So you want get from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos on your own? It's actually not that bad once you understand the process. Just note that it takes 3 days to get there with the slow boat.
You can also arrange a tour to get there that offers to book your travel and accommodation (for only 1 night), which costs around 1750 baht from Chiang Mai. But we decided against it after reading some reviews. We also preferred to book our own accommodation.
This is how we did it.
Step 1: Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong
Chiang Khong is the border town of Thailand along the Mekong River. The best way to get there is to take a bus.
Head to Arcade Station in Chiang Mai where you'll need to go to Terminal 3. Buy a ticket to Chiang Khong from Green Bus. As a note, you'll need to take a number and wait your turn to buy your ticket.
They have a bus at 8:30 a.m. (266 baht) and 2:30 p.m. (261 baht) for the First Class seating. It takes about 6 hours to get to Chiang Khong. There's no space to bring your pack on the bus with you, so you'll have to place it in the storage at the bottom of the bus. We felt safe leaving it there since they ticket your bag.
During the ride, they give you a small water bottle and cookies.
Once you get to Chiang Khong, spend the night here. We stayed at Baan Rimtaling Guest House which offers pretty decent and cheap accommodation. It was 350 baht (total) for a private room with washroom. And on top of that, the room overlooks the Mekong River.
Step 2: Chiang Khong to Huay Xai (Border Crossing)
The Guest House we stayed in offers a shuttle service to the Friendship Bridge border for 50 baht per person at 8:30 a.m. every morning. If not, it's 100-150 baht per person to get to the border crossing with a tuk tuk. It takes about 15 minutes to get there.
Once you get to the Chiang Khong Border office, head inside and they'll need to stamp you out. It was a quick process for us.
From here, you'll need to buy a bus ticket to cross the bridge to get to Huay Xai. It costs 25 baht per person for the ticket.
Once you get to Huay Xai, you'll need to get your visa. Fill out the two forms and hand your passport over to them to make your visa. You'll also need 1 passport picture (we did ours in Khao San Road for 150 baht for 8 pictures). After they're done processing it, you'll need to pay for it. For Canadians, it's $42 USD. But please note on weekends, they charge an extra $1 as an overtime fee. So, it was actually $43 USD for us, or 1740 Baht. The prices for the visa vary depending what your nationality is. But I know Canadians pay the most.
Before you leave the border office, you can use one of the ATMs there to take out Laos currency (Kip). They also take baht as well, so if you still have baht you want to use, feel free!
From here, you'll need to take a tuk tuk to get to the slow boats. It's 100 baht, non-negotiable and takes about 15 minutes to get there.
Step 3: Taking the Slow Boat from Huay Xai to Pakbeng
Once your tuk tuk drops you off, head up to the ticket office to purchase your ticket. It costs 110,000 kip per person to get from Huay Xai to Pakbeng. Each ticket comes with a number that corresponds to your seat, so it's best to get there early to purchase. We didn't luck out, and were one of the last people to board. So, we were stuck in the engine room, which is loud, hot and smells like fuel.
It's a 6 hour boat ride from here with a few stops along the way to drop off and pick up locals. It's a pretty neat ride. You'll see beautiful landscapes, wild animals and villages along the way. However, if you're low on time, I wouldn't recommend taking the slow boat since the scenery gets repetitive.
The boat leaves around 11 a.m. and gets to Pakbeng around 5 p.m.
Step 4: Overnight stay at Pakbeng
Once you get off the boat, you'll be bombarded by people trying to get to stay at their guesthouse. Don't give into it. It's better to take a look around yourself to see if you like the room itself. We walked around to a few places and settled into Bounmy Guesthouse (100,000 Kip for a private room). The restaurant there has a gorgeous view where you can see elephants across river in the morning.
Step 5: Slow boat from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang
Wake up early to get a head start on the day. You'll want to head down to the slow boat first to grab a good seat. The slow boat tickets aren't numbered, so you'll have the chance to pick your seat. You can leave your pack on your seat to save it before heading back up to grab breakfast and some snacks for the ride.
The boat leaves around 9:30 a.m. and you'll have your chance to buy the ticket on the boat. The ride takes around 8 hours, so you should get there by 5:30 p.m.
Just note that the boat drops you off 10 kilometres before Luang Prabang, so you'll have to take a tuk tuk to get into town. It costs 20,000 kip per person. The tuk tuk will drop you off at the city centre, right by the post office and night market.
See, it's not so bad to do it on your own.