How to Navigate Transport in Laos
Figuring out transportation on your own in Laos can be very challenging. While there are a variety of transportation options, travel is slow, and roads can be flooded or unpaved altogether. Besides the ubiquitous tuk tuk, there are plenty of forms of transport in the Lao PDR. With a little patience and a lot of good humor, you’ll get to where you’re going eventually. The journey is the destination, right?
If you’re touring around a city such as Luang Prabang, Vientiane or Pakse, or hanging out on Si Phan Don, renting a bicycle is the best bang for your buck in terms of transportation. No Lao city is so big you can’t bike from one end to another in 20 minutes. For 10,000 to 50,000 kip ($1.25-$6.25 USD) you can rent a cruiser or mountain bike for 24 hours. Ask for a lock and helmet, stay hydrated and look out for erratic traffic.
Local tip: You will not find bike racks in Laos. It’s extremely unlikely your bike will be stolen, however you should hobble the bike by putting the lock through the back wheel and frame.
“Tuk tuk, tuk tuk,” you’ll hear the soft spoken Lao tuk tuk drivers call after you if you’re walking in any major city. Tuk tuks are good for groups, typically cheaper than taxis and prevalent in cities like Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse. If you’re going somewhere out of the way, ask your driver to wait for you and pay him upon returning to the city. It’s typically around 50,000 kip ($6.25 USD) to or from an airport or bus station and 30,000 to 50,000 kip around town.
Local tip: Make sure to agree on a price before getting in, otherwise you might have an unpleasant upcharge at your destination. If you find a driver you like or one who speaks English, get his number or Facebook so you can use him again.
Songthaew or Jumbo
Songthaews or Jumbos are typically pick-up trucks that have been converted into extra large tuk-tuk-esque public buses. They follow a set route at irregular intervals. If you brave this form of transportation you’ll be rewarded with a cheap fare (10,000-20,000 kip, $1.25-$2.50 USD) but be prepared for anything. You might be riding with a giggly bunch of school children, 25 other passengers who are practically sitting on each other’s laps, or someone bringing baskets of produce, buckets of fish or bags of rice along.
Local tip: Flag down a songthaew by standing on the street and wave palm down like you’re shoeing away a dog (use same signal for calling your server to your table in a restaurant.) To get off, knock on the back window or call out “Yout,” which means stop.
VIP night bus
Getting anywhere in Laos via ground transportation takes a long time. Kill two birds with one stone by taking a double decker VIP night bus. For around 150,000 kip ($18 USD) you won’t have to figure out accommodations and you’ll wake up in a new city! Most guest houses can arrange tickets for you with a transfer to the bus station but you’ll pay a bit more than if you purchase tickets directly at the station. You often have to wait until the day before or day of your trip to book, which can be anxiety-inducing during the high season (Nov-Feb) when buses can sell out. Take off your shoes and put them in a plastic bag upon boarding. Two people share a twin bunk. VIP buses are air-conditioned, have a toilet on board and come with blankets and pillows
Local tip: The bus conductor will pass out water, but bring your own snacks. If you’re not keen on sharing a twin bed with a stranger, consider buying two tickets to secure the whole bunk to yourself. Bring your eye mask, ear plugs and sleeping meds if you’re looking get some shut eye on the ride.
Going from Vientiane to Vang Vieng or from Thakhek to Savannakhet? How about from Pakse to Champasak? Opt for a mini van for a faster, smoother ride for around 50,000 kip ($6.25 USD.) Show up at the bus station and find the van headed to where you want to go. Bags and cargo go on top of the vans. Don’t worry, you’re stuff will be safe, but you might consider carrying your cash and passport in a money belt on your person. The vans leave when they’re full… very full, so if you’re uncomfortable sitting four across without a seatbelt or having someone’s leg or child or baby goat touching you, this might not be the best form of transportation to try.
Local tip: The first van in the morning (usually at 7 or 7:30 a.m. is never packed to the gills, leaves on time and avoids rush hour traffic (and the tourists who slept in.) No matter which time of day you go, you’ll be asked to pay 5-10km out of town, so have your money in your pocket not in your pack on top of the van.
One of the most popular and also most dangerous forms of transportation in Laos is the motorbike. Most bikes are automatic or semi-automatic and can be rented from guest houses and tourism companies in major tourist destinations such as Pakse to drive the Bolevan Plateau or Thakehek to drive the Kong Lor Loop. Check the bike thoroughly including breaks, tire pressure and shifting before departing. Always wear your helmet. Keep a full tank. Gas stations are very prevalent along major roads and in the villages you’ll have no problem finding someone selling plastic bottles full of red petrol in front of their home.
Local tip: There is no trauma center in Laos and some places will ask for a cash deposit or to keep your passport as collateral for the bike. Do not leave your passport as you cannot get life-flighted to a Thai hospital without it.
Private cars are one of the most reliable and fastest way to travel in Laos. Private taxis are available in most tourist destinations. Your guest house or a tourism outfit can help you rent a car and driver for a day or for the duration of your trip. It’s more difficult to find a rental car that you can drive yourself, but Avis does have an office in Pakse and Vientiane. Laos drives on the right side of the road. Most cars and trucks are standard transmission. If you’re heading anywhere that includes dirt roads, ask for a vehicle with 4-wheel drive.
Local tip: Many Lao people are unfamiliar with reading maps and rely on landmarks to navigate. They are also concerned with saving face and may be reluctant to ask for directions or admit that they’re lost. Consider using your favorite offline maps app to help navigate.
Do you want to have a super-Lao experience watching Lao music videos in a fan-cooled vehicle with frilly curtains and regularly stop for cigarette breaks, peeing in the bush and loading and unloading cargo? Try the local bus! It’s really a roulette: sometimes you get a whole row to yourself and other times little plastic stools are put into the aisle for more seating. Local buses are much cheaper than tourist buses, often leave more frequently and allow passengers to get off anywhere along the route, not just major bus stations.
Local tip: Ladies, bring some TP: long local bus rides mean toilet breaks in the bush. Locals use their sins (long Lao skirts) for modesty, you might follow suit. Lots of Lao locals get motion sickness when traveling by bus and it’s not unheard of for passengers to have their seat mate vomit on them. Bring a plastic bag with you.
While Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Pakse have some international flights on AirAsia, Vietnam Air, Hainan and the like, the only domestic carrier in Laos is Lao Airlines. Flights must be searched on their website and won’t show up on flight comparison sites. Lao airlines has excellent customer service and runs more professionally and more on time than any other transportation option. That being said, the lack of competition means prices can be steep and the limited flights means you can’t get to every destination in Laos on every day of the week.
Local tip: Lao airports are small, so it’s not necessary to arrive more than 45 minutes before your departure time. That being said, it’s not unheard of for Lao Airlines flights to depart early. Be prepared to walk on the tarmac and up a flight of steps into the plane. Like much of the rest of Laos, Lao Airlines is not equipped to assist those with limited mobility.