Well, as far as I know, there is no train so that’s out. Anyway, we’ve traveled through Laos on both airplane and bus (and tuk-tuk) and I wanted to share our experiences so you can decide the best way to travel if you ever visit.
We caught Laos Airlines (f/k/a Laos Aviation) from Siem Reap (Cambodia) to Luang Prabang, Laos (greatest city name ever). This was the most bizarre air travel experience I have ever had. We arrived at the airport too early. After asking if we were on the Luang Prabang flight before being let into the airport (presumably that was the only flight?), we were checked in and given a sticker saying “TRANSIT” that we were to wear as a badge. Although our itinerary mentioned no stop, my suspicion was that we would make one on the way. We passed through security and I was shocked to find that the airport had free wifi, an impressive selection of duty free, and a nice coffee shop. Remember, this was Cambodia after all, and not a big city. We sat down with our coffees and internet devices and settled in for the 1.5 hour wait for our flight. When we had just gotten comfortable, an airport staff member came to us and asked if we were on ten Luang Prabang flight. When we said yes, she asked us to board — an hour early. Needless to say, we were confused. As we passed the boarding gate, we asked what was happening and were told that “this flight always leaves early.” I also asked about the transport stickers and was told that we had to stop in Pakse to pick up some more passengers.
I must admit that I was a bit nervous in advance of the flight because I knew we would be flying on a turboprop and Laos Airlines had a spotty safety record (which supposedly has been rectified with the purchase of all new aircraft). Anyhow it was clear that the plane was brand new. It was also clear that we had practically chartered our own aircraft, as there were 11 people total on board while the plane had at least 80 seats. I guess that’s why the tickets were $260.
We really did take off 40 minutes early, we stopped in Pakse and picked up five or so more people, then continued to our destination, arriving about an hour early. The plane was immaculate, empty, and without any foul airplane odors. We also were served a meal of little rolls made of sweet bread and bacon and dessert on each leg which were respectively one and one and half hours each. Sure, it was expensive, but the whole experience was pleasant and surreal.
For some reason we hadn’t considered flying from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Instead we just signed up for seats on the VIP bus (I have no idea how it qualified for that title), knowing that the ride would be long (we thought maybe 9 hours), but that we would be able to enjoy beautiful scenery along the way. We were told that the roads weren’t so comfortable because they hadn’t been fixed following the rainy season, but I failed to contemplate the treacherous narrow, windy, and uneven “roads” that weave throughout the mountains. The bus also left something to be desired. For the first five or six hours of the drive we drove sometimes as slow as 10 kilometers in an hour on the edge of cliffs. I was close to vomiting on a couple of occasions (and a number of locals actually did). Sadly, once we exited the mountains the speed did not increase much and we blew a tire. In the end it took us 12 hours to travel 386 kilometers (240 miles). We arrived hungry, mentally exhausted, and filthy, but happy to be alive. Oh, and I almost forgot — before left, we found out that a flight to Vientiane only cost about 85 dollars. Slight oversight.
You be the judge, but I think I am officially retiring from long haul bus journeys.