It is not an easy task to get from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos but there are several different options. You can take the bus if you enjoy long bus rides (18 hours). This is an economical way to travel ($30 US) but was definitely not our first choice. You can take either a fast boat or a slow boat. There is a public slow boat, which is definitely more economical but involves getting yourself to the border of Thailand/Laos, going through immigration, catching a boat to cross the river, and then boarding the slow boat which takes 2 days to reach Luang Prabang. You will be on your own for food (bring some along) and will be dropped off for the night in a town in Laos where you will need to secure accommodations. There are more expensive tour companies that will pick you up in Chiang Rai and take care of you along the way, but the trip is a bit pricey that way (over $200 pp). For around $40 pp, you can live dangerously and take the fast boat, assuming you don’t mind 7 hours on a small speedboat with no cover over it. Helmets are provided.
None of those options really appealed to us, so we decided we would take a flight. It turns out that it is not that simple; there are no direct flights between the two cities. Our two choices would be to fly from Chiang Rai to Bangkok and then from Bangkok to Luang Prabang, which would be kind of like flying from Seattle to Spokane by flying Seattle – Houston – Spokane. Total flight time? 7 hours. We decided to take the bus back to Chiang Mai where we could get a direct flight to Luang Prabang (1 hr. 10 minute flight for $149). The only issue was that there is only one flight daily, leaving at 3:15 pm. The bus ride is 3 hours and left Chiang Rai at 9 am. This should not be a problem IF there was no road construction, traffic, accidents that blocked the road, etc. Would we get to the airport in time to get checked in and through security? If not, what was plan B? By the way, Lao Airlines does not allow on-line check-in, so we knew we would need more time than usual. Apparently, they often only have one person working the counter to process an entire airplane full of passengers.
So, were there any problems? Of course! There was miles of road construction, and when we reached the outskirts of Chiang Mai, and incredible amount of traffic. We sat at traffic light after traffic light, often taking 3-4 light cycles before we could get through. When we finally did reach the bus station, we were able to get a cab quickly, and headed back into the traffic to get to the airport. Our cab driver got us to the airport in record time – we would have sufficient time to get to our flight on time. And, there were two agents working at the check-in counter, so the lines weren’t too awful. We actually ended up having enough time to get a little lunch at the airport lounge. This particular lounge offers free 15-minute massages to their customers, but we didn’t have quite enough time to indulge ourselves. If we were to do this trip again, we would either go to Chiang Rai first, then go to Chiang Mai for a few days before heading to Luang Prabang (we went Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai – Chiang Mai airport – Luang Prabang), or keep the same itinerary but come back to Chiang Mai a day early so we wouldn’t have to stress about getting to the airport on time.
The flight itself was fine; they even brought us lunch! While everyone else was standing in line at immigration to get their visa on arrival, we went right to the immigration line because we had secured our visas ahead of time. If you do choose to do voa, remember to bring sufficient cash ($35 US) and 2 passport photos. Be prepared to spend a long time waiting in line to be processed as well. We always secure our visas ahead of time to avoid this.
We had arranged a shuttle to our hotel and are glad that we did. The airport in Luang Prabang is 15-20 minutes from town and we did not see any taxi queue. There may have been one hiding somewhere, but it is a very small airport and so I would recommend arranging transportation in advance of your arrival.