After spending some time in Northern Thailand, many people choose to cross to the neighboring country of Laos by land. This is actually a route that many backpackers undertake as part of their route through Southeast Asia. Many also choose to combine the border crossing with the Slow Boat on the Mekong River to the popular city of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos. The whole process may seem a bit complicated at first glance, and some therefore choose to buy a travel package that includes the border crossing, transport and the Slow Boat. This can quickly cost a lot of money but can be reassuring for those who are less familiar in the area or want to have fewer worries. For my part, the aim was to travel as cheaply as possible and I therefore chose to do all this manually on my own. Having done this I can report that the process is actually quite straight forward and simple. Below is a description of the entire process starting from Chiang Rai
The first thing you do is to buy food, drinks and snacks in Chiang Rai as the trip will take many hours and the food on the boat is quite expensive. In addition, I also recommend exchanging 35 USD (preferably 50 USD so you have a little extra), as you will need this at the border crossing. I will return to this a little later in the blog.
The border town on the Thailand side is called Chiang Khong and this the town that we have to get to in order to cross the border into Laos. Fortunately, there is a local bus service between Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong. This bus starts at 0600 in the morning and runs every hour until 1700 in the afternoon. The bus stops in terminal 1, right in the center near the Night Bazar (night market). It’s a red bus with the Chiang Khong sign on it – so it’s hard to go wrong. The bus will use approx. 3 hours to get to Chiang Khong and costs 65 Baht. What is important to note here is that if there are enough people to cross the border, the bus will drive all the way to the border instead of stopping in Chiang Khong. When I took this bus it was approx. 10 people who were going to Laos and the driver then drove to the border. This service will cost an additional 35 baht, making the total cost of the trip 100 baht. If the bus had stopped in Chiang Khong, you would then have to take a tuk tuk to the border and the price for a tuk tuk is often 50 baht. You thus save some money and do not have to change transport to the border if the bus runs directly to the border.
Because the Slow Boat leaves the pier in Huay Xai (the border town in Laos) at 1100, it is important that you take the bus at 0600 and not later. This will give you some room if something should arise with the bus or complications at the border crossing. After 3 approx. hours by bus we arrive at the Thai immigration office at the border. You then walk to the gate, hand in your passport to the person sitting in the gate and get a stamp out of Thailand. Make sure you have the exit slip that you received on arrival in Thailand. If you have lost this, you must fill in a new slip. At the exit of the Thai immigration office, you are asked to buy a ticket to take a bus over the “friendship bridge” to Laos. This ticket costs 20 baht. You have no choice but to buy here, as it is forbidden to cross the bridge by foots. Here you also have the option of exchanging money for the Lao currency Kip.
On the other side of the bridge, we’ve arrived in Laos and the Lao immigration office. Laos offers Visa on Arrival for most countries, but the price varies from country to country. With a Norwegian passport I had to pay 35 USD. The visa is valid for 30 days. The process is also quite straight forward; on arrival at the office you will be given a couple of forms which you must fill in (name, passport number, validity date etc.) You do not need to fill in information about your place of residence. It is very important that you fill in both forms, even if you fill in the same information.
Once you’re filling the forms, you then walk to the hatch on the right and deliver your passport and the forms to the person behind the hatch. You will then be asked to pay for the Visa. Although you can also pay with Baht you will save some money by paying in USD. When the payment has been made, you go to the hatch on the left – this is where you will be handed the passport with the visa stamp on it. The process takes approx. 5-10 min.
When you have received your passport back, you just need to proceed to the security check. Here you just show your passport and a short moment later you are officially in Laos! It is also important to note that in the visa area there are a number of people who try to sell package tours with Slow-boat. The package includes transport from the immigration office down to the pier as well as the ticket for the Slow Boat. Do not buy this as it is more expensive than doing it yourself. After you have gone through the security check, you will be met with many Tuk-Tuks ready to drive people to the pier or elsewhere. For those who bought the Slow Boat packages, you can just hop on one of the tuk-tuk cars, since it’s included. Since I didn’t buy any packages, I tried to haggle the price of one of the available tuk-tuk cars down to the pier. Unfortunately, it seems that the price is “fixed” at 100 Baht. Several of us tried, but we couldn’t get the price down. The trip to the pier takes approx. 15 min.
After arriving at the pier, you will easily see a sign pointing up to a small hill on the left where you can buy a ticket for the Slow-Boat. The ticket costs 210000 KIP per person and the trip takes 2 days. The boat will leave the dock around 1100 and arrive in the small town of Prakbeng approx. at 1700. You’ll then spend the night in Prakbeng and continue your trip to Luang Prabang the following morning. On arrival in Prakbeng, you will be met with many sellers trying to sell accommodation at a fairly cheap price. I booked a private room with private bathroom and toilet for 50,000 kip, which is equivalent to NOK 50/5USD. This is quite cheap compared to in Thailand. I have been told that it is much more expensive to book accommodation in Prakbeng in advance, so avoid this.
Prakbeng is a small town on the Mekong River and apart from the food and accommodation there is not much to do here. I discovered that the price of food is relatively quite high here compared to Thailand.
The boat continues to Luang Prabang the next day. Try to be at the pier between 0730-0800 to get the best seats in the boat. I recommend sitting in the front as you get a nice breeze and view. The boat leaves Prakbeng approx. at 0900 and arrive in Luang Prabang around 1700.
The pier in Luang Prabang is approx. 10 km from the city and you will have to get transport to the city. Fortunately, there is some kind of system at the pier where you can buy a tuk-tuk ticket for 20,000kip. Once the ticket has been bought, just hop on one of the many tuk-tuk cars parked along the road. The trip to the center of Luang Prabang takes approx. 15 min.
It may be a good idea to book accommodation in Luang Prabang in advance as you will find many good prices on services such as Agoda, hostelworld or Booking.com. In addition, you don’t have to stress about finding accommodation after a long day on the boat. Should you not have booked in advance, there are plenty of accommodation options along the night market in Luang Prabang. The price starts from approx. 30,000 Kip for shared dormitory and approx. 100000 Kip for private room.
Crossing the border from Northern Thailand to Laos is actually very simple and straight forward. I did not experience any trickery or difficulties. It is also a route that many backpackers take, so it is very easy to make acquaintances with other travelers. Slow Boat on the Mekong River is also a very comfortable transport where you can enjoy the beautiful landscapes and see how local people live along this huge river.