In this guide, we will explain all you need to know about domestic intercity bus travel in Laos and how you can best book your ticket.
Travel in Laos
Most people who travel through Laos are bound to take an intercity bus at some point in their itinerary. With online information being scarce, many travellers often wonder about exact timetables and ticket prices and how to actually book their ticket.
In this short guide, we will explain all you need to know about bus travel in Laos and the possible alternatives.
Just like any other country in south-east Asia, Laos has an extensive bus network serving almost every town in the country. Between the biggest cities and most important tourist destinations, there are several daily departures.
Depending on the exact departure you could find yourself travelling a normal bus, a minibus or in a sleeper bus with bunk beds or seats with massive recline (overnight routes only), although feedback varies when it comes to the actual comfort of such sleeping buses, with even many backpackers complaining that they didn’t manage to get some sleep at all.
The major companies operating buses in Laos are Vientiane Capital Bus Enterprise (also known as Vientiane City Bus), Malany Transport and Soutchai Travel, which are said to be all similar when it comes to reliability, price and comfort.
Although you could hop to the city’s bus station or one of the bus company offices throughout town to buy your ticket, this is not what I would recommend as it is the most time-consuming option.
Any hotel or hostel in Laos is able to arrange a bus ticket for you (in most cases for a very small commission of less than a dollar included in the ticket price). The advantages is that they can instantly confirm your seat on a bus an issue you a ticket.
Free city pick-up
Best of all, these tickets will always include travel to the actual bus station or departure point of the bus. For example, my 9.30am bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng included a pickup from my hotel. At 9am, a minibus arrived at my hotel, collected a few other passengers from nearby hotels and houses, and dropped us all off at the office of Soutchai Travel where the bus to Vang Vieng was already waiting for departure.
Needless to say, this saves you from dealing the hassle of buying the ticket yourself and getting to the departure point on your own. Unless you are a real penny pincher who makes a problem out of a few cents I really don’t understand why anyone would go for any other option.
It is best to arrange your bus ticket a day in advance to be sure of a seat.
From Vientiane to Vang Vieng
To travel from Vientiane to Vang Vieng my Vientiane hotel bought a ticket (around 4 EUR) with Soutchai Travel on the 9.30am bus, which included a hotel pickup at 9am.
For the full record, the company has another bus at 1.30pm. Vientiane Capital Bus Enterprise has three buses as we speak at 7.30am, 9.30am and 1pm costing the same.
How does a Laotian bus look like?
My bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng looked a bit old but was perfectly comfortable as far as buses go. As the load was only around 15 percent, there was plenty of place in the bus to stretch out. I ended up sitting right behind the bus driver, with the seat next to me remaining empty.
It takes about four-and-a-half hours from Vientiane to Vang Vieng on a perfectly fine asphalt road – although do not be surprised that the actual travel time might be an hour or so longer.
Laos is by far the most laidback country in the entire of south-east Asia and literally everything runs on “Laos Time”. Our bus departed some 15 minutes late and made an unscheduled stop at the outskirts of Vientiane after the driver received a phone call.
We waited for 20 minutes at the side of the road without an announcement to be made as of why, which seemingly angered some Germans on board who began to ask “vhy did ve stop?” and “vhen do ve continue?” repeatedly, forgetting that not every country in the world is as orderly and punctual as Germany.
After 20 minutes a car turned up at the side of the road and a Lao woman stepped out, only to enter our bus. It seemed that the company had a last-minute customer (or someone who missed the departure?) and waited for her to catch up. Unthinkable in Western Europe, perfectly normal in Laos. If it happens just remember you are in Laos and not at home – and take it with a smile!
Bizarrely, we made yet another unscheduled stop in the countryside between Vientiane and the midway point of the journey.
The bus driver took out a large inflatable toy of the bus and handed it over to a woman and child at the side of the road (his family?), casually stopping for five minutes to catch up with them.
It angered the Germans even more although I couldn’t care less when seeing the delightful smile of the little kid when receiving his gift. Just remember: Laos time!
The journey included a 20-minute stop at a gas station and rest area about halfway on the road to Vang Vieng.
Here you can find a restaurant, a supermarket and a coffee shop. It is a fine place to buy some refreshments, a decent cup of coffee, or to go to the toilet.
The scenery on the road from Vientiane to Vang Vieng is nothing to get excited about as it is flat to hilly only, although it is not boring either watching the life in the local villages along the road.
Only about 45 minutes or so before arrival does the landscape become more spectacular when the limestone cliffs of the Vang Vieng area come in sight.
In the end, the bus arrived in Vang Vieng around 2.20pm at the central bus stop, which is walking distance to most hotels and hostels.
Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
After staying two nights in Vang Vieng, I headed further north to Luang Prabang. I also arranged this ticket hrough my hotel, paying around 9 euro for the ride if memory serves well.
I was picked up from my hotel at 8.30am by tuk-tuk, picking up some more travellers on the way for our 9am minibus departure from the central Vang Vieng bus stop.
For the record, Soumtchai Travel also has a 2.30pm departure from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang by minibus. Travel is supposed to take four hours but in reality comes closer to five-six hours.
About halfway our journey to Luang Prabang we again made a rest stop, at which moment our driver found out the minibus had a flat tire.
The bus driver was prepared and had a spare tyre around – but changing it took another 30 minutes. It is definitely something you can expect to happen too when taking a bus in Laos!
Fortunately this time the few Germans in the minibus did not complain. In fact, I even ended up having a fun talk with one of them, an experienced Laos-traveller who had almost visited every single country in the world on his many trips!
The Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang journey is much more scenic than the trip from Vientiane to Vang Vieng. At one point, the bus crosses a mountain pass – with spectacular window views on both sides of the bus.
At the top of the pass things however got a little tricky as due to roadworks the upper part of the pass consisted of a sandy road only. As several lorries became stuck in the sand, we had to make some rather risky overtaking manoeuvres, including at one point literally drifting through the sands at high speeds in order not to get stuck ourselves (which is good fun when at one side of the road is a sheer cliff!).
Fortunately we survived the ordeal. From the top of the pass the road was again normal asphalt down. The last one-and-a-half hour or so to Luang Prabang went by smooth. The minibus dropped us all off at the southern edge of the city centre, from where you could either walk to your hotel if not carrying too much luggage or hop into one of the waiting tuk-tuks.
Alternatives to bus transport
There are a few alternatives to bus travel. Of course, you can always arrange a private car transfer – although I have no clue what the price of that would be. Needless to say, this is about the most comfortable and fastest way to travel overland.
There are some tourists who also arrange one-way motorbike rentals, although considering the road quality and the driving skills of some other drivers I would certainly not recommend this to inexperienced bikers. Each year, thousands of Western travellers get injured or worse while riding a motorbike in south-east Asia.
Besides potential own injuries (which might not even be covered by your insurance) you also risk potential legal problems and run-ins with the local police, even when you are not to blame for an accident.
Of course, you can also take a domestic flight in Laos – which is by far the fastest and easiest way to travel (although also obviously the most expensive).
However, due to the mountainous landscape not every city in Laos has its own airport, with for example the important tourist destination of Vang Vieng not being served by any airline.
It is possible to take a boat on the Mekong River between many destinations in Laos, among which the two main cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang. A speed boat between these two cities takes approximately 12 hours – although there are mixed reviews when it comes to safety and comfort of the ride.
You could also opt to take a multiple-day luxury cruise between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, which include a number of stops along the way. Alternatively, there are no-frills freight barges on which you can take a ride. As these can last up to a week going upstream, they are probably for masochists only.
Note that during the dry season from November to April these boats may not run.
Intriguingly, the Chinese are currently building a railway across the spine of Laos from north to south. When completed, the railway will link Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan Province, with Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.
As Vientiane is already linked to neighbouring Thailand by rail, this means that there will be a through-link from China all the way south to Singapore!
The Chinese project is not without controversy when it comes to the impact on nature and cultural heritage. Critics also argue that the project might not even be a net-benefit for Laos, which only has a minority stake of around ten percent in the project. That said, others say it can be a massive boom for both tourism and industry to Laos.
Whatever your point of view is, the project is without doubt massive in its scale and a great feat of Chinese engineering as due to the mountainous terrain of Laos hundreds of bridges and tunnels are required. When completed, it would definitely make for one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world!
Anyone who will spend a longer time travelling in Laos will likely take a bus at some point on their journey. Buses come in all forms and sizes, from minibus to normal bus to sleeper bus. They have in common that they are cheap and reasonably comfortable – as far as buses go!
Do however take into account that everything runs on ‘Laos time’ and that an arrival of one to two hours late is very common. Relax, put on a smile, and go with the flow like the local people do. I enjoyed my bus rides – although at between four to six hours in length they were of the exact duration at which it was still tolerable.
If you only visit Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos, I would however recommend taking a plane instead (at least until the railway line is finished).
Sure, the scenery might be pretty, but is is actually only an hour or two in between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang which is really worthwhile. That still leaves you with six to seven or so more hours seated in a bus, which on a journey of that length will not be very comfortable after a while – not even in a sleeper bus!
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Lazing in Laos and Gallivanting a Wee Bit Around Asia‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Review: Aegean Airlines Business Class Bucharest to Athens (Airbus A320)
2. Review: Goldair Handling Lounge (Non-Schengen) Athens Airport
3. Review: Saudia Business Class Athens to Jeddah (Airbus A320)
4. Review: Saudia Alfursan Lounge Jeddah Airport South Terminal
5. Review: Review: Saudia Business Class Jeddah to Kuala Lumpur (Boeing 787)
6. Review: CitizenM Hotel Kuala Lumpur Bukit Bintang
7. Kuala Lumpur in One Day: What to See and Do in 24 Hours
8. A Batu Caves Half Day Trip From Kuala Lumpur By Public Transport
9. Review: Plaza Premium Lounge Private Resting Suite Gateway KLIA2
10. Review: Air Asia Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane (Airbus A320)
11. Review: Hotel Khamvongsa, Vientiane, Laos
12. Destination Trip Report: A Day in Vientiane, Laos
13. Guide: Domestic Bus Travel in Laos and How to Book a Ticket (current chapter)
14. Review: Simon Riverside Hotel, Vang Vieng, Laos
15. Trip Report: Vang Vieng – Worth a Stop on Your Laos Itinerary?
16. Review: Villa Ban Phanluang, Luang Prabang, Laos
17. Luang Prabang: The Stunning Pearl of Indochina
18. Guide: Luang Prabang Morning, Food and Night Markets
19. Kuang Si Falls: A Gorgeous Luang Prabang Day Trip
20. Review: Thai Smile Economy Class Luang Prabang to Bangkok (Airbus A320)
21. Review: Ibis Styles Bangkok Sukhumvit 4
22. Review: Air France/KLM Business Lounge Bangkok Airport
23. Review: Garuda Indonesia Business Class Bangkok to Jakarta (Boeing 737-800)
24. Review: Sapphire Plaza Premium Lounge Terminal 3 Jakarta Airport
25. Review: Garuda Business Lounge Terminal 3 Jakarta Airport
26. Review: Review: Japan Airlines Business Class Jakarta to Tokyo Narita (Boeing 787-8)