I’m Leaving on a Tuk Tuk…
Ok, I got you there with the click bait title. This post is actually about my overnight bus ride from Luang Prabang to a small border town along the Laos-Thailand border. Now, why would I want to go there? Read on to find out, and yes I did sleep with a stranger, although it’s not what you think it is.
If you have read my previous post on Luang Prabang, you may have wondered what else is there to see in Laos besides the UNESCO World Heritage town. Well, actually plenty if you look hard enough. It’s just that Laos is the most under developed country in South East Asia, and because of that, it’s tourism and transportation infrastructure is just not up to par with the rest of the region. Besides Luang Prabang and Vientiane which are connected internationally by airports, the rest of country depends mainly on land transportation, and in places near rivers, boats. There are domestic airports in some towns but flight schedules are erratic due to the low passenger volume.
The name of the small border town is Huay Xai. The name has several variations of spelling; Hoauy Xai, Huay Sai, Huay Xay or sometimes Borkeo. And there are a couple of reasons why I chose to go there. Firstly, I had booked myself a spot with The Gibbon Experience (more about that in another blog post). Secondly, I also wanted to try the Slow Boat cruise from Huay Xai back to Luang Prabang (also to be covered in a later blog post).
In my travel research on Huay Xai, I discovered that this town is the main crossing for travelers coming from Thailand’s northern cities of Chiangrai or Chiangmai into Laos, or vice versa. This route is popular amongst the backpacker crowd and has been well travelled for years.
There are 3 ways to get from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, and subsequently cross the border into Thailand. I will cover the bus route first since that’s what I took. It’s also the middle option, balancing between time and cost. It’s roughly 500km from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai by road, which winds in a big loop through countryside and mountains, and takes around 12 hours to complete the journey.
Buses And Boats
The Overnight VIP Sleeper Coach
It’s a typical air-conditioned coach that carries up to 40 passengers. However, this is the “VIP Sleeper” coach that has bunks instead of chairs. It sounds great, being able to sleep for the 12 hour trip, but nothing can be further from the truth.
You can’t book the bus ticket online, and I had to buy it through one of the travel agencies in Luang Prabang. The ticket price is quoted to be around 150,000-180,000 Kips, but the travel agency charged me 195,000 Kips. This included their fee, pickup from my hotel to the bus terminal, and a single traveler supplement. I was advised to book the bus ticket just the day before departure, since the bus companies can ‘lose track’ of early bookings.
There are 2 bus terminals in Luang Prabang. There is the Northern terminal where the buses travel to the towns like Huay Xai in the north. And then there is the Southern terminal where buses travel towards Vang Vieng and Vientiane.
Well 7.00pm came and passed, and there was no bus. We were not that worried though since we didn’t expect the bus to be punctual. But suddenly, the guy in the ticket counter came out and started yelling that we needed to go to another bus terminal to catch the bus. Tuk tuks were called and we hurriedly loaded up to be ferried to the other bus terminal. I can tell this ride was going to be interesting…
When you buy your bus ticket, you are given a bunk/seat number. But as I found out, nobody observes the allocated number. It’s basically a first come, first served system, and since we were the last group to board the bus, we ended up with the bunks that were left over. After a bit of negotiating with the other passengers I got myself an upper bunk. It helped that the people in the bus were not being stubborn about wanting their ‘rightful’ place, and some even offered to swap bunks. In the end, we all ended in a state of equilibrium if you might call it that.
I thought I would be comfortable in a bunk, but then the bunks were obviously made for shorter and smaller people. I had to put my pack containing my valuables at the end of the bunk, ending up with a even smaller space. Now imagine 2 persons trying to squeeze into this space and you know you are going to have a long night. I’m 1.75m tall and found that my feet were already sticking out over the end of the bunk. So if you are a tall person, or even plumb, think twice about taking the sleeper coach. It helped that my bunk mate was a smaller build than me, but it was still skin to skin contact most of the night.
Trying to catch your sleep in the bus is quite difficult unless you are a real heavy sleeper. Bumpy and windy roads aside, a group of backpackers started playing cards at the back of the bus. A good thing they played only at the beginning of the journey when nobody minded. The bus makes 2-3 toilet stops in the middle of the night, but these toilet stops were usually at the side of the road and involved relieving yourself in the bushes. In between the toilet stops and occasional bumps, I did managed to get some sleep. All in all, I was quite glad when the journey ended earlier than expected. We arrived in Huay Xai at 6.00am in 11 hours instead of 12 hours.
I will blog about Huay Xai in another post, but now I would say that if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t take the night bus. There is a bus that leaves Luang Prabang at 5.00pm and that’s the standard coach where you sit in a chair for 12 hours overnight. You will reach Huay Xai much earlier like 5.00am. I did read that there is a bus that leaves in the morning and some people prefer that since you get to see the countryside along the way. But you will reach Huay Xai in the evening and have to stay a night. So if you are traveling as a couple, or pair, or group. the night sleeper coach maybe a good choice. But as a solo traveler, maybe not so much.
Besides the over land bus option, there are 2 other ways to get to Huay Xai, and they all involve sailing on the Mekong River. There are no flights that I’ve heard of between Luang Prabang and Houay Xai.
The map below shows the route that the bus takes. From Luang Prabang, follow Highway 13 northwards and northwest until Luang Namtha, then take Highway 3 southwest until Huay Xai. It’s a pretty big loop.
The Slow Boat
If you thought spending 12 hours on the bus was torturous, then the slow boat takes 2 days and 1 night to travel between the 2 towns. That’s like 48 hours, but this can be rather relaxing if you are not in a rush..
Actual sailing time is only around 7-8 hours each day. But the slow boats will stop at a town called Pakbeng which is mid way between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. For safety reasons, the boats don’t travel at night. You will have to find your own lodging in Pakbeng and this cost is not included in the boat ticket price.
There are 2 types of slow boats. The cheaper option is the public slow boat, which is basically like a ferry service, where they squeeze as many passengers as the boat can take. Seating is on hard wooden benches or seats salvaged from a bus. You will have to bring your own lunch and water onboard since they don’t stop until evening. The ticket price seems to be around 210,000 Kips for each trip from Luang Prabang – Pakbeng – Huay Xai, or vice versa.
The expensive option is the private slow boat which is more like a luxury cruise. It also takes 2 days with a 1 night stop over in Pakbeng. Lodging in Pakbeng is also not included in the ticket price. But the private slow boats include meals and drinks on board along with several tourist stops. I took this option to return back to Luang Prabang and I will cover it in a later blog post.
On the second day, the boat will leave Pakbeng in the morning and you will reach Huay Xai by 6.00pm, and just in time to check into a hotel.
The Speed Boat
If you are really in a rush and a 12 hours bus, or a 48 hours boat ride doesn’t cut it, then the speed boat is the fastest option. Even then, fast is relative. It still takes roughly 7 hours to make the journey between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai. Despite the faster time, the speed boat is not the most popular choice of transport. People only take it if they really can’t afford the longer times on the bus or slow boat because they have a tight schedule to meet. The cost is also pretty pricey at 340,000 Kips.
Taking the speed boat means that you are seated on a small wooden boat with a second hand car engine mounted on the back. You will be given an old motorcycle helmet to wear, although I doubt it would protect you if something happens. For the whole 7 hour trip, you will be exposed to the hot Sun, rain, water spray and the roar of the boat’s engine. Not to mention that the Mekong River in Laos is pretty rough with numerous rapids, rocks and tree trunks hidden just under the water surface. Depending on whether it’s the dry or rainy season, the water level on the river changes and also rocks which were submerged may now be exposed. So a small wooden boat travelling at 80km/h and hitting a submerged rock would be disastrous.
For the slow boat and speed boat, their piers are quite a distance outside Luang Prabang. To get there you would have to hire a tuk tuk which probably costs you another 15,000-20,000 Kips. You can buy the boat tickets and travel immediately. The slow boat leaves Luang Prabang at 11.00-11.30am, but you should be there earlier to check on availability and reserve better seats. The speed boat leaves at 8.30am but will only leave once the boat is full. So you will have to wait if there are not enough passengers, or the boatman will ask for more money. The speed boat arrives around 4.00-4.30pm, so it’s definitely the better option if you are pressed for time.
So there, you have the 3 options to travel between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai. But these are also the main options for travelling anywhere in Laos. It’s either by road or by boat. Air travel is limited to only between Luang Prabang and Vientiane at this moment. Yeah, Laos is really under-developed in their transport infrastructure, but it keeps the journey interesting, and they should improve in times to come.
I did find a good website resource that has updated information regarding travel on this side of the Mekong. Do check it out if you wish to find out more about budget travel options in Laos, and to Thailand.