There are a couple of ways to get from Thailand to Laos and if you are in the North of the country you might have heard of the possibility to take a boat to Luang Prabang down the Mekong river. If all you need is to get from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang, this might not be your best option there are faster ways and cheaper ways to cover the distance. But if you have time to spare, if you fancy a lazy cruise through some wonderful scenery, or if you’re just plain sick of the rickety buses, it’s certainly worth considering.
From Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, crossing into Laos is only a 2 hours drive and getting in is very easy, the immigration office is efficient and 30 day tourist visas ($30-$35) are available on arrival for all but a few nationalities. If you’re taking the boat, it is possible to arrange this yourself but when you consider the combined costs of the bus to the border, the shuttle bus to Laos immigration office, another bus to the dock, and the cost of the two day boat ride itself, you’re unlikely to save much money and you’ll experience a lot more hassle than just booking the whole package from one of the many tourist offices in Chiang Rai (or Chiang Mai). The cost for us was around $50 per person, including hotel pick up, all transfer buses, boat tickets and a very helpful guide to assist with paperwork and with making sure you’re at the right place for the right time. The price does NOT include the Laos visa fee, accommodation for the overnight stay in Pakbeng or food & drink on the boat.
Before setting sail, the agent at the dock in Laos will likely try to persuade you to book your overnight accommodation through him, we would recommend that you don’t bother. It’s not that the hotel he suggests (and earns commission from) is particularly bad, but as you’ll find when you arrive in Pakbeng, there are dozens of guest houses available nearby the pier, most are cheaper and many are nicer that the one the agent and the boat crew will try to sell you.
We would also suggest that you take your own food and drinks with you. These are available on the boat but are over twice the price of buying the same things from one of the shops along the pier before setting out. You’ll be on the boat for about 7 hours the first day and around 9 hours on the second, so go well supplied with sandwiches, drinking water, and beer if you fancy it (drinking alcohol on board is allowed, and many of your fellow travellers will be doing).
It’s also very important that you bring enough cash with you. The village of Pakbeng, in which you will be spending the night has no bank or ATM machines, and hotel money changers will take full advantage of this with terrible exchange rates and high commission fees. If you don’t have Kip, you can use US dollars or Thai Baht, all three are happily accepted by the shops, hotels and restaurants along your route.
So really the question would be: is it worth it?
If you’re a family with young kids – Hell, No! You’ll be on the boat for a minimum of 16 hours. There is very little space to move around or lay down, no television or other entertainment on board, no way to charge any electronic devices, and the constant motion of the boat is likely to cause problems for anyone susceptible to travel/sea sickness. Unless your children are happy to spend two days sitting on a bench reading or watching the jungle and mountains go by, don’t consider it. Take the flight or the bus.
Having said that, if you like a slow pace and if you do understand just how many hours you’re going to spend sitting on your bottom then yes, it’s worth it! The landscape is gorgeous, the little villages you pass are beautiful and you really get to see the rural lifestyle of the local people. You’ll see children playing on the shores and jumping in to the river, you’ll see local fishermen hard at work in little wooden canoes, we passed by countless buffalo and even elephants bathing in the river. It’s a great first taste of Laos and a real break from the usual tourist rat race.
I certainly don’t regret the experience (I just regret not having a bigger zoom lens, because I always have to complain about my gear of course) but there is a couple of things I would suggest you to do :
- Take a book with you (maybe two, hell you can even get the whole collection of « A song of Ice and Fire »)
- Take more water than you can drink. One big bottle might not do for a day !
- Take plenty of snacks, fruits and get some sandwiches to take on the boat in the morning.
- Make friends on the ride. Chatting and trading travel tales helps the time go by, and often provides good information on other places and sights that you didn’t know about.
- Carry enough cash for two days, including your hotel and visa fees. Either Kip, Baht, or USD.
- Bring waterproofs. Even if it’s a nice day when you set out, storms can appear quickly and can bring very heavy rains in this area.
If there is one thing we would not recommend it’s the speed-boat. Aside from being nearly twice the price of the regular trip, these boats travel very quickly on a river littered with rocks and rapids, and tales of hideous accidents are all too common. And even if you get there in one piece, the rough ride and speed travelled means you won’t get much chance to photograph or enjoy the scenery.
Would we recommend the slow boat? Yes. Would we do it again? Erm . . . No. Once is enough.
To complete this post here are some photos taken during our trip: