Transportation - Get In
There are flights from:
- Bangkok Suvarnabhumi: Thai Airways two flights daily (code share with Lao Airlines) and Lao Airlines one.
- Busan, South Korea: Lao Airlines flies three times a week.
- Chiang Mai (Thailand): Lao Airlines six times weekly via Luang Prabang.
- Hanoi (Viet Nam): Lao Airlines three times weekly and Vietnam Airlines daily.
- Ho Chi Minh City (Viet Nam): Vietnam Airlines daily via Phnom Penh; Lao Airlines three times/week via Pakse
- Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia): AirAsia three flights weekly on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
- Kunming (Yunnan, West China): China Eastern Airlines operate four and Lao Airlines three flights weekly. Lao Airlines and the Lao Consulate both have offices in the Camellia Hotel, Kunming.
- Phnom Penh (Cambodia): Vietnam Airlines daily.
- Siem Reap (Cambodia): Lao Airlines three flights weekly via Pakse. Due to these flights go via Pakse, there are no currency exchange facilities, so make sure you change your kip in town before you leave as it's not exchangeable outside of Laos.
- Singapore: Lao Airlines flies three times a week.
It is often cheaper and relatively painless to travel to Vientiane over land rather than by air from its neighboring countries.
From Bangkok many visitors fly into Udon Thani in Thailand, and cross the border by bus, as this domestic flight is considerably cheaper than a direct international flight to Vientiane. There is a direct shuttle from Udon Thani airport to the Thai/Lao border at Nong Khai (about 50 km away) for 200 baht, and there are also direct cross-border bus services from Udon Thani (the city, not the airport) to Vientiane. This option (flight plus bus transfers and immigration clearance at 2 points) takes at least 2 hours longer than a direct Bangkok to Vientiane flight. You may have difficulty getting an international bus to Laos if you do not already hold a visa. Bus conductors sometimes check for this, as the buses do not wait at the border long enough for the painfully slow visa on arrival process.
If you are flying to Udon Thani you should make sure you go to the correct departure airport. Nok Air and Air Asia fly from Don Mueang airport, Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways from Suvarnabhumi airport.
- Lao Airlines flies to five domestic destinations: three to five flights daily to Luang Prabang for about USD100; once or twice daily to Pakse, four times per week to Huay Xai and Oudomxay, and six times per week to Xieng Khuang (Phonsavan).
- Lao Skyway (formerly known as Lao Air), the second Lao airline, operates several flights weekly each between Vientiane and Houeisay,Luangnamtha, Luangprabang and Oudomxay on small Cessnas.
- Lao Central Airlines, a new Lao airline, now operates flights from several cities, including (at least) once a day between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. It is about 30% cheaper than Lao Airlines, with similar aircraft.
Vientiane's Wattay Airport (3 km west of the city).
Many hotels offer a pickup service from the airport, or you can take a jumbo or taxi for USD7 (or 57,000 kip) for up to 8 people. You can buy a taxi coupon before you leave the airport building for $7. Rides to the airport should be cheaper. From city to airport, a tuk-tuk is around 30,000 kip (Jun 2013). Do not agree to 55,000 kip, as shown on a price list by some tuk-tuk drivers, as they can bargained down to 30,000 kip. Always agree with the price before boarding the tuk-tuk. You can book up to one day in advance and ask the driver to pick you up at your hotel. If you don't mind walking the distance between the airport and the main road (less than 500 m), you can take a local bus for less than USD1.
There is no rail terminal in Vientiane; the only train station in Laos itself is 20 km away at Tha Naleng, beside the Friendship Bridge. Built with enthusiasm by the Australian government wishing for improved connections between Laos and Thailand, the Vientiane government has simply left it hanging as a useless station in the middle of nowhere with no plans to connect it to the town.
If you do wish to travel by train (e.g., for decent sleeping quarters), the most convenient bus for rail travel to Bangkok leaves at 14:30 for 15,000 kip. This allows you to breeze through the border during a less busy time and on to the quiet charm of Nong Khai with an hour or two to spare before the "Rapid" train heads for BKK at 18:30, arriving supposedly at 07:00 but often closer to 08:00. Cost of this journey: 15,000 kip for bus to Nong Khai, 680 baht for 2nd class sleeping berths to Bangkok. Also prepare 11,000 kip to pay at the border for a departure tax. It is better to exit bus at the border, rather than continue to Nong Khai, because train station is much closer to the border (1.5 km), than to the city bus station (5-6 km).
The railway link across the Mekong has four shuttle services daily from Nong Khai to Tha Naleng, which is 13 km from Vientiane and within reach by shuttle bus from the Morning Market. The trains are timed to connect with overnight trains to and from Bangkok, with around 90 minutes buffer time at the Thai side of the border for buying tickets and Immigration. It's thus possible to hop aboard Express 69 at 20:00 in Bangkok, arrive at Nong Khai at 09:30 and reach Tha Naleng around 10:30. The train has first and second class air-con sleepers, which cost around 1,200/800 baht respectively. Check State Railway of Thailand for up-to-date timetables and fares, as well as on-line ticket booking. A Lao visa on arrival is available at Tha Naleng station, though you need to arrange your own onward transport to get into the city. This is a major drawback as the station, unlike Friendship Bridge, is in the middle of nowhere.
The other option is to get off the train at Nong Khai and cross the border by bus via the Friendship Bridge. The Nong Khai station is just 1.5 km from the bridge, so if you take a tuk-tuk it should cost no more than 30-40 baht, after bargaining of course. Outside the station there's an information board listing the official prices to nearby destinations. Most tuk-tuk drivers will stop at a travel agent just outside the station and try to coerce you to buy both a Lao visa and shuttle bus to Vientiane. Don't listen to them: you can get a visa and shuttle easily at the Lao border.
For those who already have a Lao visa, or do not need one for a short visit such as citizens of ASEAN countries, Russia and a few others, getting off the train in Udon Thani then taking direct cross-border bus to Vientiane bus is a good option.
The train trip either way is pleasant if basic if you have a sleeper (less than 800 baht). You usually don't need air-con as the train isn't hot, though non-air-con often isn't available. A few cold-blooded travellers do say the air-con is too cold. Pack your own meals, beer, etc. The food on the train is expensive, and beyond awful. There is a change racket operating among the catering staff. Being short-changed is common. You need to note the prices on the menu, have baht (USD or kip will result in a big loss on the exchange rate) and have small denominations (a 1,000 baht note can serve an excuse for a 9-hour delay in bringing change. Even then you will have to go looking for it).
Bus tickets can be bought from various travel agents in Vientiane. Transport by songthaew to designated bus terminal is invariably included in the price. It may happen that instead of going to the bus terminal the songthaew will stop at the roadside near the bus terminal and you will wait there until the bus departures and comes to pick you up. Due to this arrangement you will get to choose the last available seats. According to the songthaew driver it's because the bus station is too crowded and it's more comfortable to wait at the roadside.
The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge (Saphan Mittaphap) from Nong Khai,Thailand is the most common means of entry. The bridge cannot be crossed on foot or by bicycle (however, people have been seen strolling the bridge), but there are frequent 20 baht shuttle buses just past Thai immigration. Bicycles can be carried on buses in the cargo compartment.
When exiting Laos via the bridge, there are no immigration fees, except on weekends when a token 9,000 kip or 40 baht (2010) "overtime charge" might apply. Just walk past the exit fee booth. If no one stops you, you haven't done anything wrong.
Direct buses to/from Nong Khai (55 baht), Khon Kaen(180 baht) and Udon Thani (80 baht) arrive and depart from the Morning Market (Talat Sao) bus terminal. These are cheap, comfortable, hassle-free, and popular, so book ahead or arrive early. Schedules change often. Currently the buses start at 08:00 and leave every 2 hours or so, until 18:00. Note: these buses are not an option if you plan to obtain a Lao visa on arrival at the bridge. The bus will not wait long enough. To get from the Udon airport to the Friendship Bridge, a 200 baht minibus fare can be purchased in the airport and will drop you off on the Thai side of the bridge.
Visas on arrival are available at the bridge. If you forgot your passport photo, they'll photocopy your passport for an extra USD1/40 baht (or do it on the Thai side for just 2 baht). When you get a visa on arrival, you get the entry stamp at the same time, so you don't have to wait in line afterwards. A 40 baht (or 9,000 kip) entry fee is sometimes charged once through. Just walk past the entry fee booth. If no one stops you, you haven't done anything wrong.
Once through immigration, you can take a jumbo (posted price 250 baht, easy to bargain down to 100 baht or less for immediate departure with only one passenger) or taxi (300 baht) to any destination in the city. Shared jumbos are cheaper. You should be able to negotiate to a good deal less than 50 baht/person if you're prepared to share (and possibly wait).
The local bus (usually Bus 14) to Talat Sao (Morning Market) is the cheapest of all, 6,000 kip, but signs are nonexistent and you may be in for a wait (up to 20 minutes). The bus runs until at least 18:45 or so. It's about 25 km from the bridge to Vientiane; allow at least 30 minutes. In the opposite direction the last bus leaves Talat Sao for the bridge and Buddha Park at 17:30 according to the timetable, but it may run later. Don't believe anyone who tells you the last bus has gone. Just ask the bus driver.
When going to the Friendship Bridge avoid the tuk-tuk/songthaew drivers insisting it is late/slow/gone and wanting 50,000 kip to drive you to the border before dumping you there at the mercy of their Thai equivalents on the other side.
Bridge immigration shuts quite late, around 22:00. But check with the locals if you are unsure.
Khon Kaen-Vientiane direct bus, 185 baht, departs twice daily from Khon Kaen Bus Terminal (Prab-argat) at 07:45 (usually delayed till 08:00) and arrives at Vientiane Talat Sao Bus Station around 12:00. A second bus departs at 15:15.
A direct bus from Hanoi takes at least 20 hours (despite what the travel agents might say it averages 24 hr) and should cost about USD15-20. There is a twice weekly VIP bus (better seats) and a local bus that departs every day. With the local bus you're not certain of a seat and Vietnamese people tend to sit and never get up again until arrival.
The journey from Hue is 14-18 hr and should cost USD20-30. The bus arrives to Southern Terminal where you have to bargain hard with tuk-tuks. The ride to town after midnight is 30,000 kip. There are local buses heading towards town from here that usually stop at the central market priced at about 10,000 kip.
The bus trip from Phnom Penh to Vientiane costs about USD50 if you go VIP. This means you get a sleeper (bed) for the night portion of your trip. Unless, however, you have a partner you will share the rather small bed with a random passenger of the same gender. The bed is comfortable, though there have been reports of leaking windows and flooded mattresses.
At the Lao-Cambodian border, essentially the same form has to be filled out numerous times (to ensure each official gets his fee). If you can't carry your luggage 500 m from the Cambodian border post to the Lao, you're out of luck. The bus staff will have disappeared by now. The border process is hot, slow, and enervating.
Regardless of what the travel agent or bus company tells you, the Phnom Penh-Vientiane (or return) trip usually involves four separate buses, not two. The Phnom Penh-Lao border and Pakse-Vientiane legs are comfortable enough. However, between the border and Pakse (Southern Laos) you will be crammed into a minibus or open van, sit on other people's laps, etc., as the vehicle does the rounds of every guesthouse in the region. You will eventually be transferred into another van, and the process repeated. It can take 4-6 hours, and it is seldom clear where you are, where you are going, or who is in charge.
If the bus staff talks you into putting your luggage on a second bus, because of space problems, it is liable to vanish along the road. The bus trip between Phnom Penh and Vientiane averages 27 hours.
From elsewhere in Laos
Buses to and from destinations in Vientiane Prefecture depart from the Talat Sao bus terminal, just east of the Morning Market. There is an informative schedule and schematic diagram of the bus station painted on the central building, which is where you can also buy tickets.
From Luang Prabang you can catch an overnight VIP bus for around 130,000 kip. Prepare for an uncomfortable, bumpy, winding journey with a 01:30 rest stop for a free bowl of soup with noodles at some unmarked place in the middle of nowhere before being dumped in Vientiane at 06:30.
Bus Stop for Vang Vieng. Both large VIP buses and mini buses leave to Vang Vieng from here. Mini vans will pick up passengers from hotels and bring them to this point. Avoid being picked up too early by walking to this location that's near to many guest houses and hotels.
Central bus station
Some buses are available from there at the same price as the south bus station, most notably Tha Khaek and Pakse.
South bus station
This terminal is used by all buses coming from the south. Typical destinations are Tha Khaek (60,000 kip) and Pakse.
Southern Bus Terminal, Kaisone Phomvihane Rd, the first stretch of Rte 13 South (10 km northeast of the centre). It's quite far from town which leaves you at the mercy of the tuk-tuks (starting from 15,000 kip if you are lucky). Public Bus 23 stops by the entrance of the southern bus station and connects it with the Talat Sao bus terminal (Morning Market) at 5,000 kip, from where it is a ten-minute walk into the tourist centre. Mind that the existence of the city buses is going to be vigorously denied by most people you ask, as many have stakes in passenger transportation, and want you to take their ride instead. Bus 29 goes to the center (3,000 kip, ~20 min).
North Bus Station
The northern Bus station is located about 10 km from the city centre on the T2 Road (now officially named Asiane Road), is where all buses to the north arrive and depart.
A tuk-tuk will probably try to charge you about 50,000 kip. Don't pay more than 10,000 kip. One person including baggage costs 20,000 kip.
For bus schedules, see the images taken at the various bus stations at Hobo Maps
Vientiane may be on the mighty Mekong, but it lives more in fear than in love with the river. There are no bridges across it in Vientiane, and there are no docks. A new levee is being built that will separate the town from the river by 100 m of parkland. As such, boat travel from Vientiane on the Mekong is extremely rare, slow, and expensive, especially travelling upstream.
Transportation - Get Around
Getting around Vientiane is generally easy, as the traffic is far less murderous than in larger Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. Street signs are rather lacking, although in the centre more and more signs are appearing. Where there are signs displaying street names they are bilingual in Lao and French. The Lao word "thanon" on these signs is translated by "road", "rue", "avenue" or "boulevard", in many cases without any apparent logic. Because most travellers may go straight to the restaurant and hotel listing and not read this paragraph, "road" or "Rd" is used instead of "thanon".
When asking for directions or streets with "r" in them, be aware that Laotians pronounce "r" as "l" ("plied lice" rather than "fried rice"). An example is Rue Setthathirat pronounced as "Lue Setthathilat".
Perhaps because they are shy about their English skills, most locals are "dumb" on street directions, even people in police uniforms.
Maps covering the city are available at bookshops and some mini-marts, but are not as detailed and not always to scale. Many shopfronts feature addresses in Roman letters, and these are often the best way to determine the street one is walking. People navigate using landmarks, so name the nearest embassy, hotel or temple near where you want to go.
Since 2006 a major road upgrade project has been going on in the town centre and out of it up to past the airport in the west and the Friendship Bridge in the east, financed by the Japanese government and planned and overseen by Japanese engineers. Largely gone are the hazards presented by missing drainage gully covers and pavements upturned by tree roots. Almost no trees have been cut down. In the centre of Vientiane the through roads Setthathirat Rd and Samsenthai Rd and the side roads connecting them and down to the river now have sealed surfaces and pavements, and there is decent street lighting. A one-way traffic regime is in place (but the police are not enforcing it), and parking regulations have also been introduced. Markings for pedestrian crossings have been painted on the new roads, but the local drivers regard them as decoration. Don't rely on them.
Vientiane's rainwater drainage system, which also includes "grey water" from baths, sinks, laundries, etc., consists of gullies on the roadside, usually covered by concrete slabs. These slabs are sometimes damaged and very precariously balanced or even missing altogether. People rapidly learn to take care before stepping on anything that looks like a slab. Waste from toilets is, or should be, collected in septic tanks (at every house), but those gullies can nevertheless smell abominably. In the centre things have improved markedly as a result of the road upgrading. The smell from the gullies is now no longer very noticeable.
Do not rely exclusively on the Google Earth view of Vientiane for locating the sights: many locations put there by well-meaning users are clearly in the wrong place, not just a block or so away, but some even in a wrong part of the city.
Vientiane has a small fleet of genuine taxis retired from Bangkok, usually found lurking at the Friendship Bridge, the airport or in front of large hotels. Fares are set by bargaining, so figure on around USD0.50 per km or USD20-40 to hire one for the day, depending on car type and distance.
Taxi Vientiane Capital Lao Group Co. Ltd. (+856 21 454168, +856 21 454088, 90 Nongbone Rd) advertises 20,000 kip for the first kilometre, then 2,000 kip every 300 m thereafter.
By tuk-tuk or jumbo
Tuk-tuks and their bigger cousins, jumbos, are ubiquitous in Vientiane. If chartering a tuk-tuk/jumbo, make sure of the fare in advance. Short hops within the city should not cost more than 10,000 kip per person. In most cases, foreigners will find it difficult to get bargain prices. All the tuk-tuk drivers carry a fare card for popular destinations but these fares are ridiculously inflated. Do not pay these bogus, published fares. Walking away can make the fare drop quickly. Shared jumbos running on set routes, e.g., Lan Xang Rd to Pha That Luang, charge a fixed 10,000 kip. Tuk-tuks lined up at Mekong riverside restaurants or other busy areas will try to charge you 30,000-50,000 kip even for short trips. It's not worth trying to bargain as they won't go anywhere for a normal (10,000 kip) fare. Walk a few blocks and you get a much lower price.
Old blue-and-white buses and newer white minibuses connect the centre to the suburban districts, but they are not equipped with air-con and have no signage in English, although route numbers are usually (not always) posted on the front. The only bus likely to be of use to the casual visitor is the bus to/from the Friendship Bridge, which continues on to Buddha Park for a fixed fare of 5,000 kip. The bus to Wattay International Airport goes near the airport, but not quite into it.
Routes from Morning Market
- Bus 14: Friendship Bridge, continues on to Buddha Park, 6,000 kip
- Bus 29: south bus station, 2,000 kip
Bicycles are perhaps the best way to get around the city. Most guesthouses and hotels can arrange bike rental for around 10,000 kip per day. (The cheapest is apparently Douang Deuane Hotel, 8,000 kip, though their bikes are not the best.) Although the city's flat terrain makes for good biking, one-way streets can be difficult to identify. You can usually choose to leave your passport, your driver's licence, about 1,000 baht, or a comparable amount of kip or dollars as a deposit. Despite the poor standard of local driving, cycling is fairly safe in the city because the traffic is quite slow. But take extra care when the roads are wet, because many are unsurfaced (even in the city centre), and they can be muddy and slippery. Innocent-looking puddles sometimes conceal deep potholes.
The city centre can be quite comfortably covered on foot, at least in the cool season. Pha That Luang, however, is 4 km away from the centre and thus a bit of a hike. Out of the city centre there are few footpaths so walking can be uncomfortable.
In Laos there are many car rental companies. If you are looking for a Western level of service, try Europcar (Asia Vehicle Rental), on Samsenthai Rd, 5 minutes from Namphu Fountain.