There is now bus service from ChiangRai to LuangPrabang Laos – only B950, leaving daily at 1 p.m.! One is even given enough time to arrange a “visa on arrival” (good for two weeks) at the border.
On 19 Jan. 2012, bus service began from from ChiangMai to LuangPrabang began, reportedly leaving CM daily at 1 p.m, routing through ChiangRai. By the 23rd, the price was said to have dropped from B950 to B735. When I asked about that at the bus station, however, they disclaimed any knowledge about it.
From Chiang Rai the 2nd class, air-conditioned, 44 seat bus goes to Chiang Khong. Before this service opened, one had to make separate arrangements to the border, and once over the border you could get a Lao bus north to LuangNamTha, then on to UdomXai and LuangPrabang; this sometimes took three days.
Now the “999” bus office in ChiangKhong allows passengers holding tickets by 3:00 p.m. to be taken by tuk-tuk to Thai Immigration, ferried across the Mekong, and then, once again by tuk-tuk, taken on to the bus station a few kilometers out, for 5 p.m. departure. The ferry and tuk-tuk both sides are included in the price (whether B950 or B735). The ChiangKhong “Boh-Koh-Soh 999” bus station office is scheduled to be to be open from 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. I didn’t check the new Amphoe ChiangRai station hours, but they are at least that.
Total distance by road ChiangRai to LuangPrabang 610km. It’s over 200 km. from HuayXai to the Chinese border, which this route almost reaches (just over 190 km to LuangNamTha). About 80% of the road is good, but it’s often narrow; HuayXai to Boten (at the China border) is wide and being upgraded. It’s believed that this will become an active highway, but that remains to be seen.
On the internet I found mention of a VIP bus, but again, the agents at the ChiangRai central bus station disclaimed any knowledge. They did say that the trip takes 12 to 13 hours; on the Net the VIP Bus is reported as 12 -15 hours, and the 2nd class bus as taking 18 hours, which would have one arriving in LuangPrabang at a more reasonable hour. Should one arrive an hour after midnight, prior arrangements for accommodations would be a good thing indeed! The Lao VIP bus might be something which can be arranged in ChiangRai at the new bus station, as claimed on www.thaivisa.com Chiangrai forum, but perhaps only at the tour agency offices. One report of the VIP bus mentions only 25 seats, but no aircon, no reclining seats, no service, and not enough seats for everybody. It was “very noisy, dirty, cold and we could only sit straight. There was 1 stop of 15 minutes, and a very short toilet stop. The total trip took more than 12 hours. Our clothes and personal belongings got very dirty and many people were coughing or having problems to breathe. Even though we were very tired, we could not sleep, since probably due to the bad suspension of the bus we were shaken in all directions, and several times and had to hold on to the chair in front”…
Plans to construct a bridge from ChiangKhong to HuayXai by late 1997 were derailed by the economic crash but it should be completed soon, perhaps this year. On one’s own, you present your passport at Thai Immigration by the river (open from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.); they put an exit stamp in, give you a white departure card and then take your picture (normally done in about five minutes). You walk twenty meters to the river and take a small ferry boat across to the Laos Immigration, directly across the river: B30 for you and B10 for your baggage. This also takes about five minutes.
At HuaiXai one can get a Visa on Arrival, usually for US$35 (or B1500; the visa cost ranges between $30-$42 US, depending on your nationality. For Swiss, Japanese and South Koreans it’s free. The cost in Euros tends to be the same as the dollar cost, with Lao authorities ignoring exchange rate differentials). It’s a dollar extra on weekends. You only need to complete their form, and present one passport-size picture (or a photocopy of your passport information page) with your passport. There are money changers on the Thai side, so you don’t need to pay in baht (which can save you a reasonable bit). The Laos Visa on Arrival is Single Entry.
Upon exiting Laos Immigration, one can catch a tuk-tuk out to where the bus station is, 7 km south of town, and catch the regular Laos VIP bus - which leaves at 5:00 p.m. everyday. This VIP Bus has been running from HuayXai to LuangPrabang for over a year.
A warning: on arriving in Houay Xai, you might be approached by touts asking about your next destination. If you answer Luang Prabang, you may be pressured to reserve a ticket on a VIP bus, because the bus is invariably “sold out”. The ticket offered will be priced at something ridiculously high, perhaps 210,000-260,000 kip. Upon arriving at the bus station, you’ll be handed a ticket with the actual price, 145,000 kip, on it! At the bus station you can get a ticket all the way to Vientiane for 210,000 kip.
The local bus to Luang Prabang is about US$12 (110000 kip) at the station itself, a couple bucks more when arranged at a guesthouse or through an agent. They’ll claim the trip is 10 hours, but often turns out to be 15. The bus station is 7km from the town. However, if you buy the ticket at the bus station rather than through your guesthouse or agent then the price is lower (perhaps 145,000 kip, around US $14.50). You are told the journey is 10 hours but it can turn out to be 15 hours or more, so be prepared. Local buses leave 9 a.m. and either 12:30 or 2 p.m., and cost 60,000 kip at the station. From a guest house you might choose to pay 95,000 kip (about 350 baht) for a “package” including the 10 minute tuk-tuk ride to the bus station (usually only about 10,000 kip). There’s also the option of going by songthaew to LuangNamTha - they leave when filled, from early morning to after midnight, and cost about US$7. The hotels in Luang Namtha said to be clean and cheap.
The local buses have a lunch stop along the way. The road (Hwy. 3) has been completely sealed, but some big sections in the middle have been churned up by trucks, which adds time to the trip. From LuangNamTha, it’s about 300 km. further to LuangPrabang (on Hwy. 13). From LuangNamtha to UdomXai the road has recently been resurfaced, but work is still being done on the verges. From UdomXai to PakBeng, only about 80 km., the road is bad, and that section often takes about three hours. Various obstacles may occur elsewhere, but there haven’t been any reports of Farang getting killed by bandits for several years now.
The area traversed is scenic, rural, and mountainous. The scenery is reportedly much better than the LuangPrabang - Vientienne route, but some areas are just rubber plantations, and about half the bus trip (or more) takes place at night. On one’s own, one can make stops, for instance, at “Gibbon Experience” in Don Chai, Bokeo Province, where you can stay in tree-houses and glide along zip-lines to view some of the last black-cheeked gibbons in Laos. There are also many tribal peoples, from about 30 ethnicities, including Khmu, Hmong, Lao Loum, Lahu, Akha, Pu Tai, Phou Noy, and Tai Lue. Driving on one’s own can be arranged, but as driving is on the right (as opposed to the left in Thailand), and you need to make local insurance arrangements, that’s of questionable advisability (much better for large parties than small).
For cycling, it depends on how well the hard-top has weathered, since it was last re-surfaced. It can be done, but there’s a lot of dust, and LuangNamTha to OudomXai can be quite bad.
HouayXai’s tiny airport has service to and from Luang Prabang and also Vientiane (about US$ 46 and $88, respectively). There’s also Lao Aviation service at LuangNamTha.
Arriving back to Thailand overland can mean that you will be given only a tourist visa, valid for just fourteen days.
Bangkok Post reports (http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/394778/new-loei-luang-prabang-bus-route, © Post Publishing PCL) "New Loei-Luang Prabang bus route Published: 13 Feb 2014 at 09.03Online news: Local News The Transport Company in Thailand has joined with Naluang Company in Laos to launch a new public bus service, Route 14, to link Loei with Luang Prabang.
The journey takes about nine hours and covers a distance of 395km. “By linking these historic and picturesque regions, tourists and travellers have a new, affordable way of exploring some of Southeast Asia's cultural gems. They can do it with utmost convenience and comfort,” said the Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Thawatchai Arunyik. The Transport Company uses an air-conditioned bus with 38 seats for the new service. The bus departs from Loei Bus Terminal daily at 8am and the return trip from Luang Prabang is at 7am every day. The bus also makes one stop at Xayaburi where an Elephant Conservation Centre is located. A one-way ticket to Luang Prabang is 700 baht and 175,000 kip to Loei. If one wants to get off at Xayaburi, a one-way trip is priced at 500 baht or 125,000 kip and the travel time is s about six hours. Call the Transport Company Call centre on 1490 or Loei Bus Terminal on 042-811-706.