Before leaving, we discussed whether we wanted to get the slow boat along the Mekong River, which takes an additional day or two, or whether we just wanted to get into Laos. We decided against the slow boat, mainly because the vast majority of the reviews we read indicated that it was an uncomfortable ride sitting on a wooden floor of an overcrowded boat. It didn’t really sound like something we would be doing in normal life, so why do it now?
Instead we went for the following route;
1. Pai to Chiang Mai by minibus
2. Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai by bus
3. Overnight in Chiang Rai
4. Chiang Rai to the Friendship bridge 4km outside of Chiang Khong by bus
5. Tuk Tuk to the Thai side of the border
6. Shuttle bus across the friendship bridge to Laos side
7. Sorngtaao to bus station in Huay Xai
8. Night bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang
Sounds complicated doesn’t it?
This blog helped a lot, it’s changed now, due to the friendship bridge but the bulk of it was really helpful.
-Pai to Chiang Mai by minibus
The twisty and windy route from Pai down to Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station is best done in an AC minibus. There are an impressive 762 turns crammed into the 3 hour journey. If you do get travel sick, best to take a tablet as this will test you. It costs 150 Baht (£3), but the buses leave every hour (we left at 8am), so there’s a decent amount of flexibility. It’s probably worth booking a day in advance, just to get a better seat, and the bus station is in the centre of town.
-Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
We went with Green Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. This is more of a coach rather than a bus, which has AC that got down to 15 degrees in 3 hours! This bus cost 144 Baht (£3) each from the Arcade Bus Station to Chiang Rai. We did the whole trip during Songkran, so we had to wait 3 hours for our bus as all the ones before this were full. It was an enjoyable 3 hour trip along decent straight roads. The bus stops at both bus stops in Chiang Rai, so don’t get off at the first stop (called Chiang Rai II bus station), but wait for the second stop as this is the bus station next door to the night market.
-Overnight in Chiang Rai
We had decided to stay in Chiang Rai before setting off, and it was probably a good thing because we didn’t get there until 7pm due to our 3 hour wait for the bus. What awaited us can only be described as a mental street party full of teenagers crawling around in their pickup trucks hurling water at each other and pumping up the bass.
It just so happened that our hotel was right in the middle of the strip. Cracking! We managed to survive with minimal water being thrown at us, and then got on with sorting ourselves out for the next day in the comfort of or dry room.
-Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong
The local buses leave Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong from the in-town bus station every hour. The buses are generally pretty packed, so get a seat and don’t lose it! The bus costs 65 Baht (£1.30), and it takes around 2 hours to get to the Friendship Bridge 4, roughly 4km before you get to Chiang Khong. Just tell the conductor you want to go to Laos via the friendship bridge, and you’ll be set.
-Tuk Tuk to the Thai Border
At the bus stand, there are a collection of tuk tuks waiting to take people over to the border point. They charge a flat 50 Baht (£1) per person, and drive you roughly 5km.
Once you’re at the Thai border, you’ll be stamped out of Thailand, but make sure you have your departure card as they are pretty stringent about it being correctly filled in and stamped.
-Then comes the shuttle bus across the bridge to Laos
The bus costs 20 Baht (40p) each, except on holidays where it’s 25 Baht each. I don’t know if it is possible to walk over, or opt not to get the bus, but I doubt it and didn’t really want to cause a fuss, so we paid and then drove for about 90 seconds over the bridge.
Once we were in Laos, we had to fill out our paperwork for our visa. We had to wait about 20 minutes, but overall not too bad. We paid $36 for our visa each ($1 of which was a fee due to the holiday…they charge this fee no matter what, but just call it something else depending on what the Laos border police feel like!) and then had to head to Huay Xai bus station for the 6pm bus to Luang Prabang.
-Sorngtaao to Huay Xai bus station
The Sorngtaao crew wait outside the Laos side of the border, preying on tourists who have chosen to come through from Thailand. We were initially quoted 100 Baht each, but because there were 6 of us we were able to get this for 60 Baht (£1.20) per person. Normally this little jaunt wouldn’t be too stressful, but it was New Year, and therefore water was being thrown at us every which way, so by the time we got to the bus station we were soaked!
-Night bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang
Only one bus leaves per day from what I am make out, and this leaves at 6pm. It’s a big bus, with AC and reclining chairs. However, the driver throws it around the corners (of which there are many) like Emerson Fittipaldi himself, so it’s difficult to sleep on. The bus cost 145,000 Kip each (£11) and took 12 hours. It stopped about 5 times throughout the night for people to stretch their legs and use the facilities.
We finally arrived at Luang Prabang’s Northern bus station at 6.15am and then had to get a shared Sorngtaao into the Old City for 15,000 Kip each (£1.20).
And that, my friends, was that.