If you’re in northern Thailand, it’s really easy to get to Luang Namtha. The border at Chiang Khong (Thailand) and Huay Xai (Laos) is only 2.5 hours from Chiang Rai and can be reached by a half hourly bus. The bus drops you off in Chiang Khong, where you will need to get a tuk tuk to the border. You need to get stamped out of Thailand, and walk the last 20 odd metres down to the river. A ticket for the boat across the river is 40 Baht, and boats leave whenever there is anyone wanting to get across. You never have to wait more than a minute or two.
Once in Laos you need to get your tourist visa – remember to have a passport photo to give the Lao officials for this, and the applicable fee for your country, payable in US Dollars.
When you have your visa, walk up the ramp and there are several travel agencies near the top whom you can buy bus or minivan tickets from. Tickets to Luang Namtha from Huay Xai range from about 80,000 Kip ($10) for the local bus to 10,000 Baht ($330) for a private minivan.
The local bus leaves Huay Xai 2-3 times per day – usually at 9am and then at 2pm and / or 5pm. The journey is stunning, via mountains with views as far as the eye can see in places, small villages and rice fields. There are two sizes of local bus, and it’s best to get on the large one just because there is more room between the seats. The smaller one is still OK, just the seats are smaller and so you have less room. The local buses are not usually air conditioned, and have opening windows.
Most days there’s a VIP bus at 5pm too, this bus is air conditioned and usually has fairly comfortable seats. This bus goes to Luang Prabang and stops at Luang Namtha along the way. The VIP bus (and sometimes the local bus too) often plays Lao music which can either be fun if it’s your first time in Laos, or insanity-inducing if you just want to sleep. It’s most commonly played at full volume.
It’s also worth remembering that if you take the bus, you also have to factor in taking a tuk-tuk at each end of the journey. A tuk-tuk from Huay Xai to the bus station takes about 15 minutes and price will be around 10,000 – 50,000 Kip, (or 50 – 200 Baht) depending on whether you manage to share a tuk-tuk with many others or take one by yourself. And then when you arrive at Luang Namtha, the journey from the bus station into town is about 15 minutes again and is between 10,000 – 20,000 Kip per person.
A seat in a public minivan is usually available for a 9-10am departure (the time is more dependent on the driver), and in high season (November to March) often up to 5 or 6 minivans will leave throughout the day for Luang Namtha. They tend to leave on demand, so if you book a seat in the minivan it will often leave within an hour or so. Sometimes the driver might let you know he is happy to leave when say 6 people have booked, other times the driver will want the van to be full before leaving. In high season there is almost always enough demand for the van to leave when full.
A minivan is actually a normal sized van, and for some reason in Laos this is called a minivan. Minivans to Luang Namtha leave from the centre of town in Huay Xai, and stop in the centre of town in Luang Namtha, eliminating the need for tuk-tuks. (Minivans to other places in Laos usually stop at the bus station or a minivan station.)
Private minivans are almost always available for hire as well. Price is dependent on the quality of the minivan and the driver. A more expensive van doesn’t always mean a better van, but it usually does. To get a private van means that you can leave whenever you want, and have the whole van to yourself. For people who have a larger budget or want more room, this not only means you don’t have to be squished between other passengers but it also means you can leave when you want and travel in more luxury than the other options. You can sometimes find a older minivan with a driver who is willing to do the trip for about $100, for a nicer van you would normally pay a bit more.
Whichever way you decide to come to Luang Namtha, the scenery along the way is really beautiful and the road is really good. The road from Huay Xai to Luang Namtha was completed in February 2012 and is pretty much like a big highway without all the traffic. There are lots of corners, but the surface is smooth. It takes about 3.5 hours to get to Luang Namtha from Huay Xai.