Considering most people start their journey around South east Asia in Thailand (by flying into Bangkok), a lot of the information about the Thai borders is written from the point.of leaving the country. Therefore, we decided to write a short article about our journey going the other way from Luang Namtha to Chiang Rai.
Bus tickets to the border town Huay Xai cost 80,000 Kip if you purchase them from an agent. Don’t get confused: some signs state Bokeo as destination. This is the region around Huay Xai and the final bus station is called Bokeo Station. The 80,000 include a tuk-tuk to the bus station. You can easily get one there yourself for 10,000 Kip if you share it with a few people. Buying your ticket at the station ticket counter sets you back 60,000 Kip, so you can save 10,000 per Person. This is what we did after reading that agencies get the tuk tuk driver to take you to the station where they then buy the ticket for you. So no actual booking in advance.
We opted for the 9am bus so we were out on the street at 7am to get a tuk-tuk and some people to share it with. This turned out to be easy and we got to the station with enough time to spare. We got tickets number 20 and 21 of what ended up being 30 people so it seems that people book in advance. Our bags got strapped to the roof rack and we had breakfast in the bus while awaiting the departure. We left on time which was a nice surprise for Laos. The bus was decent, but its engine was too small so we could not do more than crawl up the hills. We found times of anything between 2 and 4 hours for this journey and we got the impression that it all depends on the power of the bus.
Unsurprisingly, it took us the full four hours to get to Bokeo bus station; and we only had one break of less than 15 minutes. Bokeo station is located half way between the border and Huay Xai centre with 4km to either of them. The station is quite small but has a ticket counter and a small shop. We were awaited by two tuk-tuks: one going to the border and the other into town. Once everybody was sorted we paid the driver 20,000 Kip per person and less than 10min later he dropped us of at the Laotian border. This very modern complex was quiet and almost deserted so we crossed the border quickly. We arrived just before 1pm (end of the lunch break), but there were some officials at the desk and they did not ask for any extra money.
If by this point still carry Kip there are changing desks at both border posts where you can change a whole range of currencies. Change your Kip on the Lao side as they offer better rates.
Because of the distance between the Lao and the Thai border posts everybody has to get a shuttle bus between them. The short 3km ride costs 20 Baht per head. The desk also sells tickets to Chiang Rai, but it is cheaper to just buy the shuttle ticket. The bus cannot drive past the Thai border anyway, so travellers have to change regardless of their ticket.
Like in Laos, we had to fill out an entry card before getting our passports stamped. The Thai visa regulations seem to change quite frequently. When we first looked/planned we read that we would get 15 days visa on arrival at a land border. Our friend Matthias told us he got a 30 visa when he arrived in Thailand overland. It turned out that we had got the wrong end of the stick and instead of visa on arrival, most European nations are visa exempt for 30 days, regardless of whether you enter by land or air. The only catch to this is that you can only enter over land twice per calender. The best part about being visa exempt is that it is free.
Once out the Thai side the only option into Chiang Khong and onwards is by getting a tuk-tuk. Tickets are sold at a small stall for 65 Baht per person. Taxis coming from the town only dropped travellers off but did not pick others up; presumably they are not allowed to which leaves you with the official stall. When they ask tell them where you are heading that day. They will tell the driver who will then make sure you end up on the right bus. Our destination was Chiang Rai and our driver got us to the bus before the actual station. For the 2.5h to Chiang Rai we paid again 65 Baht per head for an old but big bus which made the tuk-tuk seem expensive.
In Luang Namtha we saw boards of agencies offering tickets to Chiang Rai for 230,000 Kip. We did not enquire about them, but the way we did it the entire journey cost us 130,000 Kip. That is quite a big saving and well worth organising it yourself. We found it all very straight forward. Everywhere we got mentioning our destination got us to the next mode of transport or person. This path is definitely well trodden. There are more buses to Bokeo later in the day, but we recommend getting up early for the 8.30am one. With this one you can make it as far as Chiang Mai on the same day if you want to.