I did it the hard way in August 2019 because I didn’t book in advance and the bus was already full. It was an adventure, but all things considered if I did the journey again I would take the direct bus.
Stage 1: Nan to Muang Ngeun
If you travel by local transport from Nan to Luang Prabang then the journey has three stages, and it takes 2 days.
Minivan from Nan to the Laos Border
The first stage of the journey is to travel to Muang Ngeun Bus Station in Laos. To get there you need to take three different vehicles. The first of these is a minivan from Nan Bus Terminal to the border crossing at Huai Kon. There are several minivans a day all before 09:00 which don’t appear to follow any strict schedule. Just turn up as early as you can and buy a ticket when you arrive. It costs 70 THB and the journey to Huai Kon takes around 2 hours 30 minutes to travel 139 km.
Huai Kon Border Crossing
Huai Kon Border crossing consists of some buildings on the side of the road. The first thing to do is to get stamped out of Thailand, and the office you need is on the left hand side. Once you get through you need to pay 20 THB for a tuk-tuk to travel to the Lao Immigration Post, because it is too far to walk. If you don’t already have a visa then you can get a Visa on Arrival at the large office which is by the small building with the Lao Immigration Officer inside who stamps your passport for entry into Laos.
Muang Ngeun Bus Station in Laos
Once you are through Lao Immigration you need to find a taxi to take you to Muang Ngeun Bus Station. I had to search around for a while and ended up waking up somewhere who was sleeping in hammock in the back of his taxi van. The journey from the border to the bus station cost me 40 THB. I didn’t have any Lao Kip at that point but the driver accepted my Thai Baht.
Stage 2: Muang Ngeun to Xayaboury
Muang Ngern Bus Station is small with no facilities and very little in the way of timetable information. The next form of transport you need to take is a minivan to Xayaboury. When I went the only minivan service seemed to be the 10:30 minivan departure, which actually left after 11:00, and cost 90,000 Lao Kip. The man in the ticket office accepted Thai Baht, which was fortunate as there is nowhere at the bus station or near the border to change money, but gave me a fairly bad exchange rate about 20% less than what it would have been in a bank.
Road to Xayaboury
The journey from Muang Ngeun to Xayaboury is only 117 km but takes a bit over 3 hours. The road is narrow and it twists and turns through some very hilly, remote and staggeringly beautiful countryside. A word of warning about this road – it’s dangerous and on route we stopped for everyone to get off the minivan and stare at some poor individual whose car has plunged down a ravine into the river. We survived our journey but not everyone is so lucky.
Roadside services Laos style
There are no towns on route to Xayaboury, just small villages and clusters of huts on steep hillsides where hill tribe communities farm pineapples and cassava. We stopped once on route at the only building we saw which even come close to resembling a shop or restaurant, and this was a corrugated iron roof over a dirt floor where colourfully dressed hill tribe girls and women came to sell vegetables and sugarcane. There was a toilet, however, albeit a hole in the ground inside a shed.
Xayaboury North Bus Station
We ended up arriving at Xayaboury North Bus Station at about 14:30. The people at the bus station took real delight in telling me that there were no more bus or minivans to Luang Prabang that day, and that if I wanted they could drive me there in a car for 800,000 Lao Kip. I declined this offer. I should at this point explain that I am about 50% of the way to being fluent in Thai and I also understand a couple of hundred words in the Lao language. No one at the station spoke anything except for Thai and of course Lao and if you don’t either of those two languages then you would get no further information than a shake of the head.
Luang Prabang is a very nice town, with great facilities and lots of interesting things to see. Xayaboury is not, and my night there is a night of my life that unfortunately I can never get back. With the help of a pleasant young man who works in the small restaurant by Xayaboury Bus Station I managed to work that out that there are establishments resembling hotels and restaurants in Xayaboury town which is 2.7 km away. I paid 40,000 Lao Kip for the journey in a tuk-tuk, after a long and angry negotiation with the large number of tuk-tuk drivers waiting at the station who were keen to exploit my predicament of being stranded there overnight. I stayed at the Bounvong Guesthouse which was alright in a better than sleeping on the street kind of way, eat BBQ chicken and sticky rice and bought a bottle of Scotch whiskey at the large Chinese run supermarket by the guesthouse. It was alright but not as good as the hotel I had booked in Luang Prabang or the meal at the nice Indian restaurant that I had been dreaming about since I woke up in Nan.
Stage 3: Xayaboury to Luang Prabang
Minibus services from Xayaboury North Bus Station to Luang Prabang departed at 09:00 and 14:00 when I was there in August 2019. The journey cost 60,000 Lao Kip which I was able to pay in the local currency by that point as there is a bank in Xayaboury where you can change Thai Baht and US Dollars, but nothing else.
Xayaboury to Luang Prabang Bus
The bus journey from Xayaboury to Luang Prabang takes about 3 hours to travel around 100 km. I enjoyed this part of the journey as it travels up and down the hills and along ridges. The scenery is great.
View on the way to Luang Prabang
Minibus services from Xayaboury arrive into Luang Prabang at the Southern Bus Terminal, which is just over 2 km from Luang Prabang’s historic town centre area.
Luang Prabang Southern Bus Terminal
Travel in Laos is generally slow, and often how and when you arrive is a matter of chance. On this route the $30 USD that it costs to book a direct bus from Nan to Luang Prabang online is well worth as it take all the stress out of the journey. All in, including the hotel on the way, it probably cost me the same if not slightly more to travel by local transport from Nan to Luang Prabang than it would have done simply to take the easy option of booking the direct bus.