Traveling across Laos via plane, road, or river may be just as enjoyable as the destination itself, but leave plenty of room in your itinerary for the near-inevitable delays, cancellations, and breakdowns.
Lao Airlines, the national airline, maintains a near-monopoly on internal flights. Their safety record was poor before to 2000, but they’ve since improved significantly and had a 13-year accident-free run until a crash near Pakse in October 2013, which claimed 49 lives and was the country’s worst aviation tragedy. Nonetheless, the rather extensive network is by far the quickest (and, in some ways, the safest) method to visit many areas of the nation.
The popular Vientiane-Luang Prabang route costs about USD101 (one-way full price for foreigners) as of 2013, although it covers the same distance in 40 minutes that would take at least ten to twelve hours by bus. Every day, there are many aircraft. Tickets are available for purchase online or at any travel agency.
Flights to more distant locations, on the other hand, are flown on the Xian MA60, a Chinese copycat of the Soviet An-24, and are often cancelled without notice if the weather is poor or there aren’t enough passengers.
Several times a week, Lao Airlines operates 14-passenger Cessnas from Vientiane to Phongsali, Sam Neua, and Sainyabuli (Xayabouly). These airfields are all primitive, and flights may be canceled at any time if the weather isn’t ideal.
Minibuses are faster and more costly, but it does not always imply that they are better. A typical VIP Bus is just an old bus by Western standards (typically retired Chinese tour buses), and although they may be more prone to problems, they normally offer greater leg space, making lengthy journeys considerably more pleasant. A bottle of water, a snack, and a lunch/dinner break are all included on VIP buses. Air conditioning is common in both kinds (albeit it may not always function).
A hired vehicle with driver is much more costly, but it is unquestionably the most convenient. A vehicle with a driver will set you back about USD95 per day. Some people are able to cross the border into Thailand, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam by car. Tour firms, tourist hotels, and vehicle rental businesses can help you organize transportation. Because the vehicles are new, they are dependable. They offer the added benefit of allowing you to stop the vehicle at any moment for photographs, a stroll around a town, or just to stretch your legs.
Although Laos’ roads have improved in the last 10 years, the fact that 80% of them are still unpaved is alarming. The major roadways linking Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet are now sealed, with bus, minibus, and converted truck as modes of transportation.
The following are some of the most popular routes across Laos:
- Vientiane to Vang Vieng is a very short, fast, and pleasant journey (less than 4 hours by VIP bus).
- Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is an incredible journey through the mountains, but it comes at the expense of an 8-hour journey filled with bends.
- Luang Prabang to Phonsavan – minibus: crowded, so get there early to obtain a decent seat towards the front; great views, so grab a window seat if possible.
- Phonsavan to Sam Neua – modified pickup truck: lovely vistas, but plenty of slopes and curves, which may cause nausea.
- Sam Neua to Muang Ngoi – minivan: a 12-hour journey over a terrible road; beautiful vistas and a necessary evil, but enjoyable if you’re willing to take a few bumps and speak to some Lao people who, after all, are in the same situation.
- Muang Ngoi to Luang Namtha – Minivan: 10 hour journey (Oudomxay); good route, used by travellers.
- Luang Namtha to Huay Xai is only accessible by road during the dry season; however, during the wet season, the same trip may be done by boat. China is constructing a new route connecting China and Thailand. This road connects Luang Namtha with Huay Xai and is in excellent condition.
- Between Borikham and Tha Thom, there is a new road that connects Paksan and Phonsavan. A guesthouse with eight rooms is located in Tha Thom. The woodland between Borikham and Tha Thom is still in excellent shape (despite the fact that it is a gravel road). Since the majority of Laos’ forest has vanished, this is one of the few remaining highways surrounded by primary forest. This is a must-see if you’re traveling by motorcycle! Also, inform everyone that if no visitors visit, the forest would be burnt or sold. Between Paksan and Phonsavan, the Vietnamese are doing extensive roadwork, which may cause some lengthy delays. Even though the distance is just a few hundred kilometers, traversing this stretch may take 16-20 hours.
Tuk-tuks, jumbos, and sky labs, motorised three or four wheelers, are used for local transportation in Laos (less than 20 km). For short trips of 1-5 kilometers, a jumbo should cost no more than 20,000 kip (about USD2.50).
Stray Traverse now offers a fully guided “hop on hop off” bus service that allows you to travel the length of the nation. This is Southeast Asia’s first guided hop-on hop-off bus.
Women should be mindful that there is frequently no chance to use the restroom during breaks on long bus or minibus rides, so a wide skirt may be appropriate.
A songthaew () is a truck with two rows of bench seats in the rear, one on each side — thus the name, which means “two rows” in Thai. They’re sometimes referred to as “minibuses” in English tourist literature. The most popular form, which is based on a pickup truck and has a roof and open sides, is by far the most frequent. Smaller types are converted micro-vans with a front bench facing backwards and a rear bench facing forwards. Larger types start out as small lorries and may have windows and an additional central bench; smaller types are converted micro-vans with a front bench facing backwards and a rear bench facing forwards.
Songthaews are widely utilized as both local buses (the most cost-effective mode of short-distance transport) and taxis; in some cases, the same vehicle is used for both. If you ask a songthaew to take you somewhere and there is no one else in the rear, the driver may charge you the taxi fare. In this instance, be sure you know how much the ride will cost before you go.
A broad range of small/lightweight vehicles are referred to as tuk-tuks. The overwhelming majority have three wheels; some are completely custom-made, while others are based on motorcycle components in part (primarily engines, steering, front suspension, fuel tank, drivers seat). The rates that visitors are supposed to pay for point-to-point locations are regulated by a tuk-tuk organization in Vientiane. The prices are adjustable, and you should explicitly negotiate before boarding a tuk tuk.
Traveling by motorcycle in Laos is not without dangers, but the benefits of genuinely autonomous travel are enormous. Bike rentals are available in Vientiane and other cities like as Luang Prabang, Pakse, and Tha Khaek, although they may be rare in other areas of the nation. Because machine quality varies from shop to shop, you should thoroughly examine your new companion before hitting the road. Touring Laos is simple since there are numerous excellent roads, including several paved ones.
Depending on whatever town and rental business you visit in Laos, you may hire a variety of motorcycles. The Honda Baja or XR 250 dual-purpose motorcycles, the Ko Lao 110cc, and the standard Honda Win/Dream 110ccs are all available. Helmets are not only required by law in the nation, but they are also a prized commodity in a location where traffic regulations are made up on the fly. Police have been clamping down on individuals who don’t have a motorbike license, so if you’re found without one, prepare to pay a fine.
With calm roads, cycling is a fantastic alternative. Laos has great isolated places to explore, little-traveled roads, nice people, and even businesses that provide bicycle trips with expert guides across the nation. The more time tourists spend in Laos, the more they appear to like the peaceful travel atmosphere and the chance to interact with the locals. In Laos, excellent maps of the roads are accessible, and all main routes have decent roads. Simple guest rooms may be found within reasonable distances, and in all large cities, there are more options and restaurants. Food will not be an issue if you remember to bring some with you. The staples are tropical fruits and noodle soup.
A variety of guided mountain bike excursions are offered by a number of local companies across Laos.
Outside of Vientiane, there are relatively few good bike stores if you’re traveling on your own. However, you may have difficulty with bikes with 28-inch wheels. Bring your gear and make sure you obtain contact information from a provider, perhaps in Thailand.
Although river services are progressively drying up as the road network improves, many of the surviving services only operate during the rainy season, when the Mekong floods and becomes more navigable, boats along the Mekong and its tributaries are handy bypasses for the terrible roads. The major routes still in use are Huay Xai (on the Thai border) to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse.
There are two types of boats: slow boats and speedboats. The latter are small, light vessels with strong engines that slide over the water at fast speeds.
By slow boat
Many people go from Chiang Khong, Thailand, to Luang Prabang, Laos, through the border village of Houai Xai along the Mekong River. The journey takes two days and is breathtakingly beautiful. Apart than that, it’s a floating backpacker enclave with no (decent) food, tight quarters, and scorching heat. The novelty had worn off by the second day. Bring a nice (long) book, a soft blanket for the wooden seats, and patience.
Slow boats usually spend the night at the hamlet of Pakbeng. Some boat packages include lodging, but this is typically at an exorbitant price. It is simple to obtain a cheaper price by booking a hotel in the town itself. Most stores in Pakbeng close about 22:00, so plan on getting a good night’s sleep before the boat trip the next day. This is also an excellent location for stocking up on supplies.
The boats have recently improved significantly. They now offer soft used car seats and serve pre-prepared meals that is OK but not spectacular.
Some may find the 6-hour ride from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang more appealing than the two-day journey on the slow boat, but it is not for the faint of heart. Expect to be squeezed into a modified canoe designed for four people, along with ten other passengers and all of their baggage. Because there are no seats in the canoe, expect to spend the whole 6 hours sitting on the floor with your knees against your chin. Expect a deafeningly loud engine to be a few inches from your head. Expect the engine to break down a few times, with pauses in between to allow for repairs. That said, if you get it to Luang Prabang without incident at the conclusion of this journey, you will never be happier. Stories of tiny, overloaded speedboats drowning or colliding with driftwood abound, but if you’re a strong swimmer, rest assured that you’ll be able to view both coasts the whole journey. As you can see, deciding between the slow boat and the speedboat is a difficult decision, one that is dependent mostly on your comfort level: would you choose a slow, uncomfortable journey, or a lot quicker, but more hazardous, unpleasant one? The landscape along the route is beautiful and unexplored in any case, and Luang Prabang is an amazing city worth a thousand trips.
Speedboats, although useful for reducing time, are not without risk: built to carry 8 passengers, they are frequently overloaded; engine noise is well above a healthy level, which can be a serious hazard to your ears, especially if you are on the boat for a long time (as well as causing significant noise pollution, scaring wildlife, and spoiling the peaceful river life); and fatalities resulting from capsize due to sloppy maneuvering or hitting floating logs (and exaggerated by competing slow boat owners, some say…) The overwhelming majority of speedboat users, on the other hand, have no significant issues. If you’re taller than the typical Laotian (which many are), have claustrophobic tendencies, and/or have inflexible leg muscles, you’re in for a long, unpleasant ride.