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Getting there & away
Lao Airlines (tel. 021/212-057 or 214-427 for reservations; www.laoairlines.com) has daily flights from Vientiane to Luang Prabang for $76 one-way. Their routes to Thailand are to Bangkok (one flight a day there and back), Chiang Mai (one flight a day there and back) and Udon Thani (two flights a week). To Cambodia they fly only to Siem Reap (two flights a day there and back). To Hanoi in Vietnam (one flight a day there and back). Domestic connections from Luang Prabang are to Vientiane (at least three flights a day) and Pakse (two flights a week). There are also infrequent flights to Phongsali and Xieng Khuang. There are no direct flights to the far north; for that, you'll need to fly directly from Vientiane.
Bangkok Airways (57/6 Sisavangvong Rd.; tel. 071/253-334 or 253-253; www.bangkokair.com) also flies twice daily between Bangkok and Luang Prabang. You can book online at their website. Vietnam Airlines (Luang Prabang International Airport; tel. 071/213-048; www.vietnamairlines.com) flies to and from Luang Prabang from both Hanoi and Siem Reap five times a week.
The Luang Prabang International Airport (tel. 071/212-173) handles international flights from Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Siem Reap. Visas are available on arrival at the airport. The airport is about 4km (2 1/2 miles) from town, and transport is best arranged through any hotel. Otherwise, you can hire a tuk-tuk for $5. Going the other way, get your guesthouse or hotel to organize a tuk-tuk. It should cost about $3.
The overland route to Luang Prabang from Vientiane's Northern bus terminal takes about 10 hours by public bus, assuming there are no difficulties (breakdowns are common). There are international warnings about travel on this stretch, and though it has been quiet in recent years, you should ask around before hitting the road. The trip is bumpy and winds interminably, and local buses are often packed. If you suffer from travel sickness then be sure to bring the right pills or you are in line for 10 hours of pure, unremitting, queasy, hell. However, the jaw-dropping scenery, past the mountains and limestone formations at Vang Vieng and several Hmong hill villages, is well worth it. The bus costs 150,000 kip and has a few morning departures from Vientiane's Northern Bus Station. Go early to get a seat. Luang Prabang's Naluang (Southern) Bus Station is a 10,000 kip per person shared tuk-tuk ride from the town center. There are also daily connections to Phonsavan (90,000 kip) and the far north.
There are two main bus stations in Luang Prabang. One for traffic to and from the south called Naluang, the other for traffic to and from the north called Kiew Lot Sai Nuan. To get from one station to another, take a tuk-tuk for around 10,000 kip per person. Double that fare at night.
A faster alternative to a public bus is to take a minibus. You can buy a ticket from most travel agents and some guesthouses. The journey on a minibus is faster but they can also be pretty cramped. A minibus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng takes 5 hours and costs 60,000 kip. To Vientiane takes about 7 hours and costs $18. In terms of travel sickness the minibuses may well be worse than the regular buses since the drivers swing them round the bends at full speed.
One of the nicest and most popular ways to get to Luang Prabang is to cross the border at Chiang Khong in Thailand to Huay Xai and take a boat up or down the Mekong through spectacular and scenic countryside. If you take the slow boat (recommended) then it will take 2 days, with an overnight in the small town of Pakbeng, a village with basic accommodations, before arriving in Luang Prabang on the afternoon of the next day (assuming no engine trouble or other delays). In Huay Xai the slow boats leave from a pier just next to Immigration and the 2-day journey costs $20. Slow boats to Huay Xai going the other way leave from the pier at the end of Thanon Khitsarat in the center of town. Arrive early at the riverside quay. There have been complaints in the past of boat operators overloading these passenger boats. If you feel that the boat is overloaded then ask for your money back and find one that isn't. Be prepared for all kinds of discomfort, though you'll have many tales to tell afterward. The chug upriver from Luang Prabang takes up to 3 days and is not recommended.
If you want to spend considerably more money, but enjoy considerably more comfort, you can take a trip with Luang Say Cruises (50/4 Sakkarine Rd.; tel. 071/252-553; fax 071/252-304; www.luangsay.com), which offers a 2-day or 3-day luxury Mekong jaunt going in both directions. The 2-day cruise leaves Luang Prabang on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays in the high season and only Wednesdays and Saturdays in low season (May -- Sept). There is an overnight at the company's own Luangsay Lodge just near Pakbeng. This package costs $243 to $394, depending on the season. The 3-day option departs every Monday, Tuesday, and Friday in the high season, and on Tuesdays and Fridays in low season. It follows the same route with an extra overnight stop at the Khamu Lodge near an ethnic Khamu village. It costs between $343 and $525. The Luang Say Lodge and Kamu Lodge are both charming, rustic ecolodges on the banks of the Mekong. Meals are included as is wine and coffee. The boat has a fully equipped bar, but drinks apart from tea and coffee are not included in the price.
The Lao/German company Mekong Sun Cruise (2/2 Sakkarine Rd.; tel. 071/254-768; www.cruisemekong.com) also runs high-end river trips on all navigable stretches of the Mekong and indeed the Nam Ou.
Lao Speedboat Risks -- Alternatively you can take a Lao speedboat. These are flat-bottom skiffs with an outsize outboard motor attached that propel you at alarming speed over both calm water and rapids, avoiding (with any luck) some of the needle-sharp rocks that occasionally break the surface. You have to wear a helmet on these trips, which is indicative of just how wise it is to get in one of these vessels in the first place. They are best avoided because they are, quite simply, very dangerous indeed. Tickets can be bought at all travel agents and cost 400,000 kip to Huay Xai and 250,000 kip to Pakbeng only. Going from Luang Prabang speedboats leave from the pier at Ban Don, a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride from the center of town. Going to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai they leave from a pier about 2km (1 1/4 miles) south of Immigration.
- By boat on the Mekong to Pakbeng (slow boat 110,000 kip as of 11/2014), Huay Xai (slow boat 220,000 kip June 2012) and then cross to Chiang Khong in Thailand. The slow boat pier is ~7 km, or 20 minute tuk tuk ride, away from centre - just behind the airport. Scam : smaller look alike small boat will claim they are the small boat going to Pakbeng for 110 000. When you arrive in the morning they will ask you 60k / person kip to go to the pier for a 10 minutes boat ride (the boat driver will say that it takes 40 minutes).
- Vang Vieng is the next stop on the backpacker circuit for many.
- For a more serene experience, head north to Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi Neua.
- Vientiane by long distance bus, costs about 145,000 kip.
- Fly direct to Siem Reap in Cambodia, Hanoi in Vietnam or Chiang Mai and Bangkok in Thailand.
- Hanoi by long distance bus (make sure you have the Vietnamese visa beforehand.), 360,000 kip, 24 hours direct bus
You can buy the ticket to Hanoi from a tour agent, or you can walk to the Southern Bus Station (30 mins walk) and buy it yourself for cheaper. You shouldn't buy the ticket at the station itself, but opposite the station you'll see some buses waiting and there will be an office of the Naluang Travel Company. They are the ones that operate the buses, so if you buy anywhere else the ticket will be more expensive.
Also note that they claim to sell a ticket to Hanoi at the Northern Bus Station and for only 150,000 Kip, but this will take you only until the border and then you'll be left at the mercy of the local drivers who can charge you any amount, since you're in the middle of nowhere. Don't mistake the Northern bus station with the Southern.
It is preferable to buy tickets to next destination, say Vientiane at tour agents (12-hr trip and not 9-hr as what agents are touting, a total of 13 hours including the 1-hour meal time and as quoted as of Feb. 2012 at 150,000 kip for a seating bus and 165,000 kip for a sleeper bus - both include air-con and meals). For seating buses, there is no built-in toilet and so it's advisable to go before the journey as the stop-over at the restaurant is 4 hours away, and the last, the destination station. Check though, because not all tour companies offer free pick-up from a passenger's residence in the quote price. The southern is about 3 km away from the tourist area, and tuk tuk costs about 20,000 kip. The northern bus station is about 5 km.
When on a night trip to Vientiane, it is preferable to bring along a neck pillow to lessen the impact of the rough trip.
- Nong Khiaw minivans with hotel pickup cost 65,000 kip from agencies and would likely be cheaper (40,000 or 55,000) when buying directly at the bus station.
- Chiang Mai - this new bus direct to Chiang Mai started on 20th January 2012 and costs 1,200 Baht one way. The journey is via Udomxai and Luang Nam Tha before being transported across the Mekong by boat and continuing to Chiang Mai. Total journey time is 18 hours. From 2013, the bus will use the new Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge from Huay Xai to Chiang Kong and the fare will rise to 1,500 Baht.
- Vang Vieng - the air-conditioned so-called VIP bus costs approx 150,000 kip, and is the same price as the Vientiane bus. Mini-buses leave from Vang Vieng at 09:00 and cost 100,000 kip. The mini-bus station is just north of the city. The trip takes 6-7 hours (not the 5 that travel agents advertise). Route 13, along which the bus travels, passes through the mountains and twists and turns uncomfortably for most of the journey. This is not a trip to make on a full stomach or if you are feeling queasy.
- Vientiane - air-con VIP reclining seats bus costs 150,000 kip while air-con VIP sleeper bus costs 165,000 kip if booked through an agent. VIP bus takes 11-12 hours, not the 9-10 hours claimed by many dishonest travel agents. Hotel pickup 1 hour before departure is usually included, but do double-check. Express bus (no aircon) bought at the station is at 110,000 kip. Tickets purchased in Vientiane to Luang Prabang are more expensive than those purchased in Luang Prabang.
The bus follows via routh 13 south is a relentless bumpy ride because the road is curvy and potholed. Comparing pluses and minuses for VIP sleeper/VIP seat to Express for night trips, not much difference. At night there is no need for air-con, and it will be unlikely you can sleep, even on a sleeper bus because of the shaking and rattling as the bus drives along rough, rocky roads. Those prone to motion sickness should know (or better avoid) that this trip travels a winding, mountainous road.
- Muang Xay - takes about 5 hours. Costs 40,000 kip and points onwards, such as Luang Namtha, is done by public minibus only. Big backpacks are carried on the roof. Reservations are usually not necessary, just take care to go early in order to secure a good seat.
- Luang Namtha - takes 8-9 hours and costs 90,000 kip. Direct local bus via Muang Xay at 09.00. Otherwise take bus to Muang Xay and change there.
- Nong Khiaw - 3 hours away by public bus from the Northern Bus Station. From there boats connect to scenic Muang Ngoi Neua.
- Huay Xai - up to 15 hours away. Public buses leave at 09.00 (arrive 12 midnight) or 17.00 (arrive 08.00, normal sleeping bus, not sleeper). Costs 135,000 kip. VIP buses leave on alternating days, tickets purchased at the Northern Bus Station will cost 35,000 kip less than those purchased at an agent in the city.
- Phonsavan - bus takes about 8 hours and costs between 95,000 to 105,000 Kip leaves Southern Bus Station around 8.00am. The public bus stops at Phou Khon around 13:00 for lunch. Minibus takes around 6 hours and leaves at 09:00. You can take a tuktuk from the city centre (around 15,000 kip) to the bus station for the public bus. You can also buy your ticket at your guesthouse and arrange to be picked up and taken to the minibus station (140,000 kip) You can stay on the minibus until it unloads the local people in the centre of Luang Prabang though tuk-tuk drivers may try to make you get off earlier at the bus station.