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.
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.
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)
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.