Rachel and I have now made it over the border and into the chilled out jungle town of Luang Prabang, Laos. Like all cute places, I'm already in love and considering staying forever. The journey to get here was long and stressful, though, due largely to the fact that we didn't plan ahead very well, and information on how to do it isn't very good. Things do change rapidly here, and information isn't disseminated very well, so its understandable. However, I'm going to map out our research and how we did it so you don't also end up nearly getting stuck in the sticks on a Laos roadside like we did.
The first thing you should know is that there are two bus stations that service Chiang Rai. There is the old station (Station 1) in the city center which is currently under construction and kind of a cluster. There is a new station (Station 2) outside of the center which you pass on the way in from Chiang Mai. Not all buses got to both stations, so be aware of which station you are choosing when you book a bus to get across the border.
Rachel and I booked a last minute slow boat ride with a private company, Shompoo, because we had heard so many mixed reviews about the public slow boats. Shompoo's guide meets you outside of Lao immigration and takes you to the pier for the boat, but pickup is by 9:45am at the very latest (they prefer you to be there by 9:15am). Had we know this ahead of time, we would have made it to Chiang Khong the night before to expedite border crossing in the morning. Since we booked the day before the cruise, we weren't able to make it to Chiang Khong the day before, thus leaving us scrambling to get to the border crossing very early in the morning. There is a local red bus which leaves from Station 1, but the first bus isn't until 6:00am and takes two hours, which didn't seem to leave us enough time to get through Thai immigration, across the Friendship Bridge, and through Lao immigration.
The local red bus is a very reasonable 65 baht, but we were concerned about time, so we went to a travel agency in Chiang Rai, Kochaporn Travel & Service, who booked us on a private bus to the border for 750 baht. We explained our time constraints and were guaranteed to leave by 6:30am at the latest- an hour and a half ride, still cutting it close but doable. Long story short, the driver was very late and we didn't leave Chiang Rai until 7:30am. They took a very beautiful, creative shortcut through misty rice patties which was enjoyable, but we didn't arrive to the Thai border until 8:45am.
Crossing through Thai immigration was a quick breeze (keep your departure card and have it filled out ahead of time!! But if you happen to have lost it, they do have replacements). The bus over the Friendship Bridge had been taken care of by the travel agency, but it is 20 baht with an extra 5 baht fee if you're riding on an off time or the weekend. The bus won't leave until its full and the ride across the bridge is incredibly brief (about three minutes). On the other side you then begin the process of getting your Visa on Arrival into Laos. It was now 9:15am.
There was already a sizable queue waiting for visa processing. We scrambled to fill in our paperwork and join the throng of people who turned out to be waiting for only two Lao officials. There was quite a bit of pushing at the front of the line. Once we made it to the front, which took about an hour, we handed our passports, completed paperwork and one passport photo to the official. They take all this and your visa application is then processed while you wait.
Approved applications and passports are then brought in the order received to the payment window. They flash your passport information page and you approach the window to pay the fee- $35 USD, more or less depending on your country. Be aware that, again, during off times and weekends, you'll be charged an extra dollar "overtime fee". Off times are early morning, the lunch hour midday and later in the evening...basically all day. Just have an extra dollar on you. I handed out a few spare dollars to people who had brought exact change. You can pay in baht, but you'll be charged more. Try to have as close to exact change as you can. They'll make change for you, but they don't like it.
The processing took another hour, which meant we had, as they say, missed the boat. This was a weekend and later morning, so it is likely faster other times, but from border to border, this whole process took two and a half hours. Be prepared for that. I was in touch with Shompoo's rep, Alex, who informed me that we could make it to the evening stop in Pakbeng on another boat and meet up with the Shompoo cruise the next morning. Through this whole ordeal, Alex was incredibly helpful and supportive. The local Lao reps for the Chiang Rai travel agency were also very helpful and sympathetic to our situation. They were very apologetic for the lateness of their driver and understanding that it was the company's fault for our missing our boat. I asked that the company pay for Rachel and I's slow boat tickets to Pakbeng (110,000 kip each) but the company's owner refused my request and to take responsibility for her driver's lateness, instead blaming our missed boat on Lao immigration. As it were, had we arrived on time, the queue would've been shorter and we would've made it through to meet our local Shompoo guide.
The local Lao rep, Lan, took incredible care of Rachel and I, though. We didn't have enough kip to pay for the public slow boat, so he took us in his car to an ATM, then drove us to the slow boat pier and helped us get our tickets. He is a wonderful man! If you're so inclined, please say a little blessing for Lan and his family. We also met a group of fun travelers on our (late) bus ride who we rode the slow boat with, spent a very fun evening with in Pakbeng and continue to see around Luang Prabang.
The public slow boat was an experience. Like many boats we had read about, the owner crams as many people in as possible. We had about 160 on our boat that day. It got quite hot and there was very little room to stretch and move about. The motor was very loud and where we were in the back of the boat would occasionally and inexplicably get splashes of mysterious water from overhead. The ride is so incredibly gorgeous, though. I'm officially obsessed with the Mekong.
Our overnight in Pakbeng was really fun, and I wish we could've spent a bit longer. Rachel and I split a pre-booked $28 USD room at Monesavanh Guest House, which was really lovely and highly recommended. It's run by a sweet family that also has a restaurant and bakery, and our morning cashew banana muffins and croissants were pretty spectacular. On the way to dinner in the evening we ran into friends from the boat and ended up in a colorful and wild restaurant whose proprietor lured us in dancing outside yelling, "BANANA WHISKEY!" We had a delicious first Lao dinner and a whole lot of laughs before enjoying hot showers and an early bedtime. Also, due to the remoteness of tiny Pakbeng, there is almost no light pollution and the most visibly starry sky I've ever seen.
In stark contrast to the public slow boat, the Shompoo cruise is deliriously, deliciously luxurious. It is $150 USD, which is about five times the cost of the public slow boat, but if you're going to splurge on any part of an otherwise budget conscious trip, do it here. We were among 19 people on the boat, we had tables with cushioned seats, lounge chairs and enough room in the back for me to roll out my mat and do yoga. There was also a deck at the front for sunning, reading or just taking in the breathtaking views. It was foggy chilly in the morning and they had blankets for as and all the coffee or tea you like. At lunchtime we were served an incredible traditional Lao meal, and made interesting stops at Pak Ou Caves and a Lao "whiskey village" where some impressive weaving was also taking place. It was an incredibly comfortable and relaxing day. When we arrived in Luang Prabang, porters brought our bags up the steep hillside stairs from the river and we were driven in a van to the door of our hostel. You get what you pay for, and this is a lovely experience worth every penny.
Summary of Lessons Learned:
-DO NOT BOOK ANYTHING WITH KOCHAPORN TRAVEL IN CHIANG RAI. They do very bad business. Take the local red bus. Don't pay over ten times as much for lateness and poor service.
-Either stay overnight in Chiang Khong to expedite the morning border crossing or go all the way into Huay Xai, the Lao border town, and stay at a hostel near the pier. The distance between Lao immigration and the pier is quite far and requires a tuk tuk ride. We didn't pay for that part, so I don't know how much it usually costs, but link up with other travelers to get a better deal.
-Get kip before you arrive at the pier. There isn't an ATM there and it's cash only. You can change out your currency at a window as you leave Thai immigration or get kip from an ATM at Lao immigration.
-If you do happen to try to make it from Chiang Rai in the morning, plan for the border crossing to take at least two hours.
-Have exact change for your Lao Visa on Arrival, and bring an extra dollar overtime fee for yourself or a friend if you happen to arrive during off hours or a weekend day.
-We read that the public slow boat leaves at 11:00am, but the boat we were on left at 12:30pm. I don't know if that was just a lucky happenstance but it seems that perhaps there's a later boat if you do get caught up at immigration.
-When you arrive in Pakbeng, there will be hostel owners hawking rooms at their places. We had heard that there aren't many options and to book in advance, which we did. If you don't, you'll have choices but if you like to be picky, screen and book ahead of time.
-Shompoo was a wonderful experience for quality but the local slow boat was, generally speaking, more fun for company. We did meet some well traveled folks with good advice on the Shompoo cruise, but the budget traveler crowd are the friends we continue to hang out with around Luang Prabang. I'm glad we got to experience both, but I'm also sad to have missed out on Day 1 with Shompoo. I would cruise all the bodies of water with them. If you need a gentle, calm travel experience, that's the way to go.
-It's also possible to take an overnight bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. That's 12-14 hours on rough roads in an area not know for bus safety. Just take the slow boat. The Mekong, man. It's wildly beautiful.
Joyous times to you, intrepid Southeast Asia travelers! I hope this helps you understand how to get from Thailand to Laos over "Friendship Bridge No. 4."