Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai by Slow Boat
As mentioned in the previous post there really isn’t a fast or comfortable way to get from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai on a small budget. After much contemplation we decided to take our chances with the 2 day public slow boat upriver along the Mekong. With extensive research (online, other travelers, travel agents etc) we concluded that the following awaited us:
Day 1: 8-9 hour slow boat from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng (Overnight at Pak Beng)
Day 2: 8-9 hour slow boat from Pak Beng to Huay Xai (Overnight at Huay Xai)
Day 3: Enter Thailand and a 4-6 hour bus ride to Chiang Mai
Sounds simple enough… this is the breakdown of what really happened:
Day 1: Luang Prabang to Pak Beng
The tuk-tuk that we arranged the night before picked us up promptly at 7 am and after a quick stop to get some baguettes we headed off towards the slow boat pier. We learned that quite recently the slow boat pier was moved 10km outside of the city so we had to plan accordingly. Perhaps it was the tuk-tuk mafia trying to squeeze more tourist dollars or the city of LP wanting to minimize boat traffic within city limits; in any case the new location is much less convenient. Luckily we had found one of the friendliest and most honest tuk-tuk drivers out there and we were able to negotiate a fair price of 15,000 kip per person to the pier. Some other drivers were quoting triple that!
At the pier we purchased our tickets to Pak Beng from the kind ticket lady for 110,000 kip each and then proceeded to the boat. We were there quite early (7:30) and with the boat not set to leave for another hour we were one of the first to get on. Arriving early ensured that we were not only able to get seats but to choose which ones we wanted. We had heard and read that these boats have a tendency to over-sell and we didn’t want to be the unlucky ones sitting on the wooden floor or in the boiler room for 9 hours. After 8am people started to trickle in and by 8:45 we departed. Contrary to most of what we had read, most of the 70 or so passengers on our boat were local. Everyone was really friendly and a lot of smiles were exchanged. The boat’s official capacity is 100 and at times, especially during high season, overcrowding can be an issue. However this time around there was ample of space to move around and a handful of empty seats left over.
The boat itself was fitted with comfortable-enough car seats, a small bar and most importantly a toilet. The back of the boat is the private quarters of the captain and his family. They use their home to make a living by transporting passengers up and down the Mekong. Pretty interesting life! Some boats are even equipped with satellite dishes… I wonder if they have wifi? Anyways, what did we do for the next 9 hours? Well we talked, read, slept and ate our cheese baguette sandwhiches (and repeat). The boat made many stops along to allow the majority of the locals to disembark. By the time we arrived at Pak Beng (6:15pm) there were around 20 of us left, mostly tourists.
There isn’t much to Pak Beng. The majority of people only stay one night before continuing onto Huay Xai or Luang Prabang. It seems like the more popular way to travel this route is going the other way, downriver from Thailand to Huay Xai to Pak Beng and onto Luang Prabang. We were quite happy that we had inadvertently chosen the less popular route as it was clearly less busy and it allowed us to avoid the typical obnoxious-loud-annoying- early 20s-drunk backpackers that tend to travel it. We dodged a bullet! Once off the boat we quickly went up the steep cliff and found a fan room for 60,000 kip. After an uninspiring meal at the nearby Indian restaurant we called it a night and headed back to our room for some much needed sleep.
Day 2: Pak Beng to Huay Xai
Once again we were up at 7am. After grabbing a few sandwhiches from a nearby bakery we headed to the boat to once again secure our seats. The boat was a different one from the day before so the quality and quantity of the car seat chairs were also different. Where do these boats get all of these car seats by the way!!!!???? This boat left sharply at 8:30 with roughly 30 passengers. We had soooo much room that we got to spin the seats in front of us around and use them as leg rests. This was going to be a comfortable day! The price was again 110,000 kip each which we paid on the boat.
The boat trip was indeed fairly pleasant. We had some engine issues, but the captain and the crew got them resolved in a quick and entertaining fashion (5 Lao men trying to manually pull start a massive boat engine is fairly entertaining!). Our delay was only about 45 min and we arrived in Huay Xai at around 7:15pm.
Huay Xai is a border town. Right across the Mekong River lays Chiang Khong, Thailand. The border crossing closes at 6pm so we had to spend one more night in Laos. Along with 10 other travelers from our boat we checked into the very first guesthouse by the pier. We usually do not select the very first option, but they offered a free tuk-tuk to the immigration office the next morning and a reasonable enough room rate of 300 baht. The room was also fairly decent, with a tv, and strangely enough the nicest pair of free toothbrushes that we have come across so far in our travels! If that wasn’t enough, they even included travel sized Colgate toothpaste and not the awful tasting green stuff most other guesthouses provide.
Day 3: Huay Xai to Chiang Mai
We left the guesthouse at 8:30 am and headed to the immigration office to get stamped out of Laos. This was a quite painless process and no Lao official asked for a $1 USD ‘stamping fee’ as warned about in numerous guidebooks. Rumour has it that is now only enforced on Sundays and special holidays. In any case, our next step was to cross the Mekong by longtail boat. The longtail boat pier is located just past the Lao immigration office and tickets cost 40 baht or 10,000 kip. We bought our tickets, jumped onto the boat and in less than 5 minutes we crossed the Mekong and were again back in Thailand!
Getting our 15 day Thai entry visas again proved trouble free. Clearing immigration in less than 5 minutes we were now faced with a decision on how to get to Chiang Mai. Do we take the local Greenbus at 10:30am? Do we catch a local bus to Chiang Rai and then from there grab a connection to Chiang Mai? Or perhaps a minivan? Lots of choices. We decided on taking a minivan for 250 baht each which would leave at 10:30am and get us to Chiang Mai in about 4.5 hours. This was the best option as it was by far the cheapest and quickest way of getting to our destination. Our 5 co-minivan passengers were all from our slow boat. We continued to talk and share some stories making the bus trip quite enjoyable.
Final cost (per person):
- This trip is definitely worthwhile if you have the time and wish to save a bit of money.
- Going upriver from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai is a less popular route, so if you are concerned about comfort and overcrowding this would be the way to go, however both could be fairly busy during high season.
- Do everything yourself! Do NOT book anything through a travel agent or a guesthouse as it will undoubtedly end up costing you more. Our guesthouse in Huay Xai was trying to get us on the same minibus for 360 baht… we paid 250 when we paid direct.
- Do not believe your guesthouses in Laos when they say that ‘you can’t book anything in Thailand’, in fact, it is easier to book transportation for Thailand in Thailand rather than in Laos.
- Bring your own food as the food onboard consists of instant noodles and crackers. It is also overpriced.
- The scenery is indeed stunning, but it does get monotonous at times. Having some distractions like beer, books, cards, or a few movies loaded onto your laptop make the hours go by.