Luang Prabang is not the most accessible place to visit. If you want to fly in, your options are limited to flying back and forth between it and the capital of Vientianne. VIP buses have been known to be held up by bandits so local buses seem a better choice. So, if you are faced with such decisions, it seems a no brainer to make your initial entry to the magical city by boat. You can come in from Northern Thailand on a two day trip that stops over in Pak Beng for about 25 dollars if you manage to avoid paying commission to touts on both sides of the border. It’s a scenic trip and worth the inconvenience and lack of comfort for a couple days. See my Laos page for more details on this trip down the Mekong River.
Jumbos are like a cross between a small pickup truck and a motorcycle or a more meaty version of Thailand’s Tuk-Tuk. You can put a fair amount of people in them though to charter one on your own is not the cheapest option of getting from point A to B. We paid 80,000 Kip ( about ten dollars) for a one hour trip to the village of Pak Au. The driver waited for us while we wandered around the small village and made a boat trip over to visit the caves.
We decided to take the speed boats to get to Thailand. They were fast, and we didn't like the look of the airplanes that would take us out (one of the Lao Aviation planes had crashed the week before we arrived). The slow boats were indeed slow, and we were running out of time on our Lao visas. So speed boats....Would I do it again. Probably not. It was a nerve racking ride, especially when we had to change boats mid-river, luggage and all.
After our last holiday, and taking a 2 day boat from Luang Prabang back to Huay Xai, and having more than a few mishaps, we were rapt to find this fairly new service.
A package arrangement with River Hill Hotel in Chiang Saen includes Laos visa, overnight accommodation and breakfast prior to the trip, transfer the 40km or so to Chiang Khong to catch the boat, transfer across the border, and onto the boat at Huay Xai. A very large packed lunch was also available from the hotel for 150Baht. There was also a bar on the boat, selling Beerlao, soft drinks and other snacks.
The one day trip was very easy - and smoothly run - until a passenger fell in the water! This caused some delay, whilst he was "retrieved" safely into the boat. The result of this was travelling in the pitch darkness for more than 1 hour at the end of the trip! We were very impressed with the navigational skills of the skipper.
There are a few excursions that can be made by the river. Basically, there are 2: Some nice waterfalls down the river and some buddhist caves up the river. I did only the caves, which took me 2 hours to get there (upstream) and 1 to come back (downstream).
You will see advertising of those daytrips everywhere. I just went to the riverside and chose the first little boat I saw. He charged me 10 USD for the trip, having the boat (capacity 6 persons) all for my own. I guess if you are a group you can negotiate.
It rained, but as it has a wooden roof, I didn't care. They always go by the shore, as the currents in the Mekong are strong in Monsoon Season.
Jumbos are the laosian "Tuk Tuks". They have place for up to 8 persons, so don't be surprised if in the middle of the ride the driver stops and gets a few more customers.
Distances in LP are very walkable, but you might get one to go to the bus station (about 10.000) or to the airport (same price).
Some of them offer also daytrips to the caves or waterfalls. Bargain the price before.
Ah the slow boat, while 14 hours of river travel spread out over 2 days may not seem like much fun it is quite the adventure despite the inevitable sore bottom that results!
The boat "departs" at 9am from Huay Xai, just across the river from Thailand. My advice: Get there early and get a seat, this sucker doesn't leave until it is good and packed which, for us, wasn't until about 10:30 and we got there at 8am! Time flies as you get to know your fellow shipmates and sip on frosty Beerlao!
After about 6 hours, depending on the river, you arrive in (not so) lovely Pakbeng where you will do little more than drink Beerlao, eat and sleep. Get up early the next day to reassure you a spot on the boat. It's a different boat for the remaining 8 hours of the journey. Unfortunately for us ours had no beer so we occupied ourselves by playing silly games and betting on the exact time the boat would arrive!
The cost is about 700 Baht (350 per leg) which is about $16 US and is a funner, cheaper and safer alternative to the fast boat.
LP has a little airport for local flights only. It's 10 minutes away, expect to pay about 2 USD if you go there by jumbo or moto.
I took there a flight to Vientiane, that took 40 minutes with Lao Aviation (45 USD).
There is a little shop, a cafeteria and 2 waiting rooms. No airport taxes, as U won't leave the country from here.
If you wanna go out of LP by boat, there are mainly 2 kinds:
- Slow Boats, the traditional ones.
- Speed Boats, modern powerful off-shore motors.
With both you can go up the river to the Thai border or down the river to Vientiane.
The slow boats do this in 3-4 days, they take their time and have frequent stops. Take your own food if you choose this, as there is not always restaurants on the way.
The speed boats are HIGHLY DANGEROUS, as they go fast as hell by the river, and the Mekong is a dangerous river. You have to wear a helmet in these, and is kind of extreme sport. They do the same routes in 8-9 hours!!!! so imagine...
There are at least 3 daily buses from Vientiane to LP. The first one leaves at 7:30. It takes 9 hours to get to LP, as the road (paved, one of the few in Laos) is narrow and twisted (though there is practically no traffic).
The trip is long and there are no night buses, but is cheap (about 6 USD I think). It stops in Vianvieng too on the way.
If you take the slowboat, its 2 days full travel to either Vientiane or Huay Xai - and, while the scenery is beautiful, you really can't amuse yourself gawking at this all day. So, take a book. We didn't, although I caught up on my trip diary entries, I would have preferred a good book to absorb myself in.
Also, make sure you take FOOD - our boat sold drinks, but no food available, and there were no stops on our day 1 trip!
From Luang Prabang you can take the bus to Laos capital of Vientiane. The trip takes about 6h with an amazing ride through the beautifull hills covered by jungle with local villages along the road from time to time.
There is a break for some food and refreshment and you will pass Vang Vieng somewhere in the middle. It is a really nice ride.
The Pak Ou caves north of Luang Prabang is a common day trip for tourists. The preferred means of transport to the caves is to catch a boat in Luang Prabang and travel up the Mekong directly to the caves. The most common boats available for hire are the slow boats shown in this photo. They can be found along the riverbank in Luang Prabang and only cost a few dollars per person for the round trip to the caves and back. The boat ride itself takes about 90 minutes, and it will also stop at two small craft villages on the way up.
It is possible to hire a car to take you to the village of Pak Ou and then ferry across the river to the caves, and this will undoubtedly take much less time, but the boat ride is much more pleasureable and scenic. Isn't that why you came to Luang Prabang in the first place?
We used a travel agent called Treasure Travel Laos to book a day trip to the caves & waterfalls. We also booked their 3 day Phonsovan trip which we felt was excellent value we paid $US90pp which included mini bus & driver, 2 nights accomodation with breakfast, guide for our 2 days on the plain of jars then drop off in Vang Vieng. The owner of the company Mr Sisombat Douangvilaykeo was very helpful and requested we give him feedback on his company. We were very happy with the service and told him so. His office is in the main street of Luang Prabang.
Lao Airlinesis the national carrier and monopolises most flights into Laos. We flew with Bangkok Airways, and had our usual great flight with them. The airport is very small, but was remarkably efficient when we landed. We had our visas already stuck in our passports, having purchased them in Oz, and we were processed through very quickly.
Exiting the terminal (barely big enough to call it this!), we were ushered to a waiting jumbo, and taken into town in this airy transport.