Getting there & away
Interprovincial buses and trucks – large sawngthaew – operate out of two bus terminals in Luang Prabang. In general, vehicles going to destinations north of Luang Prabang leave from the northern bus terminal (on Rte 13 about 4km north of the town centre, past the turn-off for Luang Prabang International Airport) while those going south leave from the southern bus terminal (several kilometres south of the town centre near the Luang Prabang Provincial Stadium). There are a few exceptions to this, due to the fact that different transport companies operate in each terminal, and on certain routes they compete.
The following travel times are only estimates – in Laos such factors as number of passengers, number of stops, the weather and road conditions affect travel times. Departure times may also change so check for updates when you’re in town.
From Luang Prabang public buses go to Vientiane (ordinary, $9, 11 hours, five to eight daily; air-con, $10, 11 hours, two daily) leave from the southern bus terminal. The same buses stop in Vang Vieng (ordinary, US$7.50, six to seven hours; air-con, US$8.50, six to seven hours). The air-con buses leave between 6.30am and 9am in the morning.
For quicker and more comfortable transport, try the travel agents in town who can also arrange minivan transport (US$18, eight hours, four daily) and VIP bus (US$12, 10 hours, two daily) to Vientiane. The VIP buses aren’t exactly modern, but they have air-con and once every seat is taken, they are full (as opposed to public buses which use the ‘never full’ approach).
Anyone who suffers motion sickness should take necessary precautions before the trip to Vang Vieng.
Luang Prabang is linked with Udomxai and Luang Nam Tha Province via paved roads. However, the road from Udomxai to Phonsavan is mostly unpaved. From the northern bus terminal, daily passenger trucks and buses go to Udomxai (US$4.50, five hours, 8am), Luang Nam Tha (US$7, eight hours, 9am and 4.30pm) and to Phongsali (US$10, 15 hours, 4pm).
From the southern bus terminal there are daily buses to Phonsavan (US$8.50, 10 hours, 8.30am), Sainyabuli (US$4, five hours, 9am) and Huay Xai (US$14, eight to 11 hours, 5pm), although in the rainy season it’s best to take a boat up the Mekong River to reach Huay Xai due to the road conditions.
Ferries are a major form of transport between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai on the Thai border to the northwest. The main landing for long-distance Mekong River boats, at the northwestern end of Th Chao Phanya Kang, is called Tha Heua Meh (literally ‘mail boat pier’ or 'ferry boat pier'). A blackboard at the Navigation Office announces long-distanceboat departures, but it’s all in Lao. A second pier near the Royal Palace Museum is sometimes used when the river level is too low for the main pier.
Speedboats use a landing (Charter Boat Pier) at Ban Don, 6km north of Luang Prabang. For charters, speedboat pilots usually ask for the equivalent of six passenger fares, but they’ll go if you pay for four spaces – often they have paid cargo to carry, too. If you want to share the cost of hiring a speedboat with other passengers it’s best to show up at the speedboat pier in Ban Don the day before you want to leave and see what your prospects are. Then show up again around 6am on the morning of your intended departure to queue. Speedboat fares are often quoted in Thai baht, though either kip or US dollars are acceptable payment. Travel agents in town also arrange speedboats.
Speedboat passengers are required to wear life vests and helmets but the helmets are very often substandard. Helmets or no, speedboat travel is ridiculously dangerous.
This is the most popular way for visitors to travel between Huay Xai at the Thai border and Luang Prabang. The Lao border crossing at Huay Xai in Bokeo Province, across the Mekong River from Chiang Khong, Thailand, grants visas on arrival to most nationalities.
If you’re heading to Hongsa in northern Sainyabuli Province, coming from Luang Prabang, take the slow boat from the ferry pier as far as Tha Suang (US$8, half day), where you can continue on to Hongsa by jumbo. You can also disembark at Pak Beng (US$10) and head north to Udomxai and Luang Nam Tha.
Smaller, faster speedboats from the pier in Ban Don pound up the Mekong to Tha Suang (US$15, two hours), Pak Beng (US$20, three hours) and Huay Xai (US$30, six hours) in double the time.
Most passengers and cargo going to Nong Khiaw travel by road nowadays as it’s much quicker than by boat. Slow boats still head up the Nam Ou to Nong Khiaw (US$12, four or five hours) from the ferry pier, but less frequently than they used to. Dates are posted on a chalkboard in front of the Navigation Office in Luang Prabang about a week in advance of the departures. You can also book this through any number of tour operators in town. The Nong Khiaw landing is sometimes referred to as Muang Ngoi, or as Nam Bak, a larger village to the west.
The same situation applies to Muang Khua, further up the Nam Ou – it’s more quickly reached by road than by slow boat. Slow boats do travel to Muang Khua (US$20, eight to nine hours) when there are sufficient passengers, or on posted dates.
When there are sufficient passengers, speedboats travel from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw (US$16, two hours) and Muang Khua (US$30, four hours).
Be sure to inquire thoroughly as to river conditions before embarking on a Nam Ou trip; from mid-February on it’s not unusual for speedboat pilots to get stranded in Nong Khiaw, unable to bring their boats back until the rains arrive in May or June.
Once in a blue moon slow cargo boats travel between Luang Prabang and Vientiane (US$40, around three days) via Tha Deua (US$8, six hours). Passenger travel on these boats, except for merchants accompanying fragile cargo, is rare now that Rte 13 is sealed and fast. The fare depends on the size of your group, how much space is in the boat and your bargaining skills, but expect to pay around US$40 to Vientiane, or about US$8 to Tha Deua. Bear in mind that these boats are not kitted out with passenger seats like those travelling between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. They are basically large floating trucks, and it actually makes for a brilliant experience.
When there are sufficient passengers, or they’re chartered, speedboats travel downriver to Vientiane (US$40, eight or nine hours) via Tha Deua (US$15, one hour) and Pak Lai (US$25, four to five hours).
Lao Airlines (212172; Th Pha Mahapatsaman) operates at least three daily flights between Luang Prabang and Vientiane (one way/return US$62/118, 40 minutes), plus flights to Pakse (one way/return US$135/258, Monday and Thursday) and Phonsavan (one way/return US$40/70, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday).
It’s wise to confirm your flight the day before departure. Lao Airlines in Luang Prabang accepts credit cards and can book flights on THAI (between Laos and Thailand only). Most travel agents also book domestic and international flights.
Don’t forget that you’ll need to pay US$1/10 for domestic/international flights at the airport. It’s an airport tax that isn’t included in your ticket.
When flying into Luang Prabang, try to get a window seat – as the plane descends over the mountains in preparation for landing the view of the town is excellent.
The Luang Prabang International Airport (212173), 4km from the city centre, has a restaurant, Lao Airlines (212173) and Bangkok Air (253 253) offices, phonecard telephone, post office, exchange booth, a branch of Lao Development Bank, and an air-conditioned departure lounge.