We knew there a was a VIP international bus leaving from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang via Luang Namtha and that it cost around 590baht (£13 per person), however it only leaves on certain days – not Tuesdays, and Tuesday was the day we decided we were leaving Chiang Rai!
After reading a couple of blogs about stressful journeys we were a little nervous when our alarm went off at 515am on Tuesday morning.
We had booked a hostel literally opposite the bus station, so a two- minute walk, which made getting the 6am bus a little more bearable.
The local bus to Chiang Khong cost 65baht per person, but the driver approached us all to say that he would drop us at the border for 110baht (£2.50) per person (tuk tuk from the bus station is usually 50baht), so it was slightly cheaper and much easier for us to go straight there.
We arrived at the border around 8am (two- hour bus journey). Departing Thailand was easy – a 25-minute queue then a quick stamp in the passport.
We then waited for a bus across the bridge which cost 20baht (£0.45) per person and dropped us at Laos immigration. Here we exchanged Thai Baht into Laos Kip, filled out an arrival card and visa on arrival application, paid $35 US per person (the cost is apparently slightly more if you pay in local currency) and gave our passport photo which we had brought with us from the UK for all our overland border crossings.
After passport control in Laos, we were approached by a tuk tuk driver, told him we needed to go to the Huay Xai bus station for a bus to Luang Namtha. This cost 25,000LAK (£2) per person. At the ticket counter, we were told the bus was departing at 10am (the time was 9.45am), so we got some snacks, went to the toilet and boarded! The bus ticket to Luang Namtha cost 60,000LAK (£5.20) per person.
When we boarded we were quite surprised! The bus consisted of entirely bunk beds! Mark and I could sit cross legged, almost without our heads touching the bed above us! There was ability to see out of a window, but as we were on the bottom bunk, we had about 3 inches of window at the top of our bunk – the upper bunks had more window. We followed suit of everyone else on the bus and got comfy and napped for basically the whole journey! We arrived in Luang Namtha bus station around 2.15pm (4- hour journey). The bus station is around 10km south of the town and so another tuk tuk driver approached us, and another couple, and the four of us paid 15,000LAK (£1.30) per person for the 10- minute ride into town, where he dropped us right outside our guesthouse.
All in all, an easy and uncomplicated over land border crossing and onward journey. We were tired, but we did travel for 8 hours solidly and had to carry our bags in between buses etc (the VIP bus obviously allows your bags to stay put).
Total cost £11.50pp plus a hugely more authentic experience, with only two other ‘western people’ encountered. It was the same duration of travel (around 8 hours including borders), importantly for us, the freedom to leave on whatever day we wanted AND what time we wanted (VIP bus leaves in the afternoon).
VIP bus apparently costs £13.70pp