The Mekong River had a muddy, brown color that wasn’t transparent. On the river bank, you can see the green leaves of banana trees, large rock formations with different layers of color, and pinkish water buffaloes taking a dip. The Mekong River splits Laos and Thailand, which was evident by the respective flags posted by the villages along the shores.
This was my slow boat journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang and a few pit stops in between.
Slow Boat, Option A, from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang – 3 Days/2 Nights for 1900 Baht
This package included an overnight stay with accommodation in Chiang Khong but not in Pak Beng.
From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and The White Temple
I booked my package from the Monkey Toe Guesthouse for May 1, 2017. The driver picked me up around 9:25 a.m. I gave him my receipt and he gave me a green card (it was like a business card-like receipt) which I had to provide to the hotel in Chiang Khong and the tour rep at the Laos immigration office the next day.
There were only 5 travellers including myself initially on the bus. On the highway towards Chiang Rai, we stopped to pick up more passengers from another bus arriving from Pai. The bus was fully occupied now with 11 passengers plus the driver.
We arrived at the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, in Chiang Rai around 1:20 p.m., much later than the 12 p.m. schedule. It wasn’t a big deal but don’t expect the schedule to be fixed or vary a little: it varied a lot.
The driver gave us 40 minutes to see the White Temple. There was a 50-baht entrance for the White Temple, but you can see a good amount of it without entering. I wish I stayed overnight in Chiang Rai so I can photograph the White Temple during sunrise or sunset.
After the White Temple visit, we dropped off a passenger at the bus station as he was going elsewhere. Not everyone on the bus had the same tour package. We then departed for Chiang Khong.
Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong
The driver was in a hurry. I noticed he was speeding sometimes and was zig zagging around other vehicles. I didn’t mind. I expect these drivers do this all the time.
We arrived at Chiang Khong and our hotel around 4 p.m. I forgot the exact name of the hotel but it was Nomad-something. I had a three-person room which I shared with two others. The room was sufficient.
The hotel had a great view of the Mekong River and Laos across it. They served a simple dinner at 6:30 p.m. which consisted of rice with vegetables and green curry with chicken. They also had drinks for purchase.
There was a 7 Eleven nearby if you wanted more food.
The owner of the hotel seemed like a stand-up guy. He spoke English well and even gave me some free whiskey at my request.
The view of the sunrise across the river was good but I’ve seen better. There was too much haze to see the clarity of the sunrise and the landscape.
They served breakfast at 7:30 a.m. which consisted of bananas, tea/coffee, and toast with a Thai flavoured omelette.
The hotel also exchanges money. They took a hefty commission at around 7%. Which wasn’t too bad for me because I only exchanged 424 baht to 90,000 kip. They at least took my coins. The travellers complained about the exchange rate.
The hotel gave us 20 baht for the bus from the Chiang Khong Immigration Office to the Huay Xai Immigration Office in Laos across the Mekong River. They also put a sticker on our shirt for identification of the tour.
The hotel also provided us Pad Thai to eat later for lunch. The people that came from Pai were not provided lunch. I think they also paid less for the tour: about 1700 or 1800 baht.
The owner also told us the ATM at the Laos border charges a service fee of $10 USD. But it ended being 20,000 kip » $2.50, when I withdrew the maximum of 1,500,000 kip at Laos Immigration. I guess he was trying to get more people to exchange money with him.
That free whiskey came at a price.
Chiang Khong to Huay Xai
We departed for the Chiang Khong Immigration Office around 8:45 a.m. It was simple to pass through Thai immigration. The Thai immigration officer gave me a thumb up for leaving Thailand on the last day allowed on my passport, May 2, 2017.
After going through Thai immigration. There was a bus ticket counter to get to the Huay Xai Immigration Office in Laos. That’s where 20 baht the hotel provided went to.
I boarded the bus and crossed the Mekong River bridge to the Huay Xai Immigration Office. I had to stand in the aisle for the ten-minute bus ride.
I filled out an arrival and departure card plus a visa-on-arrival form. I submitted these along with my passport, a passport sized photo, along with a 42 USD visa fee to immigration. Within 20 minutes, my passport and approved Laos visa was returned.
Remember that green card? I provided it to a tour rep after getting my Laos visa. I had to write down my name on a form she provided in order to get on the slow boat later on.
After I exited the Laos immigration, I went on the back of a tuk tuk with other passengers and was driven to the slow boat pier. We arrived at the pier at 10:00 a.m.
The driver of the tuk tuk requested our passports which was unusual and uncomfortable. He said he needed it for the slow boat tickets. In addition, the slow boat wasn’t departing until 11:30 am. We all waited inside a restaurant until 11:15 a.m. when we received our slow boat tickets.
Huay Xai to Pak Beng by Slow Boat
I boarded the slow boat. Make sure to keep your ticket as it covers the trip from Huay Xai to Pak Beng and Pak Beng to Luang Prabang.
The tickets also had assigned seats but nobody sat accordingly. Unfortunately, I was about the last 30% to board the slow boat. I had to sit closer to the rear near the engine. This was a mistake because the engine noise was uncomfortably loud. Head phones and music helps.
I recommend getting on the slow boat as soon as possible and sit at the front.
The slow boat from Huay Xai to Pak Beng had two rows of three seats each. Almost like an airplane. The front part had more of an open space seating area because it was also where we boarded. The seats were facing each other in this section.
Several people were drinking on the slow boat. Nobody was excessive. There was some space at the back to hangout. Some of the passengers were playing cards. I had a few sips of Hong Thong myself.
During the slow boat trip, one of the water pipes broke. It took about 30 minutes for the crew to fix it.
The slow boat ride to Pak Beng lasted about 6.5 hours. We picked up and dropped off presumably Laotians during the boat ride. We arrived in Pak Beng around 6:20 p.m.
I already reserved a private room for 120,000 kip at the Phoy Lathda Guesthouse. It was nothing special other than a great view of the Mekong River. I was also able to see elephants across the river next morning.
You can easily get a dorm or shared accommodation for 25,000 kip upon arrival. You can also pay in Thai baht: 100 baht. There will be several people, including children, trying to sell rooms at the pier. There is no need to book in advance. Some of the tour options include a room in Pak Beng.
Pak Beng and Laos is expensive compared to Chiang Mai. Meals are 20,000+ kip. Expect to pay 25,000 to 35,000 kip for a full meal. Street vendors in Laos are cheaper than the restaurants but there really weren’t any in Pak Beng.
Pak Beng to Luang Prabang by Slow Boat
The next morning, I bought a sandwich to eat later for lunch and I departed for Luang Prabang on the slow boat. It was to depart at 9:00 a.m. but I arrived at 8:30 a.m. to get a seat at the front. We ended up leaving at 9:30 a.m.
The slow boat to Luang Prabang was smaller. It had two rows of two seats each with a larger front area with seats facing each other.
The trip to Luang Prabang was similar to Huay Xai to Pak Beng.
The slow boat drops you off at the slow boat terminal instead of near the town centre. It’s about 8 kilometres into town. There are tuk tuks waiting up the pier which costs 20,000 kip into town.
Overall, the slow boat tour from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang was a great experience. It was tranquil to coast along the Mekong River. I personally wouldn’t do it again: once was enough.