Laos is a land of majestic beauty with plenty of natural attractions for expats to visit. Most of the landlocked country's terrain consists of rugged mountains and thick forests, and until recently, Laos has not undergone major industrialisation or infrastructural development.
As a result, few reliable transport options exist in Laos. The country's road network is limited and mostly unpaved, and many rural Laotians still travel by oxcart, by foot or by canoe.
In recent years, The Lao government has worked on its vision to transition from a landlocked to a land-linked nation, connecting to neighbouring countries with highways and rails. As part of its Belt and Road Initiative, China contributed to the Boten–Vientiane railway, opening a transport artery from Laos's capital to China's southern border.
Public transport in Laos
The Boten–Vientiane line offers by far the quickest and most pleasant method to travel in Laos. Both electric/high-speed (EMU) and regular trains run, with the EMU services operating at up to 99 miles per hour (160 km/h). Tickets can be difficult to get, as the railway is very popular.
Buses, minibuses and songtaew
Buses, minibuses, and converted lorries (songtaew) are available for transportation on the key highways linking Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet, all of which are paved.
Given the many winding, steep and rough roads, overland trips can be long and uncomfortable, and minibuses can be cramped. Songtaew are pickup trucks or small lorries with roofs, open sides and two rows of bench seating. These are predominant on rougher and unpaved roads. Expats can also spring for a 'VIP bus', a conventional bus with air conditioning, snacks and more space and amenities than the other options.
Expats can travel along the Mekong and its tributaries either by slow boat or fast boat. Some routes are only available during the wet season floods, as the depth and navigability of the Mekong vary depending on the time of year. Additionally, Laos's hydroelectric dam projects have interrupted many historical routes.
Although slow boats take more than twice as long to make the same trip, fast boats have a reputation for being loud, crowded and dangerous, driven at breakneck speeds and barely missing driftwood or submerged rocks. Expats who still choose this option should consider life vests and helmets compulsory.
Taxis in Laos
Tuk-tuks, Skylabs and jumbos
The most common form of taxi in Laos is the tuk-tuk, and these come in a few different flavours. Tuk-tuks are a great way to make short commutes, as they are nimble and versatile enough to navigate unpredictable driving conditions.
The original tuk-tuk has a partially enclosed driving cab, while Skylabs have a motorcycle-shaped, semi-open front cab. Skylabs have quite large passenger cabs and can easily seat eight or more passengers. Jumbos are similar in design to Skylabs but with less passenger space and smaller engines.
When picked up by an empty songtaew, expats should make sure to ask whether it is operating as a bus or taxi. When operating as a bus, songtaew have fixed routes and lower fees, while as taxis they go to the requested destination for a higher fee.
As well as hailing down a taxi on the road, expats can use a ride-hailing service. At the moment, international ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are not available, but LOCA is a well-trusted local Lao ride-hailing service.
Driving in Laos
In Laos, cars drive on the right side of the road and overtake on the left. Congestion is relatively low, even in central Vientiane, but driving conditions can be haphazard, and expats should practice defensive driving. If an expat is involved in a traffic collision, authorities are likely to side with the local regardless of fault, and the expat may be on the hook for the other party's property damage and injuries. Although insurance is necessary, it might not pay out for these costs. Outside of the main cities, driving conditions are poor, and expats are encouraged to opt for a four-wheel-drive vehicle or one with good clearance.
Given the above factors, many expats who use a car to get around will hire a personal driver. If renting a car, this can be arranged at a car rental agency.
To drive in Laos, expats will need an International Driving Permit (IDP). Although expats from China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia can drive in Laos with their home country's licence, car rental agencies often require an IDP from all expats. Expats staying in Laos for longer than a year will need to take a driving test and obtain a local driving licence.
Cycling in Laos
Given the low levels of traffic in Laos, cycling is quite a viable mode of transport. In fact, many locals cycle as their primary means of getting around. There are a number of guided cycling tours for those who want to cycle throughout Laos. One downside is that there are few cycling shops outside of Vientiane, so a major breakdown could jeopardise an expat's trip if they cycle further afield.
Air travel in Laos
Laos has international airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, linking Laos to the Southeast Asia region. Besides flights between these three major airports, there are smaller flights to provincial capitals. Within Laos, the state carrier Lao Airlines has a near-total monopoly on flights, though the development of the high-speed train has provided a safe, cost-effective and speedy alternative to air travel in Laos.