Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos via Slow Boat

This is for reference for fellow travelers who want to take the two-day slow boat down the Mekong from the Thailand-Laos border crossing. As of 2014, the northern border crossing happens on the Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge (no more ferries across the Mekong to Huay Xai), from which obtaining your ticket for the slow boat is fairly easy. It takes 3 days from Chiang Mai or 2 days from Chiang Rai, if you hustle. Here's what my friend and I did, starting in Chiang Mai.

First, money conversions and approximations.
1USD = 8,000LAK (Lao kip); multiply by 8 and add three zeroes/thousand.
1USD = 32THB (Thai baht); mulitply by 3 and add a zero.
100,000LAK = 12.50USD; take away three zeroes/thousand and divide by eight.
100THB = 3USD; take away a zero and divide by 3.

January 29th, 2014: We caught a tuk-tuk from our hostel to the Chiang Mai Bus Terminal 3 (Arcade) and bought tickets for the Green Bus to Chiang Rai. The service is modern and professional-looking, with computer booking. Buses leave from platforms 20/21. My X-class ticket (middle of three bus classes) cost 185THB.

Our bus left at 10:30am on the dot, and the trip took three hours. It was a very safe, smooth ride with nice countryside views and complimentary water and snacks! VIP travel -- I was pleasantly surprised. We arrived at Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1. (The newer Terminal 2 is is the first stop, but it is outside the city.)
Green Bus counter. This photo (and more) from biglittleplanet!
We spent the rest of the day in Chiang Rai and visited the White Temple (incredible and well worth seeing) and the night market. We stayed at FUN-D Hostel, which I highly recommend: they are familiar with travelers just passing through on the way to Laos and are very helpful and knowledgeable, not to mention that their facilities are first-class.
Extremely helpful chart detailing various ways to get from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang, provided by FUN-D Hostel. My friend and I took the yellow and purple routes. Click to enlarge.
Tuk-tuk from CM hostel to CM bus terminal: 50THB per person
Green Bus X-class from CM to CR: 185THB
Walk from CR bus terminal to CR hostel: 0THB
One night in mixed dorm at FUN-D hostel: 260THB
Day 1 total: 495THB (~15USD)

January 30th, 2014: We were up at 5:30am to walk from our hostel to Chiang Rai Bus Terminal. We caught a local bus at 6:30am, headed for Chiang Khong. It was very easy to get on this bus; if you look like a traveler, the folks at the bus terminal will point you in the right direction. This local bus was 2/3 local Thai and 1/3 travelers with their backpacks crammed into the back. After about two hours of fields, fog, and a breathtaking sunrise, we arrived at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere (still far south of Chiang Khong) and were shepherded off the bus. This was the stop for the Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, and the only way to get to border control from this bus stop is by overpriced songthaew, 50THB per person.
First bus 8am, last bus 6pm. Fare is 20THB for passengers with one bag. Before 8:30am, between 12-1pm, and after 4:30pm, fare is 5THB more... because of reasons.
Take note: there are transportation fees at every junction on this trip. It's gross, but everyone has to do it. The songthaew ride was a mere five minutes. In retrospect, we could have walked the distance and not missed the boat, since we were early enough. At border control, we filled out departure cards and paid 20THB to cross the bridge on a nice bus. The journey was uneventful.
Leaving Thailand from Chiang Khong Immigration. You will be in good company; hundreds of people do this every day.
The shuttle bus that carries passengers across the bridge (no more ferries that cross the river from Chiang Khong). Chiang Rai and Bokeo are the names of the two adjacent provinces in Thailand and Laos.
Crossing the Friendship Bridge over the large Mekong.
Welcome to Laos! Get ready to shed money.

It was about 9am. At the Friendship Bridge Immigration line, a large group of travelers of all kinds was milling around wondering together how this works. Immigration was a circus. A slow, nobody-gives-a-flying-fart circus. Fill out your departure card, wait in line forever as they process your passport. It cost me 35USD for my visa-upon-arrival. I'd forgotten a passport picture, so they charged me an extra 40THB (but it wasn't to pay for a photo at the office; it was just a fee). Travelers trying to pay in baht were charged 1400THB, which is more than the American equivalent... Anyway, visa prices vary depending on your country of citizenship, so look it up beforehand. My friend and I were stuck in long lines at immigration for about one hour.
A chart for visa-on-arrival fees, also provided by FUN-D. Click to enlarge.
At about 10am, upon exiting immigration a confused and exhausted mass, we were herded into songthaews to get to the bus terminal (for one traveler headed north to Luang Namtha) and then the ferry pier in Huay Xai (for all the rest of us). It cost 100THB per person for a 16km ride, which was extremely difficult to bargain down.

Huay Xai was just a blur; we went straight to the river. Up on a hill is the office to buy your ticket -- 220,000LAK or 950THB -- and the boats are down by the water. There were about six boats, but only two were leaving that day. There are no signs dictating when the boats are to leave. They leave when they are full, or whenever the captain decides to leave. Ours happened to leave exactly at 11am, which is supposedly the correct time, but who really knows?
The slow boat pier. Boats leave wheenver.
The colorful boats that cruise down the Mekong.
The inside of the boat. Most seats are car seats taken from old minivans; some boats have less comfortable wooden benches. There is also floor seating in a back room, by the loud engine. (It seems like locals prefer this space, while the main seating area is nearly all foreigners.)
We arrived in Pakbeng, the halfway point, at 4:45pm, about six hours later. The boat ride itself was pleasant. Bring a book, cards, and your own snacks, as the boat's snacks are very expensive. It will be full of foreigners, so make some friends and get a deal on a guesthouse in Pakbeng, although all of them seem to have the same rates. I split with friends on a room with two double beds and bathroom for 500THB total (about 170THB each), not a bad deal at all. Pakbeng is a very odd town. It seems to exist only for the travelers spending one night in transit to Luang Prabang. Food is overpriced (full dinner for 180THB) and WiFi is advertised in every building (but only works in a few). There is nothing to do in the town except hang out with friends until it gets dark. Best to sleep early, anyway.

You'll notice I'm quoting some prices in baht thus far in Laos; at least in Huay Xai and Pakbeng, baht are accepted for transactions (although kip are preferred), and the two lonely ATMs in Pakbeng dispense kip. I relied on baht until I could exchange baht for kip at a bank in Luang Prabang.

Walk from CR hostel to CR bus terminal: 0THB
Local bus from CR to CK: 65THB
Tuk-tuk from rando CK bus stop to border control: 50THB
Bus to cross 4th Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge: 20THB
Immigration; visa-on-arrival for US citizens: 35USD
*If you don't have USD, they will charge 1400THB, which is about $8 more.
Immigration; pointless fee for not having a passport photo ready: 40THB
Tuk-tuk from immigration to slow boat pier in Huay Xai: 100THB
Slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang (via Pakbeng): 220,000LAK / 950THB
Guesthouse in Pakbeng: 170THB
Day 2 total: 1395THB + 35USD (~78USD)
Pakbeng's street. All the guesthouses and restaurants are basically the same; take your pick. Notice that we are now in a Communist country!
January 31st, 2014: We got up early and stocked up on food (about 300THB for a sandwich, bananas, and some pastries; enough to last me all day), then headed down to the pier at 8:30am to make sure we got seats on the boat that would depart earlier. No seats are reserved for the second leg of the journey. The boats were "scheduled" to leave at 9am and 10am; the 9am boat took off just before 9:15am.

The water is deeper and the rapids a hint rougher on this part of the river, but otherwise it's mostly the same. Reading, snacking, and napping help pass the time quickly.

It was 8 hours from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang. They will drop you off at a pier some ways out of town, from which you must take a songthaew to the city proper. (There is no good reason for this. A few years ago they needed to clear boat traffic around the actual piers for a festival, hence the change, but since it's such a lucrative venture for the songthaew drivers, no one bothered to switch back.)

Day 3 total: the price of a songthaew as best as you can negotiate!

Congrats; you just took the scenic route from Thailand to Laos for about a hundred bucks. Welcome to Luang Prabang! It's a beautiful city.

I hope you found this travel guide useful. Feel free to leave questions or comments for me below!