Chiang Mai in North Thailand is the last major city stop before commencing the slow boat to Luang Prabang along the Mekong River. And as we are no longer young backpackers, we chose an Intrepid Tour for the 13-day tour of Thailand and Laos, including a Mekong River cruise.
We joined the Intrepid Tour in Bangkok, where we spent the day getting to know our small group of eight. We had already spent Five Days in Bangkok ourselves staying in the Khao San Road area.
When researching the slow boat on the Mekong River, a lot of information we found mentioned Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang or Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang.
We found that the journey often starts in Bangkok, heading north to Chiang Khong, the final stop before crossing the border into Laos.
Why did we choose Intrepid for our Mekong River Cruise? Make sure you check out Day One itinerary below to find out.
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Taking the Overnight Train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
As part of the Intrepid Tour was an overnight 13-hour train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Not a favourite way to travel, but a train ride always makes for a good travel story. And we were pleasantly surprised with the cleanliness of the train and the clean sheets, pillows and blankets supplied.
When you board the train, you are seated at a table. Once the meals are cleared away, the concierge assigned to your carriage makes their way through the carriage turning your allocated seating into a sleeping compartment. A curtain is released, and presto, you have a private cabin.
Whoever gets the top bunk, remember to have an extra t-shirt as the air-conditioning can get cool during the journey.
Overall, we survived the overnight train, and we slept soundly, arriving in Chiang Mai ready to explore the must-see places while enjoying the new flavours of northern Thai food.
People Place 2 Hotel was chosen as our accommodation for our two-night stay in Chiang Mai.
Leaving Chiang Mai for Chiang Rai
The scheduled 8 am departure time from Chiang Mai was to ensure we could make stops along the way, including the now-famous Chiang Rai White Temple.
With a mini-van booked for the nine of us (including our guide), we were off on the eight-hour drive to Chiang Khong.
The final stop in Thailand before crossing into Laos to board the longboat and cruise the Mekong River.
First Stop at Mae Khachan Village
Two stops were planned for the drive to Chiang Khong, with the first being Mae Khachan a small village with hot springs on the other side of the National Park.
Here in the village, the locals use the nearby boiling water for cooking chicken and quail eggs, selling them to the shops for the tourists to buy.
After a 20-minute break and a terrific coffee, we were back on board the mini-van to head to the next stop, a cashew farm and factory.
Cashew Factory and Farm
Now, this was interesting to discover the cashew is at the bottom of a flower, encased in a husk with a poisonous resin.
So, after a variety of tastings of cashews and dried fruit, we were back on the mini-van with fresh snacks for our next stop, Chiang Rai.
The White Temple of Chiang Rai
The day’s highlight would have to be Wat Rong Khun, better known as The White Temple near Chiang Rai.
This amazing former temple is the work of an artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat who purchased the temple with funds he earnt from his diverse range of artwork. Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat set about transforming it into the vision it is today.
The temple is still a work in progress, and the artist now has his son continues the work. While the temple has its detractors, the artist has created many jobs directly by employing staff and indirectly with all the nearby shops providing services to the thousands of tourists who visit every day.
It is fair to say the Intrepid group came away with mixed feelings about the White Temple, agreeing it is a must-see. But all felt the artist must be at the higher end of the ADHD spectrum to have created many different types of artwork in such large numbers. The inside of the temple may give an insight into the artist and the group’s comment.
Where to Eat in Chiang Rai
One option is the restaurant buildings across the road from the White Temple.
Lunch at the local food court provides a variety of dishes to choose from. All you need to do is pay over an amount of Bhat at the counter, where you are given a preloaded EFTPOS card. You can then go along the different food stalls, choose your meal, and pay with the card. Any unused monies are refunded.
The Final Leg – Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong
On the next part of the drive to Chiang Khong, we stopped at a tiny village market, where we saw a range of food that left us a bit queasy. The first was some evil-looking mega-cockroaches all ready for the evening meal – yuk! The next was a disgusting-looking item in a clear bag, a gutted big rat, tail and all! No thanks!
We decided to skip the afternoon tea and got back in the mini-van. Get us out of here!
We arrived in Chiang Khong and checked into the Rimnam Guest House.
It didn’t take long before we were walking to see our first view of the Mekong River. This mighty river is 4800km long and passes through seven countries. Having read and heard so many stories over the years, it was great to see the river finally. For the next two days, we would travel along the Mekong River.
Chiang Khong Border Crossing into Laos
The next morning we were up early to travel to the border pass as we left Thailand to enter Laos. It was a 15-minute drive from our hotel to the border to exit Thailand.
Border Control can be quite a process, but fortunately, we departed early enough to be the first group to pass through, so we transmitted smoothly and quickly. We then boarded a public bus in Thailand to cross over the Mekong River to Laos border control.
With more paperwork, along with a photo and USD30, our visa application was processed. We boarded another minivan to the Mekong River embankment to board our slow boat.
On the boat, we met Gau, our Laos Tour Guide for the Mekong and Luang Prabang itinerary. Intrepid engage a local guide who can give more specific information about their country. Gau had travelled overnight to join the group, and his knowledge was specific on anything we needed clarification.
Our Slow Boat Cruise on the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos was about to begin.
What are you wearing?
Preparation for our Mekong River cruise was Malaria tablets, long sleeve shirts and long pants, plus Deet for exposed areas.
Luckily, the climate in late March was so dry we never heard or saw a mosquito. However, for the two days, everyone in the group was fully prepared for mosquito attacks.
Mekong River Cruise – Day One Itinerary
The trip to Luang Prabang is around 300km and is split into two journeys. Day One is 140km to Pak Beng for an overnight stay, and Day Two is 160km to Luang Prabang. Each day is 7-8 hours on the river.
We were very relieved when we got on board our 45metre long slow boat and had the whole 42-seat boat to ourselves, just eight travellers, 2 Intrepid guides (Tudtu and Gau) and the family that owns, operate and live on the boat (Dad, Mum and their 4-year-old adventurous little boy).
Rediscovering travel at 50 meant we didn’t want to scramble for seats in cramped conditions. So booking a tour with a group like Intrepid was a more enjoyable experience for our two-day Mekong River cruise.
We were soon cruising downriver, passing the point where Thailand was on one side of the Mekong River and Laos on the other. Then where it was Laos on both sides of the Mekong.
For the first time in a while, we keep cool as the breeze along the river drops the temperature. The river is smooth, but the water level is very low. It has been a dry summer, so the boat driver is constantly adjusting his course to avoid the many rock formations above and under the water.
The day is spent watching plenty of small fishing skiffs, water buffalo and goats roaming the river banks. Seeing various small fishing villages with fishing poles holding nets for the day’s catch. The more adventurous villagers are panning for gold.
Now and then, a fast speedboat ferrying passengers, with many wearing motorbike helmets, zoomed by us. If time is an issue, this could be an option, but the wearing of helmets does raise a few eyebrows in the group.
Lunch aboard the Long Boat
No need to bring snacks on board as morning and afternoon tea is provided on the longboat. And when we were called for lunch, it looked more like a feast with many dishes to try.
Most of the group had a snooze in the afternoon as the temperature increased, or was it the lunch digesting?
Overnight Stay at Pak Beng Village, Laos
We pulled into Pak Beng around 3.30 pm, well ahead of schedule and before any other boats arrived. Our bags were unloaded by a stream of porters and placed in the back of a ute. The group then walked up into the village to our hotel for the night, The Phonemani Guest House.
After a short break, we all headed out at 5.45 pm to walk to the local market and temple. The market was basic, and the most memorable feature was the thousands of flies hovering on and around the food. No money was spent by us here today.
The temple was small and a good spot for a sunset photo.
Dinner tonight was at the Guest House, and Terry was still eating plain food after his feed of grasshoppers in Bangkok, so he opted for an omelette.
Maura tucked into the very nice local dish of chicken and pumpkin.
After dinner, a few of the group went for an after-dinner walk around the small village. With the electricity turned off around 10 pm, the only other thing to report was a local trying to sell them some marijuana and opium.
Not tonight, thanks. We have another long boat ride starting early in the morning.
Mekong River Cruise – Day Two Itinerary
Today was an early start with a 7.30 am departure from the pier. Today’s cruise would have two planned stops on our slow boat to Luang Prabang, our destination.
We decided to skip the hotel breakfast and pick up some croissants and a coffee from a local bakery that had been recommended. The freshness of the croissants was delicious, so we walked down to the pier to enjoy them while watching the sunrise in the early morning mist.
The highlight was spotting two elephants across the river for their morning walk. It was great to see them bathing and enjoying their early morning feed.
To the pleasure of Tudtu, our guide, we departed on time, as most groups are always 20-30 minutes late. No prizes for guessing as to who is naturally providing the efficiency impetus! (Her initials are MM. Ouch! My ear hurts now.)
First Stop – Hmong Village on the Mekong River
After 2.5 hours of smooth sailing in cool temperatures, we pulled into a local Hmong village. The Hmong are originally from northern China and settled in Laos in the early 19th century. They still lead a basic existence as the Laos government tries to integrate them by providing schooling to teach them the Laos language.
As we arrived, a group of small children met us with their craftwork, hoping for us to make a purchase. Maura had bought a couple of boxes of crackers and cakes, and each of the kids warmly accepted these.
Gau then took us on a guided tour of the primitive village. Seeing inside some of the houses, we found dirt floors and a very basic existence, although we did notice the satellite dishes for TV!
An old lady gave Maura the “Sabaidee” welcome, and Maura gave her a bag containing some items we no longer needed.
The Hmong had set up little stalls to sell us items as we passed. Hearing another boat approaching, they quickly wrap up their craft items and return to the river bank to tempt the new tourists.
Scrumptious lunch on the Mekong River Cruise
Back on the boat, and its time for another scrumptious lunch as we cruised along a much narrower river than yesterday.
The journey today has had a lot more activity on the water, passing through many villages with water buffalo lazing about.
Pak Ou Caves
The next stop was Pak Ou caves, 25 km from Luang Prabang. These limestone caves have been religious sites for hundreds of years. And each April, for the Laos new year, there is an influx of pilgrims.
There are two caves.
The Tham Ting lower cave and the Tham Theung upper cave. Both caves have many thousands of Buddhas. The higher cave is a climb up a narrow staircase. And make sure you have a torch (or add the torch app to your smartphone), as the upper cave is not lit.
There is approx a USD3 entrance fee to view the temples. With a climb up to the upper cave steep and narrow, the views out over the Mekong River are memorable.
We arrived at Luang Prabang at 3.45 pm at a pontoon jetty where porters were ready to carry our bags up the hill to the minivan. And after a short drive, we arrived at our hotel for a refreshing shower before rejoining the group for dinner.
Now it’s time to explore the Best Things to Do in Luang Prabang.