The national carrier, Lao Airlines (Pangkham Rd., Vientiane; tel. 021/512-028; www.laoairlines.com) is the only domestic airline in Laos. It used to have a very bad reputation for safety, and indeed the United Nations banned its staff from using it. It has improved greatly in the last decade. They fly in both directions from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Pakse, Phonsavan, Udomxai, Huay Xai, Luang Nam Tha, and Savannakhet; and from Luang Prabang to Pakse and Phonsavan.
Lao Air (tel. 021/513-022; www.lao-air.com) is small airline based at Wattay Airport serving remote areas in northern Laos. They fly from Vientiane to Sam Nua, Xayabury, and Phongsaly. You can find the full up-to-date schedule on their website. You can pay with a credit card if in Vientiane or Luang Prabang, but if elsewhere you will need cash. Flights can be heavily booked over holiday periods such Lao New Year, so book well in advance. It's recommended that you confirm your flights a day or two in advance.
The bus system has vastly improved over the last few years in coverage, speed, and comfort. Nevertheless, taking a long-distance bus in Laos can be an arduous option, and may be very slow and often quite crowded. Quality really varies. Buses can also be packed with other passengers' luggage or great piles of goods being transported from one place to another. Buses are slow, so unless you're in a big hurry it will help your blood pressure to plan trips in short stages.
On major routes, minibuses will parallel the public buses for a few more dollars. They are certainly faster though not any more comfortable, since you will still be crammed in and they swing around the bends in a way that can make your head spin.
Air-conditioned VIP buses (often from the magnificently named company "King of Bus") ply the routes between major towns. On the long journey from Champasak to Vientiane, there are many companies offering sleeper buses with your own curtained-off bunk. The VIP buses are best booked through a travel agent or your hotel. VIP buses vary considerably between air-conditioned luxury to vehicles piled high with luggage and added chaos.
When you are in the mountainous north, whichever of these options you take the driver will most likely be issuing all passengers with a plastic bag or two. That is because these mountain roads bring whole new meaning to the words "travel sick."
Finally, there is that mainstay of Lao transport, the songthaeaw. This is a van with a covered rear with two benches (the word means "two rows" in Lao) on either side facing each other. They tend to cover smaller local journeys, though you certainly can take them all the way on longer routes if you are feeling particularly sociable.
The river used to be the main means of transport in Laos. That has changed rapidly as the whole country progresses to being sealed and paved, and road transport has undercut river transport in both money and time. Yet for tourists who look forward to the experience of slow river trips through jungled limestone canyons, it is a different story. The journey down from Huay Xai in the north to Pakbeng remains very popular and a number of companies run vessels of varying luxury. You can book a ticket from a travel agent on the Thai side of the border in Chiang Khong before you cross, though this is not recommended because you won't see what you are getting. For the normal tourist boat, you can simply walk through immigration in Huay Xai and then wander down to where the boats are moored and buy a ticket for $20. The trip can be wonderful unless the boat is too crowded, so that is something to watch out for. The boats leave when they have enough passengers loaded on, and the trip takes about 6 to 8 hours. One tends to leave by about 10am and arrive around 4:30pm. Pakbeng has transformed from the sleepiest of backwaters only a decade ago to a place flooded with tourist money, so people may be pushy. Boat traffic south of Luang Prabang is virtually nonexistent. Elsewhere in the country you can charter your own boat, but that is expensive and logistically complicated.
Warning: Speedier but Scarier -- If you are in a hurry, the quickest way to move is by Lao speedboat -- a narrow flat-bottomed skiff with an outsize car engine bolted to the back that skims the surface of the water at 50 mph (80 km/h), shooting rapids and narrowly missing boulders. If you do reach your destination, you will do it very quickly. Huay Xai to Luang Prabang takes about 6 hours and costs $30.
Passengers are required to wear a helmet and a life jacket, with very good reason. These craft are extremely dangerous with a track record of accidents. If you do choose to take your life in your hands, it's definitely an experience for the adrenaline junkie. It is, at turns, both exhilarating and terrifying as you imagine the bottom of the boat being ripped out and yourself disemboweled by the needle-sharp points just below the surface of the churning water. It is worth remembering that medical care in northern Laos is basic to say the least. At the time of writing, speedboat service on the route from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang had been suspended due to noise disruption and accidents. It was still running on the Nam Ou River from Phonsaly to Muong Khua.
By Motorcycle & Car
Laos offers an experience only one stop away from nirvana for those who like their scenery served up on two wheels. Not long ago most of the country was strictly dirt bike territory, but now that is ancient history. These days you can tour most of the country on a heavy Harley Davidson or a Triumph Bonneville if you so wish. Most of the main roads are surfaced and there is little traffic, although you want to keep a careful eye out for what there is. The scenery in northern Laos is unparallel -- one descends from huge mountains into vistas of limestone karst outcrops that stretch as far as the eye can see. If this is your cup of tea, take Rte. 13 from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang.
In Laos you are required to wear a helmet by law, but you will notice that most people don't. Wear one anyway and make sure it fits well and is of adequate quality. Wear gloves and a jacket, and make sure you have goggles or a visor. Both bugs and dust can be a problem. Above all, ride slowly to give yourself plenty of reaction time. The traffic may be sparse, but dogs, pigs, snakes, goats, water buffalo, and small children are unpredictable and appear out of nowhere. Also be aware that drivers in Lao, particularly Vientiane, are aggressive. Keep space around you. For up-to-date and in-depth info from real motorcycling experts check out www.gt-rider.com. A bike suitable for touring, generally 250cc dirt bikes, costs $25 a day and can be hired in Vientiane.
If you are pushed for time and want to undertake an organized motorcycle or self-guided tour tailored to your needs, but with expert support, Remote Asia (www.remoteasia.com) in Vientiane are the experts. They offer a range of services including motorcycle rental (ranging from well maintained 400cc cruising road bikes to 250cc dirt bikes), equipment rental, plus a flexible range of tour options. They'll design an itinerary that will cater to your needs and ensure you don't waste a precious minute of your motorcycling adventure. They will also keep in touch with you along the way to make sure everything is running as planned and smooth the way if you alter your plans on a whim.
If you want to rent a runaround to see the sites, you can hire a 100cc-to-125cc step-through in most towns of any size for $5 and $15. Some are Thai-made and some are Chinese-made -- the Thai-made bikes are better.
You can rent a car to drive yourself if you wish, but generally it costs no more to hire one with a driver who is used to the roads, knows where he is going, and is responsible for any damage or breakdowns. Your hotel or a travel agent will be able to organize a car and driver for about $50 a day. If you want to drive yourself, the most established options are LaoWheels (tel. 021/223-663 or 020/550-4604), which provides a very friendly personal service (there's no address; you just call them up), or Asia Vehicle Rental (354 -- 356 Samsenthai Rd.; tel. 021/217-493; www.avr.laopdr.com), which rents a range of cars, pickups, and bikes.
By Tuk-Tuk & Jumbo
These three-wheeled vehicles are ideal for short journeys around town. Jumbos (found only in Vientiane) are a bit larger than tuk-tuks, and their engine and cabin size mean they can carry more people. Both are generally motorbikes with a trailer welded to the back and cost about 25¢ per kilometer. In both Luang Prabang and Vientiane, you will need to haggle hard.
For serious cyclists, as with serious motorcyclists, Laos is love at first sight. The good roads, sparse traffic, and fantastic scenery make it one of the best countries for cycling in all of Asia. Most cyclists bring their own bike, but you can rent one in most towns, and companies run organized tours, particularly Green Discovery (www.greendiscoverylaos.com). You should be aware that some of the maps of Laos are a bit far-fetched and they shouldn't be relied on. Gradients can be misleading and in northern Laos that can be a real problem. You will need some preparation for the hills and the heat. You should let others know where and when you are going. In southern Laos it is not too much of an issue, but parts of the north are a little wilder. Getting lifts on the backs of trucks and getting on buses with a bike is no problem, and there's no extra cost.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.