The one thing that restricts travelers while in foreign countries to stay longer is unfortunately the visa duration.
That was the main reason why, after spending 8 nice and relaxing days in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand exploring the local architecture and loving the evening market that we religiously went to, we had to move on and, not only leave the city, but also Thailand.
There we were then loaded with our backpacks at the old Chiang Rai bus terminal on an early morning, ready to get on a bus that would have started our long journey into Laos to Luang Prabang.
We chose to get one of the local buses for the border town of Chiang Khong. Those are frequent (every half hour starting very early in the morning) and also very cheap only 65 Thai Baht (approximately £1.40 / €1.60 / $2.10).
The journey to Chiang Khong took around 2 and half hours and, if you want to travel as we did, you need to know that those buses are very basic, with no air condition, with a fan that you will be lucky if it works and not comfy seats. But for such a short time we didn’t mind, at the end of the day we were paying a very low fee so how could we ask for a VIP treatment? Plus traveling as the locals do adds to the whole experience, don’t you think?
Between a snooze and a chapter of our books we made it to Chiang Khong which we knew didn’t have much to see and do, plus we wanted to get on and cross into Laos as soon as possible.
I’m not sure where we were dropped by the bus, no signs or any indications were in the area, so we asked around for the pier.
Oh yeah, we were going to cross the Thai-Lao border on a boat on the Mekong river.
I don’t quite know why, but till that day, every time I thought of crossing into another country I always imagined doing it either by car or a plane, never thought of using a boat. That interested me like a kid on his first school trip, I know it might seem silly but all the new experiences equally give me that mixed feeling of excitement and worry and, after traveling for so long, it still happens!
Most people would have taken a tuk-tuk to the pier, but we chose to walk for about 20/25 minutes instead. On the way, nothing in particular caught our attention apart from noticing more guest houses the closer we got to the pier, which it has to be expected in a border town I guess.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the Thai Immigration ‘office’ was very basic (in fact I can’t even define it an office) there was no queue at all and to have our passports marked with the exit stamp took no more than 3 minutes.
I stopped a couple of minutes to look around and realize that the land we could see across the river was Laos, only few ‘steps’ away from us.
Next thing I knew we were on the boat ready to leave to cross the Mekong and reach the other side (40 Thai Baht / £0.85 / $ 1.30/ €0.98) – after a little ‘accident’ that involved Dale falling on the unstable boat and scratching his leg – we were moving, we were slowly leaving Thailand.
From that boat, both sides of the river looked exactly the same to me, only later would I realize that I was quite wrong and that, despite their similarities, Thailand and Laos are very different countries.
Only a few minutes and we stepped into Laos’ territory – in Huay Xai to be precise – and we could see Thailand from the other side. I would have never thought it would have been so quick!
It’s Not Done Yet!
Now we needed to deal with the Lao Immigration to get our 30 days Visas on arrival which didn’t take us too long: just the time to fill some forms with our details, give the papers with one passport size photo (yes, you read it right, only one) and pay the $35 visa’s fee. If you are unprepared and don’t have any American Dollars on you, the other option is to pay 1,500 Thai Baht which is more pricey but it is the only other option available, in fact at the Lao Immigration they only take either American Dollars or Thai Bahts.
Overall the whole crossing border process and getting the Lao visa on arrival was very smooth, straight forward and without any unpleasant surprises. We were in fact ready to queue at both the Thai and Lao Immigration which didn’t happen, I guess we were lucky to be on a not busy day or simply worked out the timing quite well to avoid the rush hours, either way it was a not painful process at all!
To avoid any extra charges though, I’d suggest to get the American Dollars and the passport photo in advance. Please bare in mind that the Visa’s fee for Canadians is $42, not entirely sure why. I read somewhere that the visa costs are reciprocal, based on visa cost for Lao to visit the reciprocal country, apparently the Visa’s fee for Lao citizens to get into Canada is higher than $42.
After sitting down for few minutes, watching more boats approaching from Thailand and medicate Dale’s scratched leg, we realized that we were not even halfway through our trip to Luang Prabang, but I’ll leave this story for another time because it deserves its own attention.