Thailand and Laos share a common border which is around 1,500kms long. Since Laos reopened to tourism in the early 1990s, it has become a firm favourite with travellers. Thailand serves as a gateway to Laos and its plentiful attractions. Chiang Mai is less than 300kms from the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge 4 across the Mekong River. The bridge is close to the Thai town of Chiang Khong and Huay Xai in Laos.
From Chiang Mai, the Chiang Khong-Huay Xai crossing is a popular entry point for northern Laos. Boats down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang depart from Huay Xai. Alternately, there is a choice of buses to Luang Prabang. Those with less time on their hands have the option of flying to Luang Prabang too. Various flight and bus routes link Chiang Mai to Vientiane and the southern Laos destinations of Savannakhet and Pakse. More information about travel choices from Chiang Mai to Laos are shown below.
Last Updated: February 2019
VISAS FOR LAOS
Most tourists need visas to enter Laos and these are issued at international airports and land border crossings. Nationals of 10 Asian nations plus Switzerland, Russia and Luxembourg are allowed visa exempt entry to Laos. Visa on arrival booths are just prior to the Lao immigration desks at airports and land border entry points. Visas cost somewhere between US$30 and US$42 and depend on which country the applicant is from. Paying in Thai baht always costs more. One passport-sized photograph is needed when applying. Laos immigration charges a US$1 (or the equivalent in Baht) inconvenience fee for any traveller processed outside regular working hours.
TRAVEL OPTIONS FROM CHIANG MAI TO LUANG PRABANG
Buses from Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station
Buses from Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station to Luang Prabang depart at 09:00 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. The Thai Transport Company buses stop in Chiang Rai en route to Chiang Khong. Although tickets are booked all the way through to Luang Prabang, passengers switch to Lao buses after crossing the Friendship Bridge. These stop at Luang Namtha and Udomxai en route. Total journey time to Luang Prabang is 18 hours.
Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station: #165, Soi 5, Kaew Nawarat Rd., T. Wat Ket, A. Mueang, Chiang Mai 50000 | Open: 04:00-22:30 (Daily) | Tel: +66 53 246 501, +66 53 241 449 | Map
Combo Passenger Van-Bus
A second road option with similar travel times is a combined passenger van-bus service. Travel agents in Chiang Mai sell tickets for a through service which involves taking a passenger van to Chiang Khong and then on the Laos side swapping over to a comfortable VIP coach with wide seats. Ticket prices usually include pickup from Chiang Mai hotels. Chiang Mai tour operator Travel Hub offers this service and breaks up the journey to Chiang Khong with a sightseeing pit-stop at the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in Chiang Rai.
Bus from Nan to Luang Prabang
In November 2017, the Thai Transport Company inaugurated a new bus route linking the northeast town of Nan and Luang Prabang. One bus a day operates in each direction with departure times of 08:00. The trip takes 10 hours and crosses the Thai-Lao border at the Huai Kon-Nam Ngeun checkpoint. At present, the Transport Company uses 20-seat, air-conditioned buses on the route. As there are not many seats, making a reservation is recommended. Green Bus operates frequent buses from Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station to Nan with travel times of a little less than six hours.
Nan Bus Station: – Rob Mueang, Pha Sing, Mueang, Nan 55000 | Tel: +66 54 710 027, +66 54 711 662 | Map
Mekong River Boats to Luang Prabang
Unless booking a package tour, travellers wishing to cruise down the Mekong from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang will need to make their own way to Chiang Khong and across the border. Green Bus offers service on the Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong route with travel times around the six hours mark. After crossing over to Huay Xai, there are three different classes of boats to choose from. A few Chiang Mai travel agents offer fully-inclusive passenger van-boat packages all the way to Luang Prabang. In Chiang Khong, Laos Tours Smile offers a combo hotel pick-up, transportation across the border and slow boat package tour.
The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
Slow boats are the cheapest and most popular method of travel. These are the Mekong version of budget airline economy class. They take two days to get to Luang Prabang and include an overnight stay at the halfway point in Pakbeng. Cruising time on both days is six to nine hours and varies with the strength of the river currents. Stocking up on French baguettes, snacks and drinks before departure is recommended as prices on the boats are high. In Huay Xai, the departure pier is walking distance from town, but in Luang Prabang it is far enough away to justify taking a tuk-tuk. Huay Xai based Mekong Smile Cruise offers slow boat package cruises to Luang Prabang.
The Fast Boat to Luang Prabang
Fast boats are the Lao equivalent of the ubiquitous Thai longtail boat. They slash travel time from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang to around seven hours. The trip is done in two legs with a stop in Pakbeng for lunch and drinks. Passengers travelling on the fast boats should wear the helmets and life-jackets provided and also put their belongings in waterproof bags. The speed of the boats gives a bumpy ride and churns up a huge amount of spray.
Luxury Cruise Boat to Luang Prabang
In 1999, Luang Say Cruises added a third option for river trips between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang with luxury package tours. This operator has since been joined by Shompoo Cruise and Nagi of Mekong. The standard packages are two days with an overnight stop in Pakbeng. The difference between the normal slow boats and the luxury options are more comfortable boats and a lot less passengers. Premium quality meals are included in the total package price while the accommodation in Pakbeng is superior. Luang Say, for example, has a tranquil lodge offering panoramic views of the sun setting over the Mekong.
Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang Flights
Lao Airlines operates Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang flights. Timetables vary according to the season. In the peak winter season, they are usually once a day. Frequencies are reduced during the off-peak months between May and October. Lao Airlines’ website has the most up-to-date timetables and offers online reservations services.
TRAVEL OPTIONS FROM CHIANG MAI TO VIENTIANE
Bus to Vientiane
A cheaper overland journey, albeit a long one, is taking the bus to Vientiane. From Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station to Udon Thani by bus takes a little over 12 hours. Several companies including Phet Prasert serve this route. This company’s buses drop passengers at Udon Thani Bus Station 1. Buses to Vientiane leave from this station. Passenger vans for Nong Khai depart from a stop at the CentralPlaza Mall and this is less than five minutes away on foot.
Udon Thani Bus Station: #250, Udon Dussadee Rd., T. Mak Khaeng, A. Mueang, Udon Thani 41000 | Tel: +66 42 247 951 | Fax: +66 42 221 444 | Map
Flying from Chiang Mai to Vientiane
Lao Airlines no longer operates direct Chiang Mai to Vientiane flights. Travellers wishing to fly between the two locations have several choices. Taking a Lao Airlines flight to Luang Prabang and then transferring to another service to Vientiane is one option. As Lao Airlines operates several daily flights between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, it is possible to do the trip in one day.
Flight to Udon Thani, overland to Vientiane
An alternate and usually cheaper option is to fly to Udon Thani and then travel overland to Vientiane. Budget airline Nok Air flies between Chiang Mai and Udon Thani three times a day. After arrival in Udon Thani, shuttle bus and taxi are the options for onward travel to the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge 1 near Nong Khai. Shuttles run four times daily in each direction. Buses cross the Friendship Bridge. After clearing immigration in Laos, choices for the last leg of the journey to Vientiane are tuk-tuk, songthaew and Bus Line 14.
OTHER TRAVEL OPTIONS FROM CHIANG MAI TO LAOS
The Mukdahan Savannakhet Border
Mukdahan is an almost 900km journey from Chiang Mai. This Thai town faces across the Mekong River to Savannakhet in Laos. Savannakhet is not all that interesting but is an option for people wishing to obtain visas to come back to Thailand at the Thai consulate here. Phet Prasert operates Chiang Mai to Mukdahan buses which require one change and take about 17 hours from station to station. There is an international bus service from Mukdahan to the bus station in Savannakhet.
A time-saving alternative is to fly to Udon Thani or Khon Kaen and then take a bus to Mukdahan. Flight times are a little over an hour to each of the Esarn airports. Buses from Udon Thani to Mukdahan take five hours while from Khon Kaen the journey time is around the four-hour mark. Allowing for transfer and waiting times for buses, the combined Chiang Mai to Mukdahan trip is up to seven hours. Thai AirAsia flies to Khon Kaen and operates two flights a day in each direction. Nok Air flies between Chiang Mai and Udon Thani and operates three return flights daily. Discover the best rates for hotels in Savannakhet with Agoda and Booking.com
Royal Thai Consulate, Savannakhet; Open: 09:00-11:00 and 14:00-16:30 (Mon-Fri), Tel: (856-41) 212 373, 252 080, Fax: (856-41) 212 370, 252 078, Map | Mukdahan Bus Station; Tel: +66 42 630 486, +66 42 611 478, Map
Ubon Ratchatani to Pakse
Ubon Ratchatani is in the southeast corner of the Esarn region of Thailand and is the access point for Pakse, the gateway to southern Laos. The acclaimed Wat Phou Khmer temple ruins and the Mekong River‘s Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don) are accessible from Pakse. There are currently no direct flights from Chiang Mai to Ubon Ratchatani and flying now involves transiting in Bangkok. There are direct Chiang Mai-Ubon Ratchatani buses and these take 15 hours. From Ubon Ratchatani, international buses to Pakse cross from Chong Mek on the Thai side of the border to Vang Tao in Laos. Total journey times are around three hours. Discover the best rates for hotels in Pakse with Agoda and Booking.com