Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang: The Christmas Commute

After a 17 week slog at work, it was nice to be finally heading away for Christmas and New Year. However, as I was planning to spend Christmas in the popular Laotian city of Luang Prabang, I still had quite a journey to go.

Obviously it would have been easier (and more expensive) to book flights direct from Hong Kong to Luang Prabang but with brand new direct flights to the Northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, just 2 hours away from the Laos border, I decided to kick off my trip with a bit of adventure and make the overland journey from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang. It took an entire day and various modes of transport but it was actually a very easy and relatively stress-free Christmas Eve journey.

I knew I wanted to arrive in Luang Prabang that same day, preferring to get a proper night’s kip before Christmas Day. As a result, it was an early 5.30am start in Chiang Rai for me. I had hoped to catch the first 6.00am bus to the border town of Chiang Khong but because of Chiang Rai’s confusing temporary bus station situation (and Google Map’s complete ignorance of it), I missed the 6.00am and so caught the 6.30am one instead. The temporary Chiang Rai bus station is just a bit further down the road from where they’re building the new one. It’s easy to spot during the day when there are plenty of buses, but a bit harder in pitch darkness.

The buses to Chiang Khong are more or less every half an hour or so, so it wasn’t a big deal that I missed the first one. It’s a local bus, red in colour, and costs 65 baht. Make sure to tell the conductor you’re heading to the Laos border as you actually have to get off before it reaches Chiang Khong. The bus will drop you on the side of the road where tuk tuks are waiting to take you to the border. It’s a scenic bus ride, taking around 2 hours to get to this tuk tuk stand.

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The tuk tuk ride to the Chiang Khong/Huay Xai border.

The tuk tuks here have a fixed rate (as outlined on a noticeboard) which was 60 baht I think for the 10 minute journey to the border. I reached the border around 8.45am and it was pretty quiet, with just one tour group also making its way into Laos. Getting stamped out of Thailand was super easy, after which I had to board a shuttle bus to ferry me across the border. Walking across the border isn’t allowed so the bus is the only option. If you’re going out of hours as I was, the bus costs 25 baht (it’s 20 if you’re going during the daytime) and takes just 5 minutes to get to the Laos side of the border.

After this, there’s a kiosk where you can pick up the forms to fill in your Visa on Arrival. Bring a pen for the forms (though someone ‘borrowed’ mine and never gave it back – the spirit of Christmas was truly alive at that border crossing). I handed the forms and my passport in and then headed to the next window to pay. You can pay in USD or Thai Baht but USD is the cheaper option. For UK citizens, it currently costs $35 plus a $1 out of hours fee if you’re not there at peak times. Within 5 minutes or so, I had my passport back complete with a shiny new Laos sticker.

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There’s an ATM and exchange desk just across from the VOA kiosk. The exchange rate was meh so I just changed enough to get me to Luang Prabang. I would change the rest later. After passing through immigration, I was now in Laos!

The trouble with pain-free border crossings is that they usually veer in the other direction. When I stepped out of immigration, the car park was pretty quiet and there did not seem to be a system for getting tuk tuks to the nearby city of Huay Xai. Tuk tuks dropped people off but then didn’t seem to stick around. Eventually I got in one with the driver saying I would have to pay 50,000 Lao kip (£5) to leave immediately or less if I wanted to hang around and wait for other passengers. It wasn’t even 10am yet and I knew my bus wasn’t until 11.30am so I decided to hang around. Sure enough, about 20 minutes later some more people came and we headed to Huay Xai for 25,000 kip (£2.50) each. The bus station is outside the city so make sure you mention that’s where you’re headed.

Around 15 minutes later we pulled up at Huay Xai’s Keo Champa bus station which had opted for the shabby chic look. I had over an hour until the 11.30am bus departed so I got a ticket from the desk no problem. There’s a whiteboard at the bus station with bus departures but it only tells you where the bus terminates. For instance, the board lists the Luang Prabang departures as either 10am or 4pm. However, the 11.30am bus to Vientiane also goes via Luang Prabang and this is the one I took. It cost around 130,000 kip (£13) for the 12+ hour trip.

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The Keo Champa bus schedule (Source: HoboMaps)

It was a ‘VIP’ bus which meant we got beds instead of seats. Unfortunately I was lumbered with the top bunk and on Laos’ winding roads I had to hold on tight. Definitely opt for a lower bunk if you can. I later found out the beds are also designed to be shared. Luckily, this bus wasn’t very busy so I got the bed to myself. I wasn’t so fortunate on the ride back.

The journey was long but incredibly scenic as the bus meandered through the Laotian countryside. Killing the mood somewhat were the bus’ unexpected passengers – crates of roosters. They’d been quite cruelly stuffed into boxes and were most probably going to end up as someone’s Christmas dinner but my sympathy levels started to dwindle when they just wouldn’t shut up… for 12 hours. I’d never been so grateful for my headphones.

As night fell, the chickens grew silent and it was only now that I actually felt quite festive. The clear sky opened up to literally hundreds of stars (and, in a strange coincidence, one was distinctly bigger and brighter than all the rest) and I lay back listening to Mariah’s dulcet tones, watching the starry sky. It did feel like Christmas.

We pulled into Luang Prabang at around 12.30am and I decided to walk from the southern bus station to the city (around half an hour tops). Then a motorbike went past with 4 people and a baby squished on… somehow, it didn’t feel like Christmas anymore.

If you are making the crossing from Thailand to Laos at this border crossing, then there’s a fantastic and up to date guide on HoboMaps which I used for most of my research. 

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