State carrier Lao Airlines has a near-monopoly on domestic flights. Until 2000, their safety record was terrible, but they’ve improved considerably and managed a 13-year accident-free streak until an October 2013 crash near Pakse resulted in 49 victims, the country’s deadliest air disaster. Nevertheless, the fairly comprehensive network is by far the fastest and, relatively speaking, the safest way of reaching many parts of the country.
As of 2013, the popular Vientiane-Luang Prabang route costs about US$101 (one-way full fare for foreigners), but covers in 40 minutes what would take you at least ten to twelve hours by bus. Several planes a day. Tickets can be bought on-line or at any travel agency.
Flights to more remote destinations are flown on the Xian MA60, a Chinese copy of the Soviet An-24, and are frequently cancelled without warning if the weather is bad or not enough passengers show up.
Lao Airlines also flies 14-passenger Cessnas from Vientiane to Phongsali, Sam Neua and Sainyabuli (Xayabouly) several times a week. These airfields are all rudimentary and flights are cancelled at the drop of a hat if weather is less than perfect.
The highways in Laos have improved in the past ten years, but the fact that 80% remain unpaved is a telling statistic. Still, the main routes connecting Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet are now sealed, and the transport options on these roads include bus, minibus, and converted truck.
A good source of bus timetables, some basic town maps etc. can be found at hobomaps.com
Some common routes through Laos include:
- Vientiane to Vang Vieng – a rather short, rather quick, rather comfortable route (less than 4 hours by VIP bus).
- Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang – an amazing scenery through the mountains, at the cost of a long 8-hour trip full of curves.
- Luang Prabang to Phonsavan – minibus: cramped, so arrive early to get good seats as near the front as possible; beautiful views so secure a window seat if possible.
- Phonsavan to Sam Neua – converted pickup truck: beautiful views but lots of hills and bends, hence possible nausea
- Sam Neua to Muang Ngoi – minivan: a 12-hour trip along a horrible road; good views and a necessary evil, but fun if you’re prepared to get a few knocks and talk to some Lao people who are, after all, in the same boat
- Muang Ngoi to Luang Namtha – Minivan: 10-hour trip (Oudomxay); OK road, much travelled by backpackers
- Luang Namtha to Huay Xai – road only passable in the dry season, but the same journey can be made by boat in the rainy season. China is building a new road to Thailand. The road from Luang Namtha to Huay Xai is part of this road and it is a very good road.
- Paksan to Phonsavan – there is a new road between Borikham and Tha Thom. In Tha Thom there is a guesthouse with 8 rooms. The forest between Borikham and Tha Thom is still in a very good condition, but it’s a dirt road. Since most of the forest in Laos has gone this is one of the last roads surrounded by primary forest. There are substantial road works being undertaken by the Vietnamese between Paksan and Phonsavan and there can be some fairly long delays along the way. Even though the trip is only a couple of hundred kilometres it can take 16-20 hr to traverse this section.
Local transport (less than 20 km) in Laos consists of tuk-tuks, jumbos, and sky labs, motorised three or four wheelers. A jumbo should cost no more than 20,000 kip for short journeys of 1-5 km.
You can now also travel the entire length of the country using a fully guided “hop on hop off” bus service provided by Stray Travel. This is the only guided hop on hop off bus in Southeast Asia.
Women should be aware that often during lengthy bus or minibus trips there is no opportunity to go to the toilet during breaks, so it may be advisable to wear a wide skirt.
A songthaew (ສອງແຖວ) is a truck-based vehicle with a pair of bench seats in the back, one on either side — hence the name, which means “two rows” in Thai. In English tourist literature, they’re occasionally called “minibuses”. By far the most common type is based on a pick-up truck and has a roof and open sides. Larger types start life 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 operated extensively as local buses, and generally are the most economical way to travel shorter distances. There also as taxis; sometimes the same vehicle will be used for both. Be careful if asking a songthaew to take you to someplace if there is nobody in the back, the driver might charge you the taxi price. In this case, check the price before embarking.
The name tuk-tuk is used to describe a wide variety of small/lightweight vehicles. The vast majority have three wheels; some are entirely purpose-built, others are partially based on motorcycle components. A tuk-tuk organisation in Vientiane controls the prices that tourists are expected to pay for point to point destinations. The rates negotiable, and well you should clearly bargain rates prior to getting on the tuk tuk.
Motorbike travel in Laos is not without risks but the rewards of truly independent travel are great. There are several rental shops in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Tha Khaek, but bike rentals in other parts of the country may be scarce. The quality of machines varies from shop to shop so you need to fully inspect it before you head out on the road. There are many good roads and many paved ones and touring Laos is done easily.
There are a variety of bikes available in Laos, depending on which town and rental shop you go to. Some available include the Honda Baja or XR 250 dual-purpose bikes, Ko Lao 110 cc and the usual Honda Win/Dream 110 ccs. Helmets are not only mandatory in the country but a valuable item in a place where traffic rules are made up by the minute. Police have been cracking down on people who do not have a motorcycle licence, so expect to pay a fine if caught without one.
Cycling is a great option with quiet roads. Laos offers wonderful remote areas to discover, little traveled roads, friendly people and even some companies providing cycling tours with the help of professional guides all over the country. The more time people seem to spend in Laos the more they seem to like the quiet travel mood and the opportunity to actually be in contact with the people along the way. Good maps are available about the roads in Laos and all major routes are with good roads. In normal distances you find simple guest houses and in all major towns better choices and restaurant. Food is not a problem as long as you remember to carry some stuff with you. Tropical fruits and noodle soup are the standards.
There are a number of local operators running a wide selection of guided mountain biking tours through Laos.
If you travel on your own, there are very few proper bike shops outside of Vientiane. but also for bikes with 28-inch wheels you might have a hard time. Bring your equipment with you and make sure you get contact details from a supplier, perhaps in Thailand.
Boats along the Mekong and its tributaries are useful shortcuts for the horrible roads, although as the road network improves river services are slowly drying up, and many of the remaining services only run in the wet season, when the Mekong floods and becomes more navigable. Huay Xai on the border with Thailand to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse are the main routes still in use.
There are so-called slow boats and speedboats – the latter being tiny lightweight craft equipped with powerful motors that literally skid across the water at high speeds.
BY SLOW BOAT:
Many people go from Chiang Khong in Thailand via the border town of Houai Xai down the Mekong to the marvelous city of Luang Prabang. The ride takes two days and is very scenic. Apart from that, it is a floating backpacker ghetto with no (good) food sold, cramped, and hot. By the second day, the novelty has worn off. Recommended to bring a good (long) read, something soft for the wooden benches and patience.
Slow boats generally stop in the village of Pakbeng for the night. Some boat packages will include accommodation, although this is usually at an inflated rate. By arranging a hotel in the town itself, it is easy to get a lower price. Most shops in Pakbeng shut down at about 22:00, so expect to get a good sleep before the second day’s boat ride. This is also a good place to stock up on supplies.
The boats have considerably improved. They now have soft used car seats, and serve pre-fab food, which is not great, but certainly sufficient.
An attractive choice for some, with a 6-hour ride from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, as compared to the two-day trip on the slow boat, but not for the faint of heart. Expect to be crammed into a modified canoe made for 4, with 10 other people, along with all the luggage somehow packed in. Expect to sit on the floor of the canoe, as there are no seats, with your knees against your chin for the full 6 hours. Expect an incredibly loud engine inches behind your head. Expect the engine to break a few times, and stops for delays to fix it. That being said, when this ride finally ends, if you make it with no trouble, you will never be happier to get to Luang Prabang. Stories of small, overloaded speedboats sinking or hitting driftwood are common, but if you are a good swimmer, take comfort in the fact that you can see both shores throughout the entire trip. So, as you see, choosing between the slow boat and the speedboat is a hard call, based mostly upon your comfort level; would you prefer a slow unpleasant trip, or a much faster, but more dangerous unpleasant trip. Either way, the scenery along the way is gorgeous and unexploited, and Luang Prabang is an incredible city, worth a thousand of these journeys.
Though helpful in saving time, speedboats are not without danger: built to carry 8 passengers, they are often overloaded; the engine noise is well above a healthy level, which could be a serious hazard to your ears, especially if you are on the boat for a long time. It also causes considerable noise pollution, scaring wildlife and spoiling the peaceful river life. Fatalities resulting from capsize due to incautious maneuvering, or hitting floating logs or hidden rocks, have been reported but some claim and are exaggerated by competing slow boat owners. However, the vast majority of speedboat users have no serious problems. If you are taller than the average Laotian are a bit claustrophobic and/or have inflexible leg muscles you are guaranteed an extremely uncomfortable experience for several endless hours.
Suggestions for those who decide to take the risk:
- get one of the front seats as they allow you to stretch your legs and are far from the noisy motor
- wear helmets and life jackets; reconsider your journey if these are not provided
- bring a coat in the cold season, the strong wind can make you feel cold even at temperatures of 25 °C.
- bring earplugs
- protect water-sensitive equipment as you might get wet.