Not only is traveling from Chiang Rai to Houayxay (or Huay Xai), Laos fairly easy, it can also be incredibly cheap. Using a combination of tuk tuk, local bus, and songthaew, you can complete this trip for around US $10! In this article, I'll guide you through the steps of the journey from Chiang Rai to Houayxay, Laos and provide some helpful tips for your trip!
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Why Travel from Chiang Rai to Houayxay, Laos?
First, you may be wondering - what is Houayxay and why would I want to go there? I'm glad you asked.
Ban Houayxay, or Ban Huay Xai, is the capital of Bokèo province in Laos. In December 2013, the fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge opened, connecting Chiang Khong (Thai side) and Houayxay (Lao side) by road. Up until then, you could only cross this border on the Mekong River by ferry.
Despite being a provincial capital, Houayxay will undoubtedly feel like a small, sleepy village when you arrive. Especially traveling here from Chiang Rai.
A Couple Reasons for Visiting Houayxay
While you're traveling around northern Thailand and Laos, here are a couple activities that might entice you to visit Houayxay:
1) Gibbon Experience*: 2-3 day trekking and zip-lining adventure through the jungle to see the gibbons and sleep in a treehouse. The experience begins and ends in Houayxay.
*Although we wanted to try this, the dates available didn't line up with our schedule. For more information, visit the Gibbon Experience website.
2) Mekong River Cruise: 2-day/1-night (one-way) slow boat cruise on the Mekong River starting in Houayxay and ending in Luang Prabang. You can also take the cruise in the reverse direction. This cruise was the reason we traveled to Houayxay.
Check out this 2-Week Adventure Itinerary in Northern Thailand & Laos for other exciting trip ideas!
A Little about the Mekong River Cruise
As we began researching a Mekong River Cruise, we found many companies ranging in price and luxury. We settled on Shompoo Cruise which seemed like mid-range option of the ones we considered.
The Shompoo Cruise leaves from Houayxay every other day and they offer two options for pickup:
1) Meet a guide on the Thai side of the border at 8:00 am to go through immigration and cross the Friendship Bridge;
2) Be picked up from a guest house in Houayxay between 9:00 am - 9:30 am and go directly to the boat.
Obviously, I chose the extra sleep. This meant we needed to travel the full way from Chiang Rai to Houayxay ourselves. Since the border crossing is south of Chiang Khong town, we never saw the town itself except from across the river.
Read the full post about our Mekong River Cruise and find out what to expect!
Journey from Chiang Rai to Houayxay
Now that you know why you should go to Houayxay, I'll walk you through how to get to there cheaply from Chiang Rai. Since it involves a border crossing, you have to take the trip in stages.
Depending on exchange rates and how you negotiate the tuk tuks and songthaew, the total trip from Chiang Rai to Houayxay should cost roughly ~US $10*. For a couple of these stages, you could choose a more luxurious form of transportation and pay more.
*This cost estimate does not include the Lao visa fees, which you would have to pay regardless of how you arrive in Laos.
Step 1: Tuk Tuk from Hotel to Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1
Since where you stay in Chiang Rai determines this cost, this number will vary for travelers. From our Laluna Hotel and Resort, a tuk tuk ride to the downtown bus terminal 1 cost roughly 30-40 baht per person.
For a more comfortable ride, call a Grab or arrange for an air-conditioned car through your hotel. It may cost slightly more than a tuk tuk, but maybe not too much more. And, if your hotel is within walking distance of the bus station, you may be able to skip this step altogether.
Need ideas for your trip to Chiang Rai? Find out How to Spend 2 Days in Chiang Rai!
Step 2: Local Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong
Although you can get from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong a couple different ways, the local bus is by far the cheapest. It's probably also the most adventurous! This is the way we took and that one I'll share in this post.
Departing from Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1
Since we took the local bus, we departed from the downtown Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1. This is right across from the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar. The building also houses the Tourist Information Center and has some beautiful murals painted throughout it.
We'd read that buses from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong depart every hour and we planned to catch the 1:00 pm bus. Since we weren't completely sure about the schedule, we arrived at the station early to make sure we got tickets.
Which Bus to Take?
As you walk around the open air bus terminal, you'll see the names for the destinations printed in Thai and English. We found a couple signs for buses to Chiang Khong.
When we arrived, the 12 pm bus to Chiang Khong was getting ready to leave. The driver waved us forward, trying to get us to hop on that one. He said that another bus to Chiang Khong wouldn't leave until 2:00 pm.
Since we had just passed a sign for a 12:30 pm bus to Chiang Khong, we decided to risk it. We hadn't had lunch yet so we didn't want to start a 2-hour bus ride with no food.
Pro Tip: Drivers like to fill their buses, songthaews, etc. since they'll earn more that way. Try not to get flustered by this and check out the information they give you for yourself.
Ultimately, it did seem like the 12:30 pm bus was replacing the 1:00 pm bus that day. As a result, we decided to skip eating lunch at a restaurant. Instead we grabbed a few snacks from the convenience store at the bus station and hopped on the 12:30 pm bus. It left almost exactly on time, which was a pleasant surprise!
A Little about the Bus
Since we arrived early, we boarded in plenty of time to get a seat together near an open window. The local buses do not have air-conditioning so window access is critical! Also, I get car sick sometimes so "fresh" air blowing in my face helps.
Because we visited during "cool" season, the open windows kept the temperature in the bus pleasant. Though I can imagine it gets pretty toasty during hot season! At the front of the bus, I noticed a couple rotating fans they can turn on when it gets too hot and stuffy.
Although the seats are supposed to be for two people, it was a cosy fit for Jeremy and me on the same seat. Since it was Jeremy, I didn't mind, but I wouldn't have wanted to share the seat with a stranger. And though I can't say the seats were comfortable, they weren't the worst of the trip... so that's a plus.
Above our heads was a luggage rack where we could store our camera bookbag and electronics bag. Our larger suitcase backpack went in the back of the bus.
As we were ready to leave, one more thing made it into the bus - roosters. A couple of them by the sound of it! So every time the bus slowed down throughout our journey, cock-a-doodle-dos rang out from the back of the bus. I was thoroughly entertained, but felt bad for them at the same time.
Ride from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong
As we cleared the outskirts of Chiang Rai, the bus driver pulled over and collected money from all the passengers. I thought it was a bit strange that he waited to collect the fares until then instead of when we boarded the bus. Perhaps we passed a few pick up spots on our way out of town but no one was waiting at them.
We paid 65 baht per person for the ~2-hour ride from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong. Since we were going to the Friendship Bridge, the driver told us if we paid an additional 50 baht per person, he would drop us off there.
Because I'd read tuk tuks from Chiang Khong to the Friendship Bridge could cost that much, we paid the driver the extra 50 baht. It turned out to be a good idea and saved a lot of time.
The ride from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong itself wasn't overly eventful. Throughout the ride, passengers called out their stops and got off the bus. As space freed up, Jeremy and I each got our own seat, which was much more comfortable.
Scenery + Construction
Because northern Thailand had a drier rainy season than usual this year, the scenery was quite brown. It was also incredibly dusty so whenever we went through road construction, the dust poured in through the open bus windows.
Throughout Southeast Asia, dry season is the time for road construction and repairs. It seemed like everywhere we went, they were fixing potholes and building new roads.
Friendship Bridge Drop-off
After roughly two hours, we arrived at the Friendship Bridge. Since we came into Chiang Khong from the south, the border crossing is on the way into town. Our bus driver dropped us off first so it saved us time on our journey.
If we hadn't paid the driver to drop us off at the bridge, we would have had to go into town, then take a tuk tuk back to the bridge. It most likely would have added 30-45 minutes onto the trip.
Planning a trip to Thailand? Check out some of my other posts on Thailand!
Step 3: Thai Immigration
Arriving at the border, we used the toilets (they had a western option!) and cleared Thai immigration quickly as it was fairly empty.
However, the only way to cross the Friendship Bridge is in a vehicle. So we had to purchase a bus ticket - 25 baht pp - and wait ~30 minutes for a bus to depart. I'm assuming we had just missed one though I can't be sure.
Step 4: Lao Visa on Arrival & Immigration
As you arrive at the Lao border, you'll have to get a Visa on Arrival. Grab the forms at the desk and fill them out. Although they have pens, you may want to have your own handy in case someone else is using the ones provided.
U.S. citizens must provide one passport photo, the visa application, plus pay 35 USD. Requirements for citizens of other countries may vary so you should check before arriving at the border.
If you cross the border after 4:00 pm or on a weekend or holiday, you'll have to pay a 1 USD overtime fee in addition to the visa fee.
Pro Tip: If you want to pay in U.S. Dollars, make sure you bring NEW, CRISP BILLS. Several of our dollar bills were not accepted due to their age and condition. In that case, you can pay in a combination of Lao Kip, Thai Baht, and USD. Most likely you won't get a great exchange rate if you pay in multiple currencies so it's cheaper to pay in USD.
In total, the Thai/Lao immigration processes plus waiting for the bus to cross the bridge took us about 1 hour.
Wondering what else to do in Laos? Check out these 6 Beautiful Places to Visit in Laos!
Step 5: Songthaew to Houayxay
The last step of the trip after clearing Lao immigration is to get to the town of Houayxay. We were ready to be there, not to mention hungry since we'd only eaten chips for lunch!
Since the town of Houayxay is roughly 10 km from the bridge, the best way to get into town is by songthaew. A songthaew is basically a larger version of a tuk tuk or a pickup truck with seats in the back.
The cheapest way to go is taking a shared songthaew. If you take this option, you'll have to wait until it fills up or the driver decides he has enough passengers to leave.
Because we were ready to reach Houayxay right away, we took a private one for a pricey 80,000 kip total. The songthaew ride from the border to our guest house in town took us ~20 minutes, ending our trip at 4:10 pm.
So in total, the entire trip from Chiang Rai to Houayxay took us ~4 hours and cost ~10 USD.
Final Thoughts about the Trip
As you travel around Southeast Asia, you learn to be flexible about your schedule and travel conditions. We began the trip with a general plan and kind of figured it out as we went.
Our trip went smoothly so I feel lucky about that. And though I've shared our experience, making the trip another day, it might look a little different than ours.
Hopefully this post gives you a general idea of how to travel from Chiang Rai to Houayxay, Laos and what to expect along the way. Feel free to contact me with any questions or leave me a comment below!
Read the next post -> What to Expect on a Mekong River Cruise in Laos