Getting around Laos can be an adventure in itself, with its old crowded buses, barely seaworthy boats and airline system with its mix of new and aging planes. However if you allow plenty of leeway in your schedule for the near-inevitable delays, cancellations and breakdowns traveling in Laos can be as rewarding as the destination itself.
The National airline, Lao Airlines has a monopoly on domestic flights in the country, a dodgy safety history, and a horrible on-time record (in part caused by difficult weather conditions especially in the mountainous north) – but improvements are being made. Lao Airlines have made improvements in their airline fleet in the last couple of years by adding a couple of new French and Chinese built planes slowly replacing the older Chinese build fleet. These new planes serve the major tourist routes so safety shouldn’t be a major concern any more. Although dual pricing means much higher fares for foreigners, the fairly comprehensive network is by far the fastest (and, relatively speaking, the safest) way of reaching many parts of the country.
The highways in Laos have improved a lot in the past ten years, and all the main routes from Vientiane to the north and south are sealed. However poor road construction quality, limited maintenance and harsh climatic conditions mean road surfaces deteriorate rapidly. Transport options on all the major road routes include bus, minibus and converted truck.
While the road conditions around Laos are improving, road travel can still be quite slow due to the hilly and windy nature of the roads, particularly in the north of the country. So while map distances may not look far, it can often result in travel times longer than expected.
In the towns a common form of local transport (less than 20 km) in Laos is the tuk tuk and jumbo, a motorized three-wheeler mostly referred to as a tuk-tuk like in Thailand for the smaller variety and Jumbo for the larger one. In Vientiane car taxis are available at the airport and from the friendship bridge at the Lao Thailand Border.
The rivers in Laos used to be the traditional highways and byways with more than 4600 km (2860 miles) of navigable waterways. However with the every improving and expanding road network and transport system the dependence on river transport is declining. It is still worth doing at least one river trip when you are Laos for the spectacular river side scenery and insight into traditional life along the river. Huay Xai (on the border with Thailand) to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse are the main routes still in use. The most popular river trip – the slow boat between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang – is still a daily event and relatively cheap for the two-day journey. There are also some other good trips on the smaller rivers in the wet season such as the trip from Luang Namtha to Pakbeng on the Mekong.
The best time to do a river trip is during the mid to late wet season when the rivers are still full. During the late dry season river levels are usually too low and many services might stop or become dangerous due to the risk of hitting rocks.
Travelling around Laos on a motorbike is becoming more popular, and a great way to see the country. Having your own wheels allows you to explore at your own pace and also get off the beaten track a bit. Off-road 250cc bikes can be rented in Vientiane for longer trips or smaller 100cc mopeds can be hired in most of the major tourist towns for shorter trip around towns and surrounding countryside.
Stunning road side scenery, relatively light levels of slow traffic make cycling in Laos a great option to see the countryside. It’s possible to bring your own bike in Laos with no hassles from Lao customs. Simple single-speed bikes can be hired cheaply in most places that receive a decent amount of tourists, and mountain bikes can also be hired in a few places, including Luang Nam Tha, Vientiane and Vang Vieng.