The slow boat to Laos and a new border crossing.

Houseboat on the Mekong River. Laos. 

New Border Crossing Alert – Chiang Khong Thailand – Huay Xai, Laos

When I was preparing for my slow boat to Laos adventure, I read a few blogs, I read Lonely Planet, read trip advisor and talked to people in my hostel that had done it. Unfortunately no matter how up to date your information is there can always be a variable, like say, a new border crossing that has just opened.
I thought I was doing well, I thought I had prepared and researched, but then just like that, as always happens with travel, something changes and throws you off your whole game and changes your whole day. This change was not nearly as bad as it could have been but I want to share so anyone doing this route knows that a lot of the information out there is no longer up to date.

Me on the 6am bus, looking super happy. 

Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong – 2 hours – 65 baht - if you want to make the boat the same day, take the 6am bus from Chiang Rai. If not you’ll have to spend the night in Chiang Khong.

*NEW BORDER* (Opened mid December 2013)

The bus will pull over and start yelling Laos, Laos. You think it can’t be right because you are not yet in town, however it is right. This is where a tuk tuk or pickup truck (50baht) will take you to the new immigration. It’s a big white building.  It will be just down the road. The bus stops right at the turn for it. The bus will go straight on and you will take a right. Not to worry there will be people there looking for your business.

Thai Immigration- Make sure you have your departure card, it is a white slip of paper you got on entry, if not you will have to pay for a new one. Before you get in line to go through immigration, get a bus ticket for the other side of the border. It is on the center-right as you come into the immigration line. The bus is 20baht.  The Thai Immigration line was very long when I was there. I think they are still working out the kinks with the new border. (I was there on December 29th). The lines are labeled but the labels don’t seem to mean anything. There were plenty of Westerners going through the Thai labeled line. If you are there on a Sunday they will charge you 5 baht for “overtime.” This has clearly been adopted from the west even though Sunday is just another day here.

Once you are through the border, you will be put on a bus to the Laos Immigration. The bus will cross a beautiful, brand spanking new bridge over the river. 5-10 minutes later you will be let off at the circus that is Laos Immigration.
The old Thai immigration.

Laos Immigration - A lot of people head to Laos with a tour, so their tour guides give them the paperwork for the Visa on Arrival (VOA). If you are not on a tour, you have to look around for a form. They are normally on the tables surrounding the area, however, when I arrived there were none available. I think this was for two reasons. I think it was very busy and I think that people trying to sell the boat trips as package tours arrive in the morning and sweep them up and hold them hostage so people have to book with them. I literally had to stand in front of someone until they relented in order to get a blank immigration form. I did not book a tour with him. I had already been in line figuring I could get one at the desk but it turns out that that is not the case, it has to be filled in when you get up to the desk. Luckily some friendly Israeli’s saved my place for me after I saved theirs while they went looking for a form. This type of exercise becomes much harder when you are alone because no one is there to hold your space but it’s a great way to make friends.

I filled out both forms in line, pulled out a passport photo (required) and my $35 USD. I finally reached the front after more than 45 or so minutes, wearing my packs. The woman at the desk took my passport, the picture, and the two forms. Looked at it briefly, put it in a basket, like the one I used to keep pens and pencils in as a child, and said next line please. I was sent to the next line, literally, the office is tiny, the two people sit next to each other and just pass the basket back and forth.

The next line is to pay your fee. I waited in line and when I got to the front I realized that the guy was holding up the passports open to the picture page and waving it around.  You had to hope that you saw yours and push to the front to pay your fee and collect your passport. People were so excited to get theirs back and to be honest so was I. Everyone kind of did a little cheer. It’s a pretty hilarious system. I would recommend getting your Lao visa in advance if you can, and then you can avoid the hassle of this whole step. From there you take your passport and paperwork to the actual check point just to the right. They let you through (I paid overtime again) and then you are in Laos. Note: You will need at least an hour for the VOA process at the Laos border.

Huay Xia -Laos Border to the Pier - I thought most people on this route take the slow boat. I was wrong. There was a significant portion of people taking the bus. Once you pass through immigration you are met with tuk tuk drivers and bus drivers wanting to take you around. People trying to get to the bus station got grouped together and it seemed no one else was taking the slow boat. The tuk tuk drivers didn’t want to take me because I was alone, and I didn’t want to pay what they were asking when they were willing. People who had booked with the guy before the border were now all set because they also had transportation to the pier. Me, I asked everyone coming through who looked like a tourist if they were on a tour and if they were going to the slow boat. After about 15-20 minutes I finally got a French family to share a tuk tuk to the boat with me.The tuk tuk to the “pier” takes about 20 minutes. I hopped off the tuk tuk, climbed a small set of stairs to the left and bought at ticket for 900 baht to Luang Prabang.

Pier to Pakbeng-  The boat is more bus for the water than the romantic slow moving, relax mobile I was hoping for. They pack it really full. I had heard that they pack them until the tourists complain it’s too full. So it is worth it to complain if you feel uncomfortable.  No one on my boat complained but one person did try to get 15 people to a private boat. Our boat was supposed to leave at 11, then I heard 12. We left at 1pm. We arrived into Pakbeng at 6pm.

Pakbeng – A guy will jump on the boat before it leaves and make it seem like he works for the boat, he does not. He gives a whole speech about how late you will get into Pakbeng (the overnight stop) and how it will be hard to find accommodation. He will then offer you a room at an inflated price. There are two preferable ways to get rooms in Pakbeng, online in advance or you can get off the boat and walk around and look for a place. The town is pretty much all guest houses and restaurants, so you probably won’t have a problem finding a room. I booked in advance because it was two days before New Years and the idea of walking around in the dark with my pack looking for a room is something I try to avoid at all costs.

This is what our boat looked like on the water. There were so many of them passing by, each way. 

Pakbeng to Luang Prabang – The boat was scheduled to leave at 9am, we left at 930. Make sure you get lunch and snacks in town before you get on the boat. They sell beer, coffee, tea and instant noodles but that’s about it on the boat. There are vendors everywhere selling baguettes with whatever you want in them. The benefit of being Laos, good bread! They load up the boats and you are off again. The boat the second day takes about 7 hours. Relax and enjoy the scenery. There will always be people drinking all day on whatever boat you take, so either join in or stay closer to the front of the boat with some headphones.

When you read about the "fast boat" to Laos, this is what it looks like. Everyone on the fast boat whips by helmet clad. It did not look safe to me. 

Sunset over the Mekong River. 

Arrival Luang Prabang – Our boat dropped off outside of town even though there is apparently a place to drop in town. They have a sea of tuk tuks waiting to take you in the center of town. It’s expensive but it’s also a 20 minute drive. Luang Prabang’s central area is also chock full of guest houses. The street before Joma cafĂ© literally only has guest houses on it.

My Mistakes - I mentioned my chaotic morning above, here’s why. I arrived at the new Thai border and asked the guy in the office where I could get the boat, he said that no boat leaves from this border.  He said it is only a bus from here. He said that if I wanted to get a boat I would have to go to the other border. I think he meant the Laos border but I misunderstood and took it as I needed to go to the original place I had read about.

Since I didn’t know this was a new land border, I just thought there were two. I walked myself out to the tuk tuk stand and asked to go to the other border. They tried to convince me that I was wrong through very broken English. Since I had just talked to a border guard I was adamant that I was right. One guy eventually took me 10k away through town to the old border. I had negotiated down the price but it was still more than I wanted to spend.

Upon arrival at this second border, the immigration officer told me that I had to go back to the other one. They no longer stamp anyone but Thais at this border and you can’t take a boat here without at stamp. So theoretically you can get stamped at the new crossing and come back here, but that’s not worth it when they have buses waiting outside across the new bridge.

I was less than pleased but I was able to flag my tuk tuk driver back down as he turned around. He laughed at me. Back we went. Along the way, I saw some people from my bus heading for the wrong border and yelled out to them. Some of them jumped in my tuk tuk, and thankfully brought my second leg price down a bit.

The bullet point -  This is now a land crossing, not a river crossing like it was until mid December of 2013.