I’d read that the slow boat along the Mekong River from the Northern Thai border to Luang Prabang in Laos was a great trip. So I decided to go on a mini adventure from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang to find out for myself.
Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang – first stop Chiang Khong
The first step in my journey entailed getting a bus from Chiang Mai to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong. I booked a seat for the five and half hour journey on the morning departure of the Greenbus VIP service scheduled for 8am. (Useful info about the Greenbus service can be found here on the Tieland to Thailand blog.)
The online booking process was relatively straight forward and my ticket cost 395 baht (approx. $16 AUD). It included the service number (VX220), my seat number and most importantly the platform that the bus would depart from.
We left Chiang Mai’s Arcade bus station about 10 minutes late and the bus was extremely comfortable. Just after leaving the steward delivered a snack and bottle of water to all of us – a nice touch.
I’d packed some warm clothes for the bus journey as I was aware that the air conditioning in the bus could be set very low. However, I needn’t have worried as the temperature hovered around the 18-19 degree mark and was quite comfortable. We arrived at Chiang Rai bus station number 2 (I have no idea where station 1 is!!) at 11am for a 5 minute drop off/pick up and toilet stop. There is an onboard toilet on the VIP bus service but I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and have a quick look around the station. An hour and a half later we stopped for another short 5 minutes at Theong bus station.
The VIP bus to Chiang Khong – service VX220
On board snack and drink
VIP seats in the front and first class seats in the rear
The VIP seats recline quite far and also have leg and foot rests
The final hour to Chiang Khong involved a number of impromptu stops for local people but these were very quick and didn’t prove any major delays. A few kilometres before our destination we made another stop for those wanting to cross to the Laos border. There appears to be a bus that will take you the last few kilometres to the Chiang Khong-Huay Xai Friendship Bridge border crossing from this drop off point rather than going all the way into Chiang Khong. We arrived at the Chiang Kong terminus around 1.30pm. There is no bus station to speak of here – it’s just the Greenbus ticket office. However, there are a number of shops and a 7-11 close by if you’re needing sustenance.
My hotel for the night overlooked the Mekong River and Laos and was only a short walk from the bus stop. I stayed at the Fortune Riverview Hotel and it was very pleasant. I splurged a little but the cost was still a very reasonable $58 AUD for a river view room with breakfast. After checking in I explored the town on a bicycle provided by the hotel.
Tourist sights in Chiang Khong
There’s not much of note in Chiang Khong from a tourist perspective however there were a couple of very beautiful temples and an unusual public park. At one of the temples there was a craftsman decorating/creating a new Naga serpent at the entrance to a temple. The amount of work that goes into creating these naga’s is was astonishing. The public park at the end of the main road next to the Mekong seemed to be dedicated to some sort of local river fish. I had trouble identifying it however I later learned it was the local catfish.
If you’re looking for Laos currency – the Kip, then don’t bother going to the bank here. Laos Kip are only used in Laos and you can’t source them anywhere in Northern Thailand. I tried unsuccessfully at a number of banks and exchange booths in Chiang Mai to purchase some. Laos accepts US dollars and Thai Baht but there are so many exchange places and ATM’s in Luang Prabang you won’t have any trouble getting some once you’re there. There is also an ATM and exchange booth at Immigration on the Laos side of the border.
Border Control (or lack of it)
It always amazes me how countries can be separated by just a river and this was no exception. Just across the water was Laos – that blew my mind. Even more surprising was the ‘looseness’ of border control and immigration here. You could pay 20 baht for the quick long-boat ride across to Laos just by going down to the riverside ‘near’ the immigration office. I wandered down without being stopped and could easily have just got on a boat and gone to Laos!!!
Many locals were running and cycling before sunset on the long, paved promenade that followed the river downstream from the hotel. I joined them to investigate a huge grey and gold monument I could see in the distance. Unfortunately, the path did not go all the way and it was difficult to ascertain what it was. It looked like a boat to me however the next day we passed it on the slow boat and it turned out to be a huge Catfish!!!!
I had a very nice dinner at a local cafe/bar on the main street called the Rin Bar and can recommend their red curry. Riding back to the hotel about 7.30pm it was obvious that this was not a party town! Virtually everything was closed.
Crossing the border into Laos
After researching the various companies that provide the two day river trip down the Mekong from Houi Xai to Luang Prabang I chose Nagi of Mekong. They appeared to charge a reasonable price (US$145 or 4600 Thai baht), stay at decent lodgings for the halfway stop at Pakbeng and the boat looked comfortable. (NOTE: you can pay with cash or credit card when being picked up at the hotel). They had kindly dropped off some paperwork at the hotel for me that included some useful pre-trip info about border formalities on the both the Thai and Laos sides as well as pre-cruise info and the Laos immigration and Visa forms. I was picked up at 8am, along with a few other passengers that were staying at the hotel, and driven to Thai immigration at the Friendship Bridge. I was aware of ‘THE’ Friendship Bridge further north near the Golden Triangle but discovered that there are in fact multiple Friendship Bridges along the Thai/Laos border. This particular one is Friendship Bridge No. 4 and was only recently completed in 2013.
We went swiftly through Thai immigration and then were loaded onto another bus and driven a short distance to Laos immigration. Before being able to enter Laos we had to purchase a Visa On Arrival for US$30. I had completed the Visa form (provided by Mr Nagi) at the hotel so was able to go straight to window number 1!!! You give your completed form, passport and cash here and then move to window number 2 and wait to eventually receive your passport with a full-page shiny new Laos Visa in it. Of course, many people crossing the border, did not have the form so had to queue to use the tables and few pens that were available.
Whilst waiting for all the other punters to be processed I filled in time chatting to a few of the other ‘cruise’ passengers and had a quick look around the building. There is one ATM, a small shop and a currency exchange window – that’s it. Eventually, everyone received their Visa, passed through passport control and we were on our way in a mini bus for the 15 minute drive to board our boat.
Houi Xai to Pakbeng
I was very pleasantly surprised with the quality of our transport for the two day river trip. The pictures I had seen in my research presented a comfortable boat with tables and car seats (see below).
However, the boat we boarded was fantastic. I thought I was on the wrong cruise! Spacious timber bench seats and tables, comfy cushions and blankets (for if it got a little cool). Up front and back there were day beds if you fancied a lay down. There were bananas & mandarins available to snack on, free water, tea and coffee and a bar for purchasing snacks, soft drinks and beer. To top it off we also had 4 toilets (2 squat, 2 western).
The guide explained to me that Nagi actually uses 4 different boats for the various departures up and down stream. So I suppose it may be ‘luck of the draw’ as to which you get on your journey. I definitely drew a lucky one!
We departed the river bank around 9.30am and cruised downstream on a coolish, overcast day. The boat could accommodate over 40 people but on this journey there was only 19 passengers so we all had plenty of space. The boat departure point was upstream from our earlier border crossing and as we cruised downstream we passed Chiang Khong and had a nice view of some of the riverside Wats, the Fortune Riverview Hotel and the catfish monument/temple.
After 2 hours of chatting with my fellow passengers and enjoying the passing scenery we were summoned to lunch around 11.30am. It had been prepared by the captains wife and was great – soup, rice, delicious chicken curry, mixed vegetables, chips and fried root vegetable, watermelon.
Hmong Village Visit
After lunch we pulled up at a large sandy bank and greeted by a large group of smiling village children keen to sell us their hand-made bracelets. A little distance away we could hear excited hoots, hollering and screaming – we had arrived at a Hmong village and they were celebrating their New Year (even though it was January 5th!). The main focus of this celebration was a football tournament being held on a very bumpy slab of flat land between the overlooking village and river. To say the support was enthusiastic would be an understatement. The whole village (population 472) was there and they were thoroughly enjoying supporting the local boys. Anther nice touch was that many of the girls dressed up in their nicest clothes and on this day the younger girls can wear make-up. We took a stroll through the almost empty village except for the group of children who trailed us everywhere. The thing that struck me was how happy everyone was even though they are living a pretty basic existence. Our circuit of the village was completed as we walked past the football game back to the boat. The most surprising thing down here was that there was a motorcycle ice-cream vendor!! How on earth he got down to the riverside I’ll never know.
Here’s a short video showing our visit to the village.
And some photos too..
We had a relaxing afternoon cruising down the river through some lovely scenery before arriving at our overnight stop of Pakbeng about 4.30pm. We had completed about 150 kilometers of the 330 kilometer journey.
Our overnight stay was in the comfortable Mekong Riverside lodge. It’s nothing fancy but all the rooms have a great view out over the Mekong and some have a shared balcony. Travelling as a single my room was off to the side but the porch still had an awesome river view. Breakfast was also included.
Pakbeng is not a thriving metropolis – there’s not a lot to see or do here. It appears it’s primary existence is as the stop off point for the boats doing the two-day cruise. There are several guesthouses and hotels along with a few cafes, restaurants and bars. There are also the ubiquitous roadside stalls selling fruit and snacks and drinks. Most establishments here use the local currency however some will take Thai baht (and use a bad exchange rate). If you didn’t get any Laos kip at the border then you’re ok as there are two ATM’s in town.
After checking in I took a stroll through town before darkness fell and found a Wat up on a hill with a reasonable view of the river and snapped a few shots. One of the strangest things in Pakbeng is that for such a small place there is a large number of Indian restaurants. I see no rhyme or reason for this – it is quite odd. That being said I did have a reasonable Indian meal for dinner that night at the restaurant linked with our hotel!
Pakbeng to Luang Prabang
The included breakfast of a warm bread roll with jam, some sliced fruit (papaya, banana, watermelon), a fried egg (or omelette) and tea & coffee was a pleasant way to start day 2. Even better was the fact that two elephants were taking their morning bath on the opposite side of the river to the hotel!
We set off at 8am for the last day of our cruise to Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, cooler temperatures, overcast skies and low cloud persisted until the middle of the afternoon. Rain showers came and went and the cool breeze made it a little chilly so most passengers huddled under the supplied blankets and either slept, chatted or used their electronic devices for various forms of entertainment. When the rain got heavier the crew dropped the clear blinds that ran the length of the boat. This totally eliminated the breeze and made the rest of the journey very pleasant.
Lunch was again presented at 11.30am – on the menu today was cabbage soup, rice, 2 noodle dishes, spicy pork and fried chicken drum sticks with watermelon for dessert. All just as tasty as yesterdays offerings.
The scenery was just as beautiful as yesterday as we glided past more riverside villages with wisps of low cloud hanging over the adjacent hills.
Pak Ou caves
Around 2pm the rain cleared and we made a stop at the Pak Ou caves – a popular place for boat trips from Luang Prabang.
There are two caves here, an upper and lower one, and this is one the most respected holy sites in Laos. The upper cave is reached by a shortish, but steep climb, and is, in my opinion, the least impressive of the two. It’s pitch black inside and you need a torch (supplied at the entrance) to see the many Buddha statues here. They are believed to have been left in the caves by local people over hundreds of years.
The lower cave is packed with thousands more statues of various sizes and poses. Fortunately, there is ample light here to see them all. Below are some pics of the lower cave.
A boat trip to the caves is also a very popular activity for those visiting Luang Prabang that haven’t done the trip down the Mekong.
We stayed at the caves for about an hour and then cruised the final 45 minutes to the ‘port’ about 10 km from Luang Prabang. I must state that ‘port’ is a very loose term for where we disembarked. It was basically a riverside bank with a path leading up to the road! Our interesting and relaxing journey came to an end as we were each delivered by mini bus to our respective hotels.
I spent the next couple of days exploring Luang Prabang and will a write a separate post about my time there. It will be available here once I complete it.
My mini adventure – a circular loop starting and ending in Chiang Mai concluded a few days later. I caught a taxi to the airport and then the direct $150 AUD one hour Lao Airlines flight home.
A very interesting circular trip from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang via three modes of transport – bus, slow boat and plane. I would thoroughly recommend it as a way to see more of Northern Thailand, the mighty Mekong River and the Unesco world heritage town of Luang Prabang. This could also be a ‘different’ way to see some excellent sites if you ever needed to do a Visa run from Thailand.