Luang Prabang is an easy 45-minutes to one-hour flight from Chiang Mai. Even though we are enthusiasts of overland travel, we still have to admit that in this very case it may prove wiser to fly than to go by bus. Flying saves you a good deal of time. Going overland you have to cover the double distance compared to flying as you have to make a huge detour via Huay Xai or Vientiane and then embark on a tiring serpentine journey to reach Luang Prabang. That said, travelling by bus always remains a good option to have a look at the country as when you fly you miss all those bright green rice paddies with farmers wearing pointed hats; water buffalos bathing in the mud with their little shepherds; elaborate countryside wats with golden leaves of the finials jingling in the wind; and many other things which combined together give you the real taste of the country.
Flights from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
Flying from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang takes just one hour. The route is served by only one operator, Lao Airlines, and the rates are nowhere close to be low: expect to pay from USD120 (THB4.200) one-way.
Chiang Mai International Airport is located a couple of kilometres southwest of the old city and is easily reached by tuk-tuks, songthaews and taxis. You can get from almost any location within the city to the airport just for THB100. One of the four busiest airports in Thailand, Chiang Mai Airport has ATMs, post office, medical service, restaurants and all other services a traveller may fancy.
In Luang Prabang, all the flights land in the Luang Prabang International airport, which sits 4 km northeast of the centre of the city. The new airport building was opened in 2013 and still feels too quiet for its international status though besides flights from Thailand it accepts flights from Vietnam and Cambodia as well. Getting from the airport to the city the price for a seat in a shared van is fixed (LAK50,000/USD6), but you can save a couple of bucks flagging down a tuk-tuk on the main road just outside the terminal gates (LAK20,000/USD2.5).
From Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang by bus
If you put in Chiang Mai–Luang Prabang route into your GPS navigator, it will probably suggest that the distance between the two cities you have to cover is about 600 km. Do not be mislead: the shortest routes include ferry crossings and cannot be used by tourist buses. Some of the ferry crossings between Thailand and Laos are not open for foreigners at all. That means that buses from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang have to make a huge detour via Nong Khai-Vientiane border crossing getting to Laos over the First Thai-Lao Friendship bridge or via Chiang Khong–Huay Xai border crossing (The Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship bridge). Either way, the total distance from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang is between 900 km and 1000 km and a part of the route passes through quite a mountainous area (on the stretch around Vang Vieng if you pass via Vientiane or in Nam Ha National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area in case of passing through Huay Xai. The latter is a very picturesque zone indeed; but the former route is more common. Expect your bus journey last from 18 hours to 22 hours – virtually the whole day.
The international bus leaves Chiang Mai in the morning (9am) and normally reaches Luang Prabang early the next day (5am). The bus itself in an ordinary air-conditioned VIP bus with soft reclining seats, organised four per row with relatively limited leg and elbow space by Western standards. There are toilets on board and blankets are distributed, too, but sometimes they are not enough, as it tends to get freezing cold in the bus – so pack some warm clothes. Water and sometimes snacks are served and the bus makes three rest stops during the trip for meals and stretching your legs. Tickets cost THB1.500 per person, which is almost three times less than you pay for a flight. If you buy a ticket with Naga Travel, they normally provide free pick-up from your hotel or guesthouse in Chiang Mai. In Luang Prabang tourist buses arrive to a separate bus station close to the Southern bus terminal (Naluang bus station), 3 km south of the centre.
From the bus station, walk or take a tuk-tuk to get to the city centre. The rate is flat (LAK10,000 per – well, person, not per ‘seat’), but tuk-tuk drivers tend to insist on LAK20,000.
Taking a boat to Luang Prabang
If you have decided to get from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang overland, probably a better idea is to make a combination journey, which will include a bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong (6 hours; THB400), a border town on the Thai side of Mekong, and a boat to Luang Prabang which you will board on the Lao side.
In this case, though, you will have to spend a night either in Chiang Khong or in Huay Xai as buses and vans from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong leave in the morning in order to travel quite a serpentine road to their destination during the day time. There are nice places to stay on either side of the border, but probably it is better to cross the river immediately after you arrive to Chiang Khong and plan your morning boat trip the same evening, as all the boats down the Mekong leave in the morning.
You have three different options for travelling from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang by boat:
1) join a luxurious river cruise
2) take a speedboat
3) hop onto a slowboat following the same route; it is the means of transport the locals use, and it can really enrich your experience with tons of local spice – from sitting on the wooden benches all day long to gazing around and watching misty mighty Mekong and endless rice fields.
The slowboat journey is definitely not the thing every traveller would appreciate: it takes two days to get to Luang Prabang with an overnight stop in Pak Beng. Tourist cruises take the same time, but provide you with a more upscale and relaxed experience. Speedboats bring you from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang in sheer 6 hours and also call to Pak Beng en route for a quick stop. The downside of this speedboat trip is that it is terribly noisy (take earplugs!), bumpy and wet. It can be dangerous, too, though life wests and helmets are provided by the majority of the operators.
Getting your Lao visa on arrival
The majority of the nationalities can obtain a 30-day Lao visa on arrival (check in advance). You can get one at the airport if you fly to Luang Prabang; if you go by bus, VOA is available at the both land border crossings you are most likely to use: Chiang Khong–Huay Xai and Nong Khai–Vientiane. The visa fee varies depending on your passport but is USD30 for the majority of the countries – only cash is accepted. Take a visa application form from the officer, fill it in, have 2 small photos to attach to your application (or pay a couple of bucks if you do not have pics) and get your Lao visa.
Why go to Luang Prabang
Full of a very characteristic mix of traditional Lao architecture with elegant European insertions, which reminds of the times when the city was part of French Indochine, Luang Prabang has its zest. From elaborately carved wats and teak houses to white-washed elegant homes and clean streets with lush tropical verdure it possesses its undeniable charm almost no traveller can resist. Luang Prabang is often featured in the most worth-visiting cities in the South East Asia charts and is designated as the World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It does get increasingly commercialized these days, and if you do not want to miss that special atmosphere of a cosy small city with very unique personality, put Luang Prabang on your travel itinerary soon.
Getting around in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is quite compact and many sights within the city boundaries can be reached on foot.
Bicycles can be rented from many hotels and guesthouses. Per day rates start from LAK10,000/USD1.25 and go up to LAK50,000/USD6 for a good mountain bike. These are also ok for touring some attractions outside the city, i.e. the spectacular Kuang Si Waterfall (30 km).
If you do not feel fit enough to pedal two hours one-way, tuk-tuks are plentiful though not so cheap if compared to their counterparts in Thailand or Cambodia.
You can rent a motorbike, too, but be aware of scams. Park in paid parking wherever possible and lock your bike with an additional wheel lock, otherwise you risk to find it stolen (in many cases – by the same rental company you have rented it from!).
Onward travel from Luang Prabang
Buses and minibuses link Luang Prabang to many local destinations to the south of the city, including Vang Vieng (popular spot for tubing and caving) and Vientiane. You can easily get to Phonsavan (Plane of Jars), too. For the eastern destinations like Tha Kaek, Savannakhet or Pakse pass via in Vientiane.
The most popular international destinations you can be interested in, include Bangkok in Thailand, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Siem Reap in Cambodia and Hanoi in Vietnam, all connected to Luang Prabang by direct flights; the latter can be also reached by bus (24 hours).