Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang
Getting from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang is not that difficult, although no source I found on the internet describes the route that I took. There is a lot of conflicting information at Lonely Planet, Travelfish, and Wikitravel, so I’m writing this post to help anyone who is looking to get from northern Thailand to Luang Prabang.
A lot of people head to Laos from Chiang Mai. A number of transit packages are available, but from my research they seem to be overpriced. I recommend taking one of the frequent buses from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, which takes about three hours. Chiang Rai is a nice town in its own right, with plenty to see and do. Cheap accommodation is abundant near the old bus terminal.
From Chiang Rai’s old bus terminal (Bus Terminal 1, the one downtown), there are frequent buses leaving for the border at Chiang Khong. In fact, they leave every half hour from 6 a.m. until around 4 p.m. Bus terminal workers will automatically assume that all foreign travelers are looking for this bus, so it’s easy to find. No need to buy tickets in advance, you can buy them on the bus, and they cost 65 baht. I took the 2:30 bus, but if you want to get to Luang Prabang the quickest and cheapest way, you should probably leave Chiang Rai at 1:00 or 1:30.
Once in Chiang Khong, the pier is quite far from then bus station, so you will need to take a tuk-tuk. These have a fixed rate of 30 baht, so the drivers shouldn’t try to rip you off.
Next up, clear Thai immigration, which took no time at all. From here, walk to a nearby boat (40 baht) which crosses the Mekong to the Lao border at Huay Xai.
Getting through Lao immigration took me about an hour. There are forms to fill out, and you will need one passport sized picture (yep, just one) and American dollars to pay for a visa. Americans pay $35, Canadians $42 (hah!) and most European nationalities payed $30 or $35.
From the Lao border, there are a few choices to get to Luang Prabang. Most common is the two-day long slow boat, which was what I planned to take. The slow boat leaves at 11 a.m. from what I was told, so it would be possible to wake up early in Chiang Rai and catch it. There are also speedboats that take 6 hours to get to Luang Prabang, but they are quite expensive. I happened to get into town shortly before an overnight bus left, so I decided to take this bus on the fly. The bus ticket cost 700 baht, and it included a transfer to the bus station. It was hardly a luxury bus, so if you can get ahold of some sleeping pills life will be easier.
The reason I suggested leaving Chiang Rai at 1 or 1:30 is that the overnight bus usually leaves at 5. It was running late the day I was there, so it left a bit after 6. The bus takes 12-14 hours.
Overall, I made it from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang in around 19 hours, and it cost a total of 835 baht. Lots of travel agents in Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong sell a transit package for 1100-1500 baht, but as you can see this is quite a rip-off.
-Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong – 65 baht, two hours, leaving every half hour.
-Tuk tuk taxi from the bus to the border – 30 baht, 5 minutes, on demand.
-Boat across the Mekong – 40 baht, 5 minutes, on demand but closes at 5 p.m.
-VIP overnight bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang – 700 baht, 12-14 hours, 5 p.m but may leave late.
-From the Luang Prabang bus terminal, there are plenty of tuk tuks into town, and the bus station is quite far from the city center so this is really the only option. I split with three other people, and it cost us 40,000 kip, which is roughly five U.S. dollars.