Transportation - Get In
The international airports at Vientiane (VTE) and Luang Prabang (LPQ) are served by national carrier Lao Airlines, Lao Central Airlines, and a few others, including Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways (Luang Prabang only) and Vietnam Airlines. Some seats on flights of Vietnam Airlines are reserved for Lao Airlines (codesharing / better price). Pakse is the third international airport, with flights to/from Siem Reap (Vientiane - Pakse - Siem Reap by Lao Airlines) and from/to Ho Chi Minh City.
Laos used to be off-limits to low-cost carriers, however AirAsia now flies to Vientiane from Kuala Lumpur three times a week. Another cheap option for getting to Vientiane is to fly to Udon Thani in Thailand with discount airlines Nok Air or Air Asia and connect to Nong Khaiand the Friendship Bridge via shuttle service directly from the airport (40 minutes); from here Vientiane is just 17 km away.
The long-awaited first link across the Mekong from the Thai town of Nong Khai to Tha Naleng near Vientiane finally opened in 2009. There are two shuttle services per direction per day, with one timed to connect to the night trains to/from Bangkok. Visa on arrival is available when crossing the border by train. The train is not a very attractive option because the railway station is in the middle of nowhere.
Most border crossings open for foreigners, with an indication where visas on arrival can be issued, are listed on the web site of the National Tourism Administration. This list is unfortunately incomplete.
Visa on arrival for Laos is now available (as of Feb 2010) when entering from Cambodia overland (previously was not available), with an official "Visa on Arrival" office incorporated into the checkpoint. The nearest Cambodian town is Stung Treng, and the border is a 90-minute speedboat or bus ride away. Note that the border is lightly used, with almost no onward public transport available at the border (therefore book through transport from Stung Treng to Ban Nakasang for Si Phan Don/Don Det) and both customs officers and transport providers have a reputation of gouging foreigners, although this seems to have improved recently (currently both Cambodian and Laos border officials request USD1 stamp fee per country). Crossing the border (Oct 2010) the Cambodia officers will ask for USD1 for exit stamp. You can tell them you don't have any and they will still stamp it. On the Laos side they will demand USD2 for entry stamp, if you refuse they will not stamp it, (you will need the stamp to get out), so you have no choice than to pay the bribe. Note if you cross the border by boat, you will have to return by road to the border checkpoint to officiate your arrival (i.e., get your passport stamped) in Laos.
Two pitfalls at the Lao-Cambodian border are that you will often have four changes of bus (some of them tiny minibuses where passengers have to sit on each other's laps), and hours spent driving to remote guesthouses to pick up backpackers; if your luggage has been sent in a bus you are not on (because of "lack of space") it will sometimes disappear. The "King of Bus Company" is known to do this.
The land crossing between Mengla (Yunnan) and Boten (Laos) is open to foreigners and visa on arrival is possible (USD37 for UK citizens) or you can get in advance at the Lao consulate in Kunming. Daily bus service operates from Mengla to Luang Namtha and Udomxai. Buses from Mengla to Luang Namtha leave from the North bus station. The first bus leaves around 08:00 and costs about ¥40.
Generally speaking, it is not possible for independent travellers to cross from China to Laos via the Mekong River, not least because there's a chunk of Myanmar in the middle and the Lao checkpoint at Xieng Kok does not issue visas on arrival. Travel agents in China, including Panda Travel, run irregular cruises from Jinghong (China) via Chiang Saen(Thailand) to Huay Xai (Laos), but schedules are erratic and prices expensive.
The Myanmar-Lao friendship bridge connects Shan State in Myanmar with Luang Namtha Province in Laos.
There are Eight border crossings open to all between Thailand and Laos. From north to south:
- Huay Xai/Chiang Khong: Fourth bridge under construction. Usual route to/from Luang Prabang, easy bus connections to Chiang Rai and points beyond on the Thai side.
- Muang Ngeun/Huay Kon: Visa on arrival. 40 km from Pak Beng.
- Nam Hueng/Tha Li: Easily reached via Loei on the Thai side, but 378 km of dirt road away from Luang Prabang. No visa on arrival.
- Vientiane/Nong Khai: The first Friendship Bridge and the busiest of crossing of them all. Direct trains from Bangkok now available.
- Paksan/Bueng Kan: No visa on arrival.
- Tha Khaek/Nakhon Phanom: Third bridge under construction.
- Savannakhet/Mukdahan: The Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.
- Vang Tao/Chong Mek: On the route from Pakse to Ubon Ratchathani
There are at least six border crossings that can be used by foreigners. These include:
- 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)
By motorbike from Vietnam
The border crossing on a Vietnamese motorbike at Tay Trang is very easy and straightforward. You arrive after going over some hills at the Vietnamese border where very friendly guys handle your case easily and with no hassle. You fill out the form for "temporary export of a vehicle", show them the Vietnamese registration card for the bike (which is in the owners name, not yours usually) and pay USD10. Then you proceed to the police, show the papers to them and get the exit stamp.
You then have to drive for 6 km over the mountains to get to the Lao checkpoint. There some not so friendly border guards there who expect you to pay 5,000 kip for general fees and 25,000 kip for importing a vehicle. They fill out the form themselves and I got 30 days visa (there is some talk on the net about 15 day visas or even 7 days arriving on a bike, but that's crap). So after spending maybe 20 min at each border you and your bike are in Laos and the journey can go on! Brroammm...
Transportation - Get Around
Being in transit by air, road or river in Laos can be as rewarding as the destination itself - but allow plenty of leeway in your schedule for the near-inevitable delays, cancellations and breakdowns.
State carrier Lao Airlines has a near-monopoly on domestic flights. Pre-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 USD101 (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, though, are flown on the Xian MA60, a Chinese knockoff 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.
|VIP, minibus or car?
Minibuses are quicker and more expensive, however that doesn't mean they are necessarily better. A typical VIP Bus is just an old bus by Western standards (generally retired Chinese tour buses), and may be more prone to breakdowns, but they usually have more leg room which can make a long journey much more comfortable. VIP buses also include a bottle of water, a snack, and a stop for lunch/dinner. Both types are usually air conditioned (though it doesn't always work).
Even more expensive, but certainly the most convenient, is a rented car with driver. A car with a driver will cost around USD95 per day. Some can even drive over the border to Thailand, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The cars can be arranged at tour agencies, tourist hotels and car rental companies. The cars are new, so they're reliable. They have the bonus of your being able to stop the car at any time for photos, nosing around a village or just stretching your legs.
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.
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. If you travel by motorbike this is a must-go! And tell everybody: if no tourists go there the forest will be burned or sold. 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 kilometers 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 (about USD2.50) 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 (generally the most economical way to travel shorter distances) and 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 of the ride 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 (primarily engines, steering, front suspension, fuel tank, drivers seat). 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. The current rates can be found here: Tuk Tuk Prices in Vientiane
Motorbike travel in Laos is not without risks but the rewards of truly independent travel are great. There are several rental shops in Vientiane, as well as in other towns including Luang Prabang, Pakse and Tha Khaek, but bike rentals in other parts of the country may be scarce. Quality of machines varies from shop to shop so you need to fully inspect your new friend 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 110cc 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 license, 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 spent 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. Be sure 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.
Recently 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 (as well as causing considerable noise pollution, scaring wildlife and spoiling the peaceful river life); and fatalities resulting from capsize due to incautious maneuvering, or hitting floating logs or hidden rocks, have been reported (and exaggerated by competing slow boat owners, some say...) However, the vast majority of speedboat users have no serious problems. If you are taller than the average Laotian (many are), 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 25C.
- bring earplugs
- protect water-sensitive equipment (you might get wet)