If you're not planning on going anywhere near Lao in the near future, the above paragraph is really all you need to read. (You might want to skim down to see the pictures of us wearing the same clothes for three days, but otherwise...)
If you are planning to go to Lao, and specifically Nong Khiaw, and you plan to continue on to Thailand, here's what we did in May/June 2014.
You used to have two options from LPB - minibus (4 hrs, prices vary) or slow boat (8 hrs, 110,000 kip). Unfortunately, the slow boat is on temporary hiatus due to dam construction on the Nam Ou. We were bummed since this is supposed to be a great boat ride.
Minibuses run every day. We booked ours through our guesthouse; it cost 65,000 kip including pickup from the guesthouse. Prices from tour agents along the main strip started at 70,000 kip so shop around! (You can also just buy a ticket at the bus station for 50,000 kip but you still have to get there... It's a long walk in the hot sun and we thought the extra 15,000 each was worth not having to haggle with a tuk-tuk driver.)
Our minibus had no AC but there were only 8 other passengers and barely any cargo so it was perfectly comfortable. The driver didn't cover the baggage on top very well so everything got a little wet when it started raining - no big deal to us, but mind this and/or use a rain cover if you're concerned about your bag. The road is fine until it's TOTALLY NOT FINE (ohhhh that's where all the really bad roads in Lao start!), but we got there in about 3 hours. So overall, no complaints!
Sometimes there are five daily buses to LPB from Nong Khiaw; on that Sunday in early June there were two (11am and 1:30pm) and the one at 11am wasn't even a bus, it was a sawngthaew. (This is relevant in a minute.)
But we weren't going back to LPB. From Nong Khiaw we decided to head to Huay Xai via Oudomxai-Pak Beng. Sometimes there is a direct bus to Oudomxai from Nong Khiaw at 11am; if not you just catch the first LPB bus and hop off at Pak Mong to catch your Oudomxai bus there. If you're lucky they drop you at the bus station (and a bus exists), if you're not so lucky you just wait at the juncture and wave a bus down.
So. We got to the Nong Khiaw bus station at 9:15am not really knowing what time anything was happening. There was no direct bus that day (maybe for the season?) so for 25,000 kip each we ended up on the first LPB bus - AKA the aforementioned sawngthaew - which took us the hour to Pak Mong and the rest of the passengers and cargo two more hours to LPB (for about 45,000 kip). Not the most comfortable ride for us, surely the others were hurting by the end of their trip. But, "Lao taxi" - check!
We got dropped off right at the Pak Mong bus station at noon and the very helpful bus station guy told us that the Oudomxai bus would arrive at 2:30pm. (Lao translation: we'd be lucky if it got there by 4pm.) He drove off in his tuk-tuk leaving us to wonder if he knew what he was talking about. (Maybe we should interrupt the card game taking place in one of the minibuses to ask the other bus station guy? Naaaah. We'll just wait.) The benches were hard as rocks and it was another 100• day, but the station was large and clean with a WC and lots of snacks available. And there was Thai kickboxing on the TV! Now how much would you pay?
At 3:15pm the bus arrived and we were on our way... until road construction stopped us dead for about an hour. We finally arrived in Oudomxai at 6:30pm. (From what we saw, it had lots of energy and a great restaurant whose name I can't read on my iThing photo but it's on the right of the main strip just past the neon bank. They only offer three dishes, all are inexpensive, and our food was really great.)
our dated-but-otherwise-just-fine hotel
across from the bus station
the really great dinner whose picture
doesn't do it justice
birthday breakfast in Oudomxia
From Oudomxai, there are two morning buses to Pak Beng (8am and 10:30am, 40,000 kip). We caught the 8am crammed full of locals and cargo.
couldn't get a steady shot of the villages we passed -
we found the terrible roads in Lao!
Four miserably hot and bumpy hours later we arrived in Pak Beng where we had to take a tuk-tuk into town (10,000 kip each).
the first guesthouse up the ramp from the boat dock -
it worked out just fine
tomorrow this would be our ride
but first, a riverside view birthday lunch at Sabaidee Sivilay
and a meh birthday dinner at Hasan Indian Restaurant
but first - breakfast!
(available at any of the twelve pastry shops by the boat ramp)
we're on a boat!
(and we're wearing the same clothes as yesterday!
and possibly the day before that!)
Yep, nine hours on the scenic mighty Mekong...
(didn't realize until after I took the shot
that there were farmers working on that steep brown hill)
The final "getting out" count: three days, 220,000 kip each plus hotel and food in Oudomxai and Pak Beng (about 200,000 kip each), so about $53 each. Comparing this to a three-day bus tour from Nong Khiaw-Luang Prabang and then from Luang Prabang-Liang Namtha-Huay Xai (and any hotel/food costs), we may have spent just a bit more. But nine hours on the Mekong instead of ANY more hours on those Lao roads was totally worth the nominal extra cost, and who else can say they've been to Oudomxai?
sabaydee guesthouse terrace (the only reason to stay there, really) -
a toast to our last night in Lao
Hopefully this is helpful to someone, someday. If you have a different experience please leave a comment, thanks!