Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Luang Prabang, Laos, are both prominent stops on the famous Banana Pancake Trail that circulates around Southeast Asia (including Vietnam and Cambodia, too). Luang Prabang is a backpacker haven about 450 miles (724 kilometers) from Chiang Mai and 201 miles (324 kilometers) from Laos' capital, Vientiane. It has become a major tourist destination because it's where the infamous "slow boat"—the two-day boat that transports budget travelers from Thailand to Laos—arrives and departs from. If multi-day boat rides aren't your thing, though, you can also travel by bus or plane.
|Bus||20 hours||from $40||Budget traveling|
|Plane||1 hour, 15 minutes||from $155||Arriving on a time crunch|
|Boat||1 or 2 days||from $55||Sightseeing and adventure|
|Car||14 hours, 20 minutes||450 miles (724 kilometers)||Stopping along the way|
What Is the Cheapest Way to Get From Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang?
The cheapest way to get to Luang Prabang from Chiang Mai is by a 20-hour bus ride. Both Naga and The Transport Company drive this route, the former once daily and the latter about four times per week. These buses start at around $40 per ticket and come equipped with sleeper beds, but don't expect them to be comfortable or spacious. Most depart Chiang Mai at around 7 p.m. and arrive at the border around 6 a.m. Some travel agencies serve you a very simple breakfast in the morning while you complete the Laos immigration forms to expedite crossing the border. The easiest way to book a bus is through your hotel or hostel. Don't be afraid to ask the receptionists lots of questions.
What Is the Fastest Way to Get From Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang?
The fastest and easiest way to get to Luang Prabang is by flying, although this mode of transport happens to also be the most expensive. According to Skyscanner, there are two airline services that offer direct flights between Chiang Mai International Airport and Luang Prabang International Airport—Lao Airlines and Bangkok Airways—and they depart about seven times per week. The flight is about 1 hour, 15 minutes and will cost roughly $175 for a ticket. You can sometimes find them for about $20 less.
How Long Does It Take to Drive?
The most direct route to Luang Prabang from Chiang Mai (Route 13) takes about 14 hours and 20 minutes to drive. It covers 450 miles (724 kilometers). Most tourists don't attempt it because the roads are so unpredictable and crossing the border on your own can be intimidating.
When Is the Best Time to Travel to Luang Prabang?
The two best months to travel to Luang Prabang—and Laos, in general—are April and October. These months bookend the monsoon season that plagues Southeast Asia every summer, constantly messing up bus schedules and ruining any hopes of hiking to waterfalls, renting motorbikes for a day, etc. April and October are relatively dry and still hot, about 77 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The crowds are often smaller during these times, too, seeing as university students are still in school.
What’s the Most Scenic Route to Luang Prabang?
The most scenic, most adventurous, and all-around most epic way to get to Luang Prabang from northern Thailand is by boat. There are three degrees of travel by boat: The leisurely (and cheap) but low-on-amenities "slow boat," the fast and sort-of terrifying speed boat, or the luxury cruise. Which you choose depends on your budget and endurance.
The most famous option is the slow boat, a longtime favorite of backpackers who almost always wind up docking in Laos with dozens of new friends from the two-day journey. It's also the cheapest (about $37, not including travel by buses and tuk-tuks to get to and from the boat). You can work with a travel agency to bundle all necessary transportation into a single package or you can facilitate the steps yourself.
First, you'll take a three- to four-hour bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong ($2), which is right on the Laos border. Alternatively, you can stay the night in nearby Chiang Rai and begin your journey from there. At the border, you have to take a shuttle over the Friendship Bridge, which costs 75 cents, and then pay for your visa-on-arrival, then take another shuttle to the boat dock ($3 to $6). You'll ride the slow boat along the peaceful Mekong River, watching rural villages pass you by for two full days, stopping overnight in the village of Pakbeng, where you'll need to stay in a guesthouse ($10). Feel free to bring beer along for the ride. When you finally dock, you'll need to take a tuk-tuk into the center of Luang Prabang. Altogether, it should cost about $60.
Getting to and from the river is pretty much standard for any boat journey. All boats depart from the border town of Huay Xai in Laos and travel a similar route. Alternatively, though, fearless adventurers can cut down on time by taking the "fast boat," a bone-rattlingly loud, potentially dangerous experience that you may never forget. While incredibly chaotic and uncomfortable, the roaring speedboats take only six to eight hours instead of two days. Drivers expertly dodge rocks and whirlpools, but the visible wreckage of other speedboats along the way is less than assuring.
Finally, for a scenic ride in luxury, you can take the elevated version of the slow boat, provided by Shompoo Cruises, for $130. That fee includes a much more comfortable seat, lunch, and the option of having the boat staff book overnight accommodation in Pakbeng for you.
Do I Need a Visa to Travel to Luang Prabang?
You will need a visa to enter Laos, but you can get one at the border, either at the airport or the ground border crossing. If traveling by bus or boat, you'll be asked for a single passport photo and a processing fee of $30 to $42, depending on the currency you're carrying. You can pay with Thai baht or euros, but U.S. dollars will get you the best rate. Visa fees and restrictions change frequently. U.S. citizens can check with the U.S. State Department's Laos page for up-to-date entry requirements.
Be aware of scammers at the border. Ignore any agency or individual asking for money to help you with the Laos visa-on-arrival paperwork. The forms can be completed easily enough at the border without assistance. You can pay drivers in Thai baht until you get a chance to withdraw Laos kip from an ATM.
Can I Use Public Transportation to Travel From the Airport?
There is no bus or train that shuttles travelers from the Luang Prabang International Airport to the city center. Your three options are to take a taxi ($6), a tuk-tuk ($4), or to arrange for a shuttle through your hotel, if available.
What Is There to Do in Luang Prabang?
In Luang Prabang, you can rent a motorbike or take a tuk-tuk to one of the nearby Buddhist temples, Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Sen, or Phra Bang, or to the beautiful Kuang Si Waterfalls. In town, you can hike up a steep hill to Wat Tham Phou Si for a brilliant sunset view, or purchase your souvenirs—lanterns, textiles, and pretty much anything you can imagine—at the famously expansive Luang Prabang night market. It's worth getting up early (around 5 a.m.) to witness the Alms Giving Ceremony, a Buddhist ritual in which monks walk through the streets for the day and accept offerings, typically in the form of homemade sticky rice. If you plan to participate in this holy ritual, though, do your research on the customs and be respectful of the religious aspect of the ceremony. Your shoulders, legs, and chest should be covered, for instance, and you should never make physical contact with a monk. In recent years, this procession has been transformed by tourists into a sort of spectacle, so be as respectful and educated as you possibly can.