Getting there & away
The only real prerequisites for entering Laos are a passport with six months’ validity and a visa if you are crossing at one of the few borders where you can’t get a visa on arrival, such as the Cambodian border at Voen Kham.
Unless you’re in a country bordering Laos, your first mission is to find a flight to Bangkok. Luckily there are plenty of flights to the Thai capital, but fares fluctuate sharply. Generally, you’ll pay less but it will take longer if you fly to Bangkok with a stop on the way. For example, if you’re flying from the UK you’ll probably get a better deal with airlines such as Gulf Air, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Garuda or, for those on the breadline, Biman Bangladesh – all of which involve a stop in the airline’s home city – than you would on a direct flight with British Airways or Thai International Airways (THAI). Once you’re in Bangkok, there are trains, planes and buses heading to Laos.
Laos shares land and/or river borders with Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, China and Vietnam. Border details change regularly, so ask around or check the Thorntree (thorntree.lonelyplanet.com/) before setting off.
Most crossings involve changing transport at the border, even when you’ve paid for a ‘direct’ bus. Five of the crossings on the western border with Thailand involve quick boat trips across the Mekong.
Unless stated otherwise, Laos issues 30-day tourist visas at crossings that are open to foreigners.
The border with Cambodia at Voen Kham is open and while it’s possible to get a Cambodian visa on arrival, for now you need to get your Laos visa in advance. There are two border points, one for road crossings and the other for boats to Stung Treng.
There are seven crossings to Thailand open to foreigners. Several involve taking a boat across the Mekong, or crossing the river on one of the Friendship bridges. Borders here are listed from north to south.
Crossing to or from northern Thailand at Huay Xai on the Laos side of the Mekong and Chiang Khong on the Thai side is popular with travellers coming from northern Thailand. This is the starting point for two-day boat trips to Luang Prabang.
Rapid and express trains from Bangkok’s Hualamphong train station run daily to Nong Khai (11 to 14 hours). Overnight trains have sleeper carriages and make a convenient, comfortable and cheap way to get to the border while saving on a hotel room. Berths costs from 488B to 1217B; costs are higher when booked through an agent in Laos.
Plans to extend the rail line over the Friendship Bridge and 3km into Laos have been approved, so it might be possible to catch the train from the Laos side sometime in 2008.
This is the southernmost river crossing between Thailand and Laos. A bridge across the Mekong River near Savannakhet was opened in late 2006, giving travellers the option of a road or river crossing.
This border 44km west of Pakse is a popular and easy entry into southern Laos. Rapid and express trains from Bangkok’s Hualamphong train station run three or four times per day to Ubon Ratchathani (sleeping berths 471B to 1180B, 12 hours, 575km), from where it’s three or four hours to Pakse by local transport, or faster on the Thai-Lao International Bus.
At the time of writing foreigners could cross between Laos and Vietnam at six different border posts. Laos issues 30-day tourist visas at most of these, but you’ll need to get your Vietnamese visa in advance. The border at Sop Hun in Phongsali Province, just across from Tay Trang (32km west of Dien Bien Phu), has been going to open for years but is still firmly shut. Keep your eyes on the Thorn Tree for the latest. These borders are listed from north to south.
For now, the northernmost crossing is on Rte 6A between Na Maew in Hua Phan Province, Laos, and Nam Xoi in Thanh Hoa Province, Vietnam. This crossing can be difficult on both sides, especially given how expensive the infrequent transport on the Vietnam side is. It is, however, the nearest border to Hanoi and the north, so if you’re adventurous and want to avoid backtracking, it’s worth a shot. Na Maew is a relatively short bus ride to/from Sam Neua, where there are buses and planes to other points in Laos. No visas are issued here.
This border east of Phonsavan in Xieng Khuang Province sounds better than it actually is. Even though you’re a long way north of the Kaew Neua Pass crossing, the road on the Vietnam side runs so far south (almost to Vinh) before joining north–south Hwy 1 that this border is totally inconvenient.
The spectacular crossing through the Kaew Neua Pass, via the low-key border posts of Nam Phao on the Lao side, and Cau Treo in Vietnam, leads to Vinh and all points north, including Hanoi. Direct buses between Vientiane and Hanoi take this route, but it’s a long, torturously slow and uncomfortable trip. If you can take the pain, buses leave Vientiane’s Northern Bus Station every day for Vinh (US$16, 16 hours) and Hanoi (US$20, 24 hours), and occasionally for Hue (US$17, at least 24 hours), Danang (US$20, at least 24 hours) and even Ho Chi Minh City (US$45, up to 48 hours).
Even though this remote border has a nice new highway on the Laos side, we’ve still never met anyone who’s actually crossed here. Transport runs all the way across this border from Tha Khaek to Dong Hoi in Vietnam, and back. However, no visas are available here yet.
Good roads and plentiful transport make the border at Dansavanh (Laos) and Lao Bao, 255km east of Savannakhet, probably the easiest of all crossings to/from Vietnam. If you’re heading to/from Hué, Hoi An or anywhere in central Vietnam, it’s recommended. The downside, however, is that if you want to see all of Vietnam you’re in for a fair bit of backtracking.
The newest crossing to Vietnam’s central highlands is at Bo Y between remote Attapeu Province and Quy Nhon, though it doesn’t really fit any existing travelling routes. Visas on arrival are not guaranteed.
It’s possible to enter Laos by land or air from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam or China. Land borders are often remote and the travelling can be tough either side, but the actual frontier crossing is usually pretty simple.
There are only three international airports in Laos. Wattay International Airport (VTE; 021-512165) in Vientiane; Luang Prabang International Airport (LPQ; 071-212856) and Pakse International Airport (PKZ; 031-212844). Lao Airlines is the national carrier and monopolises the majority of flights in and out of the country, though many code-share with some of the following:
Almost any travel agency in Asia can book you a flight to Laos. STA Travel is always a safe bet, and has branches in Bangkok (02-236 0262; www.sta travel.co.th), Singapore (6737 7188; www.statravel.com.sg) and Japan (03 5391 2922; www.statravel.co.jp) among others. In Hong Kong try Concorde Travel (2375 2232; www.concorde-travel.com).
Lao Airlines flies between Siem Reap and Vientiane (US$110, 2½ hours) five times a week, stopping at Pakse (US$70, 50 minutes). From November to March there are two more flights between Siem Reap and Pakse that continue to Luang Prabang (US$135). Bangkok Airways should also be flying between Pakse and Siem Reap by the time you read this.
Some people save money by flying from Bangkok to Udon Thani in Thailand and then carrying on by road to Nong Khai, over the Friendship Bridge to Vientiane. Udon Thani is 55km south of Nong Khai and Bangkok–Udon tickets on Thai Air Asia (www.airasia.com) start at about 1300B.
There are 10 flights a week between Vientiane and Hanoi – three on Lao Airlines (US$115, one hour) and the rest on Vietnam Airlines for slightly more. Lao Airlines also flies between Hanoi and Luang Prabang (US$112, one hour).
Qantas, THAI, British Airways and several other airlines fly to Bangkok from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, with discount fares starting at about A$900 return (once you’ve added in all the taxes). For online bookings also check www.travel.com.au.
Flight Centre (133 133; www.flightcentre.com.au)
STA Travel (1300 733 035; www.statravel.com.au)
Europeans can pick up discounted seats from about €550. Middle Eastern airlines are usually cheapest. The following agents are worth a look:
Lastminute (www.lastminute.com) Click through to various national sites.
Nouvelles Frontières (0825-000 747; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr)
OTU Voyages (01-5582 3232; www.otu.fr) Specialising in student and youth travellers.
STA Travel (01805-456 422; www.statravel.de)
Voyages Wasteels (www.wasteels.fr)
It’s not hard to find a bargain from London to Bangkok, with discount prices starting at about £350. Gulf Air, Emirates, KLM and Lufthansa are worth looking at. Check the weekend broadsheet newspapers, Time Out, the Evening Standard and TNT magazine for offers.
North-South Travel (01245-608 291; www.northsouthtravel.co.uk) Donates some profit to projects in the developing world.
STA Travel (0871-230 0040; www.statravel.co.uk)
Trailfinders (0845-058 5858; www.trailfinders.co.uk)
Travel Bag (0870-814 4441, toll free 0800 082 5000; www.travelbag.co.uk)
Fares from New York to Bangkok range widely, with the cheapest (via places like Moscow) starting at about US$850 return in the low season. From Los Angeles it’s cheaper, and more direct, with airlines like Philippine Airlines, China Airlines, Eva Air and American Airlines. Nondiscounted fares are several hundred dollars more. The following are good for online comparisons and bookings:
Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com)
STA Travel (www.sta.com)