Transport in Laos is generally very good value, but journeys can take a lot longer than distances on a map might suggest.
Air Laos has an extensive domestic flight network and this can save considerable time on a short visit.
Boat Rivers are the lifeblood of Laos, making boat journeys an important element of the transport network.
Bus Laos has some smart buses operating on major routes out of Vientiane, but venture into remote areas and vehicles are as old as the hills.
Car For those with a more flexible budget, a rented car with driver is the smoothest way to cover a lot of ground in a limited amount of time.
Domestic flights to smaller airports suffer fairly frequent cancellations due to fog and, in March, heavy smoke during the slash-and-burn season. 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 your flight is still departing a day or two before.
Airlines in Laos
Lao Airlines (www.laoairlines.com) The main airline in Laos handling domestic flights, including between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Luang Nam Tha, Pakse, Phonsavan, Savannakhet and Udomxai.
Lao Skyway (www.laoskyway.com) A newer domestic airline with flights from Vientiane to Udomxai, Luang Prabang, Huay Xai, Phonsavan, Luang Namtha, Phongsali and Sam Neua. Note that some services such as flights to Phongsali and Sam Neua do not appear on the airline website and can only be booked via the Lao Skyway offices.
With the exception of the Lao Airlines' offices in major cities, where credit cards are accepted for both international and domestic tickets, it is necessary to pay cash in US dollars if not booking online.
The stunningly beautiful roads and light, relatively slow traffic in most towns and on most highways make Laos arguably the best country for cycling in Southeast Asia.
Simple single-speed bicycles can be hired in most places that see a decent number of tourists, usually costing about 20,000K per day. Better mountain bikes will cost from 30,000K to 80,000K per day.
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 navigable year-round between Huay Xai in the north and Savannakhet in the south, though new dams make this increasingly difficult without changing boats. Smaller rivers accommodate a range of smaller boats, from dugout canoes to 'bomb boats' made from war detritus.
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.
Types of Boat
Following are some of the héua (boats) that you may encounter in your adventures along Laos' many waterways:
Héua sáh (double-deck slowboats) Big, old boats; almost extinct.
Héua dooan (express boat) Roofed cargo boats, common on the Huay Xai–Luang Prabang route. Still slow, but faster than double-deck boats.
Héua wái (speedboat) These resemble a surfboard with a car engine strapped to the back: very fast, exhilarating, deafeningly loud, uncomfortable and rather dangerous. Not recommended.
Héua hăhng nyáo (longtail boat) Boats with the engine gimbal-mounted on the stern; found all over Laos.
Héua pái (row boat) Essentially a dugout; common in Si Phan Don.
River Ferries (Slow Boats) & River Taxis
The slowboat between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang is the most popular river trip in Laos. It is still a daily event and relatively cheap at about 250,000K or US$30 per person for the two-day journey. From Huay Xai, these basic boats are often packed, while travelling in the other direction from Luang Prabang there seems to be more room. Passengers sit, eat and sleep on the wooden decks. The toilet (if there is one) is an enclosed hole in the deck at the back of the boat.
For shorter river trips, such as Luang Prabang to the Pak Ou Caves, it's usually best to hire a river taxi. The héua hăhng nyáo (longtail boats) are the most common and cost around US$10 an hour.
Along the upper Mekong River between Huay Xai and Vientiane, 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$30 per hour, but some ply regular routes so the cost can be shared among passengers. They are, however, rather dangerous and we recommend taking one only if absolutely necessary.
With public boat routes becoming increasingly hard to find, tour companies are offering kayaking and rafting trips on some of the more scenic stretches of river. The best places to organise these are Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, Vang Vieng, Tha Khaek and Pakse.
Long-distance public transport in Laos is either by bus or sŏrngtăaou (literally 'two rows'), which are converted pickups or trucks with benches down either side. Private operators have established VIP buses on some busier routes, offering faster and more luxurious air-con services that cost a little more than normal buses. Many guesthouses can book tickets for a small fee.
Sŏrngtăaou usually service shorter routes within a given province, though these vehicles are slowly being phased out across Laos and replaced by minivans. Many decent-sized villages still have at least one sŏrngtăaou, which will run to the provincial capital and back most days.
Car & Motorcycle
Driving in Laos is easier than it looks. 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 out of Vientiane, Vang Vieng or Tha Khaek is becoming increasingly popular among travellers.
Bring Your Own Vehicle
Bringing a vehicle into Laos is easy enough if you have proof of ownership and a carnet. Simply get the carnet stamped at any international border and there is no extra charge or permit required.
As Thailand doesn't recognise the carnet system, an International Transport Permit, known in Thailand as the lêm sĕe môoang (purple book), is required. This is available at Nong Khai's Land Transport Office. Bring your vehicle's official registration book and tax receipts, passport and an international driving permit or Thai driver's licence.
On the Lao side you'll need all the documents mentioned above and will also need to arrange Lao vehicle insurance (about 300B for a week).
Exiting into Thailand or Cambodia is fairly hassle-free if your papers are in order. Vietnam is a different story and it is probably best not to even consider a crossing. Heading to China it's virtually impossible to drive a vehicle larger than a bicycle across the border.
Officially at least, to drive in Laos a valid international driving permit is required. If you're only renting motorbikes you'll never be asked for any sort of licence.
Fuel & Spare Parts
At the time of research fuel cost about US$1 a litre for petrol, slightly less for diesel. Fuel for motorcycles is available from drums or Beerlao bottles in villages across the country, although prices are almost always higher than at service stations. Diesel is available in most towns. It's best to fuel up in bigger towns at big-brand service stations because the quality of fuel can be poor in remote areas.
Spare parts for four-wheeled vehicles are expensive and difficult to find, even in Vientiane.
Chinese- and Japanese-made 100cc and 110cc step-through motorbikes can be hired for approximately 40,000K to 120,000K per day in most large centres and some smaller towns, although the state of the bikes can vary greatly. No licence is required, though you will have to leave your passport as collateral. Try to get a Japanese bike if travelling any distance out of town. In Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Tha Khaek and Pakse, 250cc dirt bikes are available from around US$25 to US$50 per day.
It's possible to hire a self-drive vehicle, but when you consider that a driver usually costs little more, takes responsibility for damage and knows where he's going, it seems less appealing. Costs run from US$40 to US$100 per day, depending on the route.
Vientiane-based Avis-Budget is a reliable option for car hire.
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.
While the overall condition of roads is poor, work over the last couple of decades has left most of the main roads in reasonable shape.
Elsewhere, unsurfaced roads are the rule. Laos has about 23,000km of classified roads and less than a quarter are sealed. Unsurfaced roads are particularly tricky in the wet season when many routes are impassable to all but 4WD vehicles and motorbikes, while in the dry season the clouds of dust kicked up by passing traffic makes travel highly uncomfortable, especially in a sŏrngtăaou or by motorbike. Bring a face mask. Wet or dry, Laos is so mountainous that relatively short road trips can take forever.
Try to avoid driving at dusk and after dark: cows, buffaloes, chickens and dogs, not to mention thousands of people, head for home on the unlit roads, turning them into a dangerous obstacle course.
The single most important rule to driving in Laos is to expect the unexpected. Driving is on the right side, but it's not unusual to see Lao drivers go the wrong way down the left lane before crossing over to the right, a potentially dangerous situation if you're not ready for it. At intersections it's normal to turn right without looking left.
There are few more liberating travel experiences than renting a motorbike and setting off; stopping where you want, when you want. The lack of traffic and stunningly beautiful roads make Laos one of the best places in the region to do it. There are, however, a few things worth knowing before you hand over your passport as collateral to rent a bike.
The bike Price and availability mean that the vast majority of travellers rent Chinese 110cc bikes. No 110cc bike was designed to be used like a dirt bike, however – Japanese bikes deal with the roads better and are worth the extra few dollars a day.
The odometer Given that many roads have no kilometre stones and turn-offs are often unmarked, it's worth getting a bike with a working odometer. Most bike shops can fix an odometer in about 10 minutes for a few dollars. Money well spent, as long as you remember to note the distance when you start.
The gear Don't leave home without sunscreen, a hat, a plastic raincoat or poncho, a bandanna and sunglasses. Even the sealed roads in Laos get annoyingly dusty, so these last two are vital. A helmet is essential (ask for one if they don't offer), as is wearing trousers and shoes, lest you wind up with the ubiquitous leg burn from the exhaust.
The problems Unless you're very lucky, something will go wrong. Budget some time for it.
The responsibility In general, you can ride a motorbike in Laos without a licence, a helmet or any safety gear whatsoever, but for all this freedom you must take all the responsibility. If you have a crash, there won't be an ambulance to pick you up, and when you get to the hospital, facilities will be basic. Carrying a basic medical kit and phone numbers for hospitals in Thailand and your travel insurance provider is a good idea. The same goes for the bike. If it really dies you can't just call the company and get a replacement. You'll need to load it onto the next pick-up or sŏrngtăaou and take it somewhere they can fix it. Don't abandon it by the road, or you'll have to pay for another one.
Although most town centres are small enough to walk around, even relatively small settlements often place their bus stations several kilometres out of town.
Vientiane is the only city with a network of local buses, though, with the exception of a few key recommended routes, they're not much use to travellers.
Sŏrngtăaou, Jumbo, Săhm-Lór, Sakai-làep & Tuk-tuk
The various pick-ups and three-wheeled taxis found in Vientiane and provincial capitals have different names depending on where you are. Largest are the sŏrngtăaou, which double as buses in some areas and as local buses around bigger towns. Larger three-wheelers are called jąmbǫh (jumbo) and can hold four to six passengers on two facing seats. In Vientiane they are sometimes called tuk-tuks as in Thailand (though traditionally in Laos this refers to a slightly larger vehicle than the jumbo). These three-wheeled conveyances are also labelled simply taak-see (taxi) or, usually for motorcycle sidecar-style vehicles, săhm-lór (three-wheels). The old-style bicycle săhm-lór (pedicab), known as a cyclo elsewhere in Indochina, is an endangered species in Laos.
Vientiane has a handful of taxis that are used by foreign business people and the occasional tourist, while in other cities a taxi of sorts can be arranged. They can be hired by the trip, by the hour or by the day. Typical all-day hire within a town or city costs between US$35 and US$50, subject to negotiations.
Currently Laos has just 3km of railway line connecting Nong Khai in Thailand to Vientiane Prefecture via the Friendship Bridge. Plans are underway to extend this line to central Vientiane, and eventually connect with a Chinese-funded railway line from Kunming to Vientiane via Luang Prabang. This high-speed train service, with speeds exceeding 300km/h, is currently under construction and due to be completed around 2022.