Arguably the most popular border crossing in the world these days, the Chiang Khong-Huay Xai crossing between Thailand and Laos could not be more of a contrast – with the Thai side being calm, and the Lao side being complete chaos!
I was coming from Chiang Rai in Thailand, where had I just spent a good week, and I knew I had to get a public bus to the border at Chiang Khong. Luckily, these buses are pretty frequent during daylight hours and are very cheap (just 65 Baht per person – although the buses don’t have air-conditioning). The journey to the border checkpoint at Chiang Khong should take no more than 2 hours, but I actually arrived in around 90 minutes – so I guess it must have been a good day on Thailand’s roads (for once)! You need to remember that you are not [usually] dropped off in downtown Chiang Khong, you are actually a few kilometres away from the town. If the bus does not drop you off at the border itself (no big deal, but you should ask before you pay for your bus ticket), you will need a tuktuk to get to the border (an extra 50 Baht or so).
Chiang Khong’s border checkpoint has been located a few kilometres away from the city since around 2013 when the Friendship Bridge was built between Thailand and Laos. The procedure nowadays is pretty efficient (on the Thai side) and you will find orderly queues and many English-speaking staff, despite its rural and rustic location.
Once passed through Thai exit immigration, you must board a shuttle bus to take you over the Friendship Bridge which connects Thailand with Laos over the Mekong River (there is actually 3 or 4 of these Friendship Bridges around the borders). Travellers used to be able (up to a few years ago) to get a small boat across the river to the Laos visa office, but this is no longer possible for foreigners – we MUST go via the Friendship Bridge on the shuttle bus (20 Baht). I think it is possible to walk across the Bridge, but this may not be advisable with heavy luggage or in inclement weather. Laos visa on arrival is possible for almost all nationalities, and it costs $35. But this is where it gets tricky.
I found the Lao side of the border to be one of the most unorganised places I have ever had the misfortune to experience! I got really angry as a solo traveller, as I had nobody to turn to for advice, and there were few adequate signs advising me where to go and what to do. I knew I needed a visa on arrival, and I had the money to pay for it, but where on Earth do I get it from? I somehow managed to find the VOA form but still felt like I just wanted to go back to Thailand to this point. Luckily, I got speaking to a young English couple who advised me that with my newly-completed VOA form, I should join the queue on the right-hand side, where travellers must hand in the form, their passports (and of course a spare passport-sized photo). I still didn’t really see any orderly queue, it just seemed like a free for all! Eventually, after some more dilly-dallying, I was told I had to join the queue on the left hand side to pay the money and receive back my passport. The admin staff who are processing the visa must really earn their wages here, but it is not an enjoyable process for the travellers! Only when you have completed this Lao rigmarole, can you proceed to immigration.
On the Laos side, despite the frenetic and unorganised first impressions, you will step into a charming border town known as Huay Xai. For many backpackers, this is their first true taste of Lao life, and it does have a distinctive atmosphere compared to Thailand on the other side of the river from where you just came. However, it is not a town that has anything to see or do, so I wanted to proceed as quick as possible to the dreaded slow boat to Luang Prabang. You will need a tuktuk to the boat station, which cost me around 35,000 Kip (but I was ripped off by the driver – it should cost around 25,000 Kip at the most).
Most backpackers who cross between Thailand and Laos seem to enjoy endure the slow boat down the Mekong. It seems like a right of passage, especially for twenty-somethings – and although the “slow boat” really is slow (how does 2 days sound to you?), don’t be a fool and take the crazily unsafe speedboats whose operators don’t even give their passengers a helmet!
Interestingly enough, the slow boats from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang (via Pakbeng) are actually pretty comfortable, with a basic snack bar onboard and cushioned seats – which is just as well seeing as you’re sitting on them so long! The journey costs 220,000 Kip per person, which is good value. However, be aware that tour operators ALWAYS sell more tickets for each boat than there are seats, so the latecomers will be disappointed. Arrive AT LEAST 30 minutes early to make sure you are allocated a seat on the slow boat.