Choosing a means of transportation
We were a little bit apprehensive about taking this minimum 8 hours long road journey by bus in the middle of the rainy season but we didn’t really have any alternative. We bought a ticket for a minivan rather than a bus as we read that a minivan would have better chances of squeezing past the landslides.
The minivan was just 10 000 kip more expensive than a public bus. We booked our ticket at the agency but first checked the price of the minivan at the bus station. If we didn’t know the right price, we would have been charged 10 000 kip commission. As it was, we just had to turn up two steps from the hotel at 7.30 am to be picked up by a taxi to the bus station. The minivan didn’t leave until 8.50 am which is totally normal in Laos.
It was surprisingly half empty and as we turned up early I took the only seat which gave the full freedom of taking photos. It was the second day in a row without rain so we were quite optimistic we could make it without major disruptions.
Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang scenic route
The Luang Namtha- Luang Prabang road was a marvel. We could enjoy the scenery of green valleys and forest-clad mountain ranges. At the final part of the journey, we could also admire fantastic karst formations looming on the horizon, over the swollen, soil-coloured river.
We read in some blogs that the road between Oudomxay and Luang Prabang is very bad- it must have been old information as exactly opposite was true. That section of the road was brand new and simply excellent while the road from Luang Namtha to Oudomxay was full of potholes. The road was very winding, moving up and down all the time but for most part in quite good condition. Our journey was surprisingly quick.
I was thankful for two decent toilet breaks: one at Oudomxay bus station and another at a restaurant with a panoramic view at the mountains. I even could order vegetarian food during the meal break! Both were unusual luxuries as for Laos road travel.
Landslides – everyday occurrence in the monsoon season
The landslides were indeed an issue. We encountered uncountable small landslides and toppled trees. I would’t exaggerate if I said that- on average- there was one landslide in every 500 meters. Thankfully even the largest of them were already cleared up.
We came across a fresh landslide, where the power shovel and bulldozer were still at work, just once. One lane was accessible but as the surface was covered with wet mud it was extremely slippery. We watched another minivan skidding diagonally through the road and struggling with high engine rotation to get to the dry road. We followed it in exactly the same manner. Luckily our driver was very skilled and we got on the other side in just a couple of minutes. Trucks waiting on either side of the landslide had less luck. We very much doubted if we would have managed to get across if we had decided to go by bus.
Our driver was definitely a hero of the day. I watched him in amazement, talking on the phone or reading text messages while maneuvering through potholed, landslide sputtered, winding roads. He was even overtaking with a mobile in his hand!
Reaching Luang Prabang
By the end of the trip, the driver stopped a couple of times to buy some fruit which encouraged some passengers to join in. The driver gave us some small, round juicy fruit we had never seen before.
As the minivan was heading to the southern bus station, 3 km out of town, we asked to be dropped off at the closest place to the old town, some 2 km walk to our guesthouse. It started drizzling as soon as we got off.
How to get from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang?
There’s an airport in Luang Namtha but there are no direct flights to Luang Prabang. You’d need to fly to Vientiane and then fly back to Luang Prabang. Pretty pointless and obviously pricey.
More economic and reasonable options include buses of varying standard (from regular public buses to VIP coaches) and minivans. Minivans work well for the monsoon season as they are smaller and can squeeze pass landslides easier.
The buses and minivans depart from the long-distance bus station, located 10 km outside Luang Namtha. Tickets can be bought directly from the bus station or from one of numerous agencies on the main street (you could be charged 10 000 kip extra for this service but you’d also have a free drop off at the station). If you don’t get a transfer, you can get to the bus station by a shared jeep from the main street.
The minivans arrive at the minivan station, in the south of Luang Prabang, while the buses stop at the northern bus station near the airport., both around 4 km from Luang Prabang Old Town. If you want to save money and don’t mind to walk a bit, get off before the station and walk through the new part of Luang Prabang to the old town (around 2 km).
Prices [in Laotian kip as of August 2018]:
130 000 bus Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang
140 000 cheapest minivan Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang
20-25 000 lunch during the stopover
20 000 shared truck from Luang Namtha centre to the bus station
10-15 000 shared tuk-tuk from any of the bus stations to Luang Prabang old town