2020 update (yes, I’m still here) thanks to Palu in the comments section.
Since late 2019 there is no way to get a visa on arrival at Huay Con, e-visa is not accepted either. I learnt it the hard way today as I was trying to cross. I was told the nearest possible border crossing is in Houayxay and I was sent back. You can cross here only if you have a visa from Lao consulate. Which is a real pity because they recently opened a new road connecting Hongsa with Luang Prabang. The road number is 4B, Google Maps is not updated yet but you can see it on Openstreetmap.
So the following post is now just a story, rather than a helpful guide.
In the hilly northern section of the Nan district of Thailand, there is a little border that seems to be off the radar for a lot of travelers. It turns out that getting through it is a piece of cake.
So here’s a kind of guide thing.
We’ll start from the Nan township, which is easy enough to get to by bus from Phayao, or Chiang Mai – or anywhere really. Make your way to the bus station, which on Google Maps is named the Nan Provincial Transport Station. Here is the location.
Look around inside for a little ticket window that says Huay Kon – there’s only one. Here you can buy a ticket all the way to the border. The ticket cost us 95 baht per person, and we could choose from four morning departure times: 7.25, 8.25, 9,25 and 12.00.
Not very many people take this route, so the ticket is not for a bus but a shuttle van. The ride to the border is 140 km and takes about three hours, passing through little towns like Pua. After the final main town of Thung Chang, the road climbs into the mountains. Most of the route is on highway 101, but the route to the border takes a 6km diversion from this main highway. There’s a police checkpoint at the intersection, and when we drove through nearly all the other passengers got off to do something official with passports. We weren’t asked to do anything and waited in the van until the passengers boarded again. I have no clue what they were doing.
It was Saturday, which is market day at the border. Sadly, the market closes at 12, and we arrived just as they were packing everything away. So instead of shopping for trinkets and vegetables, we had our last Thai meal (kuay teow nam kai) and then strolled to Thai customs.
A very smiley man sat up as we approached, said hello, stamped us out, and wished us luck. Easy as that. There was no queue at all.
There is a walk between the two borders of about 1 km. During our walk, we watched cars criss-cross over the road changing from the left-hand Thai driving to the right-hand Laos driving. There were also a surprising amount of butterflies on the walk – possibly attracted to the sticky-sweet spit ejected from the mouths of passing drivers.
The Laos border greets you with the hammer and sickle flags of the communist party. There are two barricaded gates to pass through, and these sandwich the visa and immigration building. Before entering the gates, we approached a bored-looking songthaew dirver and asked if he’d take us to the closest town, Muang Ngeun. He lazily agreed to do it for 100 baht once we’d finished dealing with the immigration work.
At the first gate, a man asked questions about where we were going in Laos. We had no idea at all, but our vague circular hand gestures seemed to please him enough to let us through. The main entry building was another straightforward affair; I paid $35 for my visa and Caroline got a free entry for being ASEAN. Not once did we feel like anybody was trying to rip us off (like at the Cambodia-Thai border). We were required to (legitimately) pay an ‘overtime’ fee since it was a Saturday. This was 90 baht.
The visa fees vary by country, with Canada getting shafted the most. Click here to see the list.
After we had our stamps and stickers, we passed the final gate, jumped in the songthaew we’d arranged, and got dropped off at possibly the only guesthouse in Muang Ngeun. We had no kip (Laos currency), and the two ATMs in the town were broken.
And so here I now sit, typing this post, not knowing exactly how we’re going to get out of here. The village is tiny and appears to be friendly, and hopefully any bus we find tomorrow will accept baht or USD as payment. Figuring things out should be interesting, as we don’t know the language (although Caroline is learning quickly as usual).
People here appear to like lighting fires as much at the rest of South East Asia does. I opened the door before and saw this: