A new road from Nan to Luang Prabang opens

NAN, Thailand, 1 July 2019: A new road between Nan in Thailand and the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang opened late last week. Report updated on 4 July to add clearer route details.

The story was first published in the Bangkok Post, last week. It noted that authorities had opened a 114 km stretch of road in Laos from Hongsa to Luang Prabang.

The announcement was made by the Neighbouring Countries Economic Development Cooperation Agency president, Perames Vudthitornetiraks, who told the Post the new 114 km road starts from Hongsa district in northwest Laos to Luang Prabang (about 11 km beyond Hongsa town). It should reduce the travelling time from nine to around five hours according to the Bangkok Post. It was probably quoting the travel time to Luang Prabang from Nan on the 4A highway via Xaignabouli using a Thai/Laos operated bus service. However, it is slightly longer at 10 hours according to the Land Transport Department timetable.

The new 4B road from Nabalone to Luang Prabang now open. Google Map still shows the former track or unsurfaced road with a missing section.

Travellers cross the Thai-Laos border at the Huai Kon- Mueng Ngeum checkpoints around 132 km north of Nan town.

Once across the border they usually board a bus or hire a commuter van for the 51 km trip (Highway 2W) to Pak Beng to join the riverboat for the downstream trip to Luang Prabang. It requires an overnight stay in the small resorts at Pak Beng.

Photo credit: Google Maps. The new 4B shortcut to Luang Prabang branches off the road to Xaignabouli (4A) at Don Mai (Nabalone district), 49 km from the border.

However, the well established daily bus from Nan to Luang Prabang follows the 4A road that splits with 2W highway about 3.5 km after leaving Mueng Ngeum the small town on the Lao side of the border. From here the 4A highway meanders around mountain ranges to reach Luang Prabang in 10 hours.

Built at cost of THB1.98 billion, the new two-lane road starts at a junction just off the 4A highway at the small village of Don Mai and close to Nabalone. The junction is around 49 km from the Huai Kon border checkpoint in Nan. From Don Mai the new road identified on Google Map as 4B cuts across extremely mountainous terrain to Luang Prabang eventually passing the Green Jungle Flight tourist attraction (Chomphet district) just before the riverside village of Pak Long. The road terminates at the north shore vehicle ferry jetty on the Mekong River facing Luang Prabang town.

There are two vital questions that need to be addressed one on the positioning of gas stations and food stops on the 114 km route and the overall safety for travellers.

There are still travel alerts on some sections of the main roads in Laos between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang on what is called the “new road” from Kasi. The original highway no 13 to Luang Prabang from Vang Vieng is still popular as the climbs are easier for trucks and buses.

Technically, the new road from Luang Prabang to Don Mai where it merges with the 4A could be a popular route for motorcycle tours that visit Luang Prabang and then tour North Thailand. From the border at Nan, the road trip to Chiang Rai would cover a distance of 351km.

However, motorcycle Facebook groups warn that the Nan border checkpoint is not motorcycle friendly. In fact, they describe an almost impossible challenge caused by a past misunderstanding with local officials that virtually ban the passage of motorcycles despite what legislation allows on paper.

The main purpose of the new road is to connect local communities in and around Hongsa district with Luang Prabang province to generate trade, but the development agency president told the Bangkok Post that the road would also boost travel between Luang Prabang and Nan by 10 to 20% without giving details of how that would be achieved.

For the time-starved traveller, intending to visit North Thailand and Laos the best option would be to fly to Chiang Rai transfer by bus to Chiang Kong and join the downstream river trip on the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang.

However, the road from Luang Prabang to Nan via Don Mai and Hongsa has considerable potential for travellers wishing to return to North Thailand and continue their holiday in Nan, possibly extending it to Chiang Mai. It remains to be seen if an international bus service will be established on the shorter 4A/4B route.

(Source: Bangkok Post plus additional TTR Weekly reporting)

Report updated

This report was updated on 4 July 2019, to provide more accurate information using Google Maps and reader feedback. Please note that the most recent Google Maps show the 4B as a track or unsurfaced road extending from Don Mai for 20 km. There’s an estimated 25 to 30 km missing section in the heart of the mountains. The track then resumes for another 71 km. It ends at the north shore vehicle ferry jetty on the Mekong River facing Luang Prabang town. It is assumed this is the route the new 114 km road follows.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Don Ross – the present (May 2019) visa situation reads correctly:

    Huay Khon/Nan/Thailand does NOT grant visa-on-arrival (had an issue with a Chinese client) for Thailand. A Lao visa can be obtained at Muang Ngern border post.

    Ban Phakaeo/Xayabouly/Laos does NOT grant visa-on-arrival into Lao PDR. A Thai visa-on-arrival can be obtained at the Pudu/Uttaradit/Thailand border post.

    Thank you.

  2. What a poor piece of reporting – shame on whoever did this! This article was written and re-written by people who all had never travelled the area, the roads mentioned nor had a proper look at a correct updated map.

    From Hongsa to Luang Prabang, the old road link would be Road 4A Hongsa-Xayabouly and Road 4 from Xayabouly to Xieng Ngern leading into Road 13N some 20kms South from Luang Prabang. That road combination taxes six hours (as 4A is potholed to no end).

    The (article irrelevant) road from Muang Ngern (Lao side of the Thai border town of Huay Khon) to Pak Beng (Road 2W) has been in place for years due to the lignite power plant; it is excellent and leads to new bridge crossing the Mekong some 10kms Northwest of Pak Beng. Tourist boats leave from Pak Beng in the morning, the normal ferries leave from Ban Thasuang (some 45 minutes North of Hongsa at the Mekong) for the five – six hours float to Luang Prabang. These two roads, to Pak Beng (and onto Oudomxay; also known as Muang Xay) and Ban Thasuang (dead end) respectively are NOT leading to Luang Prabang.

    The new road in question branches off left some 10kms East of Hongsa (from 4A) at Ban Napoong into Road 4B, from where a new tarmac sealed scenic road leads to Chomphet (opposite Luang Prabang) and takes two hours for the 114kms. There a ferry awaits and takes cars at LAK 30K/vehicle across the Mekong. The shown map is displaying the (correct) road in red – yet the wrong description; there is no road from Hongsa to Chiang Mai.

    Furthermore Luang Prabang is at the crossroads of where the red, yellow and blue line meet. Likewise is Xaignabouli (better known as Xayabouly) some 100kms South of Luang Prabang where Road 4 and 4A meet.

    To complete the map; east of Luang Prabang you would travel through the mountains to the Y-junction where 13N and 7 meet – from where another 140kms lead to Phonsavan/Xieng Khouang on the Plain of Jars; Muang Pek (or rather Muang Paek) is a (Western) district of Phonsavan city.

    The provincial customs authorities of Xayabouly do presently NOT allow motorcycles into their province from neighbouring Thailand, this covers border crossings at Pudu/Uttaradit-Ban Phakaeo/Xayabouly, Huay Khon/Nan-Muang Ngern/Xayabouly and Kenthao/Xayabouly-Ban Nakaseng/Loei. If it is a pre-arranged caravan of bikes through a tour agency, then permit is granted to the travel agent who has to accompany the group – otherwise do not even try your luck for the time being.

    The time-starved (what an expression) traveller FLIES between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai; overland the most popular route remains between Luang Prabang, Oudomxay/Muang Xay, Luang Namtha and Huay Xay, then cross the bridge into Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai and into Chiang Mai. The 770kms long stretch by bus will never be done in daylight only due to the tremendous bureaucracy between Laos and Thailand (welcome to AEC2015 and ASEAN) and the partly questionable road conditions.

    The road alternative via Hongsa “shortens” the trip to 620kms and will also not be done with public transport during daylight.

    In closing, the road from the Huay Khon/Nan border to Chiang Mai is still a 450+ kms trip via Nan, Phrae and Lampang.

    I would expect a much more professional look into news tickering in from Bangkok Post or any other source prior to publication; everything else is irresponsible towards readers and advertisers!

    • Thanks for the comment. With the maps available and somewhat confused by a not-to-scale map in the original report that we did credit we tried to make some sense of how this new road will fit in future itineraries. I have travelled on most of the roads you mentioned, either by car or cycle, except of course for the new road that opened last month. The current bus service goes to Luang Prabang from Nan via Xayabouly and takes around nine to 10 hours to cover 376 km distance. The new 114 km road shortens the distance considerably. The travel time could be around five hours. There doesn’t appear to be a bus service using the new short-cut road but I would think that will change. I intend to take the trip next month for a first-hand evaluation.

  3. Do not try crossing into Lao with your bicycle, or motorbike for that fact, at Muang Ngern Hongsa (Laos) / Huay Kon (Thailand) for it is not allowed by the Lao customs/immigration officers.

    You can, however, exit Lao into Thailand using this border crossing, they just don’t want hooligans on bicycles in Laos 🙂

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