Chiang Rai To Luang Prabang By The Mekong River

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Chiang Rai Backpackers

I had only just married Ashley in July when we decided to take time off and travel for a year. We had started our travels in Bangkok and had made our way to Chiang Rai.

We were staying at the Mercy Hostel (Chiang Rai), a backpackers hostel with a laid back feel to it, definitely a good place to meet other travellers that have done the same journey or will be doing it soon. At 200baht a night for a bed in an eight bed mixed dorm, it was very good value. The great reviews we had read were accurate.

They have female only dorms and I felt their security system for the ladies bathroom was great, you need an electronic card to get in. They provide each bed with a free big locker and you can do your washing for around 30baht with the two washing machines they have. The fact that they offer tea, coffee and biscuits all day, have a swimming pool facing a nearby temple and a pool table, is a bonus.

 Transport from Chiang Raid to Luang Prabang

There are some things that before you do them you think you know how you will look back on them… This is what myself and Ash were thinking about a two day longboat trip down the Mekong river from Huay Xai (border town on the Lao side) to Luang Prabang (Laos).

I thought that I would remember it as something that was arduous at times, but glad I had done it once. Luckily this would not be anywhere near the whole story.

When reaching the far northeast of Thailand in Chiang Rai you have few options for the next leg of your journey into Laos and Luang Prabang.

It was from the Mercy that we booked our trip which included the transfer to the border at Huay Xai.
When travelling overland, you have two other options on how to get to Luang Prabang from here:

  1. The quickest one and the most expensive was a speed boat which takes 5hrs and gets you to Luang Prabang before nightfall. – I will get into my thoughts on that later…
  2. A minivan, at a similar price to the longboat. We weighed up the experience factor versus the time saved; often in South East Asia the only travelling option is a bus so we did not pass up a chance of a change of transport, also the time schedule for the minivan was awful for the day we did it.

The Journey Begins

All travellers are picked up for the speed boat, minivan and longboat at 6am, you are then driven for two hours to the border. – This was our first land border crossing in S.E Asia.

Depending on your nationality, on arrival you will get a one month tourist visa for US$35 (note that you will need a passport size photo), but check before you travel. On the day we crossed, we also had to pay a dollar extra as we were crossing at the weekend. If you do not have enough dollars with you, there is an exchange bureau and an ATM between the two boarder check points.

From there, we were ushered into the back of a pick up truck with 6 others before being driven 10 minutes to an office where we were to be split up into our different choices of transport.
The speed boat guys left straight away; the mini van group were told that they would be leaving at 4pm,- it was only 9.30am! They would arrive in Luang Prabang by 1am…This sounded horrendous.

A few minutes later we were on the move again, this time by Tuk-Tuk and finally met up with our boat.
We were given seat numbers but these were redundant as everybody seemed to sit where they wanted, although each seat was essentially the same, a seat further away from the engine which is situated at the back, is best as the noise is fairly loud. The boat sat around 80 people in old minibus style seats which were not secured to the floor.

We were soon on our way and spent the next 7 hours meandering down river.

Let me tell you, We had never seen scenery like it; the banks were steep and rose high with thick jungle, the sense on remoteness was awesome. Occasionally we would pass a small village where you could see the fishing boats tied up and the traditional wooden homes which you could easily have imaged as not to have changed in style for centuries.

A few hours in we had settled into a calm rhythm with the jungle passing by, most of the people travelling with us were tourists and we chatted with those seated near us.

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Halfway There (Pakbeng)

By 5pm we had reached our night stopover at the town of Pakbeng. It is as far as we could tell purely there for the daily arrival of the tourists on the long boats; as soon as the boat reached the embankment we were bombarded with offers from guesthouse owners to stay with them, having not pre booked we went with the guy who approached us first.

Usually we would not be agreeing to stay somewhere without seeing it, but then in Pakbeng you have little choice if you have not done prior research, as you are not directly by the guest houses, but need to be driven there by the owner.

As it turned out, our choice wasn’t great. The beds were fairly comfy but the toilet and shower were not somewhere you wanted to spend any time other than necessary in, there were plenty of unusual bugs, but this was the jungle and those were to be expected.

Talking to others the next day who had stayed elsewhere, we discovered that there were better guest houses.

Pakbeng could be worse. Due to the complete reliance you have on the places that are there to put a roof over your head for the night, they could over charge, but they do not; however the town could also be so much better.

Its location is incredible, indeed during breakfast we were treated to the sight of elephants coming to bathe on the opposite side of the river.
Everybody we met who did this trip, stayed for the one night, and that is enough.

The Journey Continues

Our second day and…a different boat?

It is amazing how often the company you originally book with is not the same as who you eventually arrive at your destination with in Asia. You get ushered from one tuk-tuk to the next and from one office to another, but finally you do arrive pretty much on the time stated.

The second boat was better as there were less seats and had tables; it meant we were more comfortable for the 8hrs ahead.
The boat stopped every so often to pick up goods and people from the villages, they use it as a delivery and taxi service.
It was nice to see the children running and waving at the boat as we floated along.

About four or five times both days we had the sight of the speed boats roaring past. It was not until the second day, and what would have been the 4th and 5th hours for its passengers, that we noticed that perhaps, they may not have been having much fun. The thrill of the wind and spray seemed to have long passed and many were sat slung back, with their head whipped back into their seat.

We arrived at the UNESCO world heritage site of Luang Prabang at 5pm, or did we?

A negative on this trip is that the boat actually stops 10km from town. Thus you are forced to pay for a Tuk-Tuk for the rest of the journey. It was 20,000kip per person.

Tips For The Trip

After having done the trip, there are a few tips that I would like share:

  • Make sure you take with you plenty of water, food or snacks. Both of the boats we were in, had a small shop where they sold instant noodles and drinks but these were more expensive in comparison with those that you can buy from Chiang Rai or Pakbeng.
  • Go to the pier early to grab yourself the best seats, especially away from the engine. With that in mind, if your guesthouse in Pakbeng includes transport to the pier in the morning, haggle an early departure.
  • Your large luggage will be stored away from you, either at the front or the back of the boat, so take all you valueables and entertainment with you in your day bag.
  • Befriend people on this boat as you are likely to see them around for the next two weeks. We found that from Huay Xai to Vientiane (Laos) fellow travellers were travelling at at similar rate of speed as us and we would randomly bump into them in other places.

An Incredible Experience

At an all in price of 1300baht each for the whole boat trip it was great value for money. The experience was incredible. There will probably be a point during the trip when you will be over with the scenery, ignore these thoughts and enjoy because you will look back at the trip with fond memories.

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