Transportation in Laos

A Complete Transportation Guide, Laos

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If you are new to the country, figuring out the Laos routes can be tricky. With the cities located in the north and the remote villages scattered around the country’s south, the mode of transportation here is varied. This guide helps you understand Laos’s transportation system, the facilities available on board, and how to book the transports that you want. Our insights and tips from experience will help you make your journey through this beautiful and effortless!

Laos Transportation Guide

Airports

The two main airports in the country are the Luang Prabang International Airport (IATA Code: LPQ) and Wattay International Airport, Vientiane (IATA Code: VTE). There are about 10 domestic and international airports at Loas, spread across different provinces.

Railways/ Train

LCR trains in Laos

Since 2021, the Lao-China Railway (LCR) has been running between Laos and China. It connects Vientiane, the capital of Laos, to Boten, China, passing through Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, and Luang Namtha. The trains are speedy, economical, and more comfortable than minivans. They stick to their schedules, and delays are promptly shown on the station’s big board. Traveling through the northern region of Laos, you’ll enjoy stunning mountain views and pass through numerous tunnels carved through them.

Train Stations

Laos railway station

Laos train stations are spacious, with ample waiting areas for passengers. When you arrive, your passport and tickets are checked, your luggage is scanned, and everyone undergoes a security check. Passengers can enter the platform up to 30 minutes before departure. Make sure to keep your ticket safe, as it’s scanned both when entering and exiting the platform.

  • There are toilets and free drinking water available at the railway station
  • You can find shops here to grab some quick snacks and drinks. But the prices are slightly higher.

Train Booking

You can book train tickets up to three days before your trip. It’s wise to book ahead, especially for weekends and during Chinese and Lao holidays. Train fares are usually the same or even cheaper than minivan fares for a basic seat.

At the Counter

The tickets must be purchased at the counter at least 30 minutes before the departure of the train.

Online

The LCR app, available on the App Store and Play Store, is the official way to book train tickets in Laos. It’s the easiest and most convenient option. Booking through the app incurs a service fee starting from 5000 KIP (0.25 USD).

From Tourist Agencies/ Private Apps

  • You can change the ticket by paying a surcharge of 20000 KIP, for instance, if you wish to book a different train/ timing.
  • A passport number, expiry date, and issue place are needed to book the ticket. It is better to carry them with you.
  • The tickets and announcements are in Lao, Mandarin, and English.

Facilities Onboard

Inside look of the Lao-China Railway trains
  • All the classes on the train are air-conditioned. 
  • The leg space is spacious and convenient. With push-back seats, overhead luggage space, dining table in front of the seats, it has world-class amenities.
  • The seats are randomly allocated when the booking is done. The seats are arranged 3 + 2.
  • You cannot find Wi-Fi at the train station or onboard. No signal was observed while transiting.
  • A digital scrolling board displays the train’s speed and other information, such as temperature.
  • Smoking is prohibited onboard.
  • A restroom is available on either end of the compartment.
  • Each compartment is equipped with two 360-degree cameras. You can also walk from one compartment to another inside the train.
  • Staff are available at every compartment, and officials are seen on the rounds.
  • You can buy food onboard by paying. The staff will come through the alleys to serve you, and the trash will be collected shortly after.
  • The trains are kept neat and clean. A cleaning person is always on the rounds, taking care of the cleanliness of the running trains.

Road Transport

In Laos, well-maintained roads are rare. Paved roads often have potholes, especially on side streets. Main roads are paved, but city-side streets are usually unpaved or in bad shape. Dirt roads are muddy and sandy, so drive slowly at 10-20 km/hour for safety. Protect yourself from dust kicked up by passing vehicles. During the rainy season, roads get slippery and more difficult to navigate.

City Buses

Outside the capital city, Vientiane, there are no city buses to get around. In Vientiane, locals can assist you in finding the right bus route and number. Some bus signs have both English and Lao names, while others are only in Lao. In cities like Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, locals use shared taxis called Sonthaews for daily travel. Tourists often rent scooters or bicycles to explore these areas.

In Vientiane and Luang Prabang, there are two main bus stations: the southern and the northern. Buses heading north leave the northern terminal, while those going south depart from the southern terminal.

Intercity Buses

Due to limited routes and schedules, Laos lacks reliable public bus options, especially for tourists. During our one-month trip, we relied on minivans and sleeper buses instead of intercity buses.

Limousine or Minivan

Flat tyres in Laos

Locals and tourists widely use minivans and limousines for travel in Laos. When you buy one at the ticket counter at the bus stations, you’ll receive a physical ticket. The driver collects tickets from passengers before the minivan departs. If there are no direct minivans, you can stop in a city or town and catch another one. For instance, we switched minivans at Savannakhet on our trip from Pakse to Thakhek.

There’s usually a rest stop for trips longer than 4 hours. However, we had no breaks on our 3-hour journey from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang. In southern Laos, vendors often sell snacks inside the minivans when they stop for passengers to board. Sometimes, the air conditioning might not be on for the whole trip, but the doors remain closed. Vomiting inside minivans is a common occurrence in Laos.

In minivans designed for 14+1 seats, around 17-20 people squeeze in by adding extra stools between seats. Despite the tight fit, the minivans are kept clean and well-maintained, with no trash inside. Minivans have minimal luggage room, often stacking bags in the back or tying them on the roof. To protect fragile or valuable items like cameras, keep them in a small bag with you.

Sleeper Buses

For trips over 5 hours, consider using inter-city sleeper buses. However, be prepared for potentially longer travel times due to road conditions. We opted for sleeper buses on our journey from Thakhek to Vientiane. The beds were comfortable and designed for couples, but no onboard restrooms existed. Rest stops aren’t provided unless requested, but pillows and bedsheets are provided.

Sleeper buses are kept clean, with no trash inside, and passengers are asked to remove their shoes. You’ll receive a plastic bag for your footwear. Luggage is stored below the bus, so keep fragile or valuable items like cameras in a small bag.

Driving Skills

Road conditions on the Pakse loop

Most drivers in Laos drive quickly but safely, adhering to traffic rules and rarely honking. Despite the many potholes, we didn’t feel like the driving was reckless, but road trips are often bumpy. Flat tires are common, but drivers are skilled and carry tools and spare tires, and they can fix a flat in about 15 minutes, ensuring minimal delays.

Booking & Price

You can book both minivans and sleeper buses through tourist agencies, hostels, homestays, or directly at bus stations. The process is the same for both options.

Prices at bus stations are fixed and generally lower, but if the station is far from the city, it’s better to book through tour agencies or your accommodation. Tickets from agencies or accommodations may include pickup service fees and a small commission, but sometimes, they offer better deals than bus stations. For example, we found a better deal from a tour agency for the Pakse to Thakhek route than the bus station.

We strongly advise against booking minivans online in Laos, as prices can be excessively high. While you can find them on platforms like 12GoAsia, it’s best to avoid them. Additionally, remember that seating is allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, even if you book in advance, for both minivans and sleeper buses in Laos.

Taxi/ Cab

In Laos, the well-known Grab taxi service isn’t available. Instead, locals in Vientiane and Luang Prabang use a taxi service called “Loca,” which you can find on the App Store/ Play Store. Another option is Vietnam’s Xanh SM taxi service, which is available on the App Store/ Play Store and now operates in Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Savannakhet. These services are handy for city sightseeing.

Renting Two-wheelers/ Bicycle

Pakse Bolaven loop, Laos

Two-wheeler rental services are widespread across Laos and are available in most cities and tourist spots. Automatic and semi-automatic bikes are commonly found. You need an international driving license to ride in Laos, but police usually don’t stop you if you wear a helmet. Rental services typically don’t require an international license, only asking for your original passport (not recommended) or national ID as a deposit. Cash deposits are also accepted. Insurance for bikes is not provided in Laos.

Semi-automatic bikes rent for 100,000 to 150,000 KIP daily, while automatic bikes range from 150,000 to 200,000 KIP. Cycling is popular for exploring local areas, with many shops and agencies offering bikes and e-bikes for rent. Prices can be negotiated, with some shops offering rentals for 24 hours and others for the day.

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