The transportation system in Laos is not as developed as in other SEA countries. Part of the road network is in poor conditions, there is no train network and there are not many airports. So travelling can be slow, tiresome and even difficult (especially in the rainy season).
There are 3 international airports: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Pakse. In addition there are domestic airports in Savannakhet, Phonsaven, Oudamxay, Luang Namtha and Huay Xai.
For domestic flights you can either use the country’s airline Laos Airlines (www.laoairlines.com) or the rebranded Lao Skyway (www.laoskyway.com). I flew with Lao Airlines before – good service and clean plane. I would recommend them.
Some other airlines flying to Laos are Vietnam Airlines, Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways. Low cost carriers are not flying into Laos, but you could fly to a Thai city near the border and take the bus (i.e. Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhom Phanom etc).
Travelling by bus the most common way to travel through Laos – you can reach every town. It is much cheaper than flying, and you can also enjoy some stunning scenery passing by. However, the road condition in some parts of Laos are not very good, so it can be smooth on the new highways, and very bumpy on some older roads. Some roads can also be a challenge for those with a weak stomach – for example the old longer road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng – it goes up and down with lots of curves.
There are three types of buses available – minibuses, normal buses and VIP buses. The minibus is probably the worst option. It is not uncommon that the minibus is fully packed, often bags stored between seats, meaning not a lot of leg space. This can be especially challenging for longer rides. Normal buses offer more leg space, but not always in the best conditions, sometimes with broken seats. The VIP is the best option. Especially the newer ones offer comfortable seats, A/C and even toilets. So overall it is worth it to double check what bus you would get. But one warning – not always the information is correct. I took a VIP bus from Thakhek to Pakse. Unfortunately the A/C turned out to be Lao A/C, meaning you had to open the window to get cool air. But this is part of the fun I guess.
Prices between the different type if buses are not that much. Here are examples of some of the bus rides I took
A more expensive alternative is hiring a car with a driver. The advantage is that the car can stop on the way to enjoy the scenery a bit more or if the stomach requires a break, and the ride is more comfortable. I never used a private hire so I cannot provide any advise about prices. Contact your hotel for a first quote.
Within cities a popular way of getting around is the songthaew – you will find them very often at the bus station waiting for tourists. The driver usually try to get as many people on it as possible (including luggage), but when negotiating a price you can make sure that it is not filled completely. Like in other SEA countries, it is important to negotiate – you will see that the price can drop quickly – even if you have to walk away (once the price dropped from 120.000 Kip to the 40.000 Kip I paid before). Unfortunately ofen this doesn’t work at bust stops further away from the cities – they know you have no alternative.
Using a motorbike is probably one of the best ways to explore parts of Laos – what can be better riding through some stunning areas while locals, especially kids, are waiving and shouting “Sabaidee” or “Hello, what is your name”. Nothing comes close to me enjoying a journey. In most places you find hotels or travel agents renting our scooters or even dirt bikes. Many places will ask for your passport as security, so it is up to you to negotiate if a copy is good enough. Prices vary greatly throughout Laos. Prices vary greatly- in Luang Namtha I paid 70.000 Kip, Thakhek 200.000 Kip and Pakse 60.000 Kip.
I did three motorbike journeys in Laos – the one day Luang Namtha Loop, the Thakhek Loop and the Bolaven Loop. My favourite was the Thakhek Loop due to the scenery and the feel of adventure riding on some dodgy roads.
When hiring a bike make sure you inspect the bike, and take pictures of any damage you spot – otherwise you run the risk of paying for a repair. Also read the contract – there are some agencies that will ask for the price of a new machine if you damage it in any way (and keep your passport). There are also an approach when a bike get stolen and you have to pay for the new bike. Apparently it happens very often when using a specific agency in Luang Prabang. It is rumoured that the agency Khamsay is behind the theft. So always park your bikes at the guided stops near any attraction, or buy an extra lock for the bike. When keeping the bike overnight ask the owner of the guesthouse to lock it inside – most places offer that anyway.
Finally, no one will ask for a valid driver licence. But consider that your travel insurance is void when you have an accident and have no valid licence.
One of the most spectacular ways to travel in Laos is by boat. Probably the most famous journey is the two day slow boat journey between Hua Xai and Luang Prabang. It is great to sit back, relax and enjoying the great scenery. This can be done in simple long boats for 240.000 Kip or for over 800.000 in a luxurious boat. Until a few years ago you could also travel on the Nam Ou river and the Mekong between Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang. Unfortunately a dam has been build, and you can only do this trip in two stages. However, the nice one hour journey between Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi is still available – or even heading further north. There are also some nice journeys in the south, for example in Pakse and Champasak, and around the 4.000 islands. For me doing a boat trip while in Loas is a must-do.