is much more risky, with tales of boats flipping and crashing, and passengers being seriously injured or worse, killed. Periodically these high-speed boats zipped passed us, but seeing the passengers sitting in cramped rows of two wearing helmets sure made us feel much happier about choosing the slow boat.
We pulled into the dock at Huay Xai at 5:15pm. Just a stone’s throw across the river was the border of Thailand. We were almost there!
Again our first task was to find a place to stay for the night. Some people decided to try to make their way over to Thailand right away, but we didn’t want to risk the border crossing being closed (it closes at 6pm) and left with nowhere to stay.
We strapped on our packs and made our way up to the main road. In hindsight we probably should have taken the tuk tuk into town, but instead decided to walk it. We had just spent the past two days sitting on our butts for 9 hours each day; so a little exercise was welcomed. It was clear though, that after about 10 minutes we realized we had been dropped off at the dock on the far end of town instead of the dock that’s right by the city centre. But in the end it only took us 20 minutes to walk into town.
One of the passengers on the boat recommended a guesthouse called Friendship Guesthouse, so that’s where we went. We got a double room with fan, private bathroom and a TV (which we didn’t use) for 60,000 kip (roughly $7.50 CAD).
The town of Huay Xai is built up quite a bit when you compare it to Pak Beng. There was a lot more selection of guesthouses ranging from budget to high-end rooms, and a number of eateries along the main road. Besides being the border town to Thailand, Huay Xai is also the jumping point for many travelers wanting to explore North-Western Laos, including: kayaking, white-water rafter, trekking, and the popular (though over priced in our opinion) Gibbon Experience.
The next morning we bought our boat/tuk tuk/mini-bus combo tickets to take us from Huay Xia to Chiang Mai. We were brought to the Laos immigration office at 8:30am and had our exit stamps put into our passports. We then got on a small riverboat and crossed the Mekong to get to the Thailand side. Once on the other side, we first had to fill out a health questionnaire and then proceeded to the small immigration office. We filled out our arrival cards and presented our passports for inspection. The officer flirted with me a bit, so I in turn flirted back. It never hurts to put on a bright smile!
The entire process leaving Laos and entering Thailand was easy-peasy, as I like to say. We held onto our passports the entire time and there was no demand for a “stamping fee”. It was quite refreshing actually! (Note: A friend of ours told us she was charged a fee when crossing the border on a Sunday, apparently due to the fact it was a weekend.)
A small tuk tuk was waiting for us and transported the group of 5 of us to a nearby guesthouse, where we waited to pick up the mini-van that would take us to Chiang Mai. We arrived at the guesthouse around 10:30am and killed some time until our mini-van would leave at 11:30am.
Getting to Chiang Mai
The drive down to Chiang Mai was smooth and comfortable. We were immediately impressed with the quality of roads in Thailand; beautifully smooth, paved-roads, with clear traffic signs posted along the way.
The drive took a total of 4 hours, including a 30 min rest stop to eat some lunch. The mini-van dropped us off right outside the inner city walls of Chiang Mai, and we happened to be within walking distance to our guesthouse.
Although it was a long journey that lasted 2 ½ days, we had a comfortable time, got the opportunity to spend two days cruising the Mekong River, and a glimpse of village life along the river in Northern Laos.
Boat from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng
|110,000 kip x 2 people = 220,000 kip
|Guesthouse at Pak Beng
|Boat from Pak Beng to Huay Xai
110,000 kip x 2 people = 220,000 kip
Guesthouse at Huay Xai
|Boat/tuk tuk/mini-van combo ticket
85,000 kip x 2 people = 170,000 kip
720,000 kip (roughly $90 CAD)
What you need to know: The boat has washroom facilities and food for purchase on board, but pack drinks and snacks to save some cash. Wear a jacket and even a scarf in the am and pm as it gets cold! Arrive 1 hour before the boat is scheduled to leave to get a good seat. You are spending 9 hrs in that space after all, so get as comfortable as you can. Lock your stuff up as good as possible in Pak Beng as there have been stories of backpacks “going missing” from guesthouses. Our boat/tuk tuk/mini-van combo ticket was with NamKhon Travel, which we bought through Friendship Guesthouse. We were very happy with the service and would recommend them.
February 2015 UPDATE: A big thank you to one of our readers, Andre, for providing an update about this route. As you can imagine, things can change over the course of 4 years. What hasn’t changed; the price of the boat for both legs is still 110,000 kip and Pak Beng remains a dump. Big changes: in Luang Prabang, you now have to catch the boat at a pier that is about a 20 minute tuk tuk ride away. Andre left at 7:00am and said the boat departed at 8:35am. In Huay Xai, there are now accommodations at the pier, so you don’t need to go into town to find a room. You no longer take a boat across to the Thai border either. Instead, grab a tuk tuk ride across the newly built bridge. Andre said the tuk tuk departed from his guesthouse at 9:00am and cost him 25,000 kip for a 20 minute ride to the bridge. The rest of our post still holds up! If you’d like to read Andre’s experience in more detail, see his comment below and be sure to follow along on his Southeast Asian trip at Round The World Andre.