The journey from Chiang Rai to the Lao border is very easy and surprisingly cheap! You can’t reserve in advance, just turn up at Bus Terminal 1 and get on.
Step 1 – Take the bus to outside Chiang Khong
Buses leave Chiang Rai bus terminal 1 every 30 minutes: on the hour and at half past, until around 4:30 pm. The ones that leave at half-past looked slightly better but both cost the same: 65 baht per person. Unfortunately you get what you pay for and in this case, it means an old bus with no air conditioning. There are windows and a few ceiling fans to keep you (kind of) cool for the 2-hour journey.
Step 2 – Tuk-tuk to the border
You will get dropped off on the side of the road where (of course!) a load of tuk-tuk drivers will be waiting. There is an official price list of 80 baht per person, or 50 baht per person if you’re travelling in a group of more than 2. That means that solo travellers should aim to make a friend on the bus!
Step3 – Cross the Friendship Bridge
Once through Thai immigration, it will cost you a further 20 baht to get across the Friendship Bridge into Laos. Top tip: the currency exchange office as you get off the bus in Laos offers good rates. We got one of our best Japanese Yen to Lao Kip rates here!
Step 4 – Take a tuk-tuk to Huay Xai
Huay Xai is the closest town to the Lao border and this is also where you can get the slow boat to Luang Prabang. Taking a tuk-tuk to the town is simple enough, though negotiating the price was very difficult. We can’t remember exactly how much we paid, but it seemed expensive for the length of the journey and the fact that we were sharing with 2 strangers.
Note that everything is around 15-20% more expensive in Laos compared to Thailand.
We decided to arrive in Laos the night before taking the slow boat. This gave us time to reserve our boat tickets, though in hindsight it may not have been necessary. One advantage of booking your slow boat ticket through your hotel is that they will reserve you some good seats and you get a free shuttle service to the boat dock. Others that arrived late were sitting with the smelly diesel engine at the back.