Laos 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 places; buses, songthaews, ferry boats, bicycles, jumbos, and minivans.
Bicycles are available in most major tourist centres; guesthouses, souvenir shops and a few tourist-oriented restaurants may keep a small stable of Thai- or Chinese-made bikes (though rarely mountain bikes) to rent out for $1–2 per day.
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In rural areas, away from the Mekong Valley, the bus network is often replaced by sawngthaews – converted pick-up trucks – into which drivers stuff as many passengers as they possibly can. Passengers are crammed onto two facing benches in the back (“sawngthaew” means “two rows”); latecomers are left to dangle off the back, with their feet on a running board, an experience that, on a bumpy road, is akin to inland windsurfing.
Sawngthaews also ply routes between larger towns and their satellite villages, a service for which they charge roughly the same amount as buses. They usually depart from the regular bus station, but will only leave when a driver feels he has enough passengers to make the trip worth his while. Some drivers try to sweat extra kip out of passengers by delaying departure. Your fellow passengers may agree to this, but most often they grudgingly wait. In some situations, you can save yourself a lot of trouble and waiting by getting a few fellow travellers together and flat-out hiring the driver to take you where you want to go; the fares being so ridiculously low as to make this quite affordable. To catch a sawngthaew in between stops, simply flag it down from the side of the road and tell the driver where you’re headed so he knows when to let you off. The fare is usually paid when you get off. If the driver is working without a fare collector, he will tend to stop on the outskirts of his final destination to collect fares.
Ordinary buses provide cheap transport between major towns and link provincial hubs with their surrounding districts. Cramped, overloaded and designed for the smaller Lao frame, these buses are profound tests of endurance and patience. Seats often have either torn cushions or are nothing more than a hard plank. Luggage – ranging from incontinent roosters to sloshing buckets of fish and the inevitable fifty-kilo sacks of rice – is piled in every conceivable space, filling up the aisle and soaring skywards from the roof. Breakdowns are commonplace and often require a lengthy roadside wait as the driver repairs the bus on a lonely stretch of road. Typical fares are of the order of 100,000K for Vientiane to Luang Prabang or Pakse, though fares could rise rapidly if fuel prices increase.
With the country possessing roughly 4600km of navigable waterways, including stretches of the Mekong, Nam Ou, Nam Ngum, Xe Kong and seven other arteries, it’s no surprise to learn that rivers are the ancient highways of mountainous Laos. Road improvements in recent years, however, have led to the decline of river travel between many towns, with buses and sawngthaews replacing the armada of boats that once plied regular routes.
The main Mekong route that remains links Houayxai to Luang Prabang. Since the upgrading of Route 13, boats very rarely ply the stretches of river between Luang Prabang, Pakse and Si Phan Don. Aside from the larger, so-called “slow boats” on the Mekong routes, smaller passenger boats still cruise up the wide Nam Ou River (Muang Khoua–Hat Sa), the Nam Tha (Luang Namtha to Pak Tha), and a few others, provided water levels are high enough.
One of the best ways to explore the countryside is to rent a motorbike. Unfortunately, this is only an option in tourist-friendly places like Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Thakhek and Pakse, and even then you’re often limited to smaller bikes, usually 100cc step-throughs such as the Honda Dream. Rental prices for the day are generally $8–10, depending on the age and condition of the bike. More powerful 125cc dirt bikes suitable for cross-country driving are available only in Vientiane and cost $20 a day.
A licence is not needed, but you’ll be asked to leave your passport as a deposit and may be required to return the bike by dark. Insurance is not available, so it’s a good idea to make sure your travel insurance covers you for any potential accidents.