Flag of Laos

Getting around in Laos

Not all dusty roads and crowded buses

Small and mountainous, carved with strong flowing rivers and berated by annual monsoons, travelling in Laos is sure but slow. Don't be misled by short distances on Google Earth -- getting around in Laos takes time, and usually more than you may have planned. That said, while the transport network (aside from flying) is slow, it is comprehensive. So unless you're planning on visiting Hmong in the jungle around Long Tien, you should be able to get just about anywhere you want easily and affordably.

Plane

There are two Lao airlines operating in Laos -- the larger national carrier, Lao Airlines and a small, quite new airline, Lao Air. The former flies both international and domestic routes, the latter domestic only.

If you plan to fly domestically, chances are you'll be on a Lao Airlines flight. Their domestic routes include:
Vientiane - Luang Prabang - Vientiane
Vientiane - Pakse - Vientiane
Vientiane - Phonsavan - Vientiane
Vientiane - Udomxai - Vientiane
Vientiane - Huay Xai - Vientiane
Vientiane - Luang Nam Tha - Vientiane
Vientiane - Savannakhet - Vientiane
Luang Prabang - Pakse - Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang - Phonsavan - Luang Prabang
The full domestic timetable can be found here.

Lao Air's route set is far more limited:
Vientiane - Sam Neua - Vientiane
Vientiane - Phongsali - Vientiane
Vientiane - Sainyabuli - Vientiane
The full domestic timetable can be found here.

Local buses and minibuses

Buses in Laos are slow -- very slow. They're slow for a number of reasons. They're slow because they're old, because the roads are narrow, because they stop very frequently to pick up passengers and because they stop all the time to let people pee. They are cheap though, so the adage that you get what you pay for certainly holds true here.

Minibuses also ply the more popular tourist legs, such as Vientiane to Vang Vieng and onwards to Luang Prabang, but the majority of routes are served by the larger, slower buses.

Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Udomxai, Savannakhet and Pakse are all transport hubs and in many cases the city will have more then one bus station, with different stations serving different destinations.

There are also through international buses -- notably the following:
Vientiane - Bangkok
Savannakhet - Hue
Vientiane - Hanoi
Luang Prabang - Hanoi

Automobile

Private car hire, generally with driver, can be arranged through any travel agent in Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Unless you have very specialised needs (or are travelling with your family in tow) private car hire is not a cheap way to explore Laos.

Motorbike

Larger enduro-style dirt bikes can be hired long-term from some travel agents. Prices are reasonable, but be sure to carefully check the bike, and whatever you do, do not use the chain and padlock provided by the shop to lock up the bike at night -- use your own.

Bicycle

Given how hilly Laos is, it is surprising just how popular the place is with cyclists. Most nearly every town in Laos will have some lodgings, so you shouldn't struggle for a room. Things to pack include a good supply of inner tubes and patch kits, and of course, your bike -- you will need to bring your own.

Boat

As the road network has steadily improved, boat services have dropped off drastically as it is far cheaper to transport cargo, including people, by road. As it stands, the only boat routes still operating are those popular with tourists. The Huay Xai - Pak Beng - Luang Prabang trip, the Pak Tha - Luang Nam Tha route and the Luang Prabang - Nong Khiaw - Muang Khua - Hat Sa route are the most popular. Less so are Xieng Kok - Huay Xai and Sekong - Attapeu.

Despite the disappearing routes, travel by boat in Laos is highly recommended, even if your only option is the admittedly very crowded Huay Xai to Luang Prabang route. For trip reports specific to that route, see the Laos slow boat thread on the Travelfish forum.



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