When I was researching this trip, this was one area I was pretty confused by. I found some articles from Flash Parker, which are very useful, and served me well. Hopefully now I can add some updated information to this subject.
If like us, and a lot of others you are leaving Chiang Mai and looking to get to Laos, you will get a bus from the arcade bus station. We booked onto the 08:30AM green bus service to Chiang Khong. It stops quite a lot, but they have air con, really comfy seats and a TV. We watched a dubbed copy of Spiderman! Also, you get a receipt for your baggage. I’m not sure this would be any use at all in the event of your stuff being stolen, but hey. The bus was 241Baht, for about a six hour journey. I’ve read conflicting information about the station, some people say it’s mental busy others fairly quiet. The day we travelled out the bus queues were quite short, however our bus was full so book ahead if you’re on a schedule.
Okay, so now you’re in Chiang Khong! You’re there? Wrong. Due to some great idea involving getting more money for the local tuk-tuks, the bus stops at one end of the town and the ferry is at the other. You guessed it, you have to pay another 30Baht to get there.
Make sure you have some US Dollars before you leave Chiang Mai, you cannot pay the visa fee with any other currency and I expect the exchange rate at Chiang Khong is terrible. Most prices were around 20USD for Asian countries and 30-35USD for Europe and America. Oddly, Canadians have to pay 43USD. Also, you need one passport photo for your application.
You then wander down to the boats, stopping at the customs post (it looks like the booths attendants sit in at car parks) to get an exit stamp. The two minute ferry across the Mekong will cost 30Baht and you’re in Laos!
Here, you have to fill in your entry card and pay your fee. I’ve read online about border staff being suggestive about bribes, but in my experience they were polite and efficient, people at Heathrow could learn a thing or two! Oh, and keep hold of your departure card, unlike most places they don’t seem to staple it into your passport. There is a booth opposite customs for money exchange, but we waited until we were further into Huay Xai as again, we expected the exchange rate to be better. The bank in the town apparently does the best rates. If you have a smart phone, get the XE currency app, it’s brilliant and it’s a ball ache trying to work out prices when everything is interchangeable between Baht, Kip and Dollars.
So you need somewhere to stay! (You can spend the night in Chiang Khong, which is bigger but I’ve read about the bottlenecking at customs, and having to get up earlier to make the ferry. Also, mid- afternoon the border was pretty much dead) We stayed at one of the standard places on the main strip. It was clean and nice enough, it also happens to be opposite a place called Bar How? which is a really nice place to eat very good Lao food considering the transient nature of the town. You can book your ferry tickets via pretty much anyone in the town. We just bought ours from our hotel. We probably paid a bit too much, but it was more efficient and stress free than wandering around the travel agents. I hate that.
There are three options to get to Luang Prabang, slow boat, fast boat and bus. I’ve read pretty bad things about the bus and any reputable guidebook recommends avoiding the fast boats.
The slow boats vary in size and quality. Some boats have seats taken from buses with cushions, others are benches. We were lucky our boats both had comfortable seating. Rather than buying a cushion straight away, check your boat out first!
The people in the Huay Xai have all kinds of stories to tell, some people say the boat leaves at 9:30, 10, 10:30…etc. Also, everybody is trying to sell you stuff such as sandwiches and snacks. They will all tell you that you can’t buy anything on the boat. You can buy water, hot drinks, noodle pots, fizzy pop, beer and crisps, but take a sandwich with you. I’ve also read online that people would come onto the boats to sell other stuff, but this didn’t happen on our journeys so don’t count on it.
Also, the boat leaves when it’s ready, time is irrelevant. Depends on the cargo and other things they need to send on the river, we were told 10:30, but left at midday.
Invariably, someone will come onto the boat to tell you about Pak Beng, the stop over point and that it is high season and what not. They will probably try to sell you accommodation; we foolishly took some there and then, just to make it a bit better than dealing with all the touts. Don’t believe the hype. There must be enough accommodation, and frankly it’s cheaper directly in Pak Beng. Lesson learnt.
Pak Beng is nothing more than a stopover. I can’t think of any reason why somebody would stay here longer than the one night. Lots of people tried to sell me drugs here, I can only imagine they have a deal with the police and get a cut of the fine on top of the retail price. Being as you’re in the middle of nowhere without any choice, stuff is expensive here.
The second day is back on the boat, it might not be the same boat, and I’m not sure if you can buy cushions in Pak Beng, so it’s a bit of a gamble if you buy one originally. About eight hours later you arrive in Luang Prabang! Again, if you haven’t got accommodation sorted lots of people are waiting at the dock to welcome you to town, as such.
The journey is long, but it’s very rewarding. Make sure you put a warm layer in your bag because as the sun starts to think about going down, it gets cold. The views are pretty spectacular and you’re in a boat full of people to chat to if you feel like it. It’s a far more leisurely and enjoyable way to get travel than the bus.