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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 25th January, 2013.