For four weeks over February and March, 2015, my wife and I traveled the North and South of Laos. In this being one of our first stops of a longer trip, it took us some time to get back into our travel shoes. As much as we loved visiting different parts of the countryside, we found a lot of challenges with getting direct, helpful information as we went – particularly related to Laos’ transport system and with what seemed to be a push for private transport options only. So, with this in mind, we thought we’d put up a helpful post for other weary travelers…
Word to the wary, when you are told that there are no local buses and the only options are mini-vans and VIP buses, take that kindhearted smile that came with that advice with a large grain of salt. From what we found, it can be very difficult to get a direct answer from travel agents, guesthouses, locals and even bus station attendants in the areas between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang – Vientiene can be better, as long as you end up at the right bus station at the right time.
When we first arrived, this confusion left us feeling as though the complete lack of transparency was rooted in some sort of deceitful ploy to take advantage of us and other ‘farangs’ (foreigners). Hehe – pretty sure that wasn’t the case. In all fairness, sometimes there was some truth in the not knowing. Though, as in many places, there were plenty of other times where that misinformation truly did stem from someone trying to make a commission off of us… Welcome to being on the road during peak season and to just not being ‘in the know’.
The below is a list for some of the fairs and costs between well known stops over February & March of 2015. Hope you can learn from some of our lessons and some of our mistakes.
Vientienne -> Vang Vieng: 40,000 Kip/person by minivan (4 hours)
Seemed to be a good option with door to door drop off and no clear facts coming out of the central bus station. If you want to travel by local bus, you will need to depart from the Northern station. It is worth trying to find someone offering some straight advice about the departure timings out of the Northern bus terminal – we had no luck and didn’t want to spend the extra time to travel there and back as we were planning, so opted the easier route of going by minivan.
Vang Vieng -> Luang Prabang: 90,000 Kip/person for minivan
This is for door to door service, but the price was quite steep for a four to six hour ride. As we tried to find out how the Laotians were traveling from one point to the other, we found it to be very difficult to get an honest answer from anyone (and we did spend a long time trying). From travel agents to guesthouses and local shop owners, everyone told us that there were NO local buses and even the bus station ticket counter only offered to sell us inflated tickets at 100,000 Kip for a minivan and 110,000 Kip for a ‘VIP’ bus. If you are feeling slightly adventurous, it could be worth trying to find out the route of the ‘phantom’ local buses passing in that direction and flag them down on the main road – again, sadly, we had no luck with the public transport.
Luang Prabang ->Nong Khaiw: 70,000 Kip for minivan (6 hours)
Luang Praban, like Vang Vieng, seems to be a city taken over by tourists during the peak season. This results in a fairly common practice of everyone trying to make a commission off of you… Unlike Vientiene and Vang Vieng, where the minivans are quite an efficient racket, you will see how haphazardly the whole transport system is setup for herding foreigners on towards their next destinations. here As the system seems to go, most pickups are half an hour to an hour and a half late from the travel agents, where a shared songthauw will then pick you up, to then drop you off at the minivan departure station. Minivans will only depart once they are full, so check on which ones are heading to your destination and make sure you’ve got one that looks comfy. It is a bumpy ride going North and it will take you a solid six hours.
Nong Khaiw -> Muang Ngoi: 25,000 Kip/person by boat.
They depart at 11 AM and 2 PM from the boat landing. Very straight forward and quite a beautiful ride. Just make sure to get your tickets an hour in advance, as boats do fill up quickly. Ride takes roughly one hour upstream.
Muang Ngoi -> Nong Khaiw: 25,000 Kip/person by boat.
Shared boats only leave at 9:30 AM, but there does not seem to be a limit as to the number of boats departing at that time. We saw about 3 different boats all departing then and were guessing that it just depends on how many tickets are sold. Still, smart to get there an hour before to get your tickets. Ticket booth opens promptly at 8 AM. Ride takes about 40 minutes down stream.
Nong Khaiw -> Vientiene: ~150,000 Kip/person by local bus.
We found that most shop owners and trekking agencies were more helpful with finding where the one local bus passes – the guys at Green Discovery were particularly helpful for us. There is no real set departure time other than that you should be ready to go from 5 PM onwards for the night bus going to Vientiene coming from the eastern province – it could be 5, could be 6 or could be as late as 8pm. The trip will take roughly 12 hours, which is remarkably good time considering the number of stops. You can catch this nightly bus (on the same side of the main bridge as the boat landing – I believe that is West?) at the same junction where you would turn for Green Travels. Bus is what we like to call a “semi-sleeper” in India, meaning seats recline… a bit.
Vientiene -> Kong Lo (Ban Nahim) Please Note: 100,000 Kip/person for the direct minivan to Kong Lo Village is a GOOD DEAL. This is a newer option, which allows you to bypass Ban Nahim and go directly to the village, which is quite nice. Many guesthouses in the central city area will organize.
We opted for the local route, which was comprised of the following to Ban Nahim and a day trip to Kong Lo Caves:
- Vientiene (city center) -> Talat Sao (central bus station) 5,000 Kip/person by shared songthauw
- Talat Sao -> Dong Dek (southern bus station) 3,000 Kip/person by local bus. Get on a bus with people already on it so you don’t get stuck waiting. Allow for about 30 minutes for the ride from central to southern stations in the mornings.
- Southern Bus Station -> Ban Nahim 35,000 Kip/person for local bus ONLY for 5, 6 & 7 AM departures. Later departures will cost you double at 70,000 Kip/person. This ride will take you a solid 6 hours with stops and the loading and unloading of goods. So mark out your seats and make friends with your neighbors 🙂
- Ban Nahim -> Kong Lo Village 25,000 Kip one-way by shared songthauw. This ride can be quite packed in the mornings and can take up to one and a half hours with loading and unloading of passengers and goods. Departure times are listed at the main taxi/bus stand. Ours left promptly at 10 AM. Returning the same day can cost you more if there are not many passengers, but the same driver will most likely wait at the caves for you in hopes of your return. Prepare to bargain. Just remember that it is beneficial for both of you to return.
Ban Nahim -> Pakse (two parts)
- Ban Nahim -> Thakek 50,000 Kip/person by shared songtauw.This ride departs sharply at 8 AM and will take you about 4 hours.
- Thakek -> Pakse 60,000 Kip/person by local bus. Can be quite packed with numerous locals standing for the first hour. Full duration of this trip is 6 hours. Pretty sure ther are multiple departures, but check at the ticket counter and with the buses. Get your ticket at the counter in order to pay the correct fee.
Pakse -> Don Det (Four Thousand Islands) 60,000 Kip/person for minivan with pick up and ferry is a GREAT DEAL. If you find it, take it! You can find this deal at a few guesthouses and travel agents. We, unfortunately, passed on this in hopes that we could save some going the local route… Ended up costing us 65,000 Kip/person. Details included below:
- Pakse (center) -> “8 KM” Bus Terminal 10,000-15,000 Kip/person for a songtauw. It will take about 20 minutes and your best bet for getting a cheaper songtauw is to flag down one that is driving by that already has passengers.
- 8 KM Bus Terminal -> Ferry Point 40,000 Kip/person by shared songtauw.You can expect this to be a long, hot journey that will take you a solid four hours.
- Ferry -> Don Det 15,000 Kip/person by boat. This will take you roughly 15 minutes to cross once enough passengers have purchased tickets.