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Getting around in Laos

Laos is a rather small country and you might think it is very easy to explore. It is actually not that simple, especially if you come for the first time and are not familiar with the local transport system.

Mountainous and narrow, carved with strong flowing rivers and berated by annual monsoons, travelling in Laos is sure but slow. Do not be misled by short distances on Google Earth. Getting around in Laos takes time and usually more than you may have initially planned. 

That said, despite being slow, the transport system in Laos is comprehensive. After reading this guide and all the tips to find the best transport options to suit you and your budget, you will be able to move across Laos as if you were in your home country!

Long distance road transport

Long-distance public transport in Laos is either by bus or minivans. In some areas, you can find pickups that are converted with benches down either side. These means of transports are often used by locals and backpackers to travel throughout the country cheap.

Bus

The bus network is quite developed in Laos with plenty of different routes, but traveling by bus used to be slow, uncomfortable and rather unsafe.

Nowadays, private operators have established VIP buses on some busier routes, offering faster and more luxurious air-con services. These obviously cost a little more than normal buses but really worth the extra bucks. Many guesthouses can book tickets for a small fee.

Many routes also offer overnight buses usually leaving at around 8pm and arriving the next day early morning at around 6am. This way, you can for instance travel from Luang Prabang to Vientiane for less than US $15. Moreover, you save the money of a hotel room. 

You can also stop in some cities along the way, but you will have to deal with middle of the night arrival. Also note that most bus stations are located on the outskirts of the cities and you will likely need to take a tuk-tuk to reach your hotel downtown.

Note that due to poor road conditions, you might not sleep very well. Long distance buses are clearly not suitable for everyone, but it is a great option for those traveling on a budget and having time. 

Minivans

Minivans are slightly more comfortable and faster than bus since they can overtake other vehicles quite easily. However, expect departure time to not be exact since they usually wait for the minivan being full before departing. Note that minivans departure point is sometimes situated at a different station than the main bus station which can be confusing.

Surviving long-distance road trips

Heed the following points and your long-distance road trip will, possibly, be more comfortable and enjoyable:

  • Bring some snacks and drinks with you, it is a good way to kill time. If you forget, do not worry as the bus is going to make several stops along the way where you can grab some food.
  • Take a jacket or blanket as temperatures can drop substantially at night; air-con can also make it chilly.
  • Consider earplugs and an eye mask as well if you plan to grab a little shut-eye between toilet stops.
  • Try not to become alarmed when you see how some local passengers hold their breath whenever a bus approaches a particularly dodgy-looking bridge.

Plane

For those who are on a tight schedule and want to avoid long buses journeys, you can consider traveling by air. The main cities are regularly served with several flights a day, enabling to reach any destination in the country within an hour. 

Note that domestic flights to smaller airports suffer frequent cancellations due to fog and, in March, heavy smoke during the slash-and-burn season. 

If you are planning to travel during the holiday season, it is best to book ahead as flights can fill fast. At other times, when flights are more likely to be cancelled, confirm the 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 Namtha, 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 and Luang Namtha. Overall service quality as well as prices tend to be a slightly lower. For budget travelers it is a good alternative.

Schedule and booking

Between the main destinations of Vientiane, Pakse and Luang Prabang, you will find frequent daily connections. Other airports have only one flight a day or, in the most remote places, just a couple of flights a week.

Except for 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 $.

There is a departure tax of US $10 on all international flights, included in the ticket price. However, there is no departure tax for domestic flights.

Online booking and e-ticketing is available with both domestic airlines. One-way fares are usually half the price of return fares and can be bought between six months and a day in advance. It is sometimes difficult to buy a ticket that departs from a town other than the one you are in. 

Boat

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 Sekong. 

The Mekong is the longest and most important route and is navigable year-round between Luang Prabang in the north and Savannakhet in the south, though new dams make this increasingly difficult. 

Whether it is on a tourist boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang or on a local boat you have rustled up in some remote corner of the country, it is still worth doing at least one river excursion while in Laos.

River ferries

The slow boat between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang is the most popular river trip in Laos. It is still 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.

For shorter river trips, such as Luang Prabang to the Pak Ou Caves, it is usually best to hire a river taxi. The 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 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 cost can be shared among passengers. They are, however, rather dangerous and we recommend taking one only if absolutely necessary.

Tours

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 organize these are Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Pakse.

For something a bit more luxurious, Mekong Cruises and Mekong River Cruises both offer multi-day cruises along the Mekong on refurbished river barges.

Local transport

Although most town centers are small enough to walk around, even relatively small settlements often place their bus stations several kilometers out of town.

Bus

Vientiane is the only city with a network of local buses, though, with the exception of a few key recommended routes, they are not much use to travelers.

Songthaew, Jumbo, Sam-Lo, and 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 Songthaew, which double as buses in some areas and as local buses around bigger towns.

Larger three-wheeler is called 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.

The old-style bicycle Sam Lo (pedicab), known as a cyclo elsewhere in Indochina, is an endangered species in Laos.

The main benefit of tuk-tuk is that they are rather easy to find at any time of the day and they represent a true local experience.  

The downside is that fares will be inflated if you are a tourist and do not speak Lao language. 

Despite still being affordable, you will likely pay twice as much as a local for the same journey. In order to get a fair deal, we advise you to visit our tips buy and bargain in Laos.

Taxi

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 region costs between US $40 to 60, for a private air-conditioned taxi. A one-hour ride in town or city will cost you around US $15. 

Relatively expensive considering the other means of transport in Laos, taxis can still be handy when you are in a hurry or for airport transfers when you have heavy bag or suitcase to carry.

Train

Currently Laos has just 3 km of railway line connecting Nong Khai 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, which is currently under construction.

Car and motorcycle

Driving in Laos is easier than it looks. Sure, the road infrastructure is pretty basic, but outside of the large centers there are so few vehicles that it is a doddle compared to Vietnam, China or Thailand.

Motorcyclists planning to ride through Laos should check out the wealth of information from local travel agency. Doing some sort of motorbike loop out of Vientiane, Vang Vieng or Thakhek is becoming increasingly popular among travelers.

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.

Coming from Thailand, which does not recognize the carnet system, an International Transport Permit, known in Thailand as purple book, is required. This is available at Nong Khai's Land Transport Office. You will need your vehicle's official registration book and tax receipts, your passport and an international driving permit.

On the Lao side you will need all the documents mentioned above and will also need to arrange Lao vehicle insurance which is about US $12 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 is virtually impossible to drive a vehicle larger than a bicycle across the border.

Fuel & spare parts

At the time of research fuel cost more than US $1 a liter 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 is 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.

Hire

Chinese and Japanese made 110cc step-through motorbikes can be hired for approximately US $5 to 12 per day in most large centers and some smaller towns, although the state of the bikes can vary greatly. 

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 50 per day. Do not forget to bring you passport as a collateral when renting such pricey motorbikes.

In general, you can ride a motorbike in Laos without a license, a helmet or any safety gear whatsoever, but for all this freedom you must take all the responsibility. If you have a crash, there will not be an ambulance to pick you up, and when you get to the hospital, facilities will be very basic. 

It is 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 is going, it looks risky. Costs run from US $40 to 100 per day, depending on the route.

Vientiane-based Avis-Budget is a reliable option for car hire. When it comes to motorbikes, try Drivenbyadventure or Fuark Motorcycle Hire in Vientiane.

Car-hire companies will provide insurance but be sure to check exactly what is covered. Note that most travel insurance policies do not cover use of motorcycles. 

Road conditions

While the overall condition of roads is poor, work over the last decade 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. Bring a face mask if you are riding a motorbike.

Wet or dry, Laos is so mountainous that relatively short road trips can take forever.

Road hazards

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.

Road rules

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 is normal to turn right without looking left.

Hitching in Laos

Public transport being so inexpensive, you should only have to resort to hitching in the most remote areas, in which case you’ll probably get a lift to the nearest bus or songthaew stop quite quickly. On routes served by buses and trains, hitching is not standard practice, but in other places locals do rely on regular passers-by (such as national park officials), and you can make use of this “service” too.

As with hitching anywhere in the world, think twice about hitching solo or at night, especially if you’re female. Like bus drivers, truck drivers are notorious users of amphetamines, so you may want to wait for a safer offer.

Online Planning

The website www.12go.asia and www.rome2rio.com have a very useful, and generally accurate, Plan Your Trip function that allows you to compare train, plane and bus travel (including costs and schedules) between cities in Laos.

Frequently asked questions

Q. Is Laos safe for tourist?

Yes, Laos is a safe place to visit, and many find it much safer than their hometowns in the west. There are occasional reports of petty theft, and the occasional bag snatching, but these can be avoided by being cautious with your belongings

Q. Is there UBER in Laos?

Uber/Grab etc aren't available in Laos but LocaLaos is providing similar services in Vientiane only. 

Q. When is the cheapest time to fly to Laos?

Logically, the cheapest time to fly to Laos is during the off-season from May until September. As there are not many tourists visiting the country, the airlines and hotels seem to offer promotion to attract more tourist and try to fill-up the plane. If you are ok with the heat and some sudden rain, this is the time for you.

According to cheapflights.com.au, the cheapest flights to Laos are usually found when departing on a Monday. The departure day with the highest cost is usually on a Friday.

Moreover, Laos flights can be made cheaper if you choose a flight at noon. Booking a flight in the morning will likely mean higher prices.

Simply follow this, sometimes you can have the promotion of 40-50% discount.

Q. Is it easy to drive in Laos?

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.

Check more about road condition, road rules, and road hazard HERE (above within this article)

NOT READY YET?

We believe you have the right to arm yourselves with as much information as possible before making any decision.

Check below our detailed tips & guide for every places to visit in Laos, recommendation regarding the inclusion in each theme you prefer, and what you can do based on the time frame you have.

PLACES TO VISIT IN Laos
Luang Prabang
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The ancient capital of Lane Xang Kingdom

Vang Vieng
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Vientiane
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The ancient capital of Lane Xang Kingdom

4000 Islands
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Phonsavan
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Nong Khiaw
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Laos PLANS BY TRAVEL THEME
Family
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The combination of fun and educational activities

Cycling
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Explore every corners of the destination on two wheels

Must-see
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Check out all the must-see places and things to do & see

Luxury
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Unique experience combined with top-notch services

Honeymoon
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Easy excursions combined with unique experience making the long-lasting romantic memories

Trek & Hike
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Explore the least visited destinations and unknown experience on foot

Cruise
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The combination of some must-see experience and the cruise tour along the mighty rivers

Unseen
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Reveal off-the-beatentrack routes, least explored destinations, and unknown tribe groups

Laos PLANS BY TIME FRAME
white-icon About 1 week
yellow-icon About 1 week
white-icon About 2 weeks
yellow-icon About 2 weeks
white-icon About 3 weeks
yellow-icon About 3 weeks
white-icon About 4 weeks
yellow-icon About 4 weeks
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SPECIAL Laos TIPS & TOURS

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Laos BLOG ARTICLES

On June 7th, 2012, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has eased travel recommendations for more than a hundred countries and territories, including Vietnam and Laos in the list of "safest to travel".

Time to travel now? We do not think so! Let's check more detail below.

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Bucolic Wat Phou (Wat Phu, Vat Phou, Vat Phu) sits in graceful decrepitude, and while it lacks the arresting enormity of Angkor in Cambodia, given its few visitors and more dramatic natural setting, these small Khmer ruins evoke a more soulful response. While some buildings are more than 1000 years old, most date from the 11th to 13th centuries. The site is divided into six terraces on three levels joined by a frangipani-bordered stairway ascending the mountain to the main shrine at the top.

Visit in the early morning for cooler temperatures (it gets really hot during the day, and on the lower levels there isn't any shade) and to capture the ruins in the best light. Make sure to grab a map at the entrance as there is little to no signage here.

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Buddhist Lent Day (Thailand Wan Khao Phansa, Laos Boun Khao Phansa) is the start of the three-month period during the rainy season when monks are required to remain in a particular place such as a monastery or temple grounds. Here, they will meditate, pray, study, and teach other young monks. In the past, monks were not even allowed to leave the temple, but today, most monks just refrain from traveling during this period. You will still see them out during the day.

It is said that monks started remaining immobile in a temple during this time because they wanted to avoid killing insects and harming farmland. Apparently, traveling monks were crossing through fields, thus destroying the crops of villagers and farmers. After catching wind of this, Buddha decided that in order to avoid damaging crops, hurting insects, or harming themselves during the rainy season, monks should remain in their temples during these three months.

Tired of reading, listen to our podcast below:

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Initiated in 2006 by an NGO working for years with the elephants, this annual meeting of Laos Elephant Festival became one of the big festivals of Laos, followed by thousands of Laotians who move to attend a number of exercises, parades, and elections of the most emblematic animal of Laos. Fifty elephants are walking around for 3 days in the streets of the small provincial town. A large market takes place for the occasion with all kind of local (or Thai) products.

Home to the country’s largest pachyderm population, Xayabouly Province is the natural choice to host this growing event that also aims to raise awareness about the need to protect the endangered Asian elephant, which has played such a vital role in Lao people’s livelihoods, culture and heritage.

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The highlight of the year in Wat Phu Champasak is the three-day Buddhist festival, held on Magha Puja day on the full moon of the third lunar month, usually in February. The ceremonies culminate on the full-moon day with an early-morning offering of alms to monks, followed that evening by a candlelit wéean téean (circumambulation) of the lower shrines.

Throughout the three days of the festival Lao visitors climb around the hillside, stopping to pray and leave offerings of flowers and incense. The festival is more commercial than it once was, and for much of the time has an atmosphere somewhere between a kids' carnival and music festival. Events include kick-boxing matches, boat races, cockfights, comedy shows and plenty of music and dancing, as bands from as far away as Vientiane arrive. After dark the beer and lòw-lów (Lao whisky) flow freely and the atmosphere gets pretty rowdy.

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When the three months of Buddhist Lent come to an end in October, it is the perfect time to visit temples and celebrate the end of the rainy season. In Laos, this is called Boun Awk Phansa (Sometimes translated as Boun Ok Phansa or Boun Ock Phansa) and various religious and local traditions can be observed during this time. Moreover, there are plenty of festive activities are organized throughout the country with floating flower boats, candles, fireworks, lavishly decorated wats and an old-time carnival … all make for a magical Boun Awk Phansa festival in Laos. 

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