Heading to Luang Prabang, Laos from Chiang Mai or Chiang Khong, Thailand is fairly typical for most travellers these days. Why go to one country when you can visit two on your holidays! There are many ways to reach Luang Prabang in Laos from Chiang Khong or Chiang Mai in Thailand. Some are easy, and some are interesting.
Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang By Airplane
Good old Lao Airlines can fly you direct from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos in an hour. If you are short of time, this is the way to go. I (Tanya) have flown this route via Lao Airlines. It was fine. The airplanes were small, we got a meal, and we took off, flew, and landed in one piece. The plane trip, although fast, really isn't that cheap at around $160 USD one way.
Lao Airlines also flies to other parts Laos, Thailand and the world. Route Map Here. Bangkok Airways and Vietnam Airways also fly to Luang Prabang and return. All for future reference.
Chiang Mai / Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang By Bus
If you can handle sitting on a bus for a long time, you can catch a bus all the way from Chiang Mai all the way to Luang Prabang via Udomxai and Luang Nam Tha. There may still be a Mekong River crossing which means you will have to get off one bus with all your luggage, get on a ferry across the river and then hop on another bus to finish your journey. This ride will cost you around 1200 Baht and will take anything from 18 - 24 hours to complete.
The new bridge between Chiang Khong and Huay Xai should be completed by the end of 2013, or maybe the end of 2014. This should make the bus ride smoother. But still, just as long and bumpy, dusty, and tiring.
Buying the bus tickets from Chiang Mai or Chiang Khong is fairly straight forward. Just ask a guest house operator or travel agent. They will be happy to sell you a ticket!
If you have already crossed over the Laos border from Chiang Khong and are in Huay Xai already, there are public buses that you can catch from Huay Xai straight to Luang Prabang. We haven't caught one of these. Apparently the bus can take up to 15 hours, probably more. Leave every few days and cost around about 135,000 Kip.
Please do your own research on this mode of transport. I am sure you could easily get information from a guest house or travel agent in Huay Xai. Or the net of course.
Stray Travel - A Hop-On Hop-Off Tour Bus Alternative
If you are considering the bus trip from Chiang Mai / Chiang Khong all the way to Luang Prabang. Consider going with Stray Travel. They provide a hop-on hop-off bus scenario that can take you from one town in Thailand to another in Laos.
Stray Travel offer an alternative mode of transport, bus and slow boat right through the middle of northern Laos. You can join this "tour" from Chiang Mai, Chiang Khong or Huay Xai and the The Phou Pass will take you all the way down to Luang Prabang and all the way to Vientiane if you want to go that far.
They may not be cheap, at $310 USD for Stray Travel's The Phou Pass but you are guaranteed to have an enjoyable time. The bus comes with a local and a English speaking tour guide. They will share with you stories, terrible and delicious food, and make sure you are comfortable the whole way. Contact Stray Travel direct for price variations for the length of route changes if necessary.
Do It Yourself
I'm not physical enough to even want to consider riding a bicycle all the way from Chiang Mai / Chiang Khong in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos. However, I do know that people do it. And, well done to them. I tip my top hat to you. If you are considering cycling, do your research. A lot of research. Bring a lot of water and sunscreen. Check out other websites with a lot more information than what we can ever give you.
GT Rider have an awesome Lao PDR Map that would be useful to you if you are cycling or motorbiking the distance. We have used their Mae Hong Son Map prior when we rode the loop ourselves.
Riding the distance by the use of a motorcycle would be great. The roads in Laos are quite windy and pot holey and dirty. But fun. Riding a motorcycle from northern Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos would be awesome. Just a suggestion.
The Speed Boat Option
This option of travel is NOT recommended. If you can imagine 6 hours in a tiny tin or wooden boat with a motor attached to it going super fast all the way from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. That is what you have got. It may sound like a great idea, only six hours in a speed boat.
Instead of two days on a slow boat. But, it is dangerous. Nasty accidents do happen. If you are considering taking this option, please wear a full faced motorcycle helmet. Not one that you bought for $5 in Chiang Mai. One that cost you $300 from Australia. Don't hold me to this, but I am sure these speed boats go 50-60kms per hour. This option of travel is NOT recommended.
The Slow Boat Option
Not going to lie to you. The slow boat option gets quite a negative rap. Two eight hour plus days on a wooden slow boat, stopping off in a town called Pakbeng for the night, and having to deal with a lot of other people. However, the slow boat offers people the opportunity to see beautiful countryside and experience the lives of the local Loations.
There are a lot of stories told by backpackers / travellers from all over the world saying how they were one of upwards of 100 people on a slow boat that travelled from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. This has been the case. One of our friends had to endure two days of what she likes to call torture sitting on a cushion on a wooden bench with her knees rubbing the back of the bench in front of her. For up to eight hours a day for two days. Awesome.
On the other side, we have also had a friend complete the same journey in absolute comfort. About 50 people on his slow boat, sitting on chairs that look like they had been pulled out of a plane. They reclined as well. Awesome.
I think that it depends on high season and low season. In high season there are many many many people travelling through Thailand and Laos. And slow boat companies just want to make money. So they will fit as many people on a slow boat that they can possibly "get away with" and leave. If no one kicks up a stink, then off they go. On this note, if you are really unhappy with how many people are on the slow boat with you, you and everyone on your boat needs to act as a group and request another slow boat.
Negatives aside, people often comment how the slow boat ride down the Mekong River was one of the highlights of their trip. You do meet a lot of people on the slow boat, experience a lot, and see a lot from the boat.
It is easy to catch a slow boat from Chiang Mai / Chiang Khong / Huay Xai all the way to Luang Prabang. From Chiang Mai, you can buy a package ticket that includes a mini bus, sometimes accommodation and a slow boat ticket. This option will take 3 days and 2 nights and will cost about 1800 Baht. Any travel agent / guest house operator will be able to advise you more.
Don't forget that you can make your own way to the border of Laos and then get your slow boat ticket from Huay Xai slow boat operators directly. Up to you!
The Fancy Slow Boat Options
The tickets may cost the same or close enough to the cost of a plane ticket from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, but if you are happy to relax and watch the world go by on a fancy slow boat, this is the option for you. This was the option for us anyhow.
There are a few fancy slow boat operators. One is the Luang Say Mekong Cruise Company. At a price range of $345 to $495 USD it had better be good. They say they provide the best cruise on the Mekong and include one night in a hotel in Pakbeng and all your meals are provided. A little too rich for our taste.
The next option is a company called Shompoo Cruise. They are a fairly new cruise line that operates between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. We don't know enough about this company to give you a full run down. Their boats look pretty in the pictures though. Decorated in pink. I like pink. $145 a ticket will get you 2 days on the slow boat, a couple of meals, some entertainment in the form of books and magazines and comfortable seats. You will have to organise your own accommodation in Pakbeng though.
Nagi of Mekong is who we decided to travel with from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Great choice too. At a cost of 4600 Baht per person (about $150 USD) you get a comfortable seat / table area on the slow boat. A couple of meals, all day coffee, tea and fruit, accommodation in Pakbeng provided and paid for, and a tour guide who knows his local Lao stuff. We will be reviewing the Nagi of Mekong Slow Boat Cruise in the next few posts, so more will be said then.
So, there you have it. All the ways you can get from Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos. Enjoy your travels!