Travel Tips: Border crossing between Chiang Khong, Thailand and Huay Xai, Laos

There are times when it feels like I spend half my day at the computer researching travel routes, accommodations, VISA fees, entry regulations, flight schedules and more. I’m sure many of you know exactly how I feel and have spent your fair share of time and energy scrounging travel forums for up-to-date information on your preferred destination.

More frustrating is when you come across a bit of information that seems helpful on the surface but turns out to be half a decade out of date; I don’t care if 100 Thai baht was worth $1 US dollar in 2003, I want to know what it’s worth today!

To that end I’m going to start blogging about a few of my travel experiences from the road in a general capacity. I’ll write about crossing land borders, the best time to book flight tickets, how and where to get a VISA for a particular destination and so on and so forth. This is and shall be subjective, of course, but I’ll try and stick to the cold hard facts where applicable. And maybe every now and then I’ll interject with a photo tip or two and an amusing anecdote or another. Read on if you’re interested in the subject matter at hand; skip to another post if you’re here looking for photography insights, tips, tricks and more.

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Travel Tip 1:

Crossing the border between Chiang Khong, Thailand and Huay Xai, Laos

The Chiang Khong – Huay Xai border crossing is an exceptionally well-trodden travel path. Backpackers and road warriors alike have been boarding boats on the Mekong for the slow trip down to Luang Prabang from this spot for many, many years, yet I have not come across many resources that spell out all the information you need before heading out on the road. I’ll do my best to get you from Chiang Mai, Thailand all the way to Laos without having to consult your guidebook along the way (Chiang Mai being the most common point of embarkation for travelers en route to Huay Xia).

Phase One: Leaving Chiang Mai

Arrive early at the Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station if you intend to be among the first batch of bus passengers; lines form quickly and they can be deep. We did this trip in the first week of September, 2011 – smack dab in the middle of the low season – and the station was still busy. Amplify that by 100 if you’re traveling at any time between December and February. Now, you can queue up with everyone else waiting for tickets – I did – but you don’t really need to. One little known fact is that you can buy your tickets on the bus, so consider that when you get into a line with 250 Thai folks.

Do what you can to get on a bus that is going direct to Chiang Khong; the trip is shorter (4.5 hours approx.) than going to Chiang Rai first. We missed the first bus of the day to Chiang Khong (it left just before 9am) and would have had to wait until 1pm to catch the next one. Instead we took a long ride to Chiang Rai, changed buses and continued to Chiang Khong. There are a few classes of bus to choose from but they are generally similar; expect to pay about 200 baht to ride all the way to Chiang Khong.

*If you’ve never been to Chiang Rai you may want to consider adding a night or two in town to your itinerary. The scenery outside the town is stunning; huge karst formations blasting out of seemingly endless rice fields are ample photographic fodder. Rent a scooter and spend a few days in the hills.

Phase Two: Arrive in Chiang Khong

Your bus driver is going to drop you off a few kilometers short of the boat launch. Why? So you can pay a tuk-tuk driver 60 baht to drive you down the road, of course! Walking is likely out of the question if you’re loaded down with bags so pay the tuk-tuk driver (we did) or ask your bus driver to take you directly to the boat launch. If he’s a nice guy he probably will. If he’s not, pay him your 60 baht and save the tuk-tuk ride for another time.

Phase Three: Exiting Thailand

On your way down the hill to the boat launch you’ll see a little immigration hut on your left. Walk up to the window, hand over your passport and your departure card (must be filled out) and you’ll be stamped out of Thailand. That’s it – you’re done! On to a new country.

Walk down to the long boats where the boatmen will help you into one of the ancient water craft for the five-minute trip across the Mekong River. This is quite an experience, leaving one country for another by rickety raft. Try to think of the positives if you spot a hole in the bottom of your boat. There were several in ours, but we made it safe, sound and dry. The boat ride costs a few baht, nothing to haggle over.

Phase Four: Entering Laos

Arrive at the shore, walk your bags up the steps and arrive at customs and immigration (on your right hand side). Here you are granted a 30-day Visa-On-Arrival; you simply pay your fee (the price depends on the country you come from. As a Canadian I paid $43. As an American Megan paid $36). Fill out two pieces of paperwork, hand over your passport and receive your Laos VISA (it takes up one full page in your passport, so be weary if you’re getting low on pages). It is unlikely you will be bothered by the customs official; he said hello, looked us up and down and sent us on our way. From collecting our exit stamp in Thailand to our entry permit to Laos we spent maybe 15 minutes; if a simpler immigration system exists I have yet to experience it!

So that is exiting Thailand and entering Laos overland. It is a simple, painless and entertaining process; an experience, sure, one that plenty of backpackers and other intrepid travelers have made through the years. It’s a cheap one, too; forget about chartering a private mini-bus or taxi from Chiang Mai. The bus is more comfortable, cheaper and a better way to meet people. Huay Xia is a gateway to northern and eastern Laos and worth a look at least once. Chiang Rai, as I mentioned, is worth experiencing in and of itself, so stop off if you get the chance.

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Things to Consider:

  1. Laos immigration closes the border at Huay Xia at 6:00pm. If you haven’t arrived by then you’ll have to spend the night in Chiang Khong. This isn’t a big deal; many people spend the night in Chiang Khong, rise early for the boat trip across the border and still have time to shop for groceries and have breakfast before the slow boat leaves for Luang Prebang.
  2. Don’t worry about buying your boat tickets in Chiang Kong. No matter what the touts tell you, you can buy them at the pier in Huay Xia or at any guest house on the Laos side. Don’t pay more than 900 Thai Baht or 135,000 kip.
  3. The slow boat won’t leave until it is full – sometimes very, very full. We left just after 11:30am without an empty seat on the vessel. So you can spend one more night in Thailand in Chiang Kong if you’re up for it or rest your head in Laos.
  4. In Laos you may use Lao kip, US Dollars and Thai baht interchangeably. Carry a converter with you if you can, as keeping track of the exchange rate and your change can be a struggle. Don’t bother exchanging the cash you have with you once in Laos; you’ll just get hit twice on the exchange.
  5. The sunset view from the Laos side is better than from the Thai side; keep that in mind when thinking of where you’re going to enjoy the views!
  6. Download the excellent and free XL Converter for your iPhone or iPod touch; it converts just about every currency in the world in real time.
  7. Dark Beer Lao is better than Regular Beer Lao, while Beer Lao Gold is better than Regular Beer Lao but not Dark Beer Lao… and Beer Lao with a red label and an elephant on it is the same as regular Beer Lao. Do not, under any circumstances, try the ABC Lao Stout; my bottle was two years expired and may or may not have spent time at the bottom of an opium smuggling pirate ship.

In my next travel tips update I’ll touch on the slow boat ride from Huay Xia to Luang Prebang itself; it’s a straightforward process for the most part, but there are some things you may be interested to know if you’ve yet to do this trip.

September 12, 2011

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