Many backpackers exploring the North of Thailand will make the trip over the Mekong river to visit Laos. While the slow boat is the most well known way to travel from Chiang Mai to Laos, there are a couple of other options. If you’re short on time, or don’t fancy spending 2 days on a cramped boat then here are some other ways to get from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang or Vientiane.
Fly from Chiang Mai to Laos
Flying is the most convenient way to get from Northern Thailand to Laos, but it’s also the priciest. There are two options if you want to fly to Laos.
Chiang Mai -> Luang Prabang
There is one direct flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang each day, operated by Laos Airlines. You can find the best prices on SkyScanner. Book early to get the best prices.
Chiang Mai -> Vientiane
There are no direct flights to Vientiane so instead you should fly to Udon Thani and get a shuttle to the Friendship bridge and cross the border into Laos. At the border you can get a tuk tuk to your guesthouse. The only airline that operates the route is Nok Air, and tickets can be as low as $30 one-way.
Slow Boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
The slow boat is very popular with backpackers, and very much an attraction in itself rather than just a mode of transport. The trip takes three days, stopping overnight in the towns of Chiang Khong or Huay Xai, and Pak Beng before arriving in Luang Prabang. The boats are very simple, and can be crowded in high season so don’t expect luxury or even basic comfort at times.
A common misunderstanding is that the slow boat takes you all the way from Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos. In fact the boat runs from the Laos border town of Huay Xai, not from Thailand at all. To get to Huay Xai you take a bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, the closest town on the Thai side of the border.
What’s the journey like
Taking the boat is the slowest option because there are so many parts to the journey, and overnight stops. Here is the journey broken down into each leg;
- Get a bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong. The journey takes 6.5 hours and costs around 300THB.
- Either stay overnight in Chiang Khong or get a tuk tuk straight away to the border and stay in Laos.
- Leave your guesthouse in Chiang Khong and cross the border to get the boat from Huay Xai
- If you stayed in Hauy Xai you can wake up a little later and go to the pier to book into a boat.
- Day 1 travel on the slow boat from Huay Xai to Pak Beng. The journey should take around 7-8 hours.
- Stay overnight in Pak Beng. Most people don’t book accommodation in advance here, but the good stuff gets snapped up quickly and there are reports of rats in some of the less desirable accommodation! Book here to be on the safe side 🙂
- Day 2 travel by slow boat from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang. The journey should take between 7-8 hours.
Booking Options for the slow boat
When you are booking your trip you will have two options: a package or self-organised trip .
A package trip will include all of your transport, accommodation and transfers the entire way between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang. Transport ranges from mini buses to VIP buses and accommodation can be hostel dorm beds or guesthouses. Prices vary a lot depending on where you book – shop around when you’re looking for a package, and be prepared for extremely basic lodgings.
Alternatively you can book each leg of the trip separately yourself. Book your bus to Chiang Khong on 12Go.Asia and take tuk tuks from there to the border, and from the border to the pier. You can pre-book your accommodation in Chiang Khong or Pak Beng – or just turn up and find something if you prefer to wing it and you don’t mind very basic accommodation for a couple of nights!
From everything I’ve heard you don’t save a huge amount of money in self-organising your trip, but it can make for a better experience. The accommodation in packages tends to be extremely poor, so by self-organising you can choose where you stay. Also you can decide to go over the border on the evening of the first day, which means you can get on an early boat the next day instead of being stuck at border control.
Getting from the pier to Luang Prabang
The pier is around 10km from the town so you will need to get a tuk tuk. A while back, drivers used to charge extortionate prices for a trip into town because standed tourists had no other choice for transport. However authorities cracked down on this and there is a fair, set price for everyone travelling into Luang Prabang.
Prices are clearly marked at the transport booking stations, and haggling will get you nowhere.
How to book your tickets
Tickets can be booked through any tour agency, guesthouse or online at 12Go.Asia. Shop around for the best prices, but always ask for the name of the guesthouse so that you can check it out before you book. One of the packages we were offered included a room in a hotel that had 1-star reviews that all mentioned bed bugs.
Get the overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Laos’s capital, Vientiane
The cheapest way to get from Chiang Mai to Laos is by overnight bus. At 12 hours, the journey is quicker than taking the boat and it doesn’t involve stopping to stay overnight anywhere. You also save money on a hotel since you sleep on the bus. Obviously the downside is that you are in the same seat for a very, very long time.
Getting to the border
There are no direct buses to Vientiane so you will first need to get one from Chiang Mai to the border at Nong Khai. This journey takes around 12 hours and costs around 750THB.
As soon as you get to Nong Khai and disembark from the bus, there will be a a group of tuk tuk drivers hanging around offering to bring you to the border. The price should be around 50THB, don’t pay more than 80.
Crossing the border
You’ll first need to get through the Thai side of the border, which will be pretty straightforward. The time taken will depend on how busy it is – there were no queues when we were there so we got through in 5 minutes.
Next you’ll have to go through the Laos side of the border, which will take a little more time. Fill out the forms provided at the first window, pay at the second, and pick up your passport and visa at the third. It’s easy, but might take a little bit of time depending on queues.
Some things to note:
- Some websites say you need a passport photo, but we didn’t have one so they just took a photo of us at the desk.
- Make sure you have a pen and the $30 cash on you for your visa. They accept USD along with THB and Kip.
- If anyone approaches you asking you to pay for application forms say no, you can get them free at the application desk.
- There will probably be taxi drivers hovering around offering to help you out so they can drive you to the town. They might be a little annoying, so if you aren’t interested in driving with them let them know immediately. Try not to be rude, you’ll probably be tired but they’re just doing their job.
Getting to downtown Vientiane
On the other side of the border you can get a taxi or tuk tuk to your hotel in Vientiane. You should pay around 200THB, and you can pay in Baht or Kip. Be prepared to haggle a lot if you arrive at night – drivers here tend to start very high with their prices but can be talked down.
How to book your tickets
Overnight buses between Chiang Mai and Vientiane can be booked through local travel agencies or online at 12GO.Asia. Check out 12.Go before you book with your hostel as we’ve often found the prices to be cheaper on there.
Bus drivers in Asia love to crank up the AC so make sure you bring enough clothes to wrap up and keep warm. It’s hard enough trying to sleep on a bus, let alone one that’s freezing cold. I recommend bringing socks, long trousers and a pashmina to wrap around you.
Get The Overnight Bus From Chiang Mai To Luang Prabang
The fastest way to get between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang overland is to get an overnight bus. The journey takes between 18 and 22 hours, so it’s pretty long – but there are a few stops along the way to break it up. Buses usually pick you up from your guesthouse around 9am and arrive in Luang Prabang between 4 and 5am the next day.
Getting to the border
Buses won’t usually take you directly to the border, and will instead stop for a time in Chiang Khong. They also usually include a stop at the famous white temple in Chiang Rai in the afternoon which breaks up the day.
Chiang Khong is a town close to the border between Thailand and Laos. This is where people stay overnight before getting the slow boat in the morning. A lot of buses will stop here to drop off passengers who are staying overnight, before continuing on to the border.
Crossing the border
The border crossing experience will be pretty much the same as the one above. However, everyone who takes the slow boat also crosses at this border, so the wait times can be longer.
Getting from the border to Luang Prabang
Once you get through the Laos border, your bus will be waiting on the other side. There should be representatives from the company you booked with that will guide you where it will be.
This leg of the journey takes around 11 hours, and you will usually be on a sleeper bus that has reclining seats so that you can sleep well. Make sure to check this when you’re booking!
The bus will drop you in Luang Prabang town, where you can either walk to your hostel or get a tuk tuk. There will be drivers waiting around the bus stopping point to take people to their guesthouses.
How to book your tickets
Overnight buses between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang can be booked through local travel agencies or online at 12GO.Asia. Prices tend to start at around 1,400THB, and can vary depending on the type of bus. Check out 12.Go before you book with your hostel as we’ve often found the prices to be cheaper on there.
One last tip: Bus drivers in Asia love to crank up the AC so make sure you bring enough clothes to wrap up and keep warm. It’s hard enough trying to sleep on a bus, let alone one that’s freezing cold. I recommend bringing socks, long trousers and a pashmina to wrap around you.
There’s your breakdown of the ways you can get from Chiang Mai to Laos. Have you travelled via these routes before? Let us know in the comments if you have any tips for other readers!
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