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I’d read that the slow boat along the Mekong River from the Northern Thai border to Luang Prabang in Laos was a great trip so decided to go on a mini adventure from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang to find out for myself.

Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong

The first step in my journey entailed getting a bus from Chiang Mai to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong. I booked a seat for the five and half hour journey on the morning departure of the Greenbus VIP service scheduled for 8am. (Useful info about the Greenbus service can be found here on the Tieland to Thailand blog.)
The online booking process was relatively straight forward and my ticket cost 395 baht (approx. $16 AUD). It included the service number (VX220), my seat number and most importantly the platform that the bus would depart from.
We left Chiang Mai’s Arcade bus station about 10 minutes late and the bus was extremely comfortable. Just after leaving the steward delivered a snack and bottle of water to all of us – a nice touch.
I’d packed some warm clothes for the bus journey as I was aware that the air conditioning in the bus could be set very low. However, I needn’t have worried as the temperature hovered around the 18-19 degree mark and was quite comfortable. We arrived at Chiang Rai bus station number 2 (I have no idea where station 1 is!!) at 11am for a 5 minute drop off/pick up and toilet stop. There is an onboard toilet on the VIP bus service but I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and have a quick look around the station. An hour and a half later we stopped for another short 5 minutes at Theong bus station.
The final hour to Chiang Khong involved a number of impromptu stops for local people but these were very quick and didn’t prove any major delays. A few kilometres before our final destination we made another stop for those wanting to cross to the Laos border. There appears to be a bus that will take you the final few kilometres to the Chiang Khong-Huay Xai Friendship Bridge border crossing from this drop off point rather than going all the way into Chiang Khong.
We arrived at the Chiang Kong terminus around 1.30pm. There is no bus station to speak of here – it’s just the Greenbus ticket office. However, there are a number of shops and a 7-11 close by if you’re needing sustenance.
The ‘bus station’ at Chiang Khong

Chiang Khong

My hotel for the night overlooked the Mekong River and Laos and was only a short walk from the bus stop. I stayed at the Fortune Riverview Hotel and it was very pleasant. I splurged a little but the cost was still a very reasonable $58 AUD for a river view room with breakfast. After checking in I explored the town on a bicycle provided by the hotel.
View over the Mekong to Laos from the hotel terrace

Tourist sights in Chiang Khong

There’s not much of note in Chiang Khong from a tourist perspective however there were a couple of very beautiful temples and an unusual public park. At one of the temples there was a craftsman decorating/creating a new Naga serpent at the entrance to a temple. The amount of work that goes into creating these naga’s is was astonishing. The public park at the end of the main road next to the Mekong seemed to be dedicated to some sort of local river fish. I had trouble identifying it however I later learned it was the local catfish.

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Laos Currency

If you’re looking for Laos currency – the Kip, then don’t bother going to the bank here. Laos Kip are only used in Laos and you can’t source them anywhere in Northern Thailand. I tried unsuccessfully at a number of banks and exchange booths in Chiang Mai to purchase some. Laos accepts US dollars and Thai Baht but there are so many exchange places and ATM’s in Luang Prabang you won’t have any trouble getting some once you’re there. There is also an ATM and exchange booth at Immigration on the Laos side of the border.

Border Control (or lack of it)

It always amazes me how countries can be separated by just a river and this was no exception. Just across the water was Laos – that blew my mind. Even more surprising was the ‘looseness’ of border control and immigration here. You could pay 20 baht for the quick long boat ride across to Laos just by going down to the riverside ‘near’ the immigration office. I wandered down without being stopped and could easily have just got on a boat and gone to Laos!!!
Local 20 baht boat to Laos anyone???
Local 20 baht boat to Laos anyone???
Many locals were running and cycling prior to sunset on the long, paved promenade that followed the river downstream from the hotel. I joined them to investigate a huge grey and gold monument I could see in the distance. Unfortunately, the path did not go all the way and it was difficult to ascertain what it was. It looked like a boat to me however the next day we passed it on the slow boat and it turned out to be a huge Catfish!!!!
Gold and grey monument
The monument I thought was a boat
I had a very nice meal dinner at a local cafe/bar on the main street called the Rin Bar and can recommend their red curry. Riding back to the hotel about 7.30pm it was obvious that this was not a party town! Virtually everything was closed.

Crossing the border into Laos

After researching the various companies that provide the two day river trip down the Mekong from Houi Xai to Luang Prabang I chose Nagi of Mekong. They appeared to charge a reasonable price, stay at decent lodgings for the halfway stop at Pakbeng and the boat looked comfortable. They had kindly dropped off some paperwork at the hotel for me that included some useful pre-trip info about border formalities on the both the Thai and Laos sides as well as pre-cruise info and the Laos immigration and Visa forms. I was picked up at 8am, along with a few other passengers that were staying at the hotel, and driven to Thai immigration at the Friendship Bridge. I was aware of ‘THE’ Friendship Bridge further north near the Golden Triangle but discovered that there are in fact multiple Friendship Bridges along the Thai/Laos border. This particular one is Friendship Bridge No. 4 and was only recently completed in 2013.
We went swiftly through Thai immigration and then were loaded onto another bus and driven a short distance to Laos immigration. Before being able to enter Laos we had to purchase a Visa On Arrival for US$30. I had completed the Visa form (provided by Mr Nagi) at the hotel so was able to go straight to window number 1!!! You give your completed form, passport and cash here and then move to window number 2 and wait to eventually receive your passport with a full page shiny new Laos Visa in it. Of course, many people crossing the border, did not have the form so had to queue to use the tables and few pens that were available.
Visa on Arrival windows at laos border
Visa On Arrival at Laos border with window 1 (R) and window 2 (L)
Whilst waiting for all the other punters to be processed I filled in time chatting to a few of the other ‘cruise’ passengers and had a quick look around the building. There is one ATM, a small shop and a currency exchange window – that’s it. Eventually, everyone received their Visa, passed through passport control and we were on our way in a mini bus for the 15 minute drive to board our boat.
Foreign Currency rates

Houi Xai to Pakbeng

The boat was fantastic. Spacious timber, cushions, blankets, 4 toilets (2 squat, 2 western). bananas & mandarins available, free water, tea and coffee and bar for purchasing snacks, soft drinks and beer.
We departed the river bank around 9.30am and cruised downstream on a coolish, overcast day. The boat could accommodate over 40 people but on this journey there was only 19 passengers so we all had plenty of space. As the departure point was north of the border crossing and as we were heading south we cruised past some of Chiang Khong and were able to see  the hotel and the catfish monument/temple.
Great lunch around 11.30 prepared by the captains wife – soup, rice, delicious chicken curry, mixed vegetables, chips and fried root vegetable, watermelon.
Around midday we arrived at a Hmong village and walked around. Very basic existence. Hmong new year celebrations so football tournament, girls with makeup. Children trying to sell hand made bracelets. All happy faces. Enthusiastic support for the soccer games. Ice cream vendor. 472 population. Generally marry within the Hmong community.
relaxing afternoon cruise to Pakbeng – arrived about 4.30pm

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Mekong Riverside lodge. Walk through town – nothing much of note. Two ATM’s. A number of  of restaurants and bars. Some take baht.
After a nice breakfast taken overlooking the river I was picked up at 8am by the driver

Pakbeng to Luang Prabang

Day 2 on river – 8am start. Breakfast warm bread/roll, sliced fruit papaya, banana, watermelon. Fried egg, jam, tea & coffee.
Rainy day, low  cloud
Lunch 11.30am – rice, noodles x 2, spicy pork, fried chicken drum sticks. Cabbage soup, watermelon