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is when you come across a bit of information that seems helpful on the surface but turns out to be half a decade out of date; I don’t care if 100 Thai baht was worth $1 US dollar in 2003, I want to know what it’s worth today!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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Laos_72884

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

Flash

www.flashlightexpeditions.com

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36 thoughts on “Travel Tips: Border crossing between Chiang Khong, Thailand and Huay Xai, Laos

  1. Have fun in Luang Prabang, prepare to relax. Go see the waterfalls outside of town and take a bike if you can, it is a long bike ride, but as I was riding along in the moto there were several points where I wished I could stop and shoot the countryside. Cool stuff Flash.

  2. Pingback: Travel Tips: The Slow Boat on the Mekong (Laos Edition) « Flash Parker

  3. Excellent, exactly what I need, until now I couldn’t find any recent information on this trip OR it was all about how to do everything at the cheapest rate and assuming you have weeks to do it.

  4. we went the other way and gosh how things change from one day to another, we were advised we needed two passport photos to get our visa at the border into Thailand, they jus ttook a web cam shot on the spot and did’nt want the photos we ha]d sourced, we were told on the internet requitments that we needed to pay a fee of was it $25 or $30 in US currency.. noone ever asked for money we went striaght though (on australian passports) needed to get a tuk tuk to bus station, the first one wanted a full load before he was going to leave, waited five minutes got out took our backpacks and a second driver took us straight away for half the price what ever it was which wasnt much.

    • Hi Mel!
      When you say you went the other way, do you mean that you went into Thailand from Laos?
      I’ve never gone overland into Thailand; I’ve always flown in. Visitors from the USA, Canada, Australia and quite a few other countries are permitted to enter Thailand visa-free for a stay of up to 30 days; neither a fee nor passport photos are required. The situation for going overland is the same, though you are only permitted to stay 15-days rather than 30 when you cross the border this way.

      I’m glad to hear that you didn’t have to pay – since you’re not supposed to in the first place!
      The webcam thing is the same as you’d get at the airport in Bangkok.

      Glad to hear you made it safe and sound.

  5. Pingback: Travel Tips: Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw (Laos Edition) | Flash Parker

  6. This info is just the bees knees and exactly what I was looking for, nice 🙂 thanks and now onto looking for the border crossing from Laos to Cambodia.

  7. Pingback: Travel Tips: In and Out of Vientiane (Laos Edition) | Flash Parker

  8. Hi Flash,
    Many, many thanks for your article above. Will be doing the Chiang Mai-Chiang Kong-Luang Prabang trip in June with my partner and your information is extremely helpful. Could you perhaps elaborate on the various types of boats from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. You touched on only one type of Slow boat trip. Are there no other two day boat trips (other than the very expensive Luang Say Cruise) and the Slow boat trip which you mentioned and the speed boats?
    Thanks

    • Hi Frank!
      Thanks for checking in. Good luck on your trip, that should be plenty of fun! Make sure you pack a raincoat – you’re going to get wet.
      Types of boats – not that many to choose from, I’m afraid. Just go with one that floats. There’s not a whole lot of difference in the big slow boats that ply those waters; some are a little larger or smaller than others, but that’s about it as far as I can tell. I wouldn’t get too worked up over it one way or the other – just go with the flow, and know that you’re not going to have the most comfortable ride of your life (unless you book a trip on the expensive luxury cruiser). I didn’t go around inspecting all of the slow cruisers, of course, but from what I recall you don’t have much of a choice in the first place – you’re sort of at the mercy of the ticketing crew, and you get shoved onto whatever boat happens to be docked at the time.

      Hope that helps, and I hope you have a great trip!

    • Did the Nagi tour yesterday/today (actually in Luang Prabang now) and it was excellent. Well organized, nice boat and guide, good hotel in Pakbeng. Cannot recommend them enough.

      • the public boats are quite comfortable with old air craft type seats which you can move about depending if you want to be in the sun or shade and cost about $6 for the days trip when we went a few months ago, the lady on one boat when i asked her if she had any sticky rice which the crew were eating and all she had for tourists was pringles and mee goring instant noodles came back to me with a plate of bbq port sticky rice some bamboo dish (hot) and some steamed bok choi when i asked how uch she said it was left overs so no charge i am a good customer.. i had bought two rounds of beers for my travel companions

  9. hi there was wondering if you could help or someone who might be reading this,
    basically im flying from singapore into thailand, to one of the islands in the south, there i will be granted my 30 day free tourist visa, obviously i have up to 30 days to use this, but apparently i have to also have a flight booked out of thailand within that 30 days, my goal is to head north into loas, i was under the presumption that i could just cross the border into loas and i wouldnt need a flight as such. i spoke to the thai consulae hre in england and they say that if i dont have a flight out of thailand i will have to apply for a tourist visa via them.??? surely i can just leave thailand via the border??

    thanks mark.

    • Hi Mark,

      You do NOT need to book an onward ticket from Thailand if you intent to leave via the Lao land border. We did the very same our last trip to Thailand. Just say as much when you arrive, and you’ll be fine. You’ll be granted your 30-day tourist visa on arrival, and that’s good until you leave. You don’t need to do anything else.

      Cheers

      • cool thats brilliant news, thanks for your help, and nice website, im slowly checking it out, i just found it today.

        cheers.

  10. Pingback: Border jumping, Thailand to Laos: Chiang Khong to Huay Xai, and the slow boat. | The Hungry Backpackers

  11. Great information.

    Im overstaying my 30 day tourist visa by 5 days and thought I would jump the Laos border at Chang Khong for the experience and not to pay the 500 baht per day fee for overstaying in Thailand. Low and behold. Lost my passport and departure card on the way. Luckily Buddha blessed me and I found it at the local police Station 2 days after. Note: tourist police and local police don’t talking to each other. Better to go in person to each place and ask I they found your ID. Local police is harder to communicate with due to there was one person who could only say Hi in English and understand passport. (Patience, hand gestures and a smile goes a really long way here). Doing the border run tomorrow. In all. 3 extra nights in Chiang Rai and Mai. 80 baht each night. $144 baht x 3 to go back and forth to find passport. With the $46 Cdn fee for Visa and boat and travelling to and from Laos border and back to Bangkok. Might as well have paid the 2500 baht daily fee. But what a great experience anyways. Met a musician who left his Akha hilltribe at 13 to get a Master degree in Cutural Development. A Woman from a hill tribe that has come from working in the rice fields to being able to put her children through school, blessed by a monk and had hours of conversation with him about religion and life.

    Truly blessed and coming back again next year. I love this country. And hey. What could possibly go wrong. 😉

  12. This has reassured me and my friends about leaving from Chiang Rai to Laos. Just to confirm that we can get a Laos visa on arrival and there shouldn’t be any problems or surprises to watch out for?! Is Luang Prabang the best place, or the only place to go first when you get to Laos? Thanks!

  13. Crossing the Laos border tomorrow. Wish I knew when it was open, but I agree Chiang Rai has some great surprises. Go see the white temple and contribute in some small way to the hill tribe refugees.

  14. This is really really cool…thank you so much for taking the time to do this for people…I know I really appreciate how much easier u just made my life!

  15. Pingback: Helluva Journey: Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang | The Gummy Bear Massacre

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