More than 4600km of navigable rivers are the highways and byways of traditional Laos, the main thoroughfares being the Mekong, Nam Ou, Nam Khan, Nam Tha, Nam Ngum and Se Kong. The Mekong is the longest and most important route and is, in theory if no longer in practice, navigable year-round between Luang Prabang in the north and Savannakhet in the south (about 70% of its length in Laos). Smaller rivers accommodate a range of smaller boats, from dugout canoes to ‘bomb boats’ made from junk dropped from the skies during the Second Indochina War.
Sealed roads and buses, however, mean that the days of mass river transport are as good as finished. Every time a new road is opened more boatmen go out of business, unable to compete with the price and pace of those modern conveyors of the masses – buses and sǎwngthǎew. This aspect of progress means local people have access to faster and cheaper travel, and it’s not our place to begrudge them that. However, from a travellers’ point of view, the gradual death of river transport is a great shame. There were few things more romantic than sitting on a slow boat, tacking from one riverside village to another as the boat worked its way along the river, picking up people, produce and animals on the way.
While there are barely any regular local boats on the Mekong anymore, there are still a few places left where you can do this, if you’re prepared to get right off the beaten river and seek out the adventure…and you can be certain it will be a memorable trip, one way or another. So whether it’s on a tourist boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang or on a local boat you’ve rustled up in some remote corner of the country, it’s still worth doing at least one river excursion while in Laos.
For shorter river trips, such as Luang Prabang to the Pak Ou Caves, it’s usually best to hire a river taxi. The héua hang nyáo (longtail boats) are the most typical, though for a really short trip (eg crossing a river) a héua phái (rowboat) or one of the small improvised ferries can be hired. The héua hang nyáo are around US$5 an hour for a boat with an eight- to 10-person capacity. Larger boats that carry up to 20 passengers are sometimes available for about US$8 per hour, although higher tourist prices are often applied, and prices go up with fuel consumption if you’re heading upriver when the river is at full flood.
Along the upper Mekong River between Huay Xai and Vientiane, and on the Nam Ou between Luang Prabang and Hat Sa (Phongsali), Thai-built héua wái (speedboats) are common. They can cover a distance in six hours that might take a ferry two days or more. Charters cost at least US$20 per hour, but some ply regular routes so the cost can be shared among passengers.
Hitching is possible in Laos, if not common, though it’s never entirely safe and not recommended for women as the act of standing beside a road and waving at cars might be misinterpreted. If you are hitching, cars with red-on-yellow (private vehicle) or blue-on-white (international organisations and embassies) number plates might be the best ones to target. Long-distance cargo trucks are also a good bet.
Long-distance public transport in Laos is either by bus or sǎwngthǎew (literally ‘two rows’), which are converted pick-ups or trucks with benches down either side. Buses are more frequent and go further than ever before in Laos, and destinations that were all but inaccessible a few years ago now see regular services. Private operators have established services on some busier routes – particularly along Rte 13 and on international routes –offering faster and more-luxurious air-con buses, known as VIP buses, which are also pretty good value at about US$2 per 100km –about 1.5 times the normal bus price.
That’s not to say local buses have disappeared completely. Far from it. You can still do the main routes by local bus, and on most journeys off Rte 13 you won’t have any option.
If you can’t live without your air-con, it’s worth booking ahead. You’ll usually have to go to the bus station to do this, though increasingly guesthouses can book tickets for a small fee.
Sǎwngthǎew usually service shorter routes within a given province. Most decent-sized villages have at least one sǎwngthǎew, which will run to the provincial capital and back most days. Like local buses, they stop wherever you want but are generally slower given that the roads they ply are usually unpaved. And, given that everyone is sitting on-top-of/facing each other, they’re even more social than the bus.
The final type of transport is the lot doi saan (wooden bus). These big, rumbling trucks with wooden cabins built on the back with forward facing seats were once the mainstay of Lao transport. They can handle the worst road conditions and these days that’s where you’ll find them – on routes that are unpassable to anything else.
Vientiane is the only city with a network of local buses, though they’re not much good to travellers.
Driving in Laos is easier than you might think. Sure, the road infrastructure is pretty basic, but outside of the large centres there are so few vehicles that it’s a doddle compared to Vietnam, China or Thailand.
Motorcyclists planning to ride through Laos should check out the wealth of information at Golden Triangle Rider (www.GT-Rider.com). Doing some sort of motorbike loop is becoming increasingly popular among travellers.
Chinese- and Japanese-made 100 and 110cc step-through motorbikes can be hired for between US$5 and US$15 per day in most large centres. No licence is required. Try to get a Japanese bike (the ominously named Suzuki Smash, perhaps) if you’re travelling any distance out of town. In Vientiane, Pakse and Vang Vieng 250cc dirt bikes are available for about US$20 per day.
It’s possible to hire a self-drive vehicle, but when you consider that a driver usually costs no more, takes responsibility for damage and knows where he’s going, it seems pointless. Informal charters can be arranged almost anywhere, with small Japanese pick-ups going for between US$40 and US$100 per day, depending on where you’re going; the rougher the road, the higher the price.
The following Vientiane-based companies have good reputations:
Asia Vehicle Rental (AVR; /fax 021-217493; www.avr.laopdr.com; 354-356 Th Samsenthai, Vientiane) Undoubtedly the most reliable place to hire vehicles, with or without drivers. Offers 4WDs, vans, sedans. Recommended.
LaoWheels (021-223663, 020-550 4604; email@example.com) One engaging man and his van. Christophe Kittirath speaks fluent French, good English, knows the country inside out and is a good driver. Highly recommended.
Elsewhere, larger hotels usually have a van for rent or can find one, or ask at the local tourism office.
Car-hire companies will provide insurance, but be sure to check exactly what is covered. Note that most travel insurance policies don’t cover use of motorcycles.
A growing number of tour operators run trips in Laos and it’s cheaper to book directly with them rather than through a foreign-based agency. A common two-week tour might take in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, the Xieng Khuang (Plain of Jars), Savannakhet and Champasak; the better operators can customise itineraries. More specialised tours are also becoming popular, with rafting, kayaking, cycling, trekking, motorcycling and even photographic tours all available.
The following are worth investigating:
Asian Trails (www.asiantrails.com)
Asian Motorcycling Adventures (www.asianbiketour.com) Some regular and customised off-road trips, including the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Carpe Diem Travel (www.carpe-diem-travel.com) Environmentally and socially responsible tours, focussingon pro-poor tourism and feeding some money back through sponsorship projects.
Exotissimio (www.exotissimo.com) Large company with a mix of pure sightseeing and adventure tours.
Gecko Travel (www.geckotravel.com) Mix of small group tours for newbies and those seeking more adventure, plus a photographic tour. Not the cheapest but good feedback.
Green Discovery (www.greendiscoverylaos.com) Biggest adventure tourism operator in Laos. Well-organised kayaking, trekking, cycling, rock climbing and rafting trips. Easy to book locally and fair value.
Paddle Asia (www.paddleasia.com) Kayaking and rafting on a host of rivers.
Spiceroads (www.spiceroads.com) Specialises in cycling tours.
With public boats hard to find, tour companies are increasingly offering kayaking and rafting trips on some of the more scenic stretches of river. The best places to organise these are Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Tha Khaek and Pakse.
Lao Airlines is the only airline in Laos. It handles all domestic flights, with Vientiane as the main hub. The Laos Air Fares map gives you an idea of all Laos’s scheduled air routes and prices, both domestic and international; for the latest fares check Lao Airlines’ website (www.laoairlines.com).
Prices have been fairly steady in recent years and are reasonable value. Except at Lao Airlines’ offices in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, where credit cards are accepted for both international and domestic tickets, you must pay cash in US dollars.
Lao Airlines schedules are increasingly reliable but flights still get cancelled semi-regularly. During the holiday season it’s best to book ahead as flights can fill fast. At other times, when flights are more likely to be cancelled, confirm the flight is still going a day or two before.
In its previous incarnation as Lao Aviation, Lao Airlines had a bad reputation and travellers still ask whether it’s safe. The answer is ‘pretty much’. Almost everything about the airline – the planes, maintenance and pilots –has improved and there haven’t been any serious incidents for several years. French ATR-72 planes operate most international routes and many domestic flights, though some of the domestic flights use older and less-reliable Chinese or Russian planes.
The various three-wheeled taxis found in Vientiane and provincial capitals have different names depending on where you are. Larger ones are called jąmbǫh (jumbo) and can hold four to six passengers on two facing seats. In Vientiane they are sometimes called tuk-tuk as in Thailand (though traditionally in Laos this refers to a slightly larger vehicle than the jumbo), while in the south (eg Pakse and Savannakhet) they may be called sakai‑làep (Skylab) because someone, probably on opium at the time, once thought they looked like the famous space station that crashed to earth. But wait, there’s more…these three-wheeled conveyances are also labelled simply thaek-sii (taxi) or, usually for motorcycle sidecar-style vehicles, sǎam-lâaw (samlor or three-wheels). Whatever you call it people will usually know what you’re after. The old-style bicycle sǎam-lâaw (pedicab), known as a cyclo elsewhere in Indochina, is an endangered species in Laos. If you can find a sǎam-lâaw, fares are about the same as for motorcycle taxis.
Fares vary according to the city and your bargaining skills. Locals generally pay about US$0.25 per kilometre on trips no longer than about 20km. However, in Vientiane and other towns that see plenty of tourists, serious bargaining is required.
The stunning roads and light, relatively slow traffic in most towns and on most highways make Laos arguably the best country for cycling in Southeast Asia. Several tour agencies and guesthouses offer mountain biking tours, ranging in duration from a few hours to several weeks.
Simple single-speed bicycles with names like Hare, Crocodile and Rabbit can be hired in most places that see a decent number of tourists, usually costing between US$0.50 and US$1.50 per day. Mountain bikes can be hired in a few places, including Luang Nam Tha, Vientiane, Vang Vieng and even Khoun Kham, for between US$1.50 and US$5 per day.
These mostly Thai- or Chinese-made bikes come in varying degrees of usability, so be sure to inspect them thoroughly before hiring. Common problems include loose seats or handlebars and broken bells. Ask and you can usually get the seat adjusted to suit your height.
You can buy a new bicycle for between US$40 and US$100. The Chinese bikes are sturdier, the Thai bikes more comfortable. Low-quality Chinese or Taiwanese mountain bikes cost more.