It takes just under one hour to fly from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai, and flying is arguably the best way to move between the two cities. If getting to Chiang Mai as soon as possible is your mail goal, look no further and buy an air ticket. That said, travelling by land is also possible but it will take you much longer than you could expect. If a plane makes a 400-km hop, going by bus you will need to cover almost 1000 km, and expect to spend no less than 20 hours on this journey. There are, though, at least two reasons which make such a trip worth considering. The first one is the cost: you will pay double or even triple price for flying compared to a bus ride; the second one is the travel experience you get on the way. Even from your bus window you will see wonderfully rustic Lao pastorals full of rice paddies, grazing buffalos and golden wats dotting the countryside here and there. All summed up, it is not going to be the most boring trip in your life.
Flights from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai
The most important and the only advantage of flying from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai is that flying saves you a big deal of time. The airports in Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai are both located very close to the centre of the cities, what means you will not lose time getting in and out at all. It takes from mere 45 minutes to one hour to get to the northern capital of Thailand from Laos. But the main drawback of it all is that currently no low-cost airline is serving the route and thus you will have to put up with the rates offered by Lao Airlines, the only operator flying between the two cities. Be ready to pay from USD120 (THB4.200) per passenger one-way.
Luang Prabang International Airport is located some 4 km northeast of the city. After the upgrade of 2013 it still looks too large for the number of flights it serves, but the geography of destinations you can reach from Luang Prabang is being expanded constantly. From November, 2016, an AirAsia flight connects Luang Prabang to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore have been already served for a period of time. A tuk-tuk from the city to the airport will cost you (LAK20,000/USD2.5).
In Chiang Mai, all flights arrive to Chiang Mai International Airport, 3 km southwest of the old city. It is one of the busiest airports in Thailand serving about 30 airlines, both domestic and international, and 6 mio passengers yearly. The flat rate for a car from the airport to downtown is THB120-THB150, no matter whether you are travelling alone or sharing the vehicle. No additional fee for luggage is required. In the terminal building you will find ATMs, post office, medical service and snack bars.
From Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai by bus
It is possible to get from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai by bus. There is a direct international route linking the two cities. This journey is going to be considerably cheaper than travelling by air (THB1,500 vs THB4,200) but it takes about long 20 hours. On the positive side is that it is the night journey with the bus leaving Luang Prabang at 6pm and arriving to Chiang Mai by 2pm, which means it steals you just a part of the day. Chiang Mai-bound bus has a much more convenient schedule than Luang Prabang-bound bus which leaves Chiang Mai in the morning (9am) making you lose the whole day.
Why is the journey is so long if the road distance from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai is just 600 km? The thing is that the international bus can cross the border over one of the Friendship bridges only, and there are two of them which can be used by buses travelling this route: The First Thai-Lao Friendship bridge at Vientiane–Nong Khai border crossing and The Fourth one at Huay Xai–Chiang Khong border crossing. Both require a considerable detour due to which the distance between the two cities reaches 1000 km with part of the route following quite a serpentine mountain road. Currently buses use the latter border crossing and pass a very picturesque Nam Ha National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area – unfortunately during night time! – en route from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai.
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.
In Luang Prabang the bus departs from the tourist bus station immediately opposite Southern bus terminal (Naluang bus station), 3 km south of the centre. You can just walk there from the centre or take a tuk-tuk (normally not more than LAK10,000 per person).
Taking a boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai
Though it is more common to take a boat in the opposite direction – down the Mekong River from Huai Xai to Luang Prabang, – going upriver is also possible. The choices are the same: a slow boat covering the distance in two days with an overnight stop at Pak Beng; a luxury cruise which actually follows the same itinerary but offers a more relaxed way to travel and sometimes calls to a couple of sights en route; and speedboats, the fastest, noisiest and most risky (especially during the dry season from December to March) way to travel.
Crossing the border between Laos and Thailand
The majority of nationalities get a free 15- or 30-day stay in Thailand when entering the country over any of the land borders. If you are planning to stay in Thailand longer, it is a good idea to get your Thai tourist visa in advance in Laos. You can do it either in the Royal Thai Embassy in Vientiane or in the Royal Thai Consulate General in Savannakhet. A two-month tourist visa (THB1000) allows you stay in Thailand for 60 days with 30 more days added if you apply for an extension (THB1900) at one of the immigration offices in Thailand.
Why go to Chiang Mai
Nestled in a Northern basin of woodlands and mountains, the former capital of Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai is a city of infinite charm. Gorgeous ancient wats and chedis – some of them dating back to XIII century – dot the city. Forest monasteries hide in the mountains and hills. Colourful markets bursting with OTOP products, flavoursome Northern Thai cuisine with unforgettable khao soi, welcoming and friendly locals and endless choices to live through unforgettable experiences, no matter whether you are just on a short 2 day visit or on a month-long trip. There is plenty to take in in Chiang Mai, from temples, museums, galleries and waterfalls, to quaint coffee shops, epic clothing malls and a unique night-life scene for party goers and music enthusiasts alike. You will enjoy Chiang Mai, that is for sure.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Prices on accommodation in Chiang Mai have risen in the recent years, and it is now next to impossible to find a decent option for THB300; THB1000 being a more realistic figure for a budget room in a guesthouse within the walls. If you choose any of them, you have a convenience of being in the middle of the action close to many attractions; but there are other good options, too. You can look for some pleasant budget accommodation just east of the Old City in Thanon Tha Phae, close to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Thanon Nimmanhaemin with all its bars and restaurants is easily accessible from the western part of the Old City. Lodgings outside the city cater for the city veterans or those looking for relaxed countryside feel and are a great choice if your have your own wheels.
Things to do in Chiang Mai
It is a good idea to try something different while you are in Chiang Mai. You will for sure visit a fair amount of temples, do some hiking and trekking, or even white-water rafting or rock climbing. Add a zest to your stay by enrolling to a massage class and learning the basics of the Thai massage; doing some volunteering in any of the elephant camps (ask in Elephant Nature Park, to begin with); seeing how those bright colourful Chiang Mai parasols are being produced; and cruising Thanon Ratchadamnoen on Sunday evening when it becomes an epicentre of local commerce, culture, cuisine and people-watching.
Tip: Chiang Mai is famous for its colourful festivals. Try to schedule your visit to see and participate in some of them if you can. During the first weekend of February the Flower Festival is held, and the city resembles a great blossoming garden. It is all wet for Songkran, which falls on April, 12–14, with revellers pouring water to each other (and passers-by) along the city moat. Loi Krathong, one of the most beautiful Thai festivals, is called Yi Peng in Chiang Mai. Thousands of illuminated lanterns float in the night skies over the city creating an unforgettable picture.
Onward travel from Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has great transport connections with many local and international destinations. Within Thailand, buses connect Chiang Mai with the major cities and towns in the North and Isan, including Chiang Rai, Khon Kaen or Nong Khai among others. There are a lot of bus operators serving Chiang Mai–Bangkok route, and there are some long-haul buses running the whole way down to the south from Chiang Mai to Phuket calling to many popular destinations en route.