With the opening of Friendship Bridge No. 5 in December 2013, the border crossing from Chiang Rai to Luang Namtha via Houay Xay (Laos) changed dramatically and for the better.
This particular border crossing from northern Thailand to Laos is straightforward in August 2014, easy, and not as convoluted as still published in outdated guidebooks.
After a fabulous three months travelling from south to north of Thailand, doing some volunteering work in Khao Lak and Mae Sot, and with an extra month break in Myanmar (Burma), it is sad to finally leave gorgeous and hospitable Thailand.
Including a map of the three months travelling through Thailand for those that are thinking of spending some time in this beautiful and amazing country, which I will miss, but sure to return to one day.
Thailand is a country that really gets under your skin…
Border crossing from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Namtha, Laos
Most guide books state that travel from Chiang Rai to Laos is long and difficult, which involves a bus, Tuk Tuk, boat, another Tuk Tuk, plus more, which is just wrong.
Not only is this slack but also a tad sloppy that guidebooks disregard their homework and obligation to readers before publishing, as we are still charged handsomely for outdated information.
Tip: Wikitravel seems to be much more up-to-date with transport schedules, how to get to your destination, sights, and accommodation with the advantage that it is free information, for now.
For the border crossing, you can only buy a bus ticket on the actual day of travel from the International bus station (Chang Rai No. 2 Bus Station). This is the new station only three kilometres out-of-town. A Songthaew costs 20B at the time of writing (in 2014). Travelling from Chiang Rai, you travel on the same day through Number 2 (Bokeo Province) and onto Number 7 (Luang Namtha Province) on the above Province map kindly supplied by Wikimedia Commons.
Comfortable buses bound for Laos leave Chiang Rai at around 10:00 hrs and 14:00 hrs and wait at the border on the Thai side until everyone is stamped out of Thailand.
The bus then drives across the Friendship Bridge No. 5 to the Laos side and waits there until you finish checking into Laos. A visa on arrival in Laos is USD$30 for one month. Following checking into Laos, the bus continues just a little way to the Houay Xay International Bus Station.
Note: You cannot walk or cycle over Friendship Bridge No. 5 and can only drive or ride a scooter across the bridge.
The journey takes an easy 2.5 hours by which time you arrive at Houay Xay’s bus station at 12:30hrs only to find the 12:00hrs local bus already left for the continuing journey. Later learn that this is a recurring story in Laos. But, can’t complain really as at least there are buses – none existed in 1989.
Although timetables are clearly displayed on the ticket office’s window as leaving at 12:30 hrs, the bus left a half-hour early. The ticket vendor advises that times are “reset” and after a little tense laughter, this becomes the slogan in Laos for the rest of the two months, as this isn’t the last time for a reset!
If you’re desperate for a place to stay on arrival to Houay Xay, there is a lonely guest house across from the bus terminal, otherwise, there’s not much else around the station. Or, do as we did, wait the four hours for the next local bus (30,000K) at 17:00 hrs, which takes four hours to Luang Namtha.
Minibuses go at an incredibly inflated price if you have the surplus cash and are impatient, or can’t wait the four hours. Be warned, drivers do not budge on price as they know that you either wait 4 hours or go now!
Houay Xay to Luang Namtha
During the journey, you travel through some absolutely spectacular scenery but such a shame that it is late in the day so only glimpsed a small snippet of what is to come, while travelling in Laos.
If you suffer from travel sickness, take some meds beforehand as the roads are very winding. At least the locals travel well on this trip and without too much throwing up on the bus at all.
Ecstatic to finally arrive albeit late in the evening after an exhausting travel day and unload heavy packs at the Zuela Guesthouse and Restaurant, which is home for a while.
The tourist office in Namtha can only be described as an unusual experience.
Although the front door is open, the office is closed but the advertised opening hours on the front door state the office should be open, so, we enter.
Once inside, a grand stairwell ascends to the next floor.
Hearing voices but also wanting to ask when we could visit the office, I climb the stairs, which lead straight into a conference room full of twenty uniformed and slightly annoyed greying males.
It is almost like they had never seen a female ‘Falang’ (foreigner) before.
Surprised, as I was, to see me, one guy that speaks minimal English came out of the conference. Accompanying me back down the stairwell, he tells me to wait downstairs…but wait for what?
Finally, the tourist information lady waltzes in with a child on her hip and soon the room becomes a crèche, full of toys and a loud screeching uncontrollable baby. The lady speaks minimal English and is not willing to help at all as busy with a child, so instead, I grab a couple of brochures and leave, baffled at what purpose the tourist office serves in Namtha.
Pop over to part 2 of Luang Namtha to read the continuation of landing in the stunning Luang Namtha Province, where to sleep, eat, and what else to do while in the area…