Chiang Mai (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos)… How NOT to do it overland!

It’s taken a day or two to recover and let my rattling bones settle, so only now am I ready to write about our journey through the North of Thailand and into Luang Prabang, Laos.

The South East Asia backpacker route is a buzz of eager foreigners escaping reality for weeks, months or even years on end.

‘Where have you been?’ ‘Where are you going? And ‘How long are you on the road’ are common opening liners when you meet someone new. Travellers tell about their epic journeys so far and are always keen to share their travel tales and do’s / don’ts they’ve picked up along the way, which is why I found it disturbing that we DIDN’T hear the next hot tip until it was too late… Much too late!

Tip #1 in getting from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang… Avoid the fast boats!!

When Swanny and I discussed the overland travel option from Thailand to Laos by boat, along the Mekong, I was picturing a big wooden, sun drenched boat where I could kick back, relax and let the world pass me by. Wrong!

It was supposed to have been a 3 day journey which would have been fine, but when we were presented with a fast boat option we thought… ‘Why spend 3 days travelling when you can spend 2!’ Especially when we had heard so many amazing things about Luang Prabang. So, with little debate we made the seemingly logical choice to take the fast boat. Wrong!

It became evident we’d chosen the road (and river) less travelled as soon as we started our trip. Collected by minivan with an assortment of other travellers it became apparent we were the only ones (out of 10!) to have chosen the speed boat option. Then the tales of capsizing, boats flipping at high speeds, and a river full of obstacles started. (How had WE not heard about this?)

We ignored the chit chat and told ourselves ‘It can’t be THAT bad or they wouldn’t sell it! Right?’ Wrong!

Firstly, the 7hr mini van ride takes you to the Thai border town of Chiangkhong where an overnight stay is required. The only highlight, was a visit to the beautiful white Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai, Wat Rong Khun!

The glitter sparkles and reflects off the temple, and it reminded me of snow glistening in the sunshine.

Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai.
Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai.

The ‘hotel’ in Chiangkhong was hideous and nameless (not a good sign). I’ve stayed at some dumps in my time, but this takes the cake. Wooden planks for a mattress, a mouldy bath/toilet/shower combo, cold rice for dinner and stale bread for breakfast. Awesome!

Yuck!
Yuck!
 It was only 6pm when we arrived, and there was no WAY we could have fallen to sleep naturally, so the only option…. Beer!
Beer, the only option!
Thank you Chang!

Off to the one and only bar, An English pub called The Hub Pub! Set up by an Englishman (Alan) who holds the Guinness World record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe, by bicycle!

A long neck or two later Swanny unleashed her ‘Rapping Travel Agent’ You Tube clip on them all and managed to score a spot on the wall for her autograph.

The rapping travel agent! Kel Swan
The rapping travel agent! Kel Swan

Haven’t seen it? Check out her link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOXbHoREGO

Anyway, the beer did the trick and we managed to have a reasonable nights sleep before hitting the road (and the boat) to Luang Prabang. I left the hotel with mixed emotions. On one hand i was glad that we didn’t have to endure another nights sleep in seedy accommodation, but on the other I was a little anxious about the boat trip ahead of us.

We made it through the Thailand and Laos border crossing without any dramas, and it again became obvious that our choice of transport wasn’t popular. There were literally dozens and dozens of backpackers (Identified by the uniform of backpack, hiking boots and khaki pants) arriving into Laos that morning and exactly 5 of us were taking the fast boat. (Not great odds!).

It was at this point that I caught a glimpse of the speed boat for the 1st time. What the??

What the? WHY had i not seen this photo at the time of booking?
What the? WHY had i not seen this photo at the time of booking?

Basically the ‘speed boat’ was a traditional long tail wooden boat, with a juiced up engine that runs off LPG Gas! The passengers in the picture were wearing helmets and life jackets and seemed to be sitting in a 40cm x 40cm section of floor space. Ummmmm??

My gut instinct was screaming for us to run away, but we couldn’t! It was paid, we we’re en-route to the boat and besides, there were other people doing it (including locals), so it reallllllly couldn’t be that bad….Could it?

Yep… It IS that bad!

There are literally no words for the journey itself so let me paint you a picture.

– Imagine sitting in a convertible with the top down. The sun is fierce and its about 35 degrees at 10am. (uh oh)

– You don’t have a seat, just a small square of wood that is also the floor. Your knees are bent up around your shoulders (or ears, depending on how tall you are!)

– You’re wondering why the locals are wearing motorcycle helmets, but no one gives you one.

– You’re humming along at about 80km per hour (maybe faster) with the wind howling through your hair, but the road isn’t smooth, it’s bumpy. Very bumpy!

– Oh and did i mention the road is full of debris like logs, rubbish and rocks the size of small houses to dodge and avoid? Well… It was!

When you’ve read all that. Close your eyes and imagine it….

Now imagine it for 7 hours!!!!

Your only reprieve is the music blasting through your ipod to drown out the engine noise, the 6 stops of about 5 minutes each to swap over the gas bottles and a quick lunch break at a riverside ‘Bistro’, that served cold fried rice, warm coke and a had a hole in the deck for a toilet.

That was our journey.

Our boat... before the other 5 people got in!
Our boat… before the other 6 people got in!
The helmets that the locals carried and wore with them... Ours we're handed to us about half way!
The helmets that the locals carried and wore … Ours we’re handed to us about half way!
The face of fear!
The face of fear!
The boats!
The boats!
Needless to say the first glimpse of Luang Prabang as we rounded a corner was triumphant. Yes, our legs and asses we’re completely numb. Our faces & shoulders red raw from the sun AND we had to carry our bags up a small cliff face to reach the road, but we made it. We’d survived!!
Arriving into Luang Prabang! Pheeew
Arriving into Luang Prabang! Pheeew

The rest of our evening was a blur as we waited for our bones to stop aching and the hum of the speedboat to stop ringing in our ears, but as fragile as we were,  Swanny and I still managed to have a laugh about it. (We had to laugh otherwise we would have cried).

We’ve since heard stories that the overnight bus was just as frightening and that the slow boats can be a pain in the ass too (no pun intended!) but now that i’ve made the journey and lived to tell the tale……..

My #1 tip for travelling overland from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang… Don’t! Pay the $100 and fly.

Kate xx

15 thoughts on “Chiang Mai (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos)… How NOT to do it overland!

  • Oh Kate, I love this post! Can I be honest and tell you it made me laugh!! Sounds like fun though! Keep up the posts I am glued to them! Xxxx

    • haha I’m glad you laughed! We are definitely laughing now, and it was an interesting experience to say the least. Hope all is well at home. Where is your next trip to? xx

  • Oh dear, had tears streaming down my face, so so funny. You tell an amazing story!!!!!! You have to write a book because you have the talent. As your mother, I’m so glad I wasn’t aware of your form of transport. I would call this a life experience.

    • Thanks Mum! Glad you liked it and yes.. I knew the story would make people laugh, I’m glad it came across ok in my writing.
      Stay tuned for more updates and adventures. Love you all lots and lots xx

  • Hey Katie
    Loved reading the story! Wonderful writing skill. The misadventures make the best memories (remember Coopernook), especially when you survive them unscathed, & can l about them. Keep exploring and entertaining us. Luv Dad

    • Haha thanks! It was a funny day and yep misadventures certainly lead to entertaining stories. Glad you liked it. Love you lots and you have to tell me about your weekend away! Love you xx

  • My friend and I will be in Southeast Asia this February and are planning on taking the fast boat to Luang Prabang as well. I know you advise against it, but what can I say — I’ve never been very good at learning anything unless I do it myself.

    Logistics question: Did you cross the border into Laos the night before, stay the night in Huay Xai and head to the fast boat pier in the morning? Or did you stay in Chiang Khong and in the morning cross into Laos and head to the pier?

    Mostly, I’m curious what time the fast boats tend to leave and whether we’re okay getting there in the morning if we crash in Chiang Khong.

    Also, did you book through a tour or agent or just through yourself? Thanks for the help!

  • My friend and I will be in Southeast Asia this February and are planning on taking the fast boat to Luang Prabang as well. I know you advise against it, but what can I say — I’ve always had to learn things on my own ha.

    Logistics question: Did you cross the border into Laos the night before, stay the night in Huay Xai and head to the fast boat pier in the morning? Or did you stay in Chiang Khong and in the morning cross into Laos and head to the pier?

    Mostly, I’m curious what time the fast boats tend to leave and whether we’re okay getting there in the morning if we crash in Chiang Khong.

    Also, did you book through a tour or agent or just through yourself? Thanks for the help!

    • So sorry for the delay in my reply. I’m on the road and the internet has been a little hit and miss.

      We booked the fast boat through a local travel agency in Chiang Mai, and it included the bus to the Thai side of the border (via Chiang Rai) and we stayed a night in Chiang Khong before crossing the border into to Laos the next morning. As i said, the agency who we booked through did the whole lot, so it was pretty easy to follow.

      If you do go via the fast boat, hold on to your hat! It’s a wild and bumpy ride. Make sure you have a hat and an ipod helps to drown out the sound of the engines. Good luck!

  • Omygosh! You are FUNNY!
    I have a liking (okay…obsession) for reading travel blogs whether or not I’m headed someplace which thankfully I always am!
    Yours was the first that had me laughing out loud…thank you!!
    Guess I’m going to fly from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai.
    I was hoping to have some time on the river but think I’ll look into one of the side trips available!
    Thank you!!!

    • HaHa thanks!!! It was definitely quite the ride, and so hilarious/scary. If you’ve got the time, there are some 1 night trips that will get you from Thailand to Luang Prabang, but flying is a good alternative. hehe.

      Have fun and thanks for reading 🙂

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