With a distinct lack of information about moving around Laos, we had to dig a little deeper in the virtual depths to figure out how to get to Luang Prabang. It seems there are only really two ways to travel: via the Mekong or via route 3 and the large ranging route 13 that travels pretty much through to Vientiane.
Given my propensity for sea sickness, we voted against using the boat system, considering that it takes two days. That’s a helluva lot of wobbling. Though we didn’t choose this route, we have heard some fairly average to good comments from other travellers: The two day slow boat takes 7 hours each day and stops off overnight halfway, where you can check into accommodation. We were told this route was quite scenic, but also could be a little boring, uncomfortable on hard benches and not great if you’re prone to vomming. (There is also a more expensive speed boat option, which gets you there in 6 hours, but is pretty choppy).
Tuk Tuk – 30,000 kip (pp)
As we chose to arrive in style by bus, we flagged a tuktuk outside of our hotel at around 8.15am to make sure we could secure our tickets at the bus station. It’s not too far down the road from the main guesthouses, but after making the mistake of trying to walk from the border only days before, we parted with the cash. If you’re coming straight from the border, you’ll probably be paying 50,000 kip plus for two. Be prepared to pay a little more if you’re on your own.
Bus – 110,000-180,000 Kip (pp)
Bus wise you’ve got the option of the local bus, VIP or minibus. All of these are quoted to take 12 hours. For reasons I am now unsure why, we chose the local bus, which leaves the bus station in Huay Xai at 10am and 4pm. We chose the former time, hoping we would make it to our next hotel around 10pm – we didnt expect the bus to be comfy enough for an overnight nap. Now. Let me start by explaining that the Lao bus system is somewhat different from anywhere in Thailand. It would seem that buses come and go at really any time they please. For us, this meant that having arrived promptly at the station at 8.30am for the 10am bus, we were greeted at the ticket counter by being told that there was no 10am bus today and that we would have to get a different one going to Vientiane at 11.30. For this ‘privilege’ we were made to pay 140,000 kip each, 10,000 kip more than the bus we should have been on.
Spending 3 hours waiting at the station on hard wooden benches, we had a bit of time to take note of the facilities. The bus station is small and simple, with stands around the outside of the waiting area for buses to depart to different places (UdomXay, Muongla China, Vientiane, Luang Namtha). There’s a basic shop with snack goods like crisps and biscuits, so if you need anything more substantial it mighy be best to buy before you get here, especially if you’re on a long trip. Apparently there are some bathrooms, but they weren’t in much of a state for use the day we were there.
The bus ride – Groundhog Day
In the interests of giving you an honest review, the following details our non sugar coated experience of the trip. A full vivid account can be found in our blog post section here.
After shuffling onto a soon crowded coach, we clambered into our dirty and slightly damp leather seats, cracking open the sliver of window – having no air con facility to speak of. Travelling all of four feet from setting off, we made our first stop at the petrol station; apparently the hour and a half the bus driver was milling around at the station wasn’t enough time to do this. Seconds after setting off once more, we made our second stop, and then a third and fourth. It was 40 minutes before we even left Huay Xai.
Our journey continued in this vein; stopping to pick up locals from random places, collecting large bags of unknown items and shoving them haphazardly into the aisles, halting every 20 minutes so everyone could file off and on the coach for pee breaks at the roadside with a host of onlookers. Sure the views of the moutains covered in beautiful green were amazing to look at, but were somehwat overshadowed by the dirty feet sticking out on our armrests from behind and the sounds of people being sick from the ever winding road system.
Somewhere along the way – from the miniscule legroom, skin sticking to leather and dirt blowing into our eyes from the shutter window – we were permitted to stop in a field to use some squat loos that had seen better days. It was here we were able to witness locals making what looked like ginuea foul in buckets, being held by rope. Before setting off, one was bundled, alive, into a storage box under our bus.
12 hours came and went, though by this point it felt more like a neverending groundhog day. Eventually, after 15 hours, a billion more stops, and perilously close to a psychotic break, we were dropped off in Luang Prabang at 2.30am in the midst of a monsoon. Needing to get to our hotel, we were pointed in the direction of tuktuks, who when approached for help ignored us and said they were napping. We would have paid over the odds at this point. Dejected, we walked 3km, getting lost and crossing a rickety bridge over the flooding mekong river. Bags soaked, we finally reached our hotel, which, I can only imagine by the grace of God, was the only place still awake. Collapsing, exhausted and wetter than a submerged flannel, we fell into bed, and vowed never to use public transport in Laos again.
So. If you do choose this route, be prepared for 15 hours of windy roads, plenty of frustrating stops, overcrowding and possibly having to walk on your own in hope of finding an open hotel in the middle of the night. I can’t tell you much about the two day slow boat, as regretfully we didn’t use it, but I would hazard a guess that it may be far less stress inducing. Do with the information what you will!
See our next guide: How To: Get from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (coming soon).