Part I: Chiang Mai -> Chiang Rai -> Chiang Khong -> Huay Xai
1. Use a tour company. You might save a buck arranging everything on your own, but is it worth it? I’ve talked to a lot of other travelers, and the majority that used tour companies had a more hassle-free time than independent travelers.
When you buy a tour, shop around and don’t be afraid to bargain. You should be getting a minivan ride to Chiang Khong with a stopover at Chiang Rai’s White Temple, dinner and accommodations for the first night, breakfast and lunch for the second day, a longboat ride over the border to Laos, and the slow boat ride down to Luang Prabang.
2. Eat breakfast. It takes about 6 or 7 hours to get to Chiang Khong, and depending on how you play it you might not have much time for lunch (see #4 below).
Your minivan should pick you up around 8-8:30am to start your trip.
3. Expect stops. Your minivan should make them every 2-3 hours. It’ll also do the random stops to drop off packages here and there.
Our driver swung by an auto shop to pick up an engine part. He also braked to the side of the road to grab some abandoned sofa cushions that caught his eye.
4. Grab lunch at a roadside convenience store/restaurant. This should be the first “scheduled” stop. Eat here rather than in Chiang Rai, so you can use the layover time there to check out the White Temple.
Your driver might not speak English, and so might not inform you where to find the temple. If this is the case, take a quick 50-meter walk in either direction or ask someone. You’ve probably only got 30 minutes in Chiang Rai. Make haste.
5. Arrive in Chiang Khong, on the Thai border. It’ll be 5:30 or 6pm, and you should be dropped off at a guesthouse next to the Mekong. There will be other travelers there as well, and you can get to know them while your dinner is cooked by the guesthouse.
I was glad to see that my dinner was chicken pad thai. One can never go wrong with this dish.
6. Give your passport to the guesthouse owners. They’ll get you the exit stamp and return the passports the next morning.
7. Find something to do for the night. If you’re lucky, you may be able to join a group of locals at a karaoke bar.
8. Buy some sandwiches in the morning. The more, the better. You’ll be glad you did (see part II below). And don’t forget your passport.
Take a quick walk with your group to the pier for the longboat ferry to Huay Xai, Laos. Stick with your peeps! One person will have all the tickets to both the ferry and the slow boat.
9. Get your visa. This should be mostly painless once you’ve crossed the river. The visa costs ~$35USD. It can be paid in baht as well, but you’ll get jacked on the exchange rate. You’ll also need a passport photo, but if you don’t have one they can scan one for you for a fee.
Afterward, find your group and leave the border control area together.
10. Keep with the herd till you make it to the slow boat. Again, you’re not in possession of your own ticket, so pay attention to where you’re supposed to go.
Part II: Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
1. Beat everyone else in your group onto the boat. The ride takes two days, so you want a good seat.
On my trip, our group was one of the last to get on the boat. It was so packed that the captain had some of us sit in the engine room and on the sides of the deck.
2. If there isn’t enough room on the boat, complain as a group. We didn’t know this until day 2; however, if there are more than 70 people on the boat, and there aren’t enough seats, complain as a group.
There “might not” be another boat, but if your group persists, a “magical” boat may appear and make things a lot easier. On day 1, we had approximately 120 people on the boat. Day 2, we had two boats.
3. Sit as far as possible from the engine room. The farther, the better. Sleeping, conversing, really doing anything next to the running engine is impossible.
4. You’ll want a pillow. You can buy one for 30 baht (~$1USD) from a roadside stall before boarding.
You might get lucky and have a boat with car seats. (Yes, they literally take car seats from a minivan and throw them on the boat). Or, you might get unlucky and have a boat with ass-bruising wooden benches. Either way, that dollar you spent is going to be a lifesaver.
5. Buy yourself lots of food and drink. Day 1 — Huay Xai to Pak Beng — takes 6-9 hours; Day 2 — Pak Beng to Luang Prabang — is another 7-9 hours.
Depending on the boat, there might be a little shop with chips and drinks, but don’t rely on it. Instead, wake up early in Chiang Khong and Pak Beng and buy some sandwiches and Beer Laos for the ride.
My girlfriend and I bought four sandwiches and they only lasted halfway through the trip on day 2.
6. Hang onto your bags on arrival. This goes for both Pak Beng and Luang Prabang. Don’t give anyone your bags or belongings. There were horror stories of travelers getting “help” with their stuff, just to have it disappear.
If you need someone else to help you off the boat, then either the boat isn’t close enough to shore or you should consider lightening your load.
7. Don’t advance purchase your hotel/guesthouse stay for Pak Beng. People will offer you this in Huay Xai. We saw some guy pay $13USD, with no way to verify he’d be getting the hot running water, private bathroom, or 24-hour electricity that was promised him.
After you land in Pak Beng, just keep on walking up the main road. Ask for prices and check out the rooms. We got a double, hot shower, 24-hour electricity, and private bathroom for $6USD.
8. Be cautious with your drug deals. Or, don’t buy. In Pak Beng, you’ll be offered marijuana. When you buy it, you’ll then be approached by someone who will blackmail you for money or bring in the police (which will eventually land you a fine or a free ride to prison).
Instead (if you really need to play around), try the happy shakes or happy pancakes at a restaurant. Remember this important distinction: happy = ganja, magic = mushrooms.
9. Bring a lot of distractions. Whether this is an iPod, books, porno, or alcohol, have a lot of it. This is the slow boat. You’ll be on it for 13-18 hours in total.
10. Relax and enjoy. The above notwithstanding, the trip is what you make of it.
Take deep breaths. Look at the distant mountains. Wave to the kids on shore. Chat up the person next to you — I guarantee you, you’ll meet them again further down the road in Laos, in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane.
Have your own notes from this stretch of road? Share them in the comments.