I recently completed a 3+ week tour of northern Laos, ending my trip in Luang Namtha. From there I wanted to get to Chiang Mai, Thailand. As with several transportation routes in Laos, getting good information online is sometimes difficult. In this case there are quite a number of blog and forum posts for folks traveling the other way, but little for this route. Here’s what I learned.
There are three main options for getting from Luang Namtha to Chiang Mai.
Option 1: Spend a night in Huay Xai and then head to Chiang Mai
The least stressful and physically taxing option is to take one of several daily buses from Luang Namtha to Huay Xai and spend a night there. Those buses leave from the long-distance bus terminal about 10 km south of town and usually costs 90,000 LAK with a shared taxi ride to the station (I found an agency selling for 80,000 LAK but 90,000 LAK seems to be the norm). There are two or three few buses each day with the earliest leaving between 08:30 and 09:00 whenever it gets full. The trip lasts about four to four and a half hours.
The following day you can make your way to the border and then either take one of the morning Green Bus services to Chiang Mai (one direct, one via Chiang Rai) or catch one of the hourly local buses from Chiang Khong to the old Chiang Rai bus station and from there catch a Green Bus to Chiang Mai. You could also go to the Huay Xai international bus station (Pet Aloun) and catch the morning (between 08:00 and 09:00) bus to Chiang Rai, which will stop and wait at the border (60,000 LAK or 225 THB). There is an afternoon bus as well, but if you take that you will not arrive in Chiang Rai in time to catch an onward bus to Chiang Mai.
Alternatively, you can purchase one of two daily minivan services to Chiang Mai. These services include a shared taxi to the border and the bus across the bridge (7,000 LAK or 20 THB). Once through Thai immigration you will take the minivan the rest of the way. These two services leave at 08:30 and 16:00 from Huay Xai, with the minivans leaving the border at 10:30 and 17:30 respectively.
Most of what I found online says that the minivan service is 100,000 LAK and leaves Huay Xai at either 08:30 or 16:00, though Hobo Maps shows an agency signboard advertising 10:30 service for 130,000 LAK and 16:30 service for 100,000 LAK as of March 2017 so perhaps things have changed. The same page also shows a bus service at 08:00 for 120,000 LAK which I am guessing uses the Green Bus service from Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai rather than a minivan.
Option 2: Go from Luang Namtha to Huay Xai to Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai
If you want to try to get to Chiang Mai in one day from Luang Namtha you will need to take the morning bus to Huay Xai. Assuming no delays, you should arrive at the Keo Champa station in Huay Xai between 13:00 and 13:30. From there get a shared taxi to the border, stamp out of Laos, take the bus across the bridge and stamp into Thailand. There will be a desk selling a shared taxi service to Chiang Khong for 60 THB. Take that.
Once in Chiang Khong, you have a few options.
- You can take one of the hourly local buses to the old bus station (#1) in Chiang Rai, though note that the last one leaves at 15:00 (65 THB, 2-3 hours). From there, you can try to get one of the last Green Bus daily services to Chiang Mai. The last of these leaves at 18:00, though I believe the schedule is slightly extended on Fridays and Sundays. Unfortunately, since only Green Bus goes from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, there is a chance it will be sold out. That’s what happened to me (I got there with three buses left on the schedule and all three were full). There is a Green Bus office in Chiang Khong near the departure point for the local bus to Chiang Rai so your best bet is to stop there first and buy a ticket to Chiang Mai if there is still one available.
- If there are no seats left on the Green Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai or if you miss the last local bus to Chiang Rai, you can try to get a spot on the 17:30 minivan to Chiang Mai.
- If the first two options are not possible, you will have to stay the night in Chiang Khong or take the local bus to Chiang Rai and spend the night there. Then take a Green Bus to Chiang Mai in the morning. If staying in Chiang Khong, note that the official Green Bus schedule page lists a 09:45 direct, VX-Class bus for 395 THB and a 10:30 X-Class bus that passes through Chiang Rai for 259 THB. I have seen various other options listed on different blogs and websites so your best bet is to check with the local office.
I offer one note of caution about getting to Chiang Rai. If you tell the shared taxi to Chiang Khong that you want to go to Chiang Rai and if the timing is right, the driver will stop the passing bus to Chiang Rai so you can hop on. This seems great but as I mentioned, you cannot be sure about the availability of a bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai so your best bet may actually be to go all the way into town instead.
Option 3: Go from Luang Namtha to Chiang Mai as one paid service
If you want to be sure you can get from Luang Namtha to Chiang Mai in one day, you can try one of the agencies in town advertising service to Chiang Mai (250,000 LAK).
This “service” is not really a direct service to Chiang Mai but rather includes the regular morning bus service to Huay Xai where at the bus station the agency has staff that will arrange for you to get to the border and across to Chiang Khong to catch a minivan to Chiang Mai.
The problem with this service is that the advertised time bears zero relation to the real schedule. With this option you are looking at 15 hours of travel time. That’s because you have to leave Luang Namtha early in the morning (pickup at 07:30 for the morning bus to Huay Xai) but you then have to wait until about 17:30 for the minivan to leave Chiang Khong for Chiang Mai (this is the same twice daily minivan service sold in Huay Xai). From Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai is about 5 hours.
Unfortunately, the agencies won’t tell you this honestly and even their signs show 9 hours. When I asked for details, I got varying stories depending on the agency and individual I talked to. One stuck to the 9 hours claim and said they used a different minivan service. Another admitted the travel times were a bit off (4 hours to Huay Xai and 5 hours from Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai plus border crossing time) so the real trip would be about 11 hours. Yet another admitted I would have to wait a couple of hours in Chiang Khong to clear immigration and have lunch, thus leaving around 15:00 and arriving around 20:00 (so about 12 hours). Finally, on a return trip to the “11 hours” agency I ended up talking with the owner and he told me the real truth that I would have to wait for the 17:30 minivan to Chiang Mai.
Interestingly, there is a 12:00 bus from Luang Namtha to Huay Xai and you might be tempted to take it instead of the morning bus but the owner of the agency said that bus is unreliable and there was a good chance you wouldn’t make the connection.
If you book the service from Luang Namtha to Chiang Mai the price is 250,000 LAK. If you do the pieces of the journey separately the total price will be about 180,000:
- 80-90,000 LAK from Luang Namtha to Huay Xai
- 10-20,000 LAK from Huay Xai bus station to the border
- 7,000 LAK to cross the bridge
- ~15,000 LAK for the shared taxi to Chiang Khong
- ~17,000 LAK for the local bus from Chiang Khong to Chiang Rai
- ~43,000 LAK for the bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai
If you opt for the minivan from Huay Xai, the price will be around 200,000 LAK:
- 80-90,000 LAK from Luang Namtha to Huay Xai
- ~20,000 LAK from Huay Xai bus station to town
- 100,000 LAK for minivan from Huay Xai town to Chiang Mai