How to get from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang!
Travelling between Thailand and Laos is a common route for backpackers in South East Asia. Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang is a popular departure and arrival point, being they are both equally amazing places not to be missed.
Though, getting from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang can take quite a lot of time unless you are willing to fork out a money for a flight; something which us backpackers often can’t afford. There’s also the famous slow boat ride and a bus between these two cities, though these options can take along time. So let’s break these down to figure out what is best for you:
So, taking a flight is probably the easiest and quickest option when traveling from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. Though, currently it is not possible to get a direct flight between these two cities, rather a stopover in Bangkok is necessary. Though, this could be the perfect excuse to head south to experience the beautiful towns and islands on the Andaman Coast.
Air Asia, my personal favorite budget airline, regularly flies between Chiang Mai to Bangkok and Bangkok to Luang Prabang multiple times each day. As well as Air Asia, Bangkok Airways also flies this route, though it is more expensive. Budget between $100-$200 on flights from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang depending on who you fly with, what season it is and how far in advance you book. I recommend checking out Skyscanner to find the ideal flight for you.
To get to the airport in Chiang Mai is pretty simple. All you need to do is flag down a tuktuk driver and let them know you are going to the departures terminal. A ride to the airport cost me $4.50.
Once you have arrived in Luang Prabang the airport is a mere 5km from the city center. Though, even with this small distance taxis still charge $6 for a car load. Laos is a country which is still building up its facilities to cater for tourism. So get prepared for lots of construction, dusty roads and of course beautiful scenery.
Getting from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong
For the next options you will need to get from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong which is the Thai border town. You can easily book a minivan at your guesthouse or at one of the many travel agencies in town. These will pick you pick from your accommodation. Though be warned, you will be squished in like sardines. Alternatively you can get a bus which will be a lot more roomy, though your journey will likely take longer. Check out bus times on 12Go Asia where you can compare prices and check reviews.
Once in Chiang Khong you have the option of either staying a night there or crossing the border to Huay Xai. I actually stayed two nights at Namkhong Guesthouse and Resort for $5.70 per night for a twin room (That’s $2.85 per person!). There’s a pool to use, its located in the lush tropical garden, a seven eleven a is a two minute walk away and an amazing restaurant called PadThai Baan Yim Restaurant just down the road. Everything in the photo below cost $5.20 including the drinks!
Crossing the border and getting to Huay Xai
You can catch a tuk tuk for $4.50 to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. This is where the border is located. I recommend doing this when it opens to avoid the crowds and tour groups. Its a fairly simple crossing to do; just get processed on the Thai side, jump on a bus which will drop you off at the Lao side and get processed there. Though, make sure you have enough money for visas and fill out your paperwork correctly to avoid delays (An ATM is available there as well if you need).
Once you have you visa there are plenty of tuk tuks to take you to Huay Xai. They usually take multiple groups, though in the morning when there aren’t that many people you may have to wait a while to fill it up. Alternatively, you can pay for it to leave early, which is what we did for a total of $11.00.
Taking a slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is definitely one of the more popular options. It is a two day trip where everyone stuffed into a boat. I have heard numerous horror stories about this journey. Alas, I still built up the courage to do it.
At the port is a office where tickets can be purchased. I paid $25.40 for mine. Everyone is then piled onto the boat and sat in old car chairs. They do have padding and are surprisingly comfortable; also the seats are not bolted to the ground so some have more room than others. Seat numbers are assigned, but no one ever sticks to this. On board is one toilet and a stall selling noodles and drinks. The toilet on board can get quite flooded so remember to wear shoes!
The views are quite similar throughout the entire trip until you get a couple hours from Luang Prabang with lime karsts towering over the river. A big surprise for me was the amount of rubbish in the water which is quite sad to think about. It basically just follows you the whole trip.
One night of the journey will be spent in Pakbeng. There is no need to book accommodation in advance, no matter what the sales people on the boat say. Just turn up at the wharf that night and there will be plenty of locals there advertising their rooms. It is their livelihood. In all honesty I did not find the trip that bad and we always arrived in less time than expected. I also traveled during the dry season when the river was considered low and slow moving.
Lastly, the boat doesn’t stop directly in Luang Prabang, but rather a few kilometers out. I had previously read nightmare posts about people being dropped off in the middle of nowhere and having to pay ridiculous tuk tuk fees. Times have changed from this. There is now a large building where people organize tuk tuks for $2.40 per person into the very center of Luang Prabang. It is totally organised, though the prices are fixed so don’t be stubborn and try to haggle.
If you don’t mind the idea of spending two days on a boat, but are more concerned about comfort, a luxury cruise could be the best option for you. The cruises can cost anywhere between $150 to $350 depending on the company. This amount also includes meals and one night accommodation in Pakbeng. These are certainly, as the name implies, luxurious, well compared with the slow boats. There are less people on board giving you plenty of room to spread out and enjoy. These boats, from what I have seen, appear to be in a lot better condition as well and with much more amenities than the slow boats.
Do I dare put this option in here? Its bad, but if you are weighing up all options from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang then you cant forgot the infamous speed boats. Do I recommend them? No. Will you have an enjoyable trip on them? No. These boats are quite dangerous; especially in the dry season when water levels are low. Though, you can read about all the dangers online, just google it! There is a reason you need to wear life jackets and helmets.
It is eight hours of constant motor whirl and the countryside wizzing by in a blur. On the plus side a trip only takes 6 hours, much quicker than the two day slow boat. Also pray that it doesn’t rain on the trip as drops will fall from the sky hard on you like bullets. A speedboat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang will cost about $45.
Bus rides in South East Asia can be long due to the constant stopping and starting picking up locals; and those which service the route between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang are no exception. The roads are for sure windy and the bus will constantly be speeding up and slowing down. Also do not expect luxuries like air conditioning, space and comfortable seat as these are rare to come by.
There are two public buses serving this route, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. A VIP bus leaves in the afternoon; though this will cost more. Generally the drive takes somewhere between 12-15 hours depending on how often you stop. Consider this option carefully to avoid be dropped off at a ridiculous hour in the morning. A trip between Huay Xai to Luang Prabang on a public bus costs $15.
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Photo credit: “First look at Laos” (CC BY 2.0) by PrinceRoy . “Chiang Khong, Thailand 22” (CC BY 2.0) by JamesAntrobus . “Bus” (CC BY 2.0) by GaryCycles . “Day 1 From Luang Prabang to Pakbeng” (CC BY 2.0) by GaryGilliland .