To venture over to Laos from Pai we had to first get the minivan back to Chiang Mai (there are only two main roads out of Pai and the other roads are far too dangerous), which we managed to get for 150 baht each (3 quid) directly to Chiang Mai bus station. So we left at 10am and arrived at 1:30pm, with a female passenger throwing up into a plastic bag for a good part of the journey as that’s how winding the roads are. Once at the bus station we found the Green Bus Thailand ticket office and booked seats on the 2:30pm air conditioned bus to Chiang Khong for 254 baht each (just over a fiver) – as it’s low season we didn’t have any trouble getting seats an hour before and the bus wasn’t full when we left (AND we got a bottle of water and packet of biscuits each for free!), however if in high season it might be worth booking the day before or booking the minivan and bus from an agency in Pai (which would have cost 480 baht each in total, so 76 baht more each).
The classic way for backpackers to get from Thailand to Laos is to do a 3 day/2 night slow boat option where you get a bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, cross the border over to Huay Xai in Laos (usually after spending a night in Chiang Khong as the border closes at 6pm and the slow bots go during the day, but you could cross the border in the evening and stay at Huay Xai instead so you don’t have a rush of crossing the border in the morning before the slow boat departs), getting the slow boat to Pakbeng the next day and then spending the night in Pakbeng before getting the second leg of the slow boat to Luang Prabang on the 3rd day. There is also a direct bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang but it goes at night on dodgy roads and isn’t comfortable to sleep on, and the speedboat/airport options cost a lot more.
Anyway, for the 3D/2N slow boat option there are numerous agencies in Chiang Mai offering a package deal from CM and ending in LP for between 1,700 and 1,900 baht whereas in Pai you could get it for 1,750 baht which also included transport back to CM at the beginning, however in both cases the inclusions would vary and most did not include accommodation in Pakbeng (more expensive than CK) and some did not include pick up from your hotel to the border/pier. Due to it being in low season for us and things therefore not selling out (plus us not wanting to always go for the “easy” option with a tour where our hostel would be dictated and instead have a bit of fun with it) we decided to not book a package but do it all independently.
First we had to get a minivan back to Chiang Mai (there are only two main roads out of Pai and the other roads are far too dangerous), which we managed to get for 150 baht each (3 quid) directly to Chiang Mai bus station. We left at 10am and arrived at 1:30pm, with a female passenger throwing up into a plastic bag for a good part of the journey (that’s how winding the roads are!) Once at the bus station we found the Green Bus Thailand ticket office and booked seats on the 2:30pm air conditioned bus to Chiang Khong for 254 baht each (just over a fiver) – as it’s low season we didn’t have any trouble getting seats an hour before and the bus wasn’t even full when we left (PLUS we got a bottle of water and packet of biscuits each for free!), however if in high season it might be worth booking the day before or booking the minivan and bus as a package deal from an agency in Pai (which would have cost 480 baht each in total, so 76 baht more each).
We arrived in Chiang Khong at about 8:15, roughly 40 minutes later than scheduled (we’re not in China anymore!) and paid 30 baht each (60p) to get a Tuk Tuk to Funky Box Hostel, which is 100 baht (2 quid) each a night for a bunk bed in a dorm room with a fan – as it was only one night and we were basically just sleeping this didn’t phase us. We woke up at 7:45 and got a Tuk Tuk to the border crossing at 8:15 for 40 baht (80p) each, although he was after 50 baht each, arriving at the border crossing at around 8:30. We had to show our passport and departure card, which was stamped and kept, and then paid 20 baht each (40p) to get on a coach to cross over the water (and therefore the border). Upon arriving at Laos we had to complete an arrival card and a visa application, for which we had to pay 35 USD for. We then went through passport control and, at the other side, took a Tuk Tuk to the slow boat pier for 100 baht (2 quid) each. You can also pay in Laos kip at this point. At the pier there are shops and a restaurant that sell drinks, shakes and sandwiches (ranging between 40 and 60 baht) and it is a good idea to purchase here as it is a lot more expensive on the slow boat. You purchase boat tickets just opposite where the boats are – prices are listed in kip but you can also pay in baht so we paid 1000 baht (20 quid) each for the boat all the way to Luang Prabang (or 210,000 kip). We have therefore paid a total of 1,670 baht each including all transfers – less than the 1,750 which didn’t include the Tuk Tuk journeys, nor potentially the bus a across the border, and certainly cheaper than the package options from Chiang Mai would have been.
The boat was supposed to leave at 11:30am but naturally left late (about 15 minutes) and not far into our journey it started to pour down with rain – these boats aren’t particularly well-equipped and basically have a bit of cloth you can open out and tie up, which doesn’t really keep out the rain when the wind is also blowing. Not the most comfortable journey, but they have replaced the previous wooden seats with old coach seats on most of the boats and the discomfort level is definitely not as bad as the minivan to/from Pai, plus the surroundings make it more bearable…
We arrived in Pakbeng at 6:15pm (45 minutes behind schedule). We had ignored the offer of a hotel room including transfer from the pier (and back again the next morning) for 50,000 kip each as we had read beforehand that there are many places just as you come off the pier and we didn’t want to pay for somewhere we hadn’t seen or researched yet. We also ignored the many touts as you come off the boat trying to sell you their hostels, instead walking 5 minutes up the small hill and popping into Monsavan Guesthouse on the left as we had read good reviews about it prior to our trip and they had a double room with air con and en suite available for 400 baht (10,000 kip or 9 quid) – this is at the higher end and the most you should expect to pay but after a long day on a boat and in need of sleep and a shower (and some peace) we were happy to pay this, but I heard lots of offers for a room with a fan for 200 baht per person on our way up.
We wandered down the road for something to eat (but it doesn’t stretch very far and we only found two ATMs next to each other at the end) and ended up joining a group of individuals whom had all met over the last few days – one from Germany, one from Spain, one from France, one from Australia and one from the US. It was great to spend some time chatting to people about where they’re from and what there travel journey has thus far been.
We woke at 7:30 the following morning so we could head to the boat at 8 to get our seats before stocking up on food and departing at 9am. So far the cost of food and drink is higher than in Thailand (and a fruit shake cost the equivalent of 90p rather than 40p) but this may be purely because we are right by the pier. I also picked up a banana muffin and a chicken sandwich (both 10,000 kip, so 90p each), plus a Coke and a big can of Beerlao (the Thailand equivalent of Chang, but in my opinion not as good). The journey, again, wasn’t the best – it’s literally impossible to sleep so your options are eating, drinking, reading, listening to music or plating cards. I went for a combination of all of these in a bid to keep myself from feeling restless or fed up in any way – plus remembering where you are and taking some time to sit by the edge of the boat and absorb the stunning views can help ground you and bring you some peace amongst the cabin fever!
This journey was supposed to be 9 hours, arriving at 6pm, however we didn’t leave until 9:30 this time yet somehow arrived at 5pm. Apparently the boat used to dock right by the city centre but over the last few years they have started docking 10k away from the centre so you then have to get a Tuk Tuk for 2,000 kip (£1.80) each – a shame that they feel the need to do that and take more money from you unnecessarily as well as add another leg to an already tiring journey. I’d rather they increased the price of the slow boat if they needed to rather than feel you are being conned out of your money. Not the most positive start to Luang Prabang and our first proper base in Laos, but let’s give it time…