Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
There are a few options, in regards to the length of travel and means, when travelling from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos. There are many tour agents selling packages, which include minibus trips, one or two nights' accommodation, a short motorboat ride and a very long trip in the long slow boats to Laos more specifically Luang Prabang. This trip can also be taken in a speed boat, but I have heard that these boats are quite dangerous, so I did not take this option into consideration when deciding how to get to Luang Prabang.
Slow boating on the Mekong
I took the two-day package, and here's a summary of what was involved:
- Chiang Mai (minibus pick up and travel to Huay Xai)
- Huay Xai to Pakbeng (boarder crossings)
- Overnight stay in a log cabin (a few kilometres from Pakbeng border crossing)
- Pakbeng to Mekong River (minibus for under an hour)
- Slow boat for approximately 9 hours to Luang Prabang (arriving a few kilometres from town centre).
Laos Travel: Chaing Mai –> Luang Prabang – The Journey
An early morning pickup at my accommodation in Chiang Mai, and a minibus journey to the border. We stopped along the way for bathrooms as well as one-stop at a very small Tesco Lotus for lunch.
I was told by the lady in the travel agent to make sure I bought food for the next day of travel (purchase water too, you most likely won't be able to access any to purchase until you get to Luang Prabang, some long boats on the second day may have some to purchase, others do not). Some of the other travellers were not told this by other travel agents, so I told them that I had been told to do so.
The border crossing
Once we arrived at the border, after travelling for the whole day, we stamped out of Thailand and proceeded to the Laos side. This border was really only a gate across a road and a handful of Officers at each post in a small tin shed (yes, you are in the middle of nowhere).
The walk between the Thai border ‘shed' and the Laos border ‘shed' is really quite long when you are carrying backpacks or dragging suitcases, I would estimate it to be between one and two kilometres.
Getting a visa on arrival here was really a fast and straightforward process (if you don't include the very slow hot walk between offices). After getting the visa in our passports, we then waited around for about 20 minutes, unsure of if we were actually getting picked up by the next minibus.
Soon enough, as the sun was starting to go down our mini bus came and took the group only a few kilometres to our accommodation.
The overnight stay
There were about 7 double bed cabins with bathrooms in each. The timber floor and log style walls allowed for small gaps where lizards, bugs and mosquitos could fly in for a visit or stay the night with you at ease. The bathroom was made up of a hose, a huge bucket of water, and an Asian style ‘squat' toilet. There was a padlock on each door, although I think if anyone wanted to they could have just pushed a window open to gain access into the cabin.
I went for a walk along the road on which we had arrived.. it was the only road. I thought if I walked for a few minutes, in the opposite direction in which we had come from, I would eventually find myself in a small yet bustling town, with friendly people, tasty food finds and a culture all of its own. I kept walking. And there was nothing except the rice fields, the buffalo, the road and me.
On the second day, after enduring a night in the cabin, we took a minibus to the river. The journey was really interesting, we passed by many farmers working in their fields, as well as lots of children walking along the roads, chickens running around, herds of buffalo blocking the road, and so much life happening even though we were all so far from a town or city centre.
Once we made it to the river, we jumped on a small motor boat and took a short trip to get to the long boats, which were all docked along the bank on the other side of the river. The long boat was quite of an experience. The windows were all open style, with a squat style toilet at one end of the boat right near the boats motor (which made a trip to the toilet a dark, loud and scary experience), and seats that I assume are old car and bus seats that have been fixed to the floor of the boat.
A first hour into the journey, the landscape will captivate you, and all your attention will be on the power of the river, the grandness of the mountains around, the mist of the morning and the wild jungle along the banks. So many beautiful photos to be taken. So much fresh air. So much nature.
Slow boat to Laos experience
After the first hour, the sun started to feel hotter and the temperature on the boat felt like it was getting more humid, and I felt myself looking for a book to read in my uncomfortable bus chair that wasn't actually fixed to the base of the floor, just kind of sitting there. After attempting to read a book but finding the glare of the sun shining directly on myself too harsh and the pages too hard to focus on, I went for a trip to the bathroom.
The small wooden room built above a really loud boat motor, that not only roared beside the toilet but also radiated heat, complete with a squat toilet, no light and a door that did not lock made for an uncomfortable experience.
There was also no food or drinks available on my specific long boat although, the lady explained to me that they only sometimes have drinks on board, and sometimes they run out. So, its best to bring your own, and bring extra just in case.
The boat stopped a couple of times to pick up a few locals and drop them off at the next river bank along the way to Luang Prabang. At one of the stops, I recall people trading fish and other animals (I am not entirely sure if it was a dead monkey) from the sides of the river bank, selling them to passengers on board. This was fascinating to see, although you can observe this type of thing happening in any country, the situation was quite different to that I had seen in Thailand or Vietnam, where vendors sell to people at bus rest stops for example.
This situation seemed so organic, with people along with the river banks with baskets of fish and other meats, yet no houses, roads, buildings, or even seats in sight. They were just at the bank with their basket of goods. There was nothing else around in view from the river.
Getting to Luang Prabang
The trip ended up being longer than I had initially thought, and after a full day spent in the long boat, we finally made it to Luang Prabang. The boats arrived at a stop which was a few kilometres distance from the town centre. At the stop, there was a transport booking man at a desk, that booked you a trip into the town centre on a small truck with seats in the back. He accepted Thai Baht, and the short trip cost 80 Baht per person.
This journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang is relatively easy, if you remember to bring along sunglasses, maybe a hat, and all the food and water that you will need for the two days. It is a lot cheaper than flying from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, and of course, is an experience like no other. You will get to see the peaceful side of Laos, the part you can not see in the tourist hub of Luang Prabang, or in the party town of Vang Vieng. You'll see Laos untouched.