This is simply my first hand account of crossing the border of Thailand and Laos at Chiang Khong/Huay Xai. I do not guarantee that your experience will match mine as the variables will continue to change. That being said…
My buddy and I crossed the border on our fourth day of a cycling trip from Thailand to Vietnam. Needless to say, we crossed with bicycles which makes our experience a bit different and more expensive. The night before the crossing we stayed at Baanrimtaling Guesthouse which for 100baht a person was a great bargain. Basic accommodations in this Swiss Family Robinson-esque setting. Nothing to write home about but the food is fantasticand there are lovely views of the river.. oh and it’s cheap! They also offer package deals here for tuk-tuk to border crossing, ferry across the river, and slow boat to Luang Prabang for 1200 baht. This is a pretty fair deal.. you might save the equivalent of a dollar or two by arranging these things for yourself but you may end up spending more too. It’s kind of the luck of the draw. The prices of all these services change very quickly and you are at their mercy.. keep that in mind! But in our case, we had bicycles so early on Friday, February 8, 2013 we rode down to the border crossing at about 7:30am. There were half a dozen people in line ahead of us waiting for immigration toopen at 8. At about 7:45 a long queue quickly formed behind us and by the timethe windows opened at 8 there were around 75-100 folks waiting. There are two windows total and each person takes anywhere from 45 seconds to 5-10 minutes. Keep in mind that in the cool season it’s going to be about 70-75 degrees (21-24c) at 8 in the morning and you can expect it to hit the 90s (32-35) by 11. The line is directly in the sun and moves slowly. Therefore it pays to wake up early and snag a spot in line before the circus shows up. Once the windows opened at 8 we had our passports stamped and walked down to the ferries about 50m away on the left. Because of our bicycles they put us on our own private ferry, just the two of us with our bicycles and bags. I seem to remember this costing 70-80baht per person ($3) instead of their normal price of just 40-50baht for a person and their luggage however these boats are also more full. No reservations are made for these. They make countless trips back and forth all day long and simply leave once the boat is full. You shouldn’t have to wait too long. Upon reaching the other side (this is a very short ride across the Mekong) you’ll walk up a slight incline to immigration on the right side. You’ll roll in, pick-up the appropriate paperwork, fill it out and hand it back in with your passport. Please note, there are two pieces of paperwork to fill out. They’ll both be in your hands however one looks like an advertisement. Be sure to open this up and fill it out as it’s your departure card and they won’t give you the time of day until it’s complete. Again, once it’s all completed hand it into the agent at the window to your far right. They’ll troll around with it for 5-10 minutes (or much longer depending on the queue ahead of you), inform you that you’ve been admitted, and then demand cash for the visa. I am American so the price was $35. Cannot comment on the price of other nationalities.. I seem to remember Canadian passports costing $42 and UK being $35. To my knowledge they only accept American dollars here and they’ve got to be new/crisp/clean/free of imperfections or you run the risk of being denied! Moving on.. once you’ve paid the ransom for your passport they’ll instruct you to continue moving to your left windows (about 3m away) which is Laos immigration. They’ll stamp your passport and departure card then send you on your way. After returning to the little entry road you began walking up you’ll pass a little stand on your left with a gentleman checking to make sure your documents are in order. Once you pass him you’re in! Immediately you’ll be accosted with all kinds of touts for the slowboat. There appear to be a few different options but most folks seem to go for the most basic one which is a simple slowboat, seats about 90, and takes two full days with a stop over in Pakbeng. You can also get tickets for a speedboat (takes one day, moves fast, and you get wet, not sure on price) orthe VIP slowboat (room to move around, television, other amenities, not sure on price). Now I cannot comment on which boat company is best or this and that so just know that they all look to be about the same and cost around the same amount, 1000baht a person including luggage. Because of our bicycles we had to pay a much higher price. A price, I might add, that literally changed three times in 30 seconds as we stood there. First it was 500baht for both of our bicycles, then it was 500baht per bicycle, and it was finalized at 350baht per bicycle. I should add that at no point did we argue or try to negotiate, this was just the natural progression of standing there for 30 seconds. No joke. OK, so all-in-all we paid 1350baht each for our slow boat tickets and bicycles. We were then escorted by one of the fellows to the slowboat dock (he rode on his motorbike and we rode behind him) where he took our passports to some fellow in an office then returned them. It dawned on me that if perhaps had we known where to go, we could have come straight to this guy as you could clearly have purchased tickets directly from him and it probably wouldn’t have been another 350baht for the bikes. That being said, if you care to try this route, once you’re at the top of the hill (at the main road) past immigration, make a left and go down about 1.5km. I couldn’t tell you the names of the roads but see photos below. I outlined the route but it doesn’t start at immigration, rather a guesthouse just down the street. But the important part is the street you turn left onto and head down towards the slowboat/barge docks. Just before the steep hill down to the docks begins there are offices on the left where the slowboat higher ups hang out. I’d imagine you can purchase tickets here but don’t quote me. Also there are about a dozen restaurants/food shops on this short road.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. When our passports were returned to us along with our tickets we were told that we’re seat numbers 30 and 31 which would be towards the front of the boat. Everything I’d read online suggested that seating is on a first come, first served basis and being in back by the engines is miserable (which appeared to be true). So we were mighty stoked when we received our tickets and were told that these seats were reserved for us, a detail that later turned out to not be true! OK, just to give you a frame of reference. We arrived at the Chiang Khong immigration office at 7:30, crossed the border, hit immigration in Laos, got our tickets and were at the slow boats. By this time it was around 9:00-9:15. Our boat was scheduled to leave at 11. Over the next two hours people began to slowly trickle in as the boat filled up. About 10:30 the boat was totally full and there were still people coming. Eventually some folks standing stuck in the middle of the aisle got quite upset and began yelling and this and that. They were told to move to the boat directly next to ours. Apparently the boats always go in pairs in case there’s some catastrophe. So these people move to the other boat and shortly after that happens a very creepy, shifty looking Laotian guy boards our boat to announce that we will not be leaving at 11am as promised but 12/noon now. His news was met with protests as we were assured that he couldn’t care less and this boat wasn’t going anywhere for another 90 minutes. Ah jeez, well so people got off the boat to re-up on snacks and drinks (I’m sure this was the reason for our delay.. to make us buy more from the locals) however it should be noted that there are refreshments and light snacks available on the boat.. obviously more expensive. Please note that this same shifty snake that announced the delay news also mentioned that we would now not be arriving until after dark and he had just a few accommodations left at a guesthouse! That we should definitely book now because they’d all be filled by the time we arrived.. something I knew was false from reading other experiences beforehand. He also said that there are no assigned seats, the numbers on your tickets are meaningless, sit anywhere you want. BOLLOCKS! Anyway, eventually at about noon we left and began making our way down the Mekong. Lovely ride, lots of annoying drunk backpacker types being cliché.. lots of old rich white people. Simply put, lots of tourists being tourists. We arrived around 18:00 that evening and were greeted with touts for accommodations. To be clear, this town is very small and built-up as a stopping point for this journey. Therefore it’s full of guesthouses and hotels ranging from very basic to pretty nice. There are literally people every 50m on the street begging you to stay at their spot. You’ll have no problem finding accommodations here however don’t expect too much. It seems prices start at about 300baht a night per person. The cliff overlooking the river right where the boats dock was rather picturesque so my buddy and I pitched our tent and camped there that night which was an excellent idea! Saved some dough and besides the rough ground (we didn’t have sleeping pads) it was very nice to hear the sounds of the river and wake up 50m from where we needed to be. There are several decent looking restaurants along the main road. We ate at the Indian spot which was very good and not too expensive (free wifi too). Also, the owner is the proud parent of one of the fattest babies I’ve ever seen. No joke. In the morning the main road is littered with stalls where you can buy fruit, snacks, sandwiches, and anti-climactic pastries/coffee. Again, do not expect too much! Our boat departed late (again) at 9:30 instead of 9. Shocking. We arrived at 8 to ensure good seats. Folks were even more obnoxious this time around. Even drunker, louder, dumber backpackers poorly playing U2 covers on an acoustic. Note that for the first two hours it was a bit chilly as the fog burned off. Not a bad idea to bring an extra layer! Also it can be somewhat chilly the night before as you arrive in Pakbeng, depending on what time it is. We arrived in Luang Prabang around 17:00 and made our way to our hotel, the fabulous Sopha House which was comfortable, authentic, and charming for $20/per person which isn’t outrageous considering Luang Prabang is easily the most expensive city in the country. Note that accommodations in Luang Prabang fill up QUICK. Book ahead regardless of where you stay.
The long wooden uncomfortable benches I’d read about and been dreading have been replaced with what appear to be the bench seats from Chrysler Town & Country vans. Make no mistake, they become awfully uncomfortable too.
The benches do not bolt into the boat therefore they are easy to slide which means you could end up in a seat with little to no leg room as the person in front or behind you enjoys their stretch.
The best seats on the slow boat are all the way up front where they face each other. Although not so great for the view, they offer the most legroom and comfort. The majority of the seats are in rows and offer great views. It is to your advantage to sit on the left side (in the direction of travel) as the sun sets on the right side seats.
Again, the assigned seating is nonsense and is not enforced.
The back of the boat is noisy and seems to become a hangout area for smokers, drinkers, and restless individuals.
Yikes, simplify lol. A couple notes myself.
I too stayed at Baanrimtaling and it was a good place and they offered a free shuttle to the border in the morning. You can book the slow boats through them but I wouldn't bother with it.
Once you get to the border make sure you have US dollars, if you don't have any there are exchange guys on the road down to the border but they give you a crappy exchange rate(much better then the rip off if you just show at the border with Baht though).
The lineup does take a while on the other side but isn't too bad as there really is no reason to rush. From what I heard the slowboats almost always end up leaving around noon, not sure why they don't just change the posted schedules etc as it seems they already aim for the later time.
Then if you walk up the hill to the main road you will see some travel agencies etc. It is possible to book through these and get the slow boat for 950 baht including bus transfer to the pier(only 50 baht more then buying from the pier).
The seats are taken from automobiles and I thought were plenty comfortable for the trip, I don't think any of the boats have wooden seats anymore. The back of the boats are very loud in some, moderately loud in others, either way try and get a seat near the front. As mentioned the tickets have assigned seating but few people follow it and the next day the boats won't have assigned seating anyways.
As mentioned do not fall for the scare tactics employed by the guy on the boat trying to sell you a guest house room. There are too many guest houses in Pakbeng and it is easy to find something. That kind of goes wherever you go though, never fall for scare tactics as probably 90% of the time they are false.
We didn't have trouble finding accommodation in Luang Prabang but heard of people that did, I guess it just depends on what area you check out.