Lao Airlines, Lao Central Airlines, and a few others, notably Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways (Luang Prabang only), and Vietnam Airlines, service the international airports at Vientiane (VTE) and Luang Prabang (LPQ). Lao Airlines has booked certain seats on Vietnam Airlines flights (codesharing / better pricing). Pakse is the country’s third international airport, with flights to and from Siem Reap (Lao Airlines’ Vientiane – Pakse – Siem Reap) and Ho Chi Minh City.
Low-cost airlines used to avoid Laos, but AirAsia now flies three times a week from Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane. Another inexpensive alternative for traveling to Vientiane is to fly to Udon Thani, Thailand, using budget airlines Nok Air or Air Asia, and then take a shuttle service straight from the airport to Nong Khai and the Friendship Bridge (40 minutes); Vientiane is just 17 kilometers away.
In 2009, the long-awaited first connection over the Mekong from Nong Khai, Thailand, to Tha Naleng, Laos, finally opened. There are two shuttle trips each day in each direction, one of which is scheduled to connect to Bangkok’s night trains. When crossing the border by rail, you may get a visa on arrival. Because the railway station is in the middle of nowhere, using the train is not a particularly appealing choice.
The National Tourism Administration’s website lists the majority of open border crossings for foreigners, along with information on where visas on arrival may be obtained. Unfortunately, this list isn’t comprehensive.
When entering Laos overland from Cambodia, visas on arrival are now available (as of February 2010), with an official “Visa on Arrival” office integrated within the checkpoint. Stung Treng is the closest Cambodian town, and the border is a 90-minute speedboat or bus trip away. Note that the border is rarely used, with almost no onward public transportation available (book through Stung Treng to Ban Nakasang for Si Phan Don/Don Det), and both customs officers and transport providers have a reputation for overcharging foreigners, though this appears to have improved recently (currently both Cambodian and Laos border officials request USD1 stamp fee per country). When crossing the border in October 2010, Cambodian police will demand $1 for an exit stamp. Even if you tell them you don’t have any, they will stamp it. They will want USD2 for an entrance stamp, and if you refuse, they will not stamp it (you will need the stamp to exit), so you will have no option but to pay the bribe. If you cross the border by boat, you must return by road to the border post to have your entry in Laos officially recognized (i.e., get your passport stamped).
At the Lao-Cambodian border, there are two pitfalls: four changes of bus (some of them tiny minibuses where passengers must sit on each other’s laps) and hours spent driving to remote guesthouses to pick up backpackers; if your luggage is sent on a bus you are not on (due to “lack of space”), it may disappear. This is something that the “King of Bus Company” is renowned for.
Foreigners may travel between Mengla (Yunnan) and Boten (Laos) via land, and visas can be obtained on arrival (USD37 for UK residents) or in advance at the Lao embassy in Kunming. Mengla has daily bus service to Luang Namtha and Udomxai. The North bus station is where buses from Mengla to Luang Namtha depart. The first bus departs at 8:00 a.m. and costs about $40.
In general, independent travelers cannot cross the Mekong River from China to Laos, not least because there is a piece of Myanmar in the middle and the Lao checkpoint at Xieng Kok does not grant visas on arrival. Travel agencies in China, such as Panda Travel, provide sporadic cruises from Jinghong (China) to Huay Xai (Laos), although timetables are unpredictable and costs are high.
Myanmar’s Shan State and Laos’ Luang Namtha Province are linked by the Myanmar-Lao friendship bridge.
Between Thailand and Laos, there are eight open border crossings. In order from north to south:
- Donsavanh – Lao Bao – to/from Savannakhet
- Keo Nua Pass
- Lak Sao – to/from Khammouan Province
- Nam Can – to/from Plain of Jars
- Na Meo – to/from Sam Neua
- Tay Trang – to/from Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw
- Bo Y (nearest town on Vietnamese side being Ngoc Hoi and on Lao side Attapeu)