Getting there and away
Two flights a week are made in each direction between Phongsali and Vientiane. The one from Phongsali to Vientiane flies on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 11:40. Tickets can be booked in Phongsali at the Viphaphone Hotel. Vientiane to Phongsali flights leave at 09:30 on the same days and tickets can be bought at Lao Airlines or any travel agent. The flights take an hour and 40 minutes and cost around 990,000 kip one-way. The airport is by the town of Boun Neua 41 kilometres away. Numerous buses pass through Boun Neua enroute to other destinations and arriving at the Phongsali bus station at 07:45 to catch one of these will be ample time for the journey. Expect to pay 15,000 kip for the bus.
There have been recent reports that flights are no longer going to Phongsali with the situation seemingly changing on a regular basis. Agents in Vientiane have the latest information on this.
There are two bus stations in Phongsali. The main bus station is located three kilometres west of town on the main road, a 5,000 kip songthaew ride away. The other is in the far east of town, about a kilometre from the centre and services Hat Sa for the boat ride to Muang Khua.
The road from Phongsali to Boun Neua and a few kilometres beyond is a sealed road and is traversed with relative speed. South of here there is a road sealing project which has been going on for over two years now and only tiny sections are complete, meaning the vast majority is dirt and rocks and in everything but the dry season, mud and water. It is a treacherous journey and will take a minimum of nine hours to reach Udomxai. If there are problems along the way, extend that timing.
From Boun Neua it is possible to travel even further north to regions which are even more remote than Phongsali. The big issue in these towns is food or lack thereof. Travel here and expect to have a totally remote and local experience. Ou Tay is 93km from Boun Neua.
Boun Neua: 15,000 kip leaving at Midday
Udomxai: 75,000 kip leaving at 08:00
Luang Nam Tha via the back road: 85,000 kip Note: even though this route has a price listed at the bus station, we were unable to locate a departure time. If this route is open, expect it to take in the region of 12 hours, greatly reducing the time when compared to travelling via Udomxai.
Vientiane: 190,000 kip leaving at 08:20
Luang Prabang: 130,000 kip leaving early morning
Hat Sa: 12,000 kip leaving at 08:00
The trip up or down the Nam Ou River is beautiful, as the river is lined with mountains and punctuated with picturesque villages. To get to and from the river and Phongsali you have to go via Hat Sa, which is where the river port is. One songthaew a day heads in each direction -- from Phongsali to Hat Sa at 08:00 (1 hour, 12,000 kip) and from Hat Sa to Phongsali at 14:00 dependent on passenger numbers.
Two kinds of boats plough between Hat Sa and Muang Khua: fast and slow. Generally they will wait until the songthaew from Phongsali arrives before departing, but otherwise leaves when full without following any scheduled departure times.
The slow boat takes five or six hours (depending on the number of stops -- particularly to pick up catfish fished by the local villages on the river) and costs 105,000 kip. The fast boat takes about two to three hours and costs 135,000 kip.
While it seems that the speedboat is the obvious choice -- much faster for only 30,000 kip more -- in fact it is not. Particularly when heavily loaded, the boats are extremely uncomfortable. When the water is anything less than smooth as glass the contents (including human) bounce in a bone-jarring manner and you're so busy hanging on you'll have no energy left for looking at the stunning scenery.
The slow boat may not be luxurious, but at least a roof protects you from the elements, giving you time to appreciate the scenery with less noise and in more comfy seats. Fast boats are not always available.
If there are no imminent departures, it is possible to rent a whole boat, which will cost around 1,300,000 kip.
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