Laos Transport - How to Travel Safely

Laos is islands, green landscapes and the mighty Mekong River. But how do you see it all? World Nomads contributor Patrick Leone shares his tips on local transport and how to get around safely.

Photo © GettyImages/watcharit praihirun

Laos is home to wondrous natural landscapes, delicious food, and the mighty Mekong River. From the cool mountains of the north to the busy capital city of Vientiane and the sleepy beachside hammocks of 1,000 Islands, there is something incredible to be found every step of the way.

Border Scams

Laos is a beautiful country and is easy to get into. Visas are issued on arrival and the process is very straightforward, taking only a few minutes. There are scam "visa offices" which drivers may take you to in order to get your visa, but they aren't necessary as it's easy enough to fill out the paperwork yourself at the official border office. This scam is common at the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos.

You may get asked to do a health check, which is another way to fleece you of some of your holiday dollars. These were originally in place to prevent against the spread of the avian flu epidemic in Asia, which has long past.
There are many tours that will facilitate crossing into Laos. These can be expensive and don't provide much more information than what can be found online. After you cross the border, people will try to sell you tours to Luang Prabang; these are expensive and largely unnecessary. Avoid changing money at the border as rates aren't great.

Is Air Travel Safe in Laos?

After a series of incidents between 1990 and 2003, Laos' national airline underwent an overhaul. The company has a new name, new aircraft, improved airfields and a new attitude to safety and service. Lao Aviation is now Lao Airlines and, after upgrading its fleet, is one of the safest airlines in the region.

All of the major routes use either French-made ATR72-200, ATR72-500 or ATR72-600 aircraft which comply with international aviation safety standards. They also operate Airbus A320 on international routes including codeshares with other airlines such as Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines. The average age of the fleet is seven years.

Boat Travel

The Mekong River runs through the length of this landlocked country and is very much a big part of life. A very popular way to visit Laos is by slow boat from Thailand. This two-day adventure is many people's introduction to life on the water and a departure from Thailand's relative comforts.

Slow boats are a popular way to get around Laos and are often the only possibility to get to more remote villages. They can vary tremendously in terms of quality and seaworthiness. Laos doesn't enforce safety regulations in a way most western countries do. If another person or bag can physically fit, they will jam it onto the boat. Boats frequently break down and occasionally sink. If you feel that the boat is overcrowded, don’t hesitate to ask to get off. Avoid traveling at night.

These boats rarely have life jackets and very minimal comforts. Many have a simple board as a seat. Cushions can be purchased at the night markets and are necessary for any ride over an hour or those looking to avoid a sore bottom.

Private boats can be arranged but are more expensive. If traveling with a large group, this could be a better option as the price is for the boat, regardless of the number of passengers.

Speedboats are available but are extremely dangerous. While riding a slow boat one can see these tiny boats fly past. The driver almost always is wearing a motorcycle grade helmet. They have next to no safety features and crash often. We recommend you avoid them.

Bus Travel

For those looking to remain on solid ground, Laos' highways between cities are in very good shape. Travelers can take tour buses or minibusses to all of Laos' major cities in relative comfort. There are sleeper buses available but check reviews. Some buses have one bed for two passengers. If you are traveling alone you will be matched with someone of the same sex but the beds are small and snuggling may be unavoidable. The roads in Laos can vary dramatically and some roads are more dangerous than others, especially at night.

Minibuses live up to their names and have far less legroom than their larger counterparts. Larger buses often drop passengers off at far-flung bus stations requiring a sungtao ride to the city center. Minibusses typically drop passengers at their guesthouses or hotels. Tickets can easily be purchased through hotels and guesthouses or from the many travel companies that line the main streets of any city. Quality varies tremendously and names can be misleading, “VIP” buses don’t always indicate great service.

Other Transport Options

Motorbikes

Once off the main highways, the road conditions deteriorate significantly. Locals weave around potholes on their motorbikes with speed and ease. Tourists can rent motorbikes but a license is required. Police will fine anyone riding without a license. Helmets are not required in Laos, however, your travel insurance will require you to wear one.

Songtaos

Songtaos, or trucks outfitted with covered seating in the back, are an inexpensive way for tourists to get around to the local sights. Prices are always negotiable.

Hire Car

Private car service is available but is very expensive and often not much faster than minibusses.

Drink Driving

Drink driving is a huge problem in Laos and contributes significantly to road fatalities. In the first four months of 2018, over 400 people died on Laos’ roads with most accidents attributed to drink driving.

If a driver seems like he has been drinking, move on. Even in small towns, there are plenty of options. If driving yourself, be aware of those around you and always ride defensively. It’s best to avoid riding or driving at night.

Personal Safety While Traveling

Luggage is generally safe when traveling in Laos. Whether by boat or bus, large bags are stowed away for the duration of the trip. Keeping high-value items on your person is always best, but locks on bags that contain valuables are handy when that's not possible. Never leave your bags unattended especially in busy locations.

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5 Comments

  • Graeme Card said

    just back from Lao via Cambodia and Vietnam, flew Lao Airlines, brand new aircraft, pleasant crews and ran bang to schedule, almost Swiss like In their timing. mind you since they have so few aircraft flying into and out of Lao relatively speaking, then that's probably not too hard. I would say far better than the crowded late and noisy aircraft I have flown on in the U.S.A.

  • John said

    I have flown with Lao airlines twice and I experienced a lot of turbulence during both flights.

  • matthew cazier said

    I flew Lao aviation in 1993 and 1994. Back then the Russian equipment had broken seats, leaky doors, no seat-belts, and steaming air-conditioning. Also, they flew helicopters to Northern cities/towns and would fill them up with as many passengers and livestock as possible, and run it down the runway. If you took off then ok, if not, you returned to the terminal, unloaded a few of the last passengers and tried again.
    Returned to Lao in 2016, and was relieved to experience their new equipment. It was clean, up-to-date, and on time. I would consider it on par with any other carrier in the SE Asia area.

  • JoeBlowe said

    I worked in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand for various air carriers. My time with Lao airlines was the most difficult experience in the airline industry during my 41 year aviation career.
    Senior management positions are appointed through the Political party (communist) and do not require any actual airline management experience. The corruption and graft within senior management is surreal and sanctioned by the Party.
    Consequently, the airline runs amok most of the time and is held together by a band of expat pilots that continually try to improve operational safety. The public is only made aware of events such as crashes that can't be covered up. The daily events that comprise of some most blatant disregard of basic safety practices fail to be involved due to threats from the party officials and career banishment.
    There are decent carriers you can use for transport in Laos...LAO Airlines is not one of them.

  • Michael Mastroianni said

    Don't fly Laos, because you rarely will. They cancelled a ticket on a flight less than a week later and were no help in rescheduling except to offer a flight a day later for $300 more. The whole trip was cancelled and I wasted hours trying to salvage it. Sarcastic thanks, Lao Airlines. At least I didn't get a chance to find out how crappy the flights are.

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