Chiang Mai to Laos // A River Odyssey
As you can probably imagine, we spend quite a bit of time ‘on the move’. Whether it be days and nights on buses or trains, tuk tuks or planes, our adventure isn’t just about all the exciting destinations we get to see, but also the journey to get there. Which is just as well, with the amount of time we spend on the road! Or river, in this case, as we travelled from Chiang Mai to Laos.
After spending some time in Chiang Mai, you’re probably ready to begin a new adventure by crossing the border into Laos. When we originally planned our journey, we decided to cross the border between Thailand and Laos overland in the North, and work our way south through Laos.
There are a number of ways to get from Chiang Mai to Laos, but with time on our side, we decided on a two day boat trip via the mighty Mekong river! Long boat trips are something we love to experience when travelling, whether it be sailing the chilean fjords on a cargo ship, or to Antarctica, our journeys on water always give us time to think and reflect.
The Mekong is the lifeblood of much of South East Asia. Originating in the Tibetan Plateau, it weaves its way through the continent, bringing life to the rice fields that sustain the population before reaching its final destination on the south east coast of Vietnam, where it becomes a sprawling delta (check out our adventures on the Mekong Delta here!), home to 17.5 million people.
The first part of our journey was from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. We travelled by bus from Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, stopping off at the white temple in Chiang Rai before staying in basic accommodation on the border with Laos. Chiang Khong is like a frontier town, fairly remote but used as a land border crossing between Laos (Huay Xai) and Thailand.
Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang on the Mekong River
The next morning we were up early for the beginning of our journey. First we needed to cross the border, which was in the middle of the Mekong river. So we took a long boat across the river, and set foot in Laos for the first time. This was unlike any other border control we’d come across in our travels, relaxed was the word!
This was unlike any other border control we’d come across in our travels, relaxed was the word!
After sauntering off the boat, and sorting our visas, we took a tuk tuk from the border crossing to the departure point for our trip a little further down river. Here, the Mekong opened up, and we searched for our boat that we would call home for the next two days.
Stepping onto our home for the next two days, we were excited. The long, narrow boat was lined with pairs of seats on either side of the aisle. At the far end of the boat we could see a small bar area selling dried noodles, snacks and most importantly, beer.
On day one we were given a seat number, ah the seat lottery. Would it be a hard wooden seat which made up the first 10 rows? Or an old car seat ripped from its natural habitat and placed on a boat on the Mekong? It turns out we were on the car seats, and settled down for the first 7 hours of our two day Mekong adventure.
As the boat set off on its journey down river, we knew we would have a lot of time on our hands over the next two days. Laura had come armed with snacks, her kindle and iPhone jammed full of music. I had my laptop and iPhone full of music as well.
For the first couple of hours we just sat and watched the world go by. The brown muddy waters of the Mekong contrasting against the backdrop of lush green vegetation on the surrounding hills. Occasionally, we’d pass young children playing by the waters edge, or fisherman tending to their nets on the river. Mostly though, it was quiet and relaxing.
After a couple of hours, we hooked up our music and drifted off into our own worlds as we gently soothed down the river, occasionally battling some white water but on the whole it was a tranquil journey. Aside from an occasional walk up and down the boat, there really wasn’t much to do. After 7 hours or so, we slowed and pulled into a clearing on the side of the river. We had arrived at our home for the evening – Pak Beng.
Pak Beng is a small village, perched on a hill that weaves itself away from the river, and we were greeted off the boat by a few locals offering a place to stay. We hadn’t booked anywhere for that night, so we wandered up the road with our backpacks for a place to rest our legs. After finding a place half way up, negotiating down from the usual massively inflated price, we dumped our bags and set off exploring Pak Beng. This took about 5 minutes, it’s tiny.
Without anything else to do, we found ourselves a small restaurant that served delicious Indian food, and reflected on our first day on the river. Day two we were up early. We had a reason though, the seats weren’t allocated on the second day and we didn’t want to end up sitting on the floor all day. As it turned out, we were third onto the boat so had our pick of the best seats.
The second day was much like the first, and we whiled away the hours listening to music, reading and taking in the Mekong river.
Without anything else to do, we found ourselves a small restaurant that served delicious Indian food, and reflected on our first day on the river. A cold beer and curry was demolished, and so to bed!
Day two we were up early, and for a good reason. The seats weren’t allocated on the second day and we didn’t want to end up sitting on the floor all day. As it turned out, we were third onto the boat (keen we know!) so had our pick of the best seats.
The second day was much like the first, and we whiled away the hours listening to music, reading and taking in the Mekong river. It was a wonderful experience.
We arrived in Luang Prabang late in the afternoon, ready to experience our first Laotian street food market. We were glad to have reached our destination, but also sad that our two days on the river had come to an end. We were delighted we had had a chance to experience it first hand, it was a unique and interesting way to introduce ourselves to Laos.
The following weeks would see us take many long day buses and flights , as well as an exciting experience trekking near Luang Prabang, but we still think back to the real beginning of our adventure on the mighty Mekong river!
Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos (including overnight stop in Pak Beng)
We don’t recommend a specific company for this journey as most of the tour agencies around Chiang Mai offer the same sort of transport package for this 3 day/2 night trip. For around 1800-1900 Baht (based on current prices), you will get picked up and transferred to the land border crossing town of Chiang Khong, usually via the White Temple in Chiang Rai and provided overnight accommodation in Chiang Khong. Dinner, breakfast & a packed lunch (to take on the boat the next day) are usually also provided as well as your tickets for the 2 day slow boat journey (on Day 2 & Day 3). As explained in our article, you usually have to arrange your own accommodation upon arrival to Pak Beng on the evening of the 2nd night, or you might be able to book in advance through a tout or tour company. Whatever you feel most comfortable with, just remember to haggle a little! Cost: Approx 1800-1900 Baht (£40 GBP / $60 USD).
You can exchange currency once you enter Laos and there are also ATMs at the top of the ramp after entering, however don’t come cashless just in case they are not working. Be particularly careful of your valuables in Pak Beng as theft is not uncommon there. We were lucky to get soft seats on our slow boat but some parts of our boat only had hard wooden benches, so we recommend to bring something soft to sit on just in case! Finally, try to sit near the front of the boat as there is less noise and fumes from the engine thus making the journey more peaceful and enjoyable. Plenty of music, podcasts & books help too! Enjoy!
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