There are several ways to get from Chiang Mai to Laos; all have their advantages and disadvantages. Below are the most popular options to help you choose based on how much time you have and where you wish to start your visit to Laos.
Getting From Chiang Mai to Laos by Plane
You basically have two choices for flying into Laos: Vientiane (airport code: VTE) or Luang Prabang (airport code: LPQ). Flying into the capital city of Vientiane is typically cheaper, however, you'll have a long, mountainous bus ride to endure if your eventual goal is to see Luang Prabang.
You can also find cheap flights to Udon Thani in Thailand, then take the shuttle directly from the airport to Nong Khai and across the Friendship Bridge into Laos.
Visa on arrival facilities are available in the airports at Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
From Chiang Mai to Laos by Bus
If taking a two-day boat doesn't suit you, minivans run overnight from Chiang Mai to Vientiane in Laos; the journey takes around 14 hours. Prices vary widely between travel agencies and guesthouses in Chiang Mai; shop around for the best deal.
You'll depart Chiang Mai at around 7 p.m. and will 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.
Crossing the Border
After being stamped out of Thailand, you will board your minivan to be driven across the Friendship Bridge to Laos immigration. You'll be asked for a single passport photo and a fee to process your visa on arrival. Visa prices are listed in US dollars, however, the fee can be paid in Thai baht, or euros. If possible, pay in US dollars to receive the best rate; you will probably receive any change in Thai baht.
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.
Scam Alert: 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. Don't worry too much about specific information such as the address of your first guesthouse or a contact in Laos. As long as you pay the processing fee, you most likely will not be denied entry based upon paperwork discrepancies.
You can pay drivers in Thai baht until you get a chance to take Laos kip -- the local currency -- from an ATM. If you get the chance, check out the bizarre-but-interesting Buddha Park in Vientiane just after crossing the border.
Going to the Thai Embassy
As many people take the minivan from Chiang Mai to Laos on visa runs to apply for longer stays in Thailand, your ride will actually terminate in front of the Thai embassy.
If you intend to return to Thailand after Laos, remember that you will only receive a two-week visa when crossing overland if you do not fly in or apply for a longer visa at the Thai embassy in Vientiane.
Tip: Ignore anyone set up in front of the Thai embassy offering to process your visa, help you with the forms, or to make photocopies; all can be done yourself once you are inside the embassy.
Getting From the Thai Embassy to Vientiane
You will need to arrange onward transportation from the Thai embassy into the city. Ignore the overpriced offers from drivers waiting outside of the embassy. Negotiate with your driver before getting inside: You can get a taxi for less than 100 Thai baht to Rue Francois Ngin -- the traveler's area in Vientiane.
From Chiang Mai to Laos by Boat
You have three choices for getting from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang by boat: slow boat, fast boat, or luxury cruise. Boats depart from the border town of Huay Xai in Laos and travel along the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.
To take one of the boats to Luang Prabang, you'll first have to get to Chiang Khong in Northern Thailand, clear Thai immigration, then cross the river to Huay Xai where you will be stamped into Laos. Boats depart early in the morning, so you'll most likely have to do an overnight in Chiang Khong then leave for Laos the next morning. Travel agencies in Chiang Mai will combine all necessary transportation into a single package when you book.
Slow Boats to Laos
The most popular and inexpensive option, the slow boats from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang take two full days and an overnight in the not-so-pleasant village of Pak Beng. While you will get to enjoy river and village scenery as you ply along the Mekong River, the slow boats are less than luxurious. You'll be stuck with the same group of travelers crammed onto an overloaded boat, so a little luck is necessary for a good experience. Many travelers -- both locals and foreigners -- use the boat as an excuse to party for two days.
Arrive early to secure a better spot on the boat -- preferably away from the loud engines. Take plenty of snacks with you; food on the boat is of lower quality and relatively expensive. You can purchase takeaway lunches in Pak Beng for the second half of the journey.
Fast Boats to Laos
The infamous 'fast boat' from Thailand to Luang Prabang is a loud, bone-rattling, potentially dangerous experience that you may never forget. While incredibly chaotic and uncomfortable, the roaring speedboats cut the two-day journey down to only six or eight hours, depending on the water level! Drivers expertly dodge rocks and whirlpools, however, the visible wreckage of other speedboats along the way is less than assuring.
You'll be provided with a life jacket and crash helmet as you sit on a wooden bench in the narrow canoe. Waterproof your bags and valuables as rain and spray from the river typically drench everything. You'll need sunscreen -- the boats are not covered -- and earplugs to protect your ears from the deafening engine.
Several new companies now offer luxurious alternatives to the typical slow boats. While the journey still requires two full days and an overnight in Pak Beng, you'll enjoy a far more comfortable ride and better food. Luxury boats are the most expensive option for getting from Chiang Mai to Laos.