From Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai

The Debate: another uncomfortable bus ride, or a 2 1/2 day slowboat down the Mekong. These thoughts were in our head the entire time we were in Luang Prabang, and our preference changed several times a day.

In a nut-shell, our preference would have been to take the slowboat if we had more time (think of how romantic and peaceful it sounds!) even though we were somewhat turned off from the idea initially, after we saw a slowboat arrive one evening, packed to the gills. As the people disembarked, it really looked like a steady stream of refugees coming off the boat. But, with only 3 1/2 weeks total in Southeast Asia, it was hard to justify spending 3 days in travel, when we could make the same trip in just 20 hours, and not have to pay for any accommodations along the way.

So, by bus it was: VIP bus. What this means, for those of you who are not well-versed in Asian travel terminology, is that the seats would be cushioned, there would be air-conditioning, and there would be neon lights all over the front of the bus, declaring its status (VIP) and route (Luang Prabang to Houy Saey). This is in contrast to the “local bus,” where your bags are roped onto the roof and you sit crammed onto bench seats with enough local people and their livestock to start a whole new village somewhere else. There is no AC, and it’s likely that the windows are either stuck open or shut.

Anyway, our VIP bus departed at 7pm, and was set to arrive at Houy Saey (or Hou Xie or however it’s really spelled), at the Laos border early in the morning. We were both lucky and unlucky to get the seats directly behind the driver: we had more legroom than most, but we also got to listen to the driver’s music all night and see just how narrowly he missed hitting the semi-trucks and other vehicles coming towards us (and in just as many instances, those he overtook around the blind corners as well).

All in all, it was less uncomfortable than we expected. It’s true, the road to the border was very twisty and turny, and alternated between paved and unplaced patches, both full of potholes, but at least the driver stopped regularly for bathroom breaks (well, smoke breaks for him), and he also passed out water, a snack, and a little plastic bag I initially thought was for garbage, but after a short drive felt it was in the event of motion-sickness (we took Gravol before we left so we were okay).

The journey to Chiang Mai was more than a bus ride, however. After our bus arrived at the station in Houy Saey, we jumped on a “song-taow” (literally means “two rows,” as in, there are two rows of seats in the back of a pick-up truck, and went down to the Mekong. From there, we went through customs, changed our money from Laos kip to Thai baht, and boarded a ferry, which was actually just a long boat that seats about 10 with luggage.

It was only about a 10 minute trip across the river, where we went through Thai customs in Chiang Khong, and then walked up the hill to another “song-taow,” which took us to our next mode of transportation, a mini-bus. We piled onboard (did you know that cardboard is an acceptable material for the construction of mini-bus seats? It sure felt like that is what they used on our mini-bus!). Our driver’s philosophy appeared to be that one should drive as fast as possible, so that one’s passengers can take many breaks. As we whizzed over the fully-paved roads, Earl and I agreed that it was a reasonable philosophy. We arrived in a back alley in Chiang Mai an hour early and, thanking our driver in our newly-learned Thai (“khap-koon-khap” for Earl, and “khap-koon-ka” for me), we set off to find a guesthouse. After having slept on-and-off for the last 20 hours of travel we couldn’t wait to shower and to crawl into bed for a rest!

5 comments to From Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai

  • Susan Holman

    Your bus trip sounds like the bus trip we had in Costa Rica from the airport.

    • iPadNomads

      Costs Rica was 10 years ago and I only remember that being a long 3 hours after the flight becuase we just wanted to get to the resort. I don’t remember how rough it was but I could see it being bumpy too. Our travel in Asia has been an experience every day, but in all cases, we’ve been lucky and it could have been worse :)

  • Lauren Fourmeaux Clemens

    Hi Guys! I have been reading through your blogs and enjoying all the details of your trip. We are praying for you guys and thinking of you often. So sad to hear I missed your call the other night….next time! Love you both, Lauren

  • Jay

    What bus company is this? I am hoping to take this bus too from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai. Do I have to book in advance or did you buy the bus ticket that morning/day before? Thank you

    • iPadNomads

      Hi Jay,
      We can’t remember the name of the bus company. On the main strip in the tourist area of Luang Prabang there are several tour offices. We just visited one and booked it there. We probably booked it the day before we left.

      Hope you have a safe trip.

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