For many ex-pats, the need to go on a visa run is a simple fact of life. Yes, it can be frustrating and the bus journeys can be a nightmare, but they can be a fun chance to explore a new town for a little while. In Luang Prabang there are loads of ex-pats choosing the best way to renew their visa – often booking a flight into Vietnam or Thailand, or taking the bus down to the the capital, Vientiane, and then hopping over the Friendship Bridge into Thailand, stocking up at the closest 7-11, and then doing the journey in reverse, back over the mountains to Luang Prabang. A less popular route is to take the bus west from Luang Prabang to Chiang Rai, via Huay Xai, which is what we decided to do.
If you’re after costs, skip to the bottom!
Luang Prabang to Chiang Rai
On the evening of our bus, three of us hopped into a tuktuk and headed to the bus station, armed with a packed dinner, thanks to the guys at Villa Merry 1. As we sat waiting for our bus to start allowing passengers on two other travellers came to ask if they were in the right place, and if we were going to the same place. Upon comparison of our tickets, it became clear that the place names were different, although our attempts to pronounce the town name were similar, and, worryingly, the dates were also different! It quickly became clear that there had been a little confusion when purchasing our tickets the day before. A little bit of quick thinking and we scribbled out the previous date and replaced it with our desired date. Perfect, they won’t know the difference after that little bit of ingenious trouble shooting.
Except they did, of course. As we showed our tickets to board the bus the man waggled his finger at us, kept hold of our tickets, continued to check others without saying a word. Anxiously, I watched my watch as the departure time approached. With only a few minutes spare, everyone was on-board and the man with our tickets toddled off behind the ticket desk to chat with his friends. As plots of how we would reach the border before our visas expired the next day became desperately elaborate, the man came back with shiny new tickets for us, and we joined the other travellers and locals as the bus departed.
Luckily for me, I was travelling with my boyfriend, so the two of us hopped onto the double berth sleepers. Unluckily for my boyfriend, I took the window side, leaving him to spend the night trying not to fall out of the berth as there was no barrier worth mentioning. Even more unfortunate, though, was our travel companion for the trip, whose seat was both in the aisle and next to a rather friendly local. The double berths are compact to say the least, so if you are travelling solo expect to get cosy with your neighbour.
A couple of hours in and we stopped for a toilet break. I have a real fear of falling into a squat, so I prepare accordingly. That includes dehydrating myself for at least a few hours prior to any long bus journey, and as this one was overnight I hadn’t had a drink since lunch. It’s not a squat avoidance measure I would particularly recommend, but it works for me. Instead, we chatted to the other 3 falangs on the bus and discovered we were all headed to Chiang Rai. Like our friend, they were planning to continue across the north of Thailand, whilst Graham and I would be returning to Luang Prabang.
We climbed back onto the bus and tried to get comfy for the second, much longer, part of the journey. I wrapped myself in a scarf and pulled the fleece blanket over myself to keep warm, plugged into my iPod and was ready for sleep. Out of nowhere, Graham pulled the fleece blanket from me, complaining I’d taken them both! The absolute cheek of it! Why, I would never do such a thing. As we fought over the blanket, like the loving couple we are, we realised someone had pinched the second blanket whilst we were outside. Being the overly polite Brits we are, instead of hunting down the blanket thief, we spent the night trying to share. The journey itself is, like most bus journeys in SE Asia, bumpy. The lights were out and the drivers only had their music on a low volume, so we were all able to get a little shut eye. For Graham, that shut eye was interrupted fairly frequently by nearly falling from our bunk as the bus went over the endless potholes. As far as overnight buses go, this one wasn’t all too bad.
After we’d been asleep for what seemed like no time at all, but must have been hour, the bus lights flickered on and everyone sat up bleary eyed and tried to look out the condensation-covered windows to see where we were. A quick glance at my watch told me it was 6am, an hour earlier than our estimated arrival time. Stuffing our belongings into our bags, checking we hadn’t left anything behind and wrapping up warm against the early morning chill, we stumbled into the, very much closed, bus station at Huay Xai. Most of the people on our bus piled into tuktuks and disappeared into the morning mist, whilst the six falangs tried to gain enough awareness to comprehend the bus timetable. We learnt it would be a three and a half hour wait for the next bus to Chiang Rai, so went to the only cafe that was open. Ordered a round of coffee and pulled out a deck of cards.
The bus to Chiang Rai was almost empty. The six of us climbed on and prepared to catch a little more kip. We didn’t have long, though, as the bus pulled up to the border crossing. We all hopped off, clutching our passports, and headed to the exit gate. Everything at the crossing was easy. We got our exit visa nice and quickly and found our bus waiting for us on the other side. Again, it dropped us at the Thai border, we hopped off, did what we had to do, and hopped back on the same bus at the other side ready to take us to Chiang Rai. I always get a little worried at border crossings that something might go wrong, but this was really easy.
A quick tuktuk into town and the six of us checked into a hostel and headed out for lunch. The following day we waved goodbye to the others as they set off on another bus journey, leaving us to enjoy a few days in Chiang Rai. Mainly we spent this time eating. The food in Thailand is just so so good!
Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang
After a few feasting days, it was time to do the journey in reverse. We walked to the bus station in town to buy tickets to Chiang Khong, which is the town on the Thai side of the border. There, we were told to take a tuktuk to there other bus station, where we had been dropped on our way in, and to take a bus from there. When we get there, we tried to book our ticket, including one from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, to be told there were no more buses from there that day, and the Luang Prabang tickets were sold out, but if we go back to the station in town there was a bus to Chiang Khong in 30 minutes. So, back we went.
There was indeed a bus in 30 minutes, the helpful staff pointed us in the right direction and ensured we were on the right bus with the correctly priced ticket. It was a small local bus, the kind that looks as though it should have retired years ago. I like these buses, they have so much character and it’s a great way to chat with locals. It sure was bumpy though! After a few hours, the bus driver stopped at the side of a dual carriageway and told us, and two other travellers, this was the stop for the border crossing. At the side of the road was a nice row of tuktuks, ready to over charge everyone and hardly allow any haggling at all. Never the less, we all climbed into the back of a tuktuk, which took us the final four kilometres to the Thai border.
Getting through border control was easy as pie, and there is a bus that runs between the Thai and Laos crossings. We used that, went through the Loas control and then rounded up as many travellers as we could to share a tuktuk to the bus station. Whilst we got off at the station, everyone else continued into Huay Xai. Unfortunately for us, the information we had been given back in Chiang Rai about the bus to Luang Prabang being full was spot on, so we booked our tickets for the following day and went to find somewhere to stay the night.
The following morning we took the first bus heading to Luang Prabang. It was really full, and pretty dirty. A few hours in, the bus stopped for a lunch break and we noticed that the sign on the side stated the bus was destined for Vientiane. Confused, we chatted with another traveller who was also going to Luang Prabang, and was sure it was the correct bus. However, after an hour or so of the bus setting off we realised the guy didn’t get back on it. We then also started to realise that the road didn’t seem even nearly as bumpy or twisty as it had before. Because we are always so relaxed, we calmly decided we were on the bus now, and if we end up in Vientiane we will just spend a day or two there to make the most of our mistake.
You may have noticed, we had now been travelling for two days. My squat avoidance tactic of dehydration had gone well out the window somewhere around lunch time day two (I’d also drank a load over night when we had access to the hotel bathroom). As we pulled into the same toilet stop as we had on leaving Luang Prabang I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, we’d stopped here before so we were going to Luang Prabang. On the other, I was about to face the worst road side squat loo of my travelling life. I tip toed into the cubicle, which was a little wood and corrugated iron shack, not knowing if I was stepping in water, wee, or a delightful mix of the two. The squat was located on top of a step, which was mid thigh height on me, covered in more unidentifiable liquids, and looked to be rather slippery. My fears of falling into a squat were mounting. Long story short, I had to be creative in my ability to not fall over, avoid peeing on myself and ensure I was comfortable for the remainder of the journey. My advice, ladies, would be to go in the bushes.
Our visa run finished with a tuktuk ride back to our hotel late that evening. Tired, hungry and desperate to use a proper loo, we checked in and passed out pretty quick.
What it cost
Here is a breakdown on everything we spent on transport and visa/border fees from Luang Prabang to Chiang Rai and back again. I’ve left out the hotel costs, food and drink. The costs are based on two people travelling together.
|Tuktuk||Villa Merry 1 to bus station||30,000Kip||10-15 minutes|
|Bus||Luang Prabang to Huay Xai||300,000Kip||Approx. 11 hours|
|Bus||Huay Xai to Chiang Rai||114,000Kip||Approx. 3 hours (including time at the border)|
|Border||Laos fee||20,000Kip||Fee for out of business hours (applies to weekends)|
|Tuktuk||Bus station to Chiang Rai||40 Baht||Approx. 10-15 minutes|
|Bus||Chiang Rai to Laos border||250 Baht||Inc. bus from Chiang Rai, tuktuk to border, bus between borders. Approx. 4 hours|
|Tuktuk||Laos border to Huay Xai, via bus station||30,000Kip||Approx. 30 minutes|
|Tuktuk||Huay Xai to bus station||30,000Kip||Approx. 25-20 minutes|
|Bus||Huay Xai to Luang Prabang||290,000Kip||Approx. 11 hours|
|Tuktuk||Bus station to Villa Merry 1||30,000 Kip||Approx. 10-15 minutes|
This comes to a total of 110.77 USD for two people’s transport, or 55.34USD per person. The journey back was a little longer, but, horrid squat loo aside, I didn’t mind it too much. It’s a fairly painless way to either do a visa run, or get into northern Thailand to continue your adventure.
The other way to do this journey is by slow boat, I was surprised by how popular it was. Mindful Wanderlust have a nice post about their trip to Luang Prabang from Chiang Rai on the slow boat.
It terms of the visa restrictions in Loas, a 30 day visa on arrival will cost 35 USD for British nationals, plus a few fees. You can extend within Laos twice (there is a centre in Luang Prabang where you can apply for a visa extension), at a cost of 2 USD per day, and a maximum of 30 days per extension. After doing this twice the only option is to leave and re-enter the country. When applying for the visa you will need a passport photo.