Destinations, Laos, Thailand, Travel log

Cruising the Mekong from Laos to Thailand!

Luang Prabang to the Thai border

Our stay in Luang Prabang has been eventful and our heart is now full. We have had amazing experience but it is now time to go. As we were particularly interested in visiting the Northern Thailand, our next destination was Chiang Mai, Thailand. From Luang Prabang, Laos, there are 4 ways to reach Thailand:

  • Flying: Lao Airlines has a direct flight to Chiang Mai (recommended)
  • Bus: it’s a long drive (17 hours) but buses are relatively comfortable
  • Fast boat: bringing you to the border in 1 day but it is known to be dangerous and not comfortable
  • Slow boat: bringing you to the border in 2 days with an overnight stop in Pakbeng (recommended)

We choose to go for the slow cruise on the Mekong. I had done it already almost 6 years ago with my friend Emma and we have very good memories of that cruise!

Slow boat tickets

You can buy the tickets directly at the pier for the first day (up to Pakbeng) and in the boat the next day. It’s 110 K ($14) for each day of cruise. If you are in a group we highly recommend it as you can then negotiate a tuk-tuk to get to the pier (North of Luang Prabang). We paid 60K ($7) for the tuk-tuk but we could have probably negotiated a bit more.

If you are on you own, it might be worse buying a ticket that includes the pick-up. All the agencies in town can sell you a ticket + tuk-tuk. The price in April 2018 was 280K ($34) including the pick-up – make sure to have one ticket per day as we heard stories of tourists having to buy a new ticket for the second day…

Boarding the boat

We arrived to the departure office one hour in advance in order to buy our tickets. This way we were hoping to be among the first ones to board so we could choose our seats. It turned out to be useless as the boat was really not full; indeed we now entered the low touristic season! Anyway, we got to test different seats in order to choose the most comfortable ones. The seats are all coming from old buses or mini-vans so they are pretty comfortable. Also, the seats are not fixed to the floor so we ended up turning them around. The result: two couches and a very comfortable setting!

At 8h30, the boat was all set to leave… on time!!

First day of cruise on the Mekong

I am not gonna write paragraphs and paragraphs on a cruise on the Mekong, the only thing you have to understand is that we are on a SLOW boat. It’s a 8 hours cruise surrounded by beautiful landscapes where the only animations are: other boats, trying to spot the hidden villages, picking up and dropping off people in the middle of nowhere and admiring the captain’s skills while zigzagging in the middle of big rocks and rapids! It’s beautiful, it’s peaceful, but it’s… slow… 🙂

Luang Prabang to Pakbeng

One night in Pakbeng

Pakbeng is a transit town, although it seems like more and more touristic activities are developing in the region. That means that Pakbeng is full of guest-houses, restaurants and bars. It is also easy to find snacks for the boat ride the next day (sandwiches and co), but probably your guest-house will also have some!

On arrival, many guesthouse owners will be there to sell you a room and it is easy to bargain, especially at low-season! We were a group of 7 travelers who had agreed to stay together so we easily found a nice GH for 20K per person ($2.5!). That is for a private double room with bathroom and AC and TV… But for us the most important was to have good wi-fi as that night Silviu had to present his thesis advancements… yes I say that night because of course his Austrian school could not be a bit flexible (flexibility in Austria? impossible! ;-)) so the appointment was from 6 to 9 pm Austrian time aka 11pm to 2am for us!!  Let’s just say we had a short night… But Silviu had a good presentation which was the most important part!

Anyway, before that, 5 of us went out together for dinner and we had a good moment. However we let them go on to the bars and headed back so Silviu could focus on his thesis presentation…

Next day, we woke up quite early has we needed to be at the pier around 7h30.

Second day of cruise on the Mekong

Once at the pier it is pretty easy to find your new boat for the day: just ask and anyone will know! If you don’t already have your ticket you can pay directly on board after departure. No worries, they’ll make sure to come ask you!

The second boat was a bit smaller so we had less space to turn around seats but it was still pretty comfortable. The landscape looked very similar as the day before but the villages gradually got more modern and the “jungle” less dense. For the last leg of the trip it was funny to consider that we were cruising along the border: on your left Laos, on your right Thailand! And we could already notice than Thailand is more developed.

Once again, we arrived at our destination for sunset.

From Pakbeng to the Thai Border (Huay Xai)

Crossing the border, from Huay Xai to Chiang Khong

In the old times (!) we had to take another boat to cross the border but they recently opened a Friendship Bridge and foreigners now have to go through there. Unfortunately they built this bridge 10 km South from the pier! I believe ( and hope) that one day they will move the pier closer too. For the time being we had to negotiate a tuk-tuk to the border. Luckily we were 10 people trying to cross the border that evening so it was easier to negotiate the prices down. After a 15 minutes ride, the tuk-tuk dropped us at the border where we first had to fill the Lao exit form. The custom officer was very unfriendly and of course we were required to pay 10K kips ($1.2) for “lateness fee” as it was already after 6pm. Errrgggh.

Then you need to pay another 10K ($1.2) ticket fee for the shuttle bus that crosses the bridge, since it is not allowed to cross it by foot. Once on the Thai side, you fill in another Arrival form. But the custom officer on that side was really nice and despite reading that arriving by land will grant you only a 15 days visa (for French people), he gave me a 30 days visa, which was exactly what we needed! Silviu had already made a multiple-entry visa in Vienna.

Once all formalities done you need to get a bus or a taxi to the city. At that time it was only taxis with official prices, so there was no possibility to negotiate. Beware: although there is an ATM at the border, in April 2018 it was not working. No ATM from that bank was actually working in town either!

We were clearly informed that there were no more busses or taxis going to Chiang Mai that evening. 3 people of the group still needed to get to Chiang Rai (no clue if they made it) while the 7 others (including us!) decided to stay overnight and get a bus in the morning. Because of Songkran (Thai New Year) the busses were actually pretty full but luckily we managed to book the last seats on the 9h30 one (you can check directly on the Green Bus website). If you cannot find a direct bus to Chiang Mai, there is a public bus to Chiang Rai departing every 30 minutes (up to 6 pm I think) and from there it is easier to find a bus to Chiang Mai.

One of the girls in our group spotted a nice hostel online so we decided to follow her and ended up all sleeping together in a really clean and tidy dorm. If you are stuck in Chiang Kong like us, get to the Sleeping Well Hostel (they also have private rooms). We then all headed for dinner together and we later found a bar with free pool and board games. We had a fun night!

The next day, after breakfast, the hostel had planned a taxi to drop us at the bus station and from there we went for a 6 hours easy and comfy ride to Chiang Mai. A lot of traffic on arrival because of the coming Songkran festival…But Chiang Mai here we are!

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