For backpackers travelling from Thailand into Laos, the most common option is to take the 2 day slow boat up the Mekong river. But for various reasons relating to comfort, safety and convenience, we decided on a much easier alternative to the Mekong slow boat.
Despite the breathtaking scenery of rural Laos, the general consensus is that the two day boat trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is an experience to be endured, rather than enjoyed.
As well as being hot and crowded, you also have the noise and fumes of the diesel engines to contend with. If you’re lucky you’ll get a seat, and if you’re very lucky that seat will be away from the engine. But for most, it’s two days of teeth-shattering vibrations and the putt-putt-putt of the rickety old engine.
Beyond the discomfort, the journey carries with is certain dangers; from the dangers of being exploited by locals to the slightly more genuine danger of death or serious harm:
- Death of a BBC Reporter
- Drugs, Jail and Mutiny – A Mekong Horror Story
- Slow Boat to Hell
- The list goes on and on…
So when Sarah and I reached this point in our journey, we decided on a cheeky alternative route. It made sense to us not only because we could skip the slow boat, but also we we could include a couple of extra locations on our itinerary.
Chiang Rai to Huay Xai
Like most travellers , our journey started at the Chiang Rai bus terminal (you can make the same journey direct from Chiang Mai). Hop onto a bus heading towards Chiang Khong (this costs around 65 Bhat) but ask the driver or conductor to let you off at the turn-off for the Laos border. They do this a lot, so it won’t be too difficult to explain what you want.
Once you’re there, you’ll need to take a tuc tuc (or make the 2km walk) to the border. They’ll ask you for over 50 Baht per person but if there’s a group of you – and you haggle hard – you can pay closer to 25 Baht.
Once you have your exit stamp and have left Thailand officially, there’s a little window to the right where you can purchase a ticket across no man’s land to the Laos border (25,000 Kip or 100 Baht / less than £2).
Once you reach the border head straight to the ‘Visa on Entry’ window – I’m talking as a Brit, so check your country’s entry requirements! You’ll need to fill out a small stack of forms and hand over your passport and some additional passport photos for your visa. Depending on the kind of mood they’re in, this could take a while, even at quieter times of day. Once they called our name we went back to the second window, paid our US$35 dollars (varies by nationality) and collected our passport, visa and all.
Once into beautiful Laos, you can take a tuc tuc to Huay Xai. It’s a bumpy road but you get a real taste of Laos, so it’s totally worth it!
The Slow Boat Alternative
Huay Xai is small but packed with hostels and travelers, most of whom are overnighting while they wait for the slow boat. Not us! We spent a night in a perfectly pleasant hostel while we planned our next steps…
- Bus from Hauy Xai to Luang Namtha – given the choice, why would you spend hours on a boat instead of exploring beautiful, rural Luang Namtha? Read about it here!
- From Luang Namtha we took a bus to Luang Prabang – while the boaters spent two days on a cramped barge, we went trecking through the rainforest and took two easy buses to get to LP. No brainer!