Get around in Laos
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, a dodgy safety history in the past, but a good safety record now. The fairly comprehensive network is by far the fastest (and, relatively speaking, the safest) way of reaching many parts of the country. As of 2009, the popular Vientiane-Luang Prabang route costs US$87 (one-way full fare for foreigners), but covers in 40 minutes what would take you at least ten to twelve hours by bus. 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 $95 USD 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 asphalt, and the transport options on these roads include bus, minibus, and converted truck.
Some common routes through Laos include:
* 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 – the road from Paksan to Phonsavan is steadily improving and most of it is paved. Only one bridge remains to be completed and even this is expected to be done by the end of 2012. Travel time from Paksan to Phonsavan is now 4-5 hrs, a great improvment to the 16-20 hrs experieced only a few year ago. Public bus is available from Vientiane and Paksan on a daily schedule. The small town of Tha Thom is half way between Paksan and Phonsavan and several guesthouses and noodle shops line the road. The lush primary forest once boasted about is fast disappearing due to logging. However, it is still a beautiful way to travel and much quicker than Route 13 from Vientiane to Phonsavan.
Jumbo in Vientiane
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 US$2.50) 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 South East Asia.
Especially 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
Motorcycle travel in Laos is not without risks, but the rewards of truly independent travel are great. There are several rental shops in Vientiane only and bike rentals in other parts of the country are few. The 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. Most bikes in Laos are Honda Baja or XR 250 dual purpose bikes and anything else is usually mechanically questionable. 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 no 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, very 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 popular choices.
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, especially for bikes with 28 inches wheels. Bring your equipment with you and make sure you get contact details of a supplier, maybe from Thailand.
Some may prefer the speed of a motorbike, but note that some roads are still not ideal for a scooter due to the poor balance of many bikes.
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 marvellous city (if you can call a town of 16,000 a city) of Luang Prabang. The journey takes two days and is very scenic. Apart from that, it is a floating backpacker ghetto with no (good) food sold & so bring your own, cramped and considerably hot. Be sure to bring a good book, something soft for the wooden benches and your patience.
Recently the boats have considerably improved. They now have soft used car seats, and serve pre-cooked food, which is not great but certainly sufficient. Luxury boats are very expensive.
Speedboat barreling down the Mekong
An attractive choice for some, with a 6 hour journey 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. However when, or if, you arrive you will never be happier to see 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. The choice between the slow boat and the speedboat is largely based on your required comfort level; would you prefer a slow unpleasant trip, or a faster but more dangerous & unpleasant trip? Either way, the scenery along the way is gorgeous and unexploited, and Luang Prabang is an incredible city that is worth a thousand of these journeys.
1 January 2007: There are unconfirmed reports that the Lao government has banned the use of speedboats due to environmental concerns. Relying on speedboats for travel may not be an option, and further information should be investigated. However, in early December 2007 speedboats were still cruising the Mekong, operating the Vientiane-Paklay-Vientiane route on five days/week and the Luang Prabang-Huay Xai route.
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)