It is probably the most beautiful way to get to Luang Prabang – with a boat trip across the Mekong River. The trip can be booked for currently 1650 Baht in Chiang Rai. We book at a travel agent next to the cat cafe. Every travel agency offers the tour and probably every Guest House as well.
Actually you don't have to care about anything. The whole process is planned and you are simply passed from means of transport to means of transport. This is easy.
Preparation for the Laos Visa
For the Visa on Arrival in Laos one should make some preparations. Best to do everything before leaving Thailand. The country Laos wants to get hard foreign exchange and therefore prefers to take US dollars for the fees. The bills should look as good as new and should not be damaged, otherwise they will not be accepted by the officials. You can get US Dollars in Thailand at exchange offices against Euro or Thai Baht.
Per person the Laos visa for German citizens currently costs 30 USD. Before 8am, after 8pm and on weekends there is an additional fee of 1 USD. For this you need a passport photo. We didn't have any with us, in Chiang Rai we could get photos taken at photo stores. Cost for the photos: 150 Baht.
The drive to the border in Thailand in Chiang Khong
The minivan is waiting in front of our guest house in Chiang Rai at 6 o'clock as agreed. The driver is a bit fussy and asks us to show him our US dollars for the Laos visa and our exit cards from Thailand. But that is understandable. He surely doesn't want to go back to Chiang Rai because of missing papers.
2 hours later we arrive at the Thai border town Chiang Khong. We stop briefly at a gas station before the border and get all tags around, so that we are assignable to the group.
There the driver explains the procedure again and says that we should not change money on the Thai side, the exchange rate there is lousy. The minivan driver brings us to the border and then it's bye-bye, Thailand.
Behind the passport control a big coach waits as a shuttle, which drives over the Mekong bridge on the Laotian side. Every border crosser has to take this bus, you can not walk to the Laotian border post. We got a ticket for the bus from the driver of the minivan and therefore do not pay 30 Baht, which the bus costs regularly.
On the other side of the Mekong at the border post of Laos an identical looking building is waiting for us. Here we have to fill out the papers. A Din A4 form, then still arrival and departure card for the visa. After that, everything runs smoothly and professionally. At the first counter you hand in your passport and visa application as well as the fee, at the next counter you get back your passport with the visa.
Before entering the country you can get Laotian money at an ATM or exchange money at a bureau de change.
From the border in Huay Xai to the Slow Boat
An employee of our tour operator intercepts us and lets us enter our names in a list again. Then we go through the actual border where only one official without uniform waves us through. Very unspectacular. Here are waiting bigger cabs of the tour operators, which are called Tuk Tuk, but are small trucks and collect all tourists for the Slow Boat.
We are loaded up and drive for quite a while through Huay Xai until we arrive at the office of the tour operator. In the meantime it is 10 o'clock. There is again a hint to the procedure. And the possibility to book directly a room in Pakbeng. And to buy baguettes and drinks for the trip. And we get a ticket for the boat trip (keep it for day 2).
One hour later we get back on the tuk-tuks and are taken to the place where the boats are docked. Actually, all of our group got a reservation, but nobody keeps to it. And there are so many people today, that two boats are running. We get on the second boat. Also here we have another stop and finally we leave at about 12 o'clock.
From Huay Xai to Pakbeng by boat
The ride is beautiful. But unfortunately there is a downer (Attention, danger of corny jokes!). Namely hard drinking booze tourists. A group of boys just out of adolescence drink all the beer supplies of a huge freezer empty. There is bawling and the boat is entertained with loud Hip-Hop. Like young puppies having free access for the first time and now discovering the world. So much for "Slow Boat" and "quiet nature". The diesel engine in the stern rattles also ordenlich loudly. The only thing that helps is to put on headphones and go through.
One night (and that is enough) in Pakbeng
We arrive shortly before 6 in Pakbeng. This should be the place? Next to us is a boat into which cement sacks are being loaded. A faded advertising poster for the region of Udomxai welcomes us. Probably this is what is meant by the sentence "the place makes little of its tourist potential". You don't really want to stay here longer than one night.
As soon as we get off the boat we are surrounded by people who want to rent us a room and drive us there with tuk-tuks. We are prepared for this and simply take advantage of the crowd to wriggle out of the clutches of the advertisers. We just walk up the hill to look for rooms ourselves. There was the tip "the higher up, the cheaper the rooms are". This turns out to be wrong. We don't get far, directly at the first house a woman welcomes us with "Room for 10.000 Kip?"We save ourselves further searching and check in directly.
You really don't have to book anything in advance, because the whole place lives exclusively from the fact that boats dock in the evening. And there is an overcapacity of beds. Otherwise there are still restaurants and bars with a view of the Mekong, if it were not already dark. In contrast to Thailand, baguettes, croissants and muffins can be found at every stall. The French influence is definitely noticeable in culinary terms.
The evening is quite short and at 9 o'clock we are already in bed. It is best to go out to eat right after checking in, because everything closes early here. The next morning we also leave early. We get up relatively late and when we have breakfast at 7 o'clock, the first people are already walking towards the pier.
From Pakbeng to Luang Prabang
All Guest Houses offer breakfast and sell sandwiches and drinks for the trip. Shortly after 8 one should go to the boat landing stage, in order to be able to select still places.
The departure time of the boat was indicated on the ticket as 8:30 a.m. There are no seat reservations today. How all people from two boats of the previous day fit on one boat is a mystery to me. All fit on the boat at the end and sometime after 9 o'clock we continue our trip. All large backpacks and bags are stowed under board. Important: You can't get to the stowed luggage during the ride, so take all the things you need with you.
And then it goes along evergreen landscape the Mekong downstream. The nature is magnificent. Now and then a few goats or cows graze on the edge. And sometimes the boat stops at small villages and the kids living there wave to us. Today everything is relaxed and peaceful.
The arrival in Luang Prabang
We arrive at 16:30 in Luang Prabang. The pier looks unimpressive. Big station at the disembarkation, 120 people have to get off the boat including luggage. We are prepared for the worst, because we have read in advance about cab mafia and fantasy prices. Because the landing stage is 10 km outside of the city.
But then everything turns out differently. There is a little house where you buy an official ticket for the tuk-tuks. Again tuk-tuks are small trucks. The ticket costs 20.000 Kip per person, which is absolutely fair and reasonable. But we are driven directly to the Guest House we booked in advance. The ticket is no longer included in the package price for the tour.
Alternative variant: organize everything yourself
Alternatively to the all-inclusive package, the boat trip can also be organized by yourself. However, it is relatively costly, as there are quite a few intermediate trips by tuk-tuk and bus, which all add up. The ticket for the boat trip alone is 220.000 kip. Here is an english blog article from Nomadasaurus about it.
The real sticking point is the time: everything must fit so that one is at 11 o'clock on the boat. And just the border crossing is a risk factor when leaving from Chiang Rai. This probably also works, but is much more exhausting than the flat rate package. Or one builds in an overnight stay in Chiang Khong or better Huay Xai to come in the morning directly on the Slow Boat.