The first thing to note is that the plush new Thai bus with Chiang Mai-Luang Prabang emblazoned on the side is not going to go all the way to Luang Prabang. The route is Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chiang Khong, Luang Nam Tha, Udomxai and Luang Prabang — so upon inquiring as to how the bus would cross the Mekong at Chiang Khong (since the bridge planned here is still a couple of years off being finished), we were informed that passengers would have to change at the border. We haven’t seen the Lao bus but, even assuming it’s of a similar quality, we have seen the Lao roads and they certainly aren’t.
The Thai highways between Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong are all excellent and the first Lao section from Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha is relatively new and in pretty good condition too, but from then on road conditions go a bit pear-shaped. Nam Tha to Udomxai is narrow, rough and pot-holed and Udomxai to Luang Prabang itself is not much better. The bus company’s timetable sensibly allows 15 hours for Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, and you’ll probably need it.
Departure time from Chiang Mai is 09:00, Chiang Rai 13:00 and Chiang Khong 15:00, with an ETA of 06:00 the following morning, with the full trip costing 1,200 baht. If you board the bus in Chiang Rai it is 950 baht, or from Chiang Khong it’s 750 baht. If you’re in a hurry to reach the World Heritage town then we’d recommend the one-hour flight from Chiang Mai, which costs around $170 with Lao Airways.
If you’re not in desperate rush, we’d advise against this 21-22 hour bus ride (if all goes according to plan), even if you have perhaps wisely chosen to av0id the circus of the Huay Xai-Luang Prabang boat service. A good compromise might be to use this bus service to take you to Luang Nam Tha or Udomxai (for Nong Kiaow), hang out a few days in what are picturesque and fascinating spots, and then take the boat from Nong Kiaow down the Ou River to Luang Prabang. This is a much more scenic and less touristy boat trip than the popular Mekong trip. (You can also change at Udomxai for travel to Phongsali province.)
If you are using this service it is important to note that you do require a Lao visa in advance and the bus company states they will not wait for passengers to obtain a Lao visa on arrival at Huay Xai.
The bus company’s information number is (053) 241 449.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 11th July, 2012.