Getting around on Laos’s transport system is an adventure in itself, what with its barely seaworthy boats, aged jalopies with hard seats and hot, crowded buses. Don’t be fooled by maps and distance charts – seemingly short rides can take hours, as tired vehicles slow to a crawl in their uphill battle against muddy, mountainous roads. Take heart though, in knowing that many visitors have their best encounters with the people of Laos amid the adversity of a bad bus ride.
Laos’s road system has improved significantly over the last few years. Roads have been upgraded, and getting around is easier than ever, though often still challenging. Keep in mind, however, that a newly graded and paved road this year may get no maintenance, and after just two or even one rainy seasons the road will revert to being nothing but a potholed track. Some roads are only built to last a season, being washed away each year by the monsoon.
The country’s main thoroughfare is Route 13, which stretches from Luang Prabang to the Cambodian border, passing through Vientiane, Savannakhet and Pakse. Route 13 sees a steady flow of bus traffic, and it’s usually possible to flag down a vehicle during daylight hours provided it’s not already full. Off Route 13, you’ll encounter a wide range of road conditions – from freshly paved carriageways to bone-rattling, potholed tracks. With the improved road conditions, buses have largely supplanted river travel, the traditional means of getting around.
You only need to travel for a week or two in Laos before you realize that timetables are irrelevant: planes, buses and boats leave on a whim and estimated times of arrival are pointless. Wherever you go in Laos, the driver does not seem to be in any hurry to arrive.
Visitors hoping to see rural Laos can expect hours of arduous, bone-crunching travel on the country’s motley fleet of lumbering jitter-boxes. Buses link only larger towns, and on many routes can be few and far between, a fact which makes a number of attractions, such as ruins and waterfalls, difficult to reach. Even when there is transport, you may find that the limited bus timetable will allow you to get to a particular site, but not make a same-day return trip – something of a problem given the dearth of accommodation in far-flung spots. In the rainy season, some unpaved roads dissolve into rivers of mud, slowing buses to a crawl or swallowing them whole. Even vehicles in reasonably good condition make painfully slow progress, as drivers combat mountainous roads and make frequent (and at times long) stops to pick up passengers, load goods and even haggle for bargains at roadside stalls.
Ordinary buses provide cheap transport between major towns and link provincial hubs with their surrounding districts. Cramped, overloaded and designed for the smaller Lao frame, these buses are profound tests of endurance and patience. Seats often have either torn cushions or are nothing more than a hard plank. Luggage – ranging from incontinent roosters to sloshing buckets of fish and the inevitable fifty-kilo sacks of rice – is piled in every conceivable space, filling up the aisle and soaring skywards from the roof. Breakdowns are commonplace and often require a lengthy roadside wait as the driver repairs the bus on a lonely stretch of road. Typical fares are of the order of 100,000K for Vientiane to Luang Prabang or Pakse, though fares could rise rapidly if fuel prices increase.
Operating out of Vientiane, a fleet of blue, government-owned buses caters mostly to the capital’s outlying districts, although it does provide a service to towns as far north as Vang Vieng and as far south as Pakse. While newer than most vehicles in Laos, these Japanese- and Korean-built buses are not air-conditioned and have cramped seats, a situation that worsens as rural passengers pile in. Buses plying remote routes tend to be in worse shape: aged jalopies cast off from Thailand or left behind by the Russians, which reach new lows in terms of discomfort and are even more prone to breakdowns. These vehicles range in style from buses in the classic sense of the word to souped-up tourist vans. Converted Russian flat-bed trucks, once the mainstay of travel in Laos, still operate in remote areas.
In most instances, tickets should be bought from the town’s bus station – it’s best to arrive with plenty of time in order to buy your ticket and grab a seat, especially in towns that are busy transport hubs, such as Oudomxai. In larger towns with an established tourist infrastructure, you’ll often be able to buy your tickets from a travel agent; this will usually be a little more expensive, but will include transport to the bus station. In more rural areas, you’ll pay for your ticket once on board.
At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find air-conditioned VIP buses, such as the daily $15 coach service from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. These services leave from their own private “stations”, and reservations, which can be made through guesthouses and travellers’ cafés, are recommended.
Additionally, you’ll find a number of van and minibus services in the more touristy towns, connecting to other popular tourist destinations, such as Vang Vieng and Si Phan Don. Prices for these services are higher than for the local bus alternative and the journey time will usually be a fair bit quicker, though you may find yourself just as crammed in as on a regular bus, and of course you miss out on the opportunity to meet local people. The situation changes rapidly at this end of the market, so check with travel agents for the latest information on routes and bookings. It’s also worth shopping around if booking minibus tickets – regardless of how much you pay for your ticket, and where you buy it, you’re likely to end up on the same minibus.
Reliable timetables only exist in regional hubs like Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet; elsewhere it’s best to go to the bus station the night before you plan to travel to find out the schedule for the next day. Most departures are usually around 8 or 9am, and very few buses leave after midday. Many drivers will sit in the bus station long after their stated departure time, revving their engines in an attempt to lure enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile.
In rural areas, away from the Mekong Valley, the bus network is often replaced by sawngthaews – converted pick-up trucks – into which drivers stuff as many passengers as they possibly can. Passengers are crammed onto two facing benches in the back (“sawngthaew” means “two rows”); latecomers are left to dangle off the back, with their feet on a running board, an experience that, on a bumpy road, is akin to inland windsurfing.
Sawngthaews also ply routes between larger towns and their satellite villages, a service for which they charge roughly the same amount as buses. They usually depart from the regular bus station, but will only leave when a driver feels he has enough passengers to make the trip worth his while. Some drivers try to sweat extra kip out of passengers by delaying departure. Your fellow passengers may agree to this, but most often they grudgingly wait. In some situations, you can save yourself a lot of trouble and waiting by getting a few fellow travellers together and flat-out hiring the driver to take you where you want to go; the fares being so ridiculously low as to make this quite affordable. To catch a sawngthaew in between stops, simply flag it down from the side of the road and tell the driver where you’re headed so he knows when to let you off. The fare is usually paid when you get off. If the driver is working without a fare collector, he will tend to stop on the outskirts of his final destination to collect fares.
City and town transport
With even the capital too small to support a local bus system, transport within Lao towns and cities is left to squadrons of motorized samlaw (literally, “three wheels”) vehicles, more commonly known as jumbos and tuk-tuks. Painted in primary reds, blues and yellows, the two types of samlaw look alike and both function as shared taxis, with facing benches in the rear to accommodate four or five passengers. Jumbos are the original Lao vehicle, a home-made three-wheeler consisting of a two-wheeled carriage soldered to the front half of a motorcycle, a process best summed up by the name for the vehicle used in the southern town of Savannakhet – Skylab (pronounced “sakai-laeb”), after the doomed space station that fell to earth, piece by piece, in the late 1980s. Tuk-tuks, offspring of the three-wheeled taxis known for striking terror in Bangkok pedestrians, are really just bigger, sturdier jumbos, the unlikely product of some Thai factory, which take their name from their incessantly sputtering engines. Lao tend to refer to these vehicles interchangeably.
Although most northern towns are more than manageable on foot, the Mekong towns tend to sprawl, so you’ll find tuk-tuks particularly useful for getting from a bus station into the centre of town. To flag down a tuk-tuk, wave your hand, palm face down and parallel to the ground. Tell the driver where you’re going, bargain the price and pay at the end.
Tuk-tuks are also on hand for inner-city journeys. Payment is usually per person, according to the distance travelled and your bargaining skills. Rates vary from town to town and are prone to fluctuate in step with rising petrol prices, but figure on paying around 5000K per kilometre. In some towns, tuk-tuks run set routes to the surrounding villages and leave from a stand, usually near the market, once full. Chartering tuk-tuks is also a good way to get to sites within 10 to 15km of a city.
With the country possessing roughly 4600km of navigable waterways, including stretches of the Mekong, Nam Ou, Nam Ngum, Xe Kong and seven other arteries, it’s no surprise to learn that rivers are the ancient highways of mountainous Laos. Road improvements in recent years, however, have led to the decline of river travel between many towns, with buses and sawngthaews replacing the armada of boats that once plied regular routes.
The main Mekong route that remains links Houayxai to Luang Prabang. Since the upgrading of Route 13, boats very rarely ply the stretches of river between Luang Prabang, Pakse and Si Phan Don. Aside from the larger, so-called “slow boats” on the Mekong routes, smaller passenger boats still cruise up the wide Nam Ou River (Muang Khoua–Hat Sa), the Nam Tha (Luang Namtha to Pak Tha), and a few others, provided water levels are high enough.
Slow boats and passenger boats
The diesel-chugging cargo boats that lumber up and down the Mekong routes are known as “slow boats” (heua sa). Originally hammered together from ill-fitting pieces of wood, and powered by a jury-rigged engine that needs to be coaxed along by an on-board mechanic, these boats once offered one of Asia’s last great travel adventures, but you’ll need to speak Lao to arrange a trip. Much easier is to take advantage of the passenger boats with seating for a couple of dozen people, which have been introduced on the river journey most popular with Western visitors, namely Houayxai to Luang Prabang.
On smaller rivers, river travel is by long, narrow boats powered by a small outboard engine. Confusingly, these are also known as “slow boats”, although, unlike the big Mekong cargo boats, they only hold eight people and never attempt major Mekong routes. They never have a fixed schedule and only leave if and when there are enough passengers.
Due to the casual nature of river travel in Laos, the best way to deal with uncertain departures is to simply show up early in the morning and head down to the landing and ask around. Be prepared for contradictory answers to questions regarding price, departure and arrival time, and even destination. Given variations in currents and water levels and the possibility of breakdowns and lengthy stops to load passengers and cargo, no one really knows how long a trip will take. On occasion, boats don’t make their final destination during the daytime. If you’re counting on finding a guesthouse and a fruit shake at the end of the journey, such unannounced stopovers can take you out of your comfort zone, as passengers are forced to sleep in the nearest village or aboard the boat. It’s also a good idea to bring extra water and food just in case.
The northern Mekong and Nam Ou services (Houayxai–Pakbeng–Luang Prabang, and Luang Prabang–Nong Khia–Muang Ngoi–Muang Khoua–Hat Sa) are somewhat better managed, with tickets sold from a wooden booth or office near the landing (buy tickets on the day of departure). Fares are generally posted, but foreigners pay significantly more than locals. Always arrive early in the morning to get a seat. Southern Mekong services (Pakse–Champasak–Don Khong) have now all but stopped thanks to the improved state of Route 13, and most trips south now combine a bus journey along this road with a quick ferry ride across the water.
Travelling by river in Laos can be dangerous and reports of boats sinking are not uncommon. The Mekong has some particularly tricky stretches, with narrow channels threading through rapids and past churning whirlpools. The river can be particularly rough late in the rainy season, when the Mekong swells and uprooted trees and other debris are swept into the river.
On both the Mekong and its tributaries, speedboats (heua wai) are a faster but more expensive alternative to slow boats. Connecting towns along the Nam Ou and the Mekong from Vientiane to the Chinese border, these five-metre-long terrors are usually powered by a 1200cc Toyota car engine and can accommodate up to eight passengers.
Donning a crash helmet and being catapulted up the Mekong River at 50km an hour may not sound like most people’s idea of relaxed holiday travel, but if you’re up for it, speedboats can shave hours or days off a river journey and give you a thrilling spin at the same time. It’s by no means safe, of course, although captains swear by their navigational skills. The boats skim the surface of churning whirlpools and slalom through rapids sharp enough to turn the wooden hull into toothpicks.
Speedboats have their own landings in Vientiane, Thadua, Paklai, Luang Prabang, Pakbeng and Houayxai, and depart when full. Seating is incredibly cramped, so you may want to consider paying for the price of two seats. Crash helmets are handed out before journeys – to spare your hearing from the overpowering screech of the engine. Although the roar of the engine is less annoying on board than it is from the banks, consider bringing along ear plugs. For safety’s sake, insist on being given a life jacket to wear before paying.
Tickets cost as much as two to three times what you might pay to take a slow boat: the journey from Luang Prabang to Pakbeng, for example, is around $12. Speedboats can also be chartered for around $50 per hour – Luang Prabang to Phongsali, for example, costs around $200, Luang Prabang to Houayxai $100.
Clunky metal car ferries and pirogues – dug-out wooden skiffs propelled by poles, paddles or tiny engines – are both useful means of fording rivers in the absence of a bridge. Both leave when they have a sufficient number of passengers and usually charge 3000–5000K, unless you’re taking a vehicle across, in which case you can expect to pay 7000–10,000K. If you don’t want to wait, pirogues are always open for hire. In the outback, fishermen can usually be persuaded to ferry you across to the opposite bank for a small sum.
The government-owned Lao Airlines (whttp://www.laoairlines.com), the country’s only domestic carrier, once had a dubious safety record. These days, however, standards are up and the airline is on a par with other regional carriers. Domestic routes have diversified in recent years, with destinations like Oudomxay and Luang Namtha now well connected with Vientiane.
You’ll need to remain flexible, though reliability increases on key routes: Vientiane–Luang Prabang, Vientiane–Pakse and Vientiane–Savannkhet. Given the popularity of such routes in the peak season it’s even wise to book ahead. On other routes, you may find it better to reconfirm the departure of your flight by stopping by the Lao Airlines office.
Sample one-way fares are Vientiane to Luang Prabang $82; Vientiane to Savannakhet $104; Vientiane to Oudomxay $140; Vientiane to Luang Namtha $150.
Vehicle and bike rental
Renting a private vehicle is expensive, but is sometimes the only way you’ll be able to get to certain spots. Self-drive is an option, and cars can be rented from a couple of agencies in Vientiane only. However, it’s usually easier and cheaper to hire a car and driver. Tour agencies will rent out air-conditioned vans and 4WD pick-up trucks as well as provide drivers. Prices are inflated by the rates paid by UN organizations, and can be as high as $80–100 per day, sometimes more if you’re hiring a car to head upcountry from Vientiane. When settling on a price, it’s important to clarify who is responsible for what: check who pays for the driver’s food and lodging, fuel and repairs, and be sure to ask what happens in case of a major breakdown or accident.
One of the best ways to explore the countryside is to rent a motorbike. Unfortunately, this is only an option in tourist-friendly places like Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Thakhek and Pakse, and even then you’re often limited to smaller bikes, usually 100cc step-throughs such as the Honda Dream. Rental prices for the day are generally $8–10, depending on the age and condition of the bike. More powerful 125cc dirt bikes suitable for cross-country driving are available only in Vientiane and cost $20 a day.
A licence is not needed, but you’ll be asked to leave your passport as a deposit and may be required to return the bike by dark. Insurance is not available, so it’s a good idea to make sure your travel insurance covers you for any potential accidents.
Before zooming off, be sure to check the bike thoroughly for any scratches and damaged parts and take it for a test run to make sure the vehicle is running properly. As far as equipment goes, a helmet offers essential protection, although few rental places will have one to offer you; bear in mind it’s illegal to ride without a helmet. Sunglasses are essential in order to fend off the glare of the tropical sun and keep dust and bugs out of your eyes. Proper shoes, long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt are all worthwhile additions to your biking outfit and will provide a thin layer of protection if you take a spill.
Bicycles are available in most major tourist centres; guesthouses, souvenir shops and a few tourist-oriented restaurants may keep a small stable of Thai- or Chinese-made bikes (though rarely mountain bikes) to rent out for $1–2 per day.
Although less spontaneous and considerably more expensive than independent travel, organized tours are worth looking into if you have limited time or prefer to have someone smooth over the many logistical difficulties of travelling in Laos. Although the government encourages travellers to visit Laos through an authorized tour company, the tours aren’t bogged down in political rhetoric and guides tend to be easy-going and informative.
About a dozen tour companies have sprung up in Vientiane, all offering similar tours in roughly the same price range, although it never hurts to shop around and bargain. A typical multi-day package might include a private cruise down the Mekong River on a slow boat operated by the tour company, with guided day-tours around Luang Prabang and other towns. While some tours include accommodation, meals and entry fees, others don’t, so check what you’re getting before paying.
Organized adventure tours are rapidly gaining popularity in Laos. These can be single- or multi-day programmes and usually involve hill-tribe trekking or river kayaking, or a combination of both. Rafting tours are also available and organized rock climbing is just starting to take off. The main centres for adventure tours are Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha and Muang Sing.
All Laos’s tour companies are authorized by the Lao National Tourism Administration, which ensures that you won’t be dealing with a fly-by-night organization.
Guides are generally flexible about adjusting the itinerary, but if you want more freedom, an alternative is to set up your own custom-made tour by gathering a group of people and renting your own vehicle plus driver.