There are a few ways to get to Laos from Thailand: one can take an airplane there although it’s expensive. Many people opt to take the slow-boat which typically lasts up to two days on the Mekong River. Carmel and I discussed this option at length. The notion of sitting on a cramped boat, as if I was on the light-rail train back in Portland, for two days may have led me to start misquoting Joseph Conrad and giggling hysterically, scaring all aboard. No, that wasn’t going to work for me. It’s important when traveling long-term to know your strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, knowing your limits and needs. So, we decided to take the overnight bus there, a journey that was shorter than the boat, but far longer and challenging than the plane.
So, with our border crossing transport decided, we set out to do some necessary research on the hows and whats of the journey. At the time, we were in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and our next destination was Luang Prabang, Laos. Okay, no sweat. We’ll get some updated and decent information about the route, border crossing information and costs. Right? Well, we soon discovered that there was a plethora of muddled information regarding the bus option. Some sites quoted one incredibly inaccurate price for a bus ticket, barely anything about details on the border crossing, and no site gave us any comfort or reassurance about this important trek. It was one of those times when after contracting the dreaded, “Search-Engine Blues” (typically exhibiting symptoms related to minor delirium and hysteria) we gave up and decided to just take one step at a time and see where it would take us. It’s one of those valuable and scary times when traveling when you let go and have faith in the vast, great Unknown. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. However, I told Carmel, “When we get this done, I want to write something to give people who are taking the bus some decent, updated information.” So, fellow travelers, this is an informative (hopefully) piece that will ease (hopefully) your minds and give you some guidance on how to take the bus from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang.
This is the ticket counter you need at Arcade bus station, terminal 2
Our first step led us to Chiang Mai’s Arcade main bus station. There are three terminals at the bus station and after some wandering around, we went to Terminal 2. Some taxi drivers and folks at various information kiosks told us to go to Terminal 3, but they were wrong. Terminal 2, folks. Now, making the situation a bit more tricky, there weren’t any signs or notices posted for Laos. When you’re in the station, there are ubiquitous signs posted for destinations all around Thailand, but alas, nothing posted regarding Laos or Luang Prabang. We asked around and were finally directed to an unassuming kiosk set towards the back of the terminal and, alas, we had reached our ticket booth. The price for tickets were 1,200 baht (approximately $36 U.S. dollars) but we couldn’t purchase them the day before, only on the morning of departure. The bus left once a day, at 9am, and the friendly ticket agent informed us to get to the station at 8:30 to get our tickets. We decided to get there at 8:00, just in case. There was no problem getting the tickets then and so we waited with nervous anticipation for the next stage of this trip.
The bus schedule we finally found as we loaded onto our bus to Luang Prabang – shows the stops along the way
There were several destinations in Thailand that we stopped at before crossing the border, so if you want to shave off a couple hours from the ride, one can board at Chiang Rai, although I don’t know any details about getting a ticket at the station there.
The bus wasn’t packed and obviously had mostly international travelers inside. Luckily we had fairly pleasant, respectful passengers and the seats were comfortable for the day ride. Our layovers in the cities along the way weren’t too long, approximately fifteen to twenty minutes at each city which made bathroom breaks at the stations possible. Although there was a bathroom on board, we usually reserve that option for emergency use.
Your bus to Chiang Khong, the last stop before the Mekong River crossing – don’t get too comfortable on this bus
It took approximately six hours to get to the Thailand border, at Chiang Khong. Upon reaching Chiang Khong, we had to take all of our bags with us, walk about a half kilometer with our driver down to the riverfront, and go through immigration, which was a quick and painless process. Our bus driver informed us that then we would need to take a quick boat trip across the Mekong River to the Laos side at Huay Xai. Our boat ride across the Mekong was quick, maybe five minutes. I previously read that you have to pay to cross the river, including “bag fees.” Nobody on our bus paid any additional boat or baggage fees. I noticed our driver paying somebody and I assumed that our bus ticket was inclusive for these charges.
Leaving the Thai border by boat
Crossing the Mekong on the skinniest boat we’ve ever seen
Once across to the Laos side, our friendly Thai driver wasn’t present and a pair of friendly Laotian men welcomed us on the muddy shore, beckoning us to follow them up to the Immigration booths, about 200 meters away. Again, this was one of those situations where you have to put the hyper-vigilant borderline paranoid thoughts and fears aside and have some faith, in this case, leaving our backpacks on the side of the road with these strangers as we went up to the Immigration booth to get our business done. This wasn’t a necessity, it wasn’t a requirement. If you want to wear your packs, do it – although space at the office is limited. We decided, en masse, to entrust these people who seemed to know we were coming and were going to take us to the Next.
It was initially confusing on what to do; there were a few large booths, but nobody directing the incoming traffic. So, with some questioning and bantering, we were instructed to fill out Application forms, Arrival Cards, and then give them with an extra visa photo for processing. There were a roundtable of Immigration officials with stacks of passports, taking turns inspecting them, stamping them, going through the application forms, stamping them, until they were all set, our names were called, we paid our fee and our passports were handed back to us. We were lucky there weren’t many foreign passports that needed to get processed. Our wait was about 40 minutes from start to finish. There are varied prices for the visas depending on your nationality. There is a table presented out front that breaks down the prices. For United States citizens, the price was $35 dollars with an additional $1 dollar “weekend and after-hours” surcharge. We heard that in some countries having crisp dollars were necessary, but I noticed some of our fellow bus mates unfold their wrinkled bills from their pockets and wallets, and they were accepted without issue.
After we got our passports back and stamped for thirty-days, we saw that our knoll of multi-colored packs were still there and intact, the men who greeted us earlier diligently standing beside them. The men led us up a hill to a busy, dusty street where a tuk-tuk awaited. We boarded reluctantly, not knowing what was happening. Were we going to go to Luang Prabang in this thing? One of our bus mates nervously joked that we could take turns sleeping on the metal floor. Other than motioning us to board the tuk-tuk no other information was given and nobody spoke English, so we boarded and anxiously anticipated the Next. We rode for about 12 kilometers through town to the bus station. It was approximately 4:30 pm. After hopping down from the tuk-tuk, we noticed a nice, big bus already parked in the otherwise empty lot. Somebody approached and informed us that this indeed was the bus we would be taking to Luang Prabang and loaded our packs inside the storage bins underneath (again, nobody paid for the tuk-tuk ride to the station, and we all assumed that the price for that was also included with our initial bus fare). However, there was a layover until 6:00 pm.
The bus station just over the Laos border
Despite feeling relieved we had successfully crossed borders and antsy for essentially the final stage in our journey, having a break for dinner (there were several little canteens with cheap, decent grub and beverages) and get some stretching and bathroom time in was refreshing. The bus left relatively on-time and off we went.
Our bus to Luang Prabang – there were others, but this one didn’t stop frequently
The bus was basically the same as the one that took us to the Thai border – decent seats but no on-board bathroom. Fleece blankets were stacked in the overhead shelves, which came in handy later. The driver had the ubiquitous loud folk-pop music blaring. The evening rolled on by like the bus on the narrow dirt roads, fairly uneventful. Now when nighttime came and fatigue draped across my skull, it got tricky. There were empty seats and rows on the bus so I ended up stretching out some, but even then, trying to curl up, the seat’s armrests digging into my head, my hips aching from the uneven surface, it was evident I wasn’t going to have a restful sleep in there. The smaller, younger passengers curled themselves up in fetal positions and appeared to be cozy, comfortable, and asleep for much of the night. Carmel and I, however, couldn’t sleep. It was difficult, admittedly, to get comfortable. The seats didn’t recline enough, and even though the music was turned down low at that point, the bus’s horn belched frequently, warning incoming traffic from the seemingly endless sharp bends and turns.
Something to be said about the drive during the night: surreal. We discovered later that the roads in Laos are frequently comprised of mountain switchbacks, but in the middle of the night, with steamed windows, it seemed like we were just going around and around in elaborately broad circles. Lying in my seat, trying in vain to find a comfort spot, I couldn’t help but think of an old ride at Disney World’s Epcot Center: Space Mountain. The allure of the ride was not just a roller coaster but one that relied on flashing multicolored lights and mirrors that created the illusions of crashing head-on into rockets, and finally zipping through complete darkness at a very high speed. As a kid riding it, I remember feeling terrified and…well, stymied. Here I was again, peering up to the fogged windows at randomly passing dim lights, feeling the bus slow down, turn left, then right, then immediately left again. Horn honking rhythmically. Gears groaning. Tires crunching. Repeat for several excruciating, droning hours.
The bus stopped a few times throughout the night for potty breaks. It was one of those cherished moments when traveling, as a male, to just saunter twenty feet away on the side of the road and do my business. And one of those trepidatious, obviously inconvenient moments, for Carmel and her fellow female passengers, to assess the territory and maneuver themselves amongst the sparse bushes and brush, steadying themselves beside the dramatically steep trench alongside the road. One of the young women actually lost her balance and tumbled down the trench, luckily unscathed besides having a particularly unpleasant wake-up call and slightly dampened pants.
Night slipped uneasily into the faint blue of dawn and everybody struggled out of their makeshift beds, squinting through the dew smeared windows. We drove into the morning and finally around 7:00 am, arrived to the bus station at Luang Prabang. The trek lasted twenty-two hours, significantly shorter than the slow-boat, presumably more unpleasant than the speedy jaunt on an airplane. But the process wasn’t as daunting as we feared, the border crossings were routine and uneventful, and the ride was okay, considering the circumstances of the overnight drive and labyrinthesque design of the roads.
I hope this helps some of you…of course payments and things like schedules, locations and fees fluctuate, sometimes suddenly and without prior notice. Good luck to everyone who decides to go to Laos from Thailand, no matter what course you decide to take.