This landlocked, deeply traditional country has historically relied solely upon the widespread dispersal of its rivers as the sole mode of transport, for both people and goods. Stemming from the mighty Mekong River, the waterway truly is the lifeblood of Laos. Even as roads have developed between major cities and towns, the water network has still been the preferred transport option for Lao people.
In more recent years, popular tourism spots have also developed along particularly picturesque sections of water. With backpackers having opted to wind through the lush green jungle and mountainous countryside by boat, rather than travelling by road in Laos.
Controversial investment from China of several huge hydroelectric dams has however now put an end to many of the routes leaving locals and tourists alike no option but to travel by road.
In such an impoverished country it’s no surprise that the government have been keen to harness their main asset. But in their quest to become the ‘Battery of South-East Asia’ there have been many questions raised regarding the environmental impact of the project.
It is also a worry how communities will be affected by the development. After all the Mekong river is the world’s largest freshwater fishery and fishermen and farmers up and down Laos rely upon it solely to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families.
That’s a debate for another day anyway.
In travelling around Laos entirely by road we of course spent quite a lot of time in buses and learnt a lot about how this method of transportation works in the country. Here’s everything you need to know about travelling by bus in Laos.
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Poor Road Quality in Laos
Despite many being fairly new investments, the quality of roads in Laos is extremely poor and even brand new roads have chunks missing out of them, making journeys very bumpy. I'm talking hitting your head on the ceiling of the vehicle kind of bumpy.
The roads are also so windy that it can quite often feel like you're on a roller coaster about to lose your breakfast. This is in part due to the highly mountainous and deep valley terrain, but also through lack of available quality materials, skills and machinery in this developing country.
With sections of road often just missing altogether Lao people are well versed on the turbulent journeys and can often be seen handing sick bags around at the start. In spite of the conditions of the roads the driving is actually pretty safe and can be quite fun if you’ve remembered to take some motion sickness pills.
We only really felt anxious on one occasion where our minibus driver was trying to overtake a huge lorry with a banana delivery bound for China.
Don't Travel at Night in Laos
Laos is the only country we have been to so far where I would not recommend taking an overnight bus to save on accommodation costs. Unless you are packing some serious sleeping pills you won't sleep a wink so it's just not worth it. The roads are also completely unlit and it's not uncommon for vehicles, especially motorbikes to travel without headlights.
In a country with zero road safety legislation the rider might be sporting a head torch if you are lucky. Also any combination of pigs, chickens, dogs, buffalo and kids can also be found meandering across the roads at any given time. For this reason be prepared for noisy journeys too, as drivers are constantly on the horn through many of the villages.
But more importantly than a crappy night's sleep, overnight travel is not the best idea on some stretches of road due to reports of night time violent ambushes and kidnappings. Route 13 between Vang Vieng and Luang Probang, the new road between Kasi, route 4 and much of the Xaisomboum province are notoriously risky.
However, although there are still infrequent instances it's not as dangerous as it once was and bus drivers generally no longer carry weapons as they used too. We travelled all the way up route 13 during the day without an issue but always check current tourist safety for up to date information on journeys before setting off by road in Laos.
Travel Delays in Laos
Poverty is widespread in Laos and so vehicles are not necessarily well maintained, which in combination with the crazily uneven roads mean breakdowns are frequent. Needing to maximise income, many buses also won't leave until they are full (or overfull to be exact) despite having a departure time.
You should have slightly more luck with the private minivans that many tour agencies offer, just because there's less people to coordinate and they tend to be in better condition. They are also generally a little more comfortable as ‘usually’ they have less people packed on and are quicker because they are smaller.
Public transport buses have to be in very low gears on the frequent steep uphill stretches and downhill sections of roads. And if they get stuck behind a slow moving lorry expect to be stuck there for sometime unable to pick up sufficient speed to overtake.
On one journey we had 40 people packed into a clapped out 30 seater bus with everyone’s luggage, including a motorbike, strapped on top so you can probably appreciate it struggled a little to pick up any speed quickly. The journey was so long but actually really great. Lao people are so kind and generous - we certainly weren't short of snacks on that bus.
Cost of Bus Travel in Laos
One good thing about the poor road infrastructure in Laos is that there aren't actually very many roads, and so it would be hard to not follow exactly where you are. Most roads just run from A to B. Most drivers also speak some English if you need to ask anything and despite often being late, journeys are generally well organised.
There are no toilets on board buses but regular stops are made for bathroom and meal breaks - usually really thoughtfully actually at picturesque stopping points. You'll have to pay for using the toilets so make sure you have change - usually 2,000 KIP (20p).
When travelling by bus in Laos, your bag’s going on the roof. So make sure you have a waterproof cover for it. Mostly drivers do put a plastic sheet over but don't bank on it, that last thing you want is all your belongings soaking wet. We travelled through Laos in the wet season and it rained. A lot.
You should do this for security anyway, but for this reason be sure to have all your electronics (and anything else that would get ruined if wet) packed into your carry on day pack to keep with you inside the bus. Also air-con isn't a thing so be prepared to take some layers off, have plenty of water with you and something you can fan yourself with.
Prices for both public transport buses and private minivans in Laos are reasonable, although naturally hiked up for tourists. We paid approximately £15 each for 8 hour journeys between Vientiane - Luang Prabang and Luang Prabang - Luang Namtha, then £8 each for a 4 journey from Luang Namtha to Houayxai.
We didn’t book any in advance and just booked for next day departures through agencies or the guesthouse we were staying in. So even with their slice of commission it works out around £2 each per hour - which is a bargain by anyone's standards.
Getting Around Laos
Another thing to bear in mind when travelling by road in Laos is that bus stations are nearly always at least 5km out of the town. So unless you are seriously into your exercise, you will need to get a tuk tuk into the centre.
They are usually pretty cheap. But it also often works out better value to buy travel packages from agencies or guesthouses, rather than haggling with a tuk tuk driver to make your own way to the bus station and buying tickets from there.
If you are travelling by a local bus be sure to arrive early at the bus station in order to snag a seat. Buses are crammed to the brim with people often sitting on each other's knees and on the floor. It's also a good idea to strategically pick your seat on the middle of the vehicle if you can to minimise motion sickness.
After witnessing a horrific accident in Colombia where the near side of bus was ripped off by a collision with oncoming traffic, we also always arrive early try to sit on the far side of the bus. I'm not sure if we'll ever get out of that mindset.
With several airports dotted around Laos, you can of course fly if your budget can take the hit. But to experience the real Laotian countryside my advice would be to go by road if you can stomach it - and that’s coming from someone with acute travel sickness!
Many villages have been built quite literally alongside roads and so you get to glimpse into the fascinating community life, in between being witness to the dramatic mountainous landscapes on route. For us, part of the charm of travelling in this gorgeous country was the journeys we took along the windy bumpy roads, squashed in with the Lao people, hoping our bags didn't fall off the top of the roof!
Not answered all your questions about travelling by road in Laos? Drop us a comment below and we'll do our best to help. Travelled by bus in Laos before? What was your experience like? Any tips to share?