Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang

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Updated on 25th January, 2013. First published 1st June, 2008

An oft-repeated question among travellers is "How do I get from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang?" and the simple answer is, well, there's no simple answer -- you can fly, go overland, go by boat -- or try some combination of the three. So read on for a detailed explanation on how to get from north Thailand's capital, Chiang Mai, to Laos' crown jewels, Luang Prabang.


If you've not got time to read the blow to blow accounts, here's a summary:
* Take the plane -- it takes an hour and is flown by Lao Airlines once daily. Total flight time: 1 hour.
* Take the slow boat -- requires overland transport to the border, then a two day boat. Time required: At least three days.
* Take the speedboat -- requires overland transport to the border, then a one day speed boat trip. At least two days.
* Take the bus -- requires overland transport to the border, then bus north to Luang Nam Tha, then Udomxai then Luang Prabang. At least three days.

Other resources
Book a hotel or guesthouse in Chiang Mai
Book a hotel or guesthouse in Luang Prabang

Read on below for a more detailed breakdown of how to get from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang.

Lao Airlines flies from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang once daily. The flight takes about one hour and airfares start at around US$110 (before taxes, surcharges etc). This is the fastest way to get from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. Not surprisingly, it's also the most expensive. If you're a Discovery Pass holder, this is a valid flight-coupon leg.

The closest Thai-Lao border crossing to Chiang Mai is the Chiang Khong (Thailand), Huay Xai (Laos) crossing. This means you have to get a bus or minivan to Chiang Khong before you can get to Laos.

Your first option is a direct bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong. These buses are slow, often taking up to eight hours.

The second, and the better option is to get a bus first to Chiang Rai which takes about three hours and then catch another bus to Chiang Khong, which should take between two and a half and three hours. There are buses every hour from early morning till mid afternoon between Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong.

If you decide to go via Chiang Rai, we'd suggest you leave Chiang Mai by mid-morning to be sure of getting to Chiang Rai in time to make a connection to Chiang Khong. Also the earlier you arrive there, the earlier you get to Chiang Khong.

A third option is to take a private minibus service from Chiang Mai direct to Chiang Khong. You'll see these services offered at many guesthouses in Chiang Mai. The advantage is they leave in the evening so you get to spend a full day in Chiang Mai -- the disadvantage is that you will arrive in Chiang Khong at about 2am and may be dropped at a decrepit guesthouse for a few hours sleep before crossing to Laos.

A fourth, more time consuming option, is to take the scenic route. This entails taking a bus or songtheaw north from Chiang Mai to Tha Ton, overnighting there, then travelling by boat to Chiang Rai, where you'd overnight again and then onto Chiang Khong. The boat trip between Tha Ton and Chiang Rai can actually be split over a couple of days, including stays in hilltribe villages -- but that's another story!

In summary, the quickest way between Chiang Mai and Chiang Khong is to get a bus first to Chiang Rai, then change for a bus to Chiang Khong. The trip should take all up between six and seven hours depending on the connection in Chiang Rai.

Lastly, if you're travelling by public transport, it's not possible to leave Chiang Mai early enough to get a slow boat from Huay Xai on the same day -- you will have to overnight in either Chiang Khong or Huay Xai.

The border towns of Chiang Khong and Huay Xai face each other across the Mekong River. Both have ample accommodation options for most budgets. The border crossing is open from 08:00-18:00 daily and Lao visa-on-arrival is available, costing US$30 or 1,500B (for most nationalities). Crossing the border entails taking a one minute boat ride across the river. Thai customs and immigration are on the Thai side, Lao on the Lao side. The boat landing is at the northern end of Chiang Khong and in the centre of Huay Xai.

The border crossing is a good 25 minute walk from where the bus will drop you in Chiang Khong (they are at opposite ends of town), so if you don't want to walk, grab one of the tuk tuks that meet the bus.

In theory the slow boat(s) leave Huay Xai in the early morning, but in practise they depart between 08:00 and 11:00. They leave later than 11am very rarely as they need to reach Pakbeng (the half-way point to Luang Prabang) before nightfall. It is not unusual for the boats to be overloaded -- especially in peak season when loads can exceed 100 passengers. Investing in a pillow is a very good idea. While in peak season there may be multiple boat departures in a day, they will tend to leave around the same time. There is NOT an afternoon slowboat from Huay Xai.

Slowboats racing into Pakbeng in fading light

Every man, dog, guesthouse and restaurant in Huay Xai and Chiang Khong will offer to sell you a boat ticket. The cheapest, and most reliable place to buy your ticket is, not surprisingly, at the official ticket office by the boat landing. So don't waste time dealing with the middlemen, just go buy a ticket at the ticket booth. Tickets sold in Chiang Mai and pretty much anywhere south of the Mekong will be overpriced and if you're shown a picture of the boat, rest assured, in all likelihood it will bear no semblance whatsoever to the slow boat you actually get on.

Once you've got your ticket and wedged yourself into the boat, you're in business. Next stop Pakbeng.

Per person the slow boat costs 220,000 kip or 850 baht to Luang Prabang and half that, 110,000 kip to Pakbeng.

There's a number of tour agencies plying this route with their own boats. The best known of these operators is Luang Say Cruises which includes a stay at the Luang Say Lodge in Pakbeng. Another operator, Nagi of Mekong offers seasonal one day boat trips from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, though these are very dependent on river heights.


Quality of the slowboats varies considerably

Another option is simply to get your own crowd together and roll your own slow boat -- expect to need to raise around US$500 to get the captain motivated -- with a dozen people you'll each be paying double the price of the normal slow boat service, but carrying 12 people instead of 100 means you'll be oh so much more comfortable.

You can read all about salubrious Pakbeng in the Pakbeng section of Travelfish, but, in all honesty, it's a bit of a hole. As each boat arrives, there's a mad rush as backpackers stagger up the hill trying to find a good room. The truth is while there's few good budget rooms, there's rarely no rooms, so don't burst an artery running up the hill -- at worst you'll end up in a rat-infested dump, but it will be for just the one night. During one stay in Pakbeng we spied a rat the size of a beagle in our room.

The next morning, it's simply a case of rolling back down the hill, climbing back on board your boat, and heading to Luang Prabang. Assuming there are no dramas enroute, you should have arrived by mid afternoon.

The advantages of taking a speedboat are that it's very fast and, if you're into bungy-jumping, skydiving and wrestling polar bears, then it is right up your alley. The disadvantages of the speedboat are that they are dangerous -- you're asked to wear a helmet for a reason, they're so noisy that, aside from interrupting what is otherwise a pristine, peaceful environment, you can expect your ears to ring for days afterwards, and lastly, they're dangerous ... or did we say that already?


Speedboat gassing up on the Mekong River

The speedboats require six passengers but smaller groups can charter them -- as long as you pay for most of the seats. If you are contemplating travelling by speedboat, we'd suggest going with a maximum of four people to allow for a little bit of space on the boat. If you're on a speedboat with five other passengers, expect to require a few days of massage in Luang Prabang to get over it.

The trip to Luang Prabang takes around six hours by speedboat and costs 340,000 kip per person. To Pakbeng costs 160,000 kip. (More info here)

There's a few other routes to get from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, but they don't really make sense unless you're planning on stopping along the way, and so are mentioned just for the sake of completeness.

Through buses from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang leave in the early morning and take ten to twelve hours -- absolute best case scenario. This routing takes you via Luang Nam Tha, Udomxai and Pakmong before rolling into Luang Prabang.

You can catch the slow boat as far as Pakbeng then take a truck north to Udomxai and then onwards to Luang Prabang.

Lastly you can boat just as far as Pak Tha then take the two day boat up the Nam Tha to Luang Nam Tha before continuing on to Luang Prabang. This boat is no longer a regularly running service and you may need to rustle together your own group to make it cost effective.

The Lao slowboat thread - trip reports specific to the boat trip
The 1 Day Boat - Thailand to Luang Prabang (dated, but still useful)
Huay Xai to Luang Prabang by slow boat



About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


Read 17 comment(s)

  • It is easy to fly but driving the route is a great way to contact with the locals along the route and much much better.

    Posted by expatudon08 on 28th November, 2008

  • This commentary offers great advice.

    If time is partly at a premium, there is a VIP bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong. It currently leaves at 10am and arrives at 3pm.

    At 3pm, the Lao official's post a sign on the immigration window reading something like "after hours service fee - 1US$".

    The GH accommodation in Huay Xai is medium to good.

    If you are interested in trekking, go by bus to Vuong Phouka and trek, then onto Luang Nam Tha (even visit fascinating Muong Sing) before taking a 10 hour scenically wonderful bus to Luang Prabang via Oudom Xay.

    The bus option is still 2 days (in Laos). So, either a slow boat to LP via Pak Beng, or a bus via Luang Nam Tha.

    cheers

    Posted by brucemoon on 27th April, 2009

  • THanks for all the precious advice! I am currently in Pai, trying to sneak my poor self to Lua Prabang at the lowest price possible. Price of the agencies for bus+boat from Pai is 1750baths, no way I pay this. There is a mention of the slow boat price 20USD (bought on Laos side), but the article was posted last year. Does anyone have an idea about the actual price now?
    Thanks a lot guys!

    Posted by jan on 25th September, 2009

  • We left Chiang Mai 21st December 2009 having bought a ticket at a CM travel shop all the way to Luang Prabang for 1650thb per person.

    This includes a minivan from CM to Chiang Khong on the Thai border (leaving at 11am and getting to CK at 4pm) double room with shared showers and toilets at Nan Khong Guesthouse in CK, buffet dinner (great fried rice and deep-fried veggies), egg breakfast, sandwich lunch, short minibus ride to the Mekong, short ferry across to Laos immigration, short taxi ride to the quayside and slowboat to Pak Beng on the first day (leave at 12noon, arrive at 5:45pm) (accommodation in PB not included) and slowboat from PB to Luang Prabang on the second day (leave at 9:30am, arrive at 5:30pm).

    It is possible to sort out accommodation in PB at the quayside before boarding the slowboat.

    Visas for Laos vary according to your passport and whether or not your country was favorable to communism (USD35 for UK passport, USD30 for NZ passport).

    Hope this is useful!

    Posted by borisborough on 24th January, 2010

  • I have done some research to find out that to get from chiang mai to luang prabang by bus and slowboat would take about 4 days. But I can't seem to find how to get from Luan Prabang to Bangkok or how long that would take? Can someone help me out?

    Posted by elise on 25th January, 2010

  • Hi Elise

    Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang by minivan and slowboat can definitely be done in three days - we did it.

    From Luang Prabang to Bangkok: LP to Chang Khong would certainly be two days by slowboat, minivan from CK to Chiang Mai would be half a day and then you should be able to catch a sleeper train at the end of the third day from CM to Bangkok getting you into Bangkok at the start of the fourth day.

    Posted by borisborough on 26th January, 2010

  • Hi Boris,

    We're currently in Chiangmai looking to do the same route as yourself. Can you let me know where abouts it was you bought the tickets in CM? We got quoted 1900Baht. Also, if you've any advice on accomodation in Pak Beng, would much appreciate it!

    Cheers,
    G

    Posted by G on 15th February, 2010

  • Hi G

    There's a strange practice in SE Asia whereby, as soon as you board a mode of transport, the "head-honcho" takes your ticket from you. Unfortunately, because of this, I haven't got the details to hand.

    Looking on a street map of Chiang Mai, the travel shop was a narrow shop just outside the city walls directly opposite the East Gate on Chaiyapoom Road (just around the corner from the De Naga Hotel on Chang Moi Road.

    I hope this helps - sorry I can't be more accurate.

    Cheers - enjoy your trip!

    Posted by borisborough on 16th February, 2010

  • Beware cancellations! Booked to go by boat from Huay Xei to Luang Prabang on April 21 but just got email saying it has been cancelled due to low river levels in the Mekong. Says all passenger boats suspended until April 30th.

    Posted by fiona on 13th March, 2010

  • Don't believe what they tell you!
    My sister and I did the slow boat Huay Xei to Luang Prabang on 17th April 2010.
    We booked our tickets at the border crossing (Laos side) to travel the next day. We paid a little bit more (1200THB ea) for a boat that only took 50pax. The one thing that the guy who sold us the tickets said to us was not to let the Boat people put any more people on or to ask us for more money. GUESS WHAT - they tried to put about 120 pax on it until a goup of about 10 of us complained. Yes they tried to get more money out of us, but in th end, we survived. At the end of the day, use your head and senses and enjoy the trip! Yes the Mekong was low, but not that low......

    Posted by Alena on 9th May, 2010

  • I'm leaving Chiang Mai for Hanoi then to China - starting 1st, 2nd or 3rd June, 2010, by myself - by land - Anyone doing the same? - I need company.
    Jeff
    Please notify me by email.
    jeff.kendal@yahoo.com

    Posted by Jeff on 2nd June, 2010

  • wooo very good job. thanks for this guide.
    but from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang how much does it cost the bus ticket?
    i just wuold like to know the cheapest way.
    thanks a lot anyway for the great guide.

    Posted by piscuic on 21st September, 2011

  • Reading all the comments was very instructive. As we are both nesring 80 yrs, I think We'll use one of the travel agencies you mention e.g. Luang Say Cruise's.

    Posted by Paul Burke on 22nd December, 2011

  • Reading all the comments was very instructive. As we are both nesring 80 yrs, I think We'll use one of the travel agencies you mention e.g. Luang Say Cruise's.

    Posted by Paul Burke on 22nd December, 2011

  • Hi, can anyone offer advice on how to hire a car and driver to get from luang prabang to huay xai? Local travel agents don't seem to want to confirm anything....any contacts would be great. Many thanks Jules

    Posted by Jules on 4th January, 2012

  • Thanks for the advice and photos.
    We had thought to take the boat, but a friend told me that the boat up the river sounds much more romantic than it is.
    After seeing your photos, we booked a flight.
    Cheers.

    Posted by Regina on 22nd November, 2012

  • Just could not stop laughing, such a funny write up thanks.
    We are going to Chiang Mai in 4 days for the Flower Festival and going on to Chaing Rai. From there we are looking at ways to get to Laos as visa runs out on 24 Feb. After reading your advise, there is no way we would attempt the river way. Its expensive flights for us.
    Shame because we traveled down the Mekong for a couple of days and loved it but this does not look at all inviting.
    Thanks

    Posted by sheila on 25th January, 2013

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