While there apparently used to be a ferry, the only way to cross the Chiang Khong (Thailand) – Huay Xai (Laos) border these days is via the Friendship Bridge, which has a pretty specific series of steps for crossing. Here’s our step-by-step instructions for crossing from Chiang Khong into Huay Xai.
1. Getting to Friendship Bridge from Chiang Khong
Chiang Khong is the jumping-off point for crossing into Laos from Thailand. Many travelers do the crossing in a single day, starting from Chiang Mai or, for a shorter day, from Chiang Rai. If you’re coming from Bangkok, you’ll need to stop in one of those cities.
From Bangkok, you could obviously fly to Laos, but the reason for traveling overland (besides seeing some great cities) is for the awesome experience of the two-day slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos.
Quick Note: If you’re coming to the border directly from Chiang Rai, read our post on the bus trip from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong. At the end of that post, we mention where the bus makes its first stop and how to get to the border crossing from that stop.
We left our hotel in Chiang Khong (ibis Styles) at about 7:40 AM. We asked the receptionist for her recommendation for getting to Friendship Bridge, mostly to see if she had a free or cheap shuttle to offer us. She offered to get us a tuk tuk for 100 THB per person and would take 20 minutes for it to arrive.
Having heard the ride should only cost 150 THB total, we opted to just try our luck on the street. Sure enough, we made it about 10 steps down the street when we saw two tuk tuks heading toward us. We flagged one down and told him “Laos” (pronounced “Lao”). He pulled out a 100 THB note and 50 THB note to indicate the price, and we agreed. The ride took about 25 minutes, and we arrived at about 8:05.
2. Getting Through Thai Passport Control
You’ll get dropped off at “Chiang Khong Boundary Post” to go through Thai passport control. If you don’t have a departure card, you can fill one out before hopping in the immigration line. (Note: the departure card from the airport looks different than the departure card you can fill out here, but don’t worry, you’re airplane card will work just fine.) There were three booths, one for ASEAN countries, one for Thai and Laos citizens (if memory serves), and one for everyone else.
The everyone else line was closed, and everyone else just used the ASEAN line. Thai passport control was uneventful as long as you had your departure card (if you didn’t they just sent you to fill one out). We just got stamped right through.
3. Bus Across Friendship Bridge
As soon as you get through passport control, you’ll see a booth for bus tickets. You need to take a bus across friendship bridge to the Laos side of the border. The bus is marked as costing 20 THB, but there are a few miscellaneous up-charges indicated (like holidays). We were charged 25 THB per person, which was what we had been expecting anyways, so we didn’t think anything of it.
The bus ticket booth also exchanges THB for Laos kip. When we were there the exchange rate was 246 kip per THB. This was worse than the rate Google indicated we should get, but about the norm of what we saw in Laos places that charged both THB and kip (usually their rate was 250 kip per THB). They’ll fill up the bus and eventually send it over the bridge.
It took us about 25 minutes to get through passport control and onto the bus, and after a short (5 to 10 min) ride, we arrived on the Laos side of the bridge at 8:43 AM.
4. Getting more kip in Laos
When you get dropped off in Laos you’re in something of a lobby. There is a currency exchange and ATM right when you’re off the bus. We HIGHLY recommend using the ATM to get cash if you’re getting on the slow boat. There is only one ATM near the pier, and it did not work when we were there. This left us without money until Pakbeng. This wasn’t a huge deal, as we wouldn’t have purchased anything on the boat anyway, but the stress was there and we could have been left in a pickle if we’d had any more ATM issues in Pakbeng (as it happened, it worked out).
Budget Note: You’ll need at least 135,000 kip per person to get from the arrival point onto the slow boat (25,000 for the tuk tuk and 110,000 kip per person for the slow boat).
5. Laos Visa on Arrival and Passport Control
Most travelers are going to need to get a visa on arrival in Laos. There’s a booth marked “Visa on Arrival” with two numbered windows. You’ll need to fill out two forms (one a visa on arrival application and the other an arrival / departure card). You can either bring a passport photo or be charged a small amount for them to copy your passport photo. For our intended address in Laos, we just put the address of the one hostel we’d even researched in Pakbeng (the overnight stop on the two-day slow boat). You could probably just put “Hostel in Pakbeng.” If you’re in a pinch for an address, the main street in Pakbeng is “Main Street” on some sources or “Unnamed Road” on others.
The visa fee is $35 (that’s USD) per person. We’ve heard you can pay in baht for a bad rate. You hand your documents and fee to one window, they’ll process it, and you pick it up on the other window with your Laos visa now inside. Keep your passport out, as you’ll have to walk through passport control and have them inspect it.
6. Minibus / Songthaew to the City or Pier
Outside Laos passport control, you’ll see some drivers hustling for fares. The first guy offered us 50,000 kip per person for the pier, but we knew better, having read that 25,000 kip per person is the standard rate. When we pushed him down to 50,000 for two of us, he pointed us to the songthaew, where the driver immediately offered a standard fare of 25,000 kip per person.
We were on the songthaew by about 8:55 AM. The ride to the pier took us about half an hour, including a stop at the bus station to drop some other people off. If you were spending some time in Huay Xai, the driver would probably be able to drop you off there, but if you’re in a hurry (like to catch a bus) you might need to pay up for a private ride from a hustler. We were dropped off right across from the slow boat ticket station. From there, we began our two-day slowboat trip!