Planning a Trip
Only a decade ago, Laos was a very difficult country to get around. When there were roads, they were usually dreadful. The domestic airline, then called Lao Aviation, had a reputation for plummeting as much as flying horizontally. Anywhere outside of the most touristed areas, facilities were often reduced to a level of cold water, no electricity, and food that could flatteringly be described as basic. In short, it was an adventure.
That era seems like a different age when you travel in Laos today. In one short decade, almost all the main roads have been paved and sealed. Planes are now less likely to fall out of the sky and buses are now frequent (though it would be a lie to call them comfortable). Fresh hotels and guesthouses spring up every month in every category. In the major towns, one can sample high-quality French cuisine, while Lao food is distinctive and delicious. Laos also remains a cheap country for travel. The slow pace of life has been complemented by change rather than destroyed by it, and Laos's tranquillity now comes with a great deal less physical discomfort than was once the case. There are exceptions, Vang Vieng being the glaring example.
Having said all this, it is still a good idea to factor in plenty of time when traveling in Laos, since levels of efficiency are still not high.
In most cases, to get to Laos you will need to connect in Bangkok in Thailand first, since it is the major regional hub for onward travel all over the region. There are three international airports in Laos: Wattay International Airport (VTE; tel. 021/512-165), Luang Prabang International Airport (LPQ; tel. 071/212-856), and Pakse International Airport (PKZ; tel. 031/212-844). Savannakhet International Airport has just reopened and there are planned scheduled flights to Vientiane and an international flight to Udon Thani in Thailand.
Lao Airlines (www.laoairlines.com) is the national carrier and has domestic flights to all airports in the country as well as to Thailand, Cambodia, China, and Vietnam. In addition, Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com), Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com), and China Eastern Airlines (www.chinaeastern.com) serve Vientiane, while Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) and Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) serve Luang Prabang. Air Asia (www.airasia.com) runs flights from Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane. There are also flights to Pakse from Siem Reap in Cambodia and also from Bangkok on Bangkok Airways (Wed, Fri, Sun).
By Land Crossing
There are now many international land border crossings into Laos from neighboring countries. At most one is able to get a 30-day tourist visa on arrival. However, this is not always the case and it is important to check the situation before you set off for your intended destination.
From Cambodia, there are actually two border crossing points relatively close to one another. The first crossing is at Koh Chheuteal Thom on the Mekong River. The second is the road crossing at Dom Kralor. Note: Although Cambodian visas are officially available at the border, some travelers have reported problems. It is safer to have a Cambodian visa in advance.
From Thailand, Chong Mek/Vang Tao is the easiest and swiftest access route to southern Laos. Visa on arrival is available. There are good rail, bus, and air connections from Bangkok to the regional capital of Ubon Ratchathani just over an hour from the border at Chong Mek. From Ubon you can catch a scheduled bus to Chong Mek. Once in Chong Mek it takes a few minutes to walk through the border posts (although considerably longer to negotiate the paperwork). Once through to the Lao side songthaeaws will run you to Pakse in about an hour.
The second Friendship Bridge connecting Savannakhet in Laos to Mukdahan Province in Thailand was finished in 2006, and this is now the main transit route across Laos to Central Vietnam. Visa on arrival is available. Take a minibus from Mukdahan to the Friendship Bridge (your guesthouse can arrange this). Once through immigration take a tuk-tuk to the bright lights of Savannahkhet.
A simple river crossing connects Tha Khek in Laos to Nakhon Phanom in northwestern Thailand. The trip, on a floating vehicle platform, runs about six times a day. Visa on arrival is available. The two towns are right opposite each other and you can virtually exit the restaurant in Nakhon Phanom where you had a late breakfast and step off the ferry into a restaurant on the Lao side for an early lunch.
The mainland entry point from Thailand is at Nong Khai/Vientiane. Visa on arrival is available. The bridge is 22km (14 miles) from Vientiane and 2km (1 1/4 miles) from Nong Khai. Transport is easy at every stage. Since 2009, this is also where the international rail connection enters Laos with trains running direct from Bangkok's Hualamphong Station to Thanalaeng station near Vientiane. There is little point in staying on the train; it is far simpler to disembark in Nong Khai and cross the normal way.
Huay Xai/Chiang Khong is the northern entry point if you are making the river trip to Luang Prabang via Pakbeng. Visa on arrival is available.
If you're coming by land from Vietnam, you can cross from Sop Hun to Tay Trang. This consists of the road from the rugged former battlefield of Dien Bien Phu, which has only just recently opened to international travelers. Visa to Laos is available on arrival, but not so if you're going the other way. The road on the Lao side can close in rainy season.
NamCan to Nam Khan is a convenient crossing if you want to travel from Hanoi to Luang Prabang (although its still a bit of a slog from Hanoi to Vinh) and the rest of northern Laos. Visa to Laos is available on arrival, but the same is not true if entering Vietnam from Laos. There are buses covering the 12-hour, 400km (248-mile) trip from Vinh to Phonsavan. You actually can do the through trip all the way from Luang Prabang to Vinh, but it's not advised unless you are in a very great hurry or have tendencies to self harm since it is a fearsomely arduous journey of 690km (428 miles).
Dansavanh to Lao Bao was the first land border to open between Laos and Vietnam in the early '90s, and is now an international highway and the main artery from Thailand to Vietnam. The advantage of going this way is that on the Vietnamese side you are treated to the spectacular scenery around Khe Sanh. The disadvantage is that if you are doing Vietnam from north to south or south to north, this border crossing brings you right to the middle of the country near Da Nang and Hue. Visa to Laos is available on arrival, but a visa to Vietnam is not. Buses run directly from the Savannakhet on the Thai/Laos border to Hue in Vietnam.
If you are coming to Laos from China, crossing from Boten to Mengla between Luang Nam Tha province in Laos and Yunnan in China is the only option. Visa on arrival is available for Laos but unavailable for China if heading in the opposite direction.
From Cambodia, Sorya Transport (012/631-545; www.ppsoryatransport.com) runs a bus from Phnom Penh to Stung Treng on the Laos border. It leaves daily at 7:15am from the bus station south of the Central Market (the return trip also departs Stung Treng daily at 7:15am) and costs 42,000 riel. From Stung Treng, you can arrange transport to the border.
Getting from any major Thai town or city to any border crossing with Laos is a very simple task since buses are frequent, cheap, efficient, and ubiquitous. Buses from Bangkok's Morchit Northern Bus Terminal take about 9 hours and usually leave Bangkok in the evening and travel overnight. Tickets are 500 baht to 1,000 baht, depending on the quality of facilities on the bus.
There are also buses to all major cities in Vietnam from both Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Savanakhet and Pakse (direct buses are only from Vientiane to Hanoi and Savanakhet/Dong Ha).
You cannot reach Laos from Cambodia by train. In 2009, the extension of the railway line from Bangkok to Nong Khai was completed. The railway terminates at Vientiane's Thanalaeng station. It's easy to travel from Bangkok to Vientiane (or vice versa) by train on the daily overnight sleeper train direct from Bangkok to the new international rail terminal, about 13km (8 miles) outside Vientiane. This train uses the new rail link over the Friendship Bridge opened in March 2009, and you can then take a local bus or tuk-tuk to central Vientiane.
Alternatively, you can still travel between Bangkok and Vientiane the old way, using any of the Bangkok-Nong Khai trains, then making your own way by bus or taxi between Nong Khai and Vientiane. At present visas on arrival for Laos are not issued at Thanalaeng station, only at the Friendship Bridge, so you can only use the new through train northbound if you already have a visa for Laos. If not, you'll need to get off the train at Nong Khai and use road transport across the Friendship Bridge. From Nong Khai, take a local tuk-tuk from the railway station to Nong Khai bus station. A shuttle bus runs from the bus station across the Friendship Bridge to Laos every 20 minutes throughout the day. It costs about 30 baht. It stops at Thai immigration 5 minutes after leaving the bus station, then crosses the Friendship Bridge to arrive at Lao Customs and Immigration. You now remove your luggage from the bus and go through Lao Customs. Once through, take another tuk-tuk to your hotel. When traveling southbound, leave central Vientiane at least 3 hours before your train leaves Nong Khai for Bangkok in order to allow time for border formalities and the various bus/taxi journeys.