You have a few options
Sadly, the most popular thing for tourists to do in Chiang Khong is leave, and with the opening of a new bridge, many of the package tours to Laos don’t even stop in town anymore. You simply buy tickets in Chiang Mai or Pai ‘direct’ to Luang Prabang, all inclusive. The main operators are Aya Service in Pai and Chiang Mai, Terminal Green (also Pai and Chiang Mai), and Namkhong, operating out of their eponymous Chiang Khong hotel. The package generally includes transport to the border, assistance with border formalities, transfer to the Huay Xai boat pier, slow or fast boats to Luang Prabang and in the former case perhaps overnight accommodation in Pak Beng at the half way stop on the two-day trip. There are numerous variations in the details, with buses replacing boats if you prefer an overland journey, an overnight in Chiang Khong and inclusion or otherwise of extras such as meals and visas, but all are similar overall.
Now, we can see the convenience of such all-inclusive packages and some look very good on the posters. But a read through our long distance travel in Southeast Asia piece, or a skim through reviews and scam reports on various travel forums and websites, ought to vividly demonstrate the pitfalls. Frequent complaints are that the transport doesn’t resemble that on the posters, ‘direct’ buses involve changes in Chiang Mai (if coming from Pai), sometimes Chiang Rai and always Chiang Khong, and timings are absurdly optimistic. Promised meals are often not included, and if they are, you wish they weren’t. Inclusive accommodation is pitiful, visa or immigration assistance is just another way of scamming more money out of you and there’s pressure to buy dollars and kip beforehand at rip-off rates. Further complaints refer to rude, unhelpful and sometimes aggressive staff, and even on several occasions reported robberies. Timing is at the operators’ convenience, not the passengers, and frequently you’ll find yourself dumped in Chiang Khong at 01:00 or 02:00 with a long wait, or deposited in front of a grotty guesthouse outside of Luang Prabang at some godforsaken hour.
If a room in Chiang Khong is included, or if you’ve elected to get a cheapie yourself to tide you over, you’ll be woken at 06:15 to get you down to the bridge for the 07:00 Thai opening time, so the minibus can head back to the starting point quickly to collect the next herd of cattle. Lao immigration at the far end of the bridge, whatever they may claim, doesn’t really function until 08:00, so enjoy your early morning bridge visit. By the way, one of the above-mentioned companies is as of late 2015 being threatened with legal action for refusing to sell tickets to Thai customers.
Furthermore, agents and guesthouses just selling on operators’ packages for commission may genuinely not be aware of how things really pan out. For instance, Micky Mouse schedules aside, one itinerary we came across would work out thus: depart Pai in the afternoon for the 3.5 hour drive to Chiang Mai. Then leaving early evening for a 5 to 6 hour transfer, including stops, will see you arrive in Chiang Khong in the early hours. The following morning, passing Lao immigration at 08:00 you’ll transfer to the port where the slow boat leaves around 11:00 for a two-day – 16 hour – boat voyage to Luang Prabang, with an overnight in the aforementioned Pakbeng. Enjoy your 48-hour minimum ‘direct’ trip.
And here’s the thing: The entire package is very easily arranged yourself, especially if you’re not in a mad rush to get to Luang Prabang in one go. You’ll save time, money, stress and hassle. Transport from Pai, Chiang Mai or anywhere else to Chiang Khong is easily and cheaply arranged using public buses. (Northern travel specialists Green Bus tickets can even be purchased from a 7-eleven!)
Chiang Khong’s a great spot to soak up a bit of Mekong atmosphere before crossing over so we’d suggest staying at least one night in town, two if you can spare the time, and heading over the following morning. Visa-on-arrival at Lao immigration is straightforward and exchange facilities are readily found. There’s plenty of tuk tuks around on both sides to take you to and from the bridge and Chiang Khong even has a 50 baht shuttle service. There’s no advantage in buying slow boat tickets in advance and the cheapest place to purchase them is, of course, at the Huay Xai jetty anyway. (See our Huay Xai transport section. )
Huay Xai is a good way to ease yourself into Laos, too so why not spend a night there? If you are in a hurry, boats depart between 10:00 and 11:00, so you have ample time to get yourself down and find a seat. What is worth doing in advance, due to potential availability issues, is reserving some accommodation in Pakbeng.
If you are short of time and absolutely do want to pre-book this ‘direct’ trip then our advice would be to book the minimal package possible. Avoid inclusive accommodation and meals — you’ll be at best disappointed — and organise visa and currency exchange yourself, whatever operators may tell you. Have a look online and reserve places to stay in Pakbeng, if you’re taking the slow boat, and Luang Prabang in advance so you at least know where you’re going when you get there. Good luck!
Remember, there’s a lot more to this region than Pai, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng! It’s often the surprises in between that are the most memorable bits.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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