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The Ultimate Guide to Laos Transportation

laos-riverboat, taking a boat in laos, getting around in laos

Laotian Ferry boats

When I took the  overnight train into Laos, that was the start of my adventure with Laos transportation.  Getting around in Laos isn’t hard but it can be an interesting adventure. Check your expectations at the door and go along with the fun.

Laotian transportation can be easy, if you’re flexible about your schedule. While not always on schedule, there’s only a handful of ways to get to a place and often, it entails two or four wheels. Buses, songthaews, ferry boats, jumbos, bicycles and minivans… that’s basically it.

Costs don’t run high, but average around $5-15 for standard long distance trips. Prices are most often displayed and the only place you may have to get your haggling head out is for the Jumbo.

Basics to know about Getting around Laos by yourself:

Getting Familiar with Bus Stations in Laos

Whenever I roll into town and see a visible bus station (vs. a dirt lot like some villages in India), I exhale relief. Luang Prabang and Vientiane‘s bus stations were nicely run, well-maintained and clean. Even some of Laos’ smaller town bus stations are nicely organized and obvious.

In Laos, it’s not safe to assume that the bus station you arrive in is the same as the one you’ll depart in. For example, if you’re departing on a long-distance bus or mini-van, you may be directed to a second bus station outside the city center (Luang Prabang and Vientiane have two main stations). Arrivals are often at the more central location and inside the city. If you buy tickets from travel agents and guesthouses, they’ll send a van or songthaew to take you to the second bus station.

luang-prabang-bus-sta

My VIP bus from Vientiane dropped me at the Luang Prabang’s central bus station, near the heart of the city. I walked into town, but it’s easier just to get a tuk-tuk. Buses above are long-distance buses. Bus station in Nong Khiew, getting to nong khiauwAbove,  Bus station in Nong Khiew villageBus station in Vientiane, taking the bus in Laos Vientiane’s central bus station in the middle of the city, located next to Talat Sao Market. For a long-distance bus to Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, etc… you’ll need to go to the other bus station located 2 km northeast of town. Above: buses are the size of a small school van bus vientiane bus schedule Most bus schedules are in written Laotian; but attendants are helpful in directing you to the correct bus. Towns that generate many tourists occasionally, have signs in English. Laotian Driver secures luggage on roof of bus, taking the bus in Laos, luggage on a Laotian bus Laotian driver secures luggage on roof of bus

Survival Guide to Getting Around

A Lao way: Songthaews & Local Buses

Songthaews (converted trucks with two hard, wooden benches inside) fit anywhere from 16+ people.  Songthaews are the *cheapest* mode of travel and it’s the local way of getting around from village-to-village. However, this often involves riding in a dark and hunched space with no view. You’ll get a “wooden butt” that’s guaranteed to go numb after a while, further enhanced if the street turns into dirt roads.

Meanwhile, local mini-van buses are much more comfortable than songthaews and occasionally, offer a substitute.

My advice: If you’re traveling a long distance (3 hours or more) and you’re between a songthaew and a VIP tourist bus, the extra kip you’ll splurge for a tourist bus, buys a clearer view, a more cushioned seat and the potential to nap in your seat.

Warning: Laotian buses in general, leave when they’re full. It’s still best to arrive early to nab good seats!

songthaews in Laos, getting around in Laos, taking the bus in laos

A 3+ hour ride to Luang Prabang on this songthaew? After a 3-hour ferry ride, my ass couldn’t handle any more wooden seats! A public van-bus (as shown in the picture below). I took this to the Buddha Park an hour outside of Vientiane. songthaews in Laos, getting around in Laos, taking the bus in laos Gunshot through window.  Is Laos that dangerous?

The Tourist Bus: VIP Mini vans

Mini vans handle long distance routes to smaller towns. Similarly, like buses and songthaews, they leave when they’re full. But unlike the Vietnamese, Laotians won’t wear out your tolerance with pulling out extra plastic stools to max-fit passengers! Seat space and comfort is decent and width runs a close second to Supershuttle.

But expect possible delays, even once you’re underway:

My trip to Nong Khaiw cost an hour at the station, waiting for a full van. When we finally got underway, the driver discovered low gas levels, but due to a city-wide blackout, we drained another 45 minutes in search for an open fuel station.

The way back to Luang Prabang was equally unique; we made an emergency stop to pick up a young Laotian couple with a sick baby. The driver drove to a doctor/pharmacist along the route, who gave the baby an IV drip, which the father held up most of the way. Never a dull moment in these vans…

Luang Prabang to Nong Khaiw it cost around $4 ; duration is 3 hours (for me, it took two extra hours due to delays).

Cost: $5-15 approximately.

long distance buses in Laos, getting around in Laos, taking the bus in laos

Tourist vans songthaews in Laos, getting around in Laos, taking the bus in laos, bus in nong khiew, getting to nong kiew


A Long haul & rural bathroom breaks: Overnight & long-distance VIP buses

I’ve heard warnings about Laotian buses before. Most advised tolerance for bumpy rides. My cautionary advice to you… for rocky rides, just knock back a motion sickness tablet. It’s the cramped leg room and nature-esque bathroom stops that are red flags.

After an upsetting argument with a station ticket master over reservations through my guesthouse (which he was trying to swindle me out of, because buses were overbooked), I finally got a seat aboard a long distance VIP bus. They were “high-bounce seats” at the tail of the bus and it was a 14-hour bus ride (Vientiane to Luang Prabang )! I’m not sure if this is true of all VIP buses, but the seats are such that if the person in front of you reclines, your leg room is diced down to half!  I’m 5’8″ and it was uncomfortable. Fortunately, no one sat next to me, so I got to stretch my legs out to the side.

Some buses in other countries make limited bathroom stops; but the good news here, is that Laotians give you many! Only problem is… most are roadside pull-overs, with passengers scampering into a dark field to find relief.

Cost: approximately $5-$28 (depending on distance and type of bus).

Advice:

– Don’t pick seats in the back of the bus.
– Bring a flashlight and tissue wipes for the “bathroom” stops.
– Keep the business card or contact number of the guesthouse/agency which booked your tickets (a receipt may not be enough).

getting from vientiane to luang prabang, getting around in Laos, taking the bus in laos

The Most Scenic Ride you Won’t Forget: Ferry boats on the Mekong!

You should take a river boat to at least one destination.

While the hard wooden seats won’t make it any easier on your butt than the songthaew, the beauty of the river life, village farms, water buffalo, fishermen and karst mountains shooting out of the water, will dazzle you. Sharing the boat with locals is adds to the flavor of the ride and it’s entertaining to see the cargo they transport. There aren’t any planned bathroom stops, but in worse case scenario, get the boatsman to stop on the side for you to go in the bushes.

Cost: ranges according to distance and whether you’re taking a public boat or private. My boat from Nong Khiaw to Muong Ngoi cost approx. $3 and took a little over an hour.

laos-riverboat, taking a boat in laos, getting around in laos

Ferry/river boats laos-riverboat, taking a boat in laos, getting around in laos Ferry boat ticket sellerlaos-riverboat, taking a boat in laos, getting around in laos Locals await the ferry boat which will take them to their village Locals arrive to their destination carrying their load.

Better than a mule: Jumbos & bicycles

Jumbos are three-wheeled tuk-tuks, serving up the cheapest and most convenient way to get around the city. Another option is renting a bicycle or motorbike. Bike rentals require a passport and can start from $6/day.

laotian tuk-tuk, getting around in Laos, taking the bus in laos

Tuk-tuks

The Best Airlines to get to Laos:  Laos Airlines

Travel in or out of Laos, then check out Laos Airlines. I can’t recommend them more; they offer cheap deals on flights and even serve complimentary on-board meals and drinks! (You don’t hear of that with airlines these days) Laos Airlines offers the most basic and sweetest hospitality!

Note: I was not paid or given sponsorship to plug them in my blog.  😉

luang-prabang-airport

Luang Prabang airport, Laos Airlines jet laos-onboard-meal Laos Airlines on-board meals are free— small ham and cheese sandwich and some fruit.

Is there anything I missed? What are some interesting ways or experiences you’ve had with getting around Laos?

18 Comments

  1. Glad you have patiencem Christine

  2. Laos is a country in slow motion 🙂

  3. I can never understand people that travel in a hurry…I want to slow time down, relax, and enjoy the ride. Life is already too short, lets take our time and enjoy the moments.

  4. lena00 says:

    Any advice on what kind of transportation I should take to KM52 in laos.

  5. Whenever I see the word “songthaews,” I know already I am going to like the post.

  6. Awesome pics, this bring me back…. Laos is one place that I really, truly can’t wait to get back to!!

  7. Laura in Cancun says:

    There is no way I would spend 3 hours in the back of that truck! (I’m a princess, I guess haha)

    I love how Laos transportation is so cheap! Buses in Mexico are more expensive, but also a lot more comfortable.

    • @Laura: It would interesting to see what kind of buses Mexico has. I imagine with all the tourism and development these days, it must be a lot better than I imagine.

  8. Gray says:

    You always provide the most practical and useful information about places, Christine. Another great post!

    • @Gray: Thanks. I hope it’s helpful. My more ” informational” posts are often the result of my own frustrated internet searches for information or pictures about things. As a solo traveler, going into Laos, knowing nothing about Laos other than it’s largely a rural country, the idea of “how to get around” kinda freaked me out. Sometimes, you just want to see pictures. This post is a head’s up for someone like me =-)

  9. Nailah says:

    Just came across you blog, and glad that I did. I visited Laos 10 years ago and it is still one of my favorite countries. That’s despite the never-ending bus ride I ended up getting on. My friend was sick so we got to the bus late and I ended up having to sit in a flimsy plastic chair made for a 5-year old that was put in the middle aisle. I had no view of anything and my chair buckled at every turn. My friend ended up laying under the chairs in the aisle b/c she felt so sick. That was a horrible trip, but once we got to Luang Prabang (or was it Vang Viang?) the destination was well worth the journey.

    • @Nailah: Aah, so they whip out those plastic chairs in the buses too. I didn’t experience that. What kind of long distance bus did you take that did this? Wow.

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