Laos is not the easiest country to travel around, in part due to its mountainous terrain and lack of decent transportation. However, Laos’s road system has improved significantly over the last few years. Roads have been upgraded, and getting around is easier than ever, though often still challenging. Sometimes, a newly graded and paved road this year may get no maintenance, and after just two or even one rainy seasons the road will revert to being nothing but a potholed track. When you travel in Laos you will soon realize that timetables are irrelevant and estimated times of arrival are pointless. Wherever you go in Laos, the driver does not seem to be in any hurry to arrive.
Flying to Laos: The national airline of Laos is Lao Airlines. There are no direct flights from the USA or Europe; flights are mainly via Thailand, China, Vietnam or Cambodia. Popular airlines flying into Laos include Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines.
There are three international airports in Laos: Wattay in Vientiane located 15 minutes from the town centre, Luang Prabang in the North, 10 minutes from the heart of the historic quarter, and Pakse in the South located 10 minutes from the town centre.
During festivals it can be hard to find a free seat on the national carrier, Lao Airlines, which serves both regional centres and neighbouring countries. Unlike other countries it is vital in Laos to reconfirm your flight the day before, otherwise you may be bumped off.
Travel by rail: A passenger services connects Bangkok and Vientiane. The train travels over across the Friendship Bridge from Nong Kai in Thailand to the international rail terminal at Thanaleng, around 15km (9 miles) from central Vientiane. It’s easy to connect with a local tuk-tuk to get you into town.
The train between Bangkok to Thanaleng is clean and safe. For peace of mind bring a padlock and secure your baggage – there is space under the seats. Fresh sheets are supplied during ‘turn down’ when your bed is made up.
30-day visas are available at most of the land crossings, but check for up-to-date information. If you arrive at the border by road, bear in mind that you’ll definitely have to change transport, as it’s unlikely a driver from one of the surrounding countries will be willing or able to cross over with you. If you’re arriving with your own car or motorbike be prepared for plenty of form-filling and fees. You can import the vehicle for the duration of your visa.
Getting to Laos by boat: It is possible to travel from the Thai border to Luang Prabang by speedboat, slow boat or by a deluxe one-day boat. The slow boat takes about two days and usually involves an overnight stay in Pak Beng. Alternatively there are ‘luxury’ cruises which also take two days but have much better facilities than the ordinary slow boats. These are charged at an accordingly higher premium. The speedboat goes from Houaixay on the Laos border to Luang Prabang in around six hours.
The Navigation Office at the main landing point (Tha Heua Meh) at the end of Th Chao Phanya Kang has signs, usually not in English, that announce long-distance boat departures.
TRAVEL AROUND LAOS
By Air: Lao Airlines runs domestic air services from Vientiane to Xieng Khouang, Luang Prabang, Huay Xai and Oudomxai in the north and Pakse and Savannakhet in the south. The airline is based at Wattay airport. All domestic flight times are around an hour.
By Road: If you are on a strict timescale, it is advisable to pre-arrange travel outside Vientiane with a tour company to avoid unforeseen delays and costs. Many of the roads have been paved in recent years, including the main highway from the Thai border at Savannakhet to the Vietnamese border. However, few main roads are suitable for all-weather or night driving.
In the north of the country, there is a road link between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and from Vientiane to Savannakhet and Pakse in the south.
By Water: The Mekong and other rivers are still a vital part of the country's transport system, especially during the monsoon, despite the road system being gradually improved. However, the number of boats available has decreased dramatically. The choice is between irregular (and very basic) slow ferries and exciting but noisy and hazardous speedboats. A service runs from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, but there is no longer a service between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, except for the rare cargo boat that may take passengers.
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