Getting around

Passport and Visas
The vast majority of foreign tourists enter Laos on a tourist visa. This visa can be organised via a Lao embassy or can be organised on arrival. The typical visa is valid for 30 days. Visa extensions are possible.

1. Laos has three international airports:
2. Wattay International Airport in Vientiane,
3. Luang Prabang International Airport in Luang Prabang
4. Pakse International Airport in Pakse.

The Lao national carrier is Lao Airlines. It flies international as well as domestic routes. A second domestic carrier, Lao Air, flies a restricted number of domestic routes.

A number of international carriers now fly to Laos, including: Air Asia, Bangkok Airways, China Southern, THAI
Vietnam Airlines.

Getting around
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 affordable.

There are two Lao airlines operating in Laos — the larger national carrier, Lao Airlines and a smaller carrier Lao Skyway (previously 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 Skyway’s route set is far more limited:
Vientiane – Luang Prabang – Vientiane
Vientiane – Udomxai – Vientiane
Vientiane – Huay Xai – Vientiane
Vientiane – Luang Nam Tha – Vientiane
Vientiane – Hua Phan – Vientiane
Vientiane – Phongsali – Vientiane
The full domestic timetable can be found here.

The Lao Airlines fleet has improved significantly in recent years and their safety record compares favourably with other regional airlines, as well as with the safety risks associated with other means of travel in Laos. Most recently a flight from Vientiane to Pakse crashed in October 2013, killing all 49 people on board; prior to that, the most recent incident was 2002. They used to fly mostly Chinese-built turboprops, then added a few French-built ATR-72s that were considered safer and used on international routes, and then in 2011 took on two Airbus A320 jets.

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. Check schedule and prices online.
Savannakhet – Hue. Check schedule and prices online.
Vientiane – Hanoi. Check schedule and prices online.
Luang Prabang – Hanoi. Check schedule and prices online.

Private car hire, generally with a 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.

Larger enduro-style dirt bikes can be hired long-term from some travel agents. Prices are reasonable but are 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.

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.

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 Nong Khiaw – Muang Ngoi – Muang Khua – Hat Sa route are the most popular. Less so is the Huay Xai – Xieng Kok route.

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.

The large passenger boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is set up for tourists with a bar selling beer and snacks, a toilet and seats that appear to have been torn out of old cars. These are some of the most comfortable boats in Laos — it generally goes downhill from here.

Typically on shorter routes, smaller boats are used, and these either have hard wooden seats running along the sides of the hull or planks of wood spanning the width of the boat on which to rest your butt. You’ll see these boats often on the Nam Ou and will almost certainly get stuck on one if you decide to head up to Phongsali by a river. They still have room for a bit of cargo. It’s possible to put your motorbike on one of these boats, which is handy if you made your way to somewhere remote by road but can’t face heading back out the same way. A motorbike will generally cost the same amount as another passenger, but the price is negotiable and you will need to pay a fee commensurate with how desperately you need to transport that bike. The smaller boats are obviously less stable than the bigger ones, so you’ll constantly be reminded by the captain to sit precisely in the position required to ensure the boat doesn’t list. This means no leaning over the edge to get photos and very little shuffling around to get comfortable. Just sit there and enjoy the scenery.

The scenery along many stretches of the rivers is simply breathtaking. Remote communities are dotted all along the river and their only connection to the outside world is the odd passing riverboat, which stops to unload cargo and transport villagers heading somewhere to trade or visit family. These more remote villages seldom have access to modern building materials such as concrete and consequently, grass huts are the standard.

Speedboats in Laos have a kind of mystical aura surrounding them, with travellers often chatting about their dangers over a beer as they watch the sunset over the many rivers throughout Laos. What are they like? First of all, they are small — only about 80 centimetres across, which is just wide enough to fit two people of healthy weight side by side. The boats usually fit six foreigners with luggage (backpacks and/or suitcases) or eight locals. There’s also room for your legs, but unless you’re chartering the whole boat, your legs will be bent. The boats don’t actually have seats — simply a wooden separator onto which a cushion is lent and then a cushion for the floor on which you sit. The position you sit in is not that uncomfortable over short distances of up to an hour and you do have enough room to move the position of your legs, but not your bum. It’s on longer journeys where things get a little uncomfortable.

When the sun is blazing, you will burn unless you cover up or lather on plenty of sunscreens. When it rains, you get soaked. On a recent speedboat journey we took, a vicious thunderstorm was underway before we hopped on board and we wanted to wait for it to pass. The boatman would have none of it and we embarked with luggage and proceeded to head off upriver at about 50 kilometres an hour with lightning flashing and rain piercing our skin. You are usually provided with a helmet and this is as much for protection from the elements as it is for a crash.

Upriver speeds are typically around 55 kilometres an hour and downriver speeds about 60 kilometres an hour, although in sections they can go significantly faster than this. While that doesn’t sound so fast, it feels fast when you are sitting just centimetres from the water and you are flying over rapids and zooming past rocks. As well, the wind at these speeds is exactly like it is when you stick your head out of a car window — enough to give you bad wind burn over extended periods of time.

So are speedboats safe? Well, it all depends on how you measure it. We hear of fatal bus crashes all the time throughout Asia and occasionally in Laos. As for speedboat crashes, we rarely hear anything of them, but anecdotally they do happen. We don’t have any statistics about speedboat safety — we doubt they exist — but we believe them to be more dangerous than slow boats.

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