When looking at the options to get from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos we weren’t keen to spend 2 full days on the Mekong river taking the usual 3 day/2 night option via the busy Chiang Khong/Huay Xai border crossing so when, by chance, we passed a tour operator with a notice of a 2 day/1 night option to get to Luang Prabang which was also slightly cheaper at 1750Bhat (about £30) and only spends one day on the river. This is a new route option which goes through the Thai/Laotian border crossing of Huaikone (or as it’s spelt on Google Maps – Huai Kon) and Muang Nguen (or Nam Ngen on Google). The package included all transfers, private en-suite accommodation and breakfast. OK cool, let’s go!
The minivan picked us up from outside our guesthouse just after 9am as scheduled, drove to a few more hostels to pick up the rest of the crew then made its way out of town. Travelling with us that day was 2 Chileans, a German, an American, a Kiwi and a Frenchman who was (thankfully) travelling with a Thai lady. That meant there was at least one representative from each continent! So we all loaded into the van left Chiang Mai around 10am. We stopped just by the edge of town to fill up with petrol but just as the tank was pretty much full our driver started shaking the van from side to side to squirt in a couple extra drops of fuel. Not quite sure what the point of that was but it got me thinking of the possibility that we were heading so far off course that petrol stations would be few and far between…
Back on the road and soon enough it became windier than an anaconda’s back with constant twists and turns as the driver pulled the van over high passes and through some stunning jungle valleys. I didn’t find to too rough on the stomach but there were some that weren’t faring so well. That said I think most of the roads in Northern Thailand are like that so it was to be expected. We made a quick stop for lunch around 1pm at a petrol station which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and the only lunch options were a little local Thai restaurant with a เมนูอาหารไทย menu which we didn’t quite understand, a coffee house and a 7Eleven so toasted 7Eleven ham and cheese sandwiches it was. Back on the road things settled a bit as we went through some towns and nice flat farmlands heading due east. A bit randomly we stopped and picked up Thai guy who was waiting at an intersection in a small town who came with us all the way to the border. Around 4pm we made one last toilet stop and the driver said to us “1hour”. That was pretty much all he’d said the whole day and the news was great. A few more twisty mountain roads led us to the sleepy Thailand border post of Huaikone. Besides a few officials and guards we were pretty much the only people there.
We were told to take all our bags with us and head to immigration, that’s it. So we did and with our Thailand exit stamps the group headed down the road in the direction of Laos. About a minute into the walk we looked back to see if our van had made it through but it had left! Not sure of what to do next and no Laotian border post in sight we started walking up the hill without any clue of how far it would be. A new minivan later arrived from the Laos side and some of us loaded into it while the others jumped on the back of a pickup which we assumed were there to ferry us across the gap. The driver stopped at the Laos gate about 1km away without saying much so we got out the van with all our bags and walked over towards the Muang Nguen gate. He then drove off as well. The first Laotian guard stopped us to check our passports and asked me to remove my hat and sunglasses for a closer look. His response upon seeing my face was, “Ah, handsome!” Laotian people are so nice!
Passport control was pretty straight forward and getting a visa for Laos was too. Something to note here is that in order to get a visa on arrival at most Laos border crossings you need to take a copy of your passport, a passport photo as well as $30/$35 USD cash (depending on which country you come from) to pay for the visa. Apparently they’ll give you terrible rates if you try to buy a visa with Thai Baht or Laotian Kip. So we had no worries there and we all made it through in good time only to come out from the immigration office and realise there were no vehicles around… again, now what?!
10 loitering minutes later, 2 tuk-tuks rocked up we shuffled into after a bit of negotiating and convincing from our Thai lady travelling companion. The tuk-tuk ride only took us about 2 kms down the road where we pulled over in front of some bungalows. The tuk-tuks left without asking for money and once again we were left standing there scratching our heads. A well-dressed lady shortly arrived on a scooter and without really speaking allowed us to each pick a room then left us as the sun was setting.
Everyone retired to their own bungalows for a bit, then slowly we all come back and general conversation we along the lines of, “Now, what?”, “Where can we get some dinner?”, “What time are we being picked up?” and “Damn there’s a lot of mosquitos here!” Are you sensing a trend here?
A little walk up the road took us further away from what little bit of civilisation was around so we headed back down the road towards the border and about 100m down the road was a little restaurant (that I think doubled up as a bar on the weekends) where we found the same smiley lady that ushered us into our rooms. Now this is where our Thai lady travelling companion really came in handy as Thais and Laotians can kind of understand each other and she translated that the restaurant where we were was where they would be picking us up the next morning at 7:30am and that breakfast (which was included in the tour price) would be served there at 7am. They also made dinner for us which we’d have to buy but it was at a good price. 70 Baht for the Chicken and Rice with Vegetable soup or just 50 Baht for the sans-chicken option. Fortunately they accepted Thai Baht there as none of us had Laotian KIP yet. Dinner was decent and around 8pm we all made our way back to the rooms in the dark for some much needed rest. The beds were surprisingly soft and warm but I couldn’t fully relax as there were a few holes in the mozzie mesh on the windows big enough for a larger bug to come surprise us…
The 6:30am alarm got things started and we walked out of our bungalow a bit cold but fresh to this eerie misty morning…
Breakfast was your average tea, coffee, bananas, egg and toast and we were back on the road at 7:30am. The mist hadn’t cleared yet so the first bit of the journey was slow. Just over an hour later we drove through a large construction yard next to a river. Turns out there were building a bridge at that site and currently the only way to get across the river was by ferry. Our first thoughts were that we had arrived at Pakbeng, which is the town where we were due to catch our river boat. After watching a couple cars and some trucks get ferried across we got our turn. This delay cost us about half an hour and as soon as the driver started up on the other side he floored it and drove like a maniac while shouting something into his phone. Turns out this delay took longer than expected and he was phoning ahead to tell the boat to wait for us.
We arrived in Pakbeng at 9:30am where the boat was already fully loaded and waiting and fortunately we found a bench to sit The public boat reminded me a bit of our time spend floating down the Beni River in the Bolivian Amazon but this time with a bigger boat. It was a smooth ride all the way down with hardly any rapids to speak of. Our boat made a few stops at what seemed to be at random spots along the river but each time someone either got off or came out of the bushes to jump on the boat. This gave us some fun glimpses of rural life along the river with men fishing to little kids playing in the water. There is an overpriced little bar on the boat where you can buy beer, soft drinks and water along with a few snacks but it would be worth while taking some food with you for this part of the journey as you don’t stop anywhere for lunch. Even though our boat left Pakbeng 30 minutes late we still arrived in Luang Prabang at the scheduled time of 5pm.
But here’s another thing no-one tells you is that all the boats now stop 10kms outside of Luang Prabang and you have to catch a tuk-tuk into town which cost 85 Baht (£1.50) each or about 20,000 Kip. Once again they still accept Baht here but will give you Kip for change. It helps if you have a hostel booked already and they can usually take you straight there but if you’re like us then you’ll still need to find somewhere to stay then just ask them to take you to the main sinsangvongvong street (where the Night Market is) and grab a map from the tourist office. There are loads of guesthouses around that area so you shouldn’t have a problem finding a room for between 100,000 and 150,000 Kip (£7.50 to £11.50).
If you’re thinking of doing this route from Chiang Mai to Laung Prabang this way then do it. It saves you a days travel from the usual 3day/2night journey through Chiang Rai and the busier Chiang Khong/Huay Xai border post or at least only puts you on the river for one day as opposed to the other 2day/1night trip which starts earlier, also goes through the Chiang Khong border but still puts you on the river for nearly 2 full days. Overall it was a really enjoyable experience. Despite the moments we were standing around wondering what to do next, not once did we feel put out or worried that we might have a problem. The accommodation and meal options were decent and we left Chiang Mai and arrived in Luang Prabang on schedule. It’s still a relatively new way to go and currently those trips only leave Chiang Mai on Mondays and Fridays so you’ll have to book at least a couple days in advance. I also think it will become a lot more popular in the near future.
Have you been through any new border crossings or on tours that not many people know about? We’d love to hear your comments on this below and read about your trailblazing adventures too!