Landlocked Laos may not have the paradise beaches that draw visitors to its SE Asian neighbours, but it has a lot to offer in the gorgeous scenery of its jungle-clad mountains and the cultural interest of its ethnically diverse people, and a laid back approach to most things. It forms a natural part of an overland loop around Indochina, and is one of the main routes between China and SE Asia. The infrastructure is still very undeveloped in places, and you have a high chance of picking up some crazy bus journey stories!
How to travel to and from Laos overland
Laos is landlocked, sharing borders with five countries – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and Myanmar. The latter can’t be entered from Laos (yet – but soon to change), the former can be reached by both road and rail, and the other three by road.
The majority of overland travel to Laos is through Thailand. They share a long border, much of it consisting of the Mekong river; there are seven border crossings open, three of which are likely to be useful for your SE Asia overland route. These are:
Chiang Khong – Houay Xai in the north (for Chiang Rai – Luang Nam Tha). The first time I did this was back in the days of being canoed across the Mekong; we stayed overnight in Chiang Kong the night before crossing, and I had a face off with some sketchy dogs while looking for an internet cafe to check the football scores. With the opening in 2013 of the shiny new 4th Friendship Bridge, however, this journey has completely changed and buses now run directly between Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai and Houay Xai’s international bus station (from where there are connections to points beyond in Laos). This is a massive time-saver, even enabling one-day travel all the way between Thailand and China through northern Laos.
Nong Khai – Vientiane (over the 1st Friendship Bridge, for the Lao capital). The bridge has both road and rail, though the rail is only used for short shuttle trains from Nong Khai to Vientiane i.e. if you take the train from / to Bangkok, you change trains in Nong Khai. It’s probably just as easy to cross to or from Nong Khai station by road, as the Vientiane station is a long way out of town anyway. Nong Khai is actually also quite a nice place to hang out for a day or two in its own right; it’s home to an amazing sculpture park, and cold sunset beers on the Mekong river bank while looking over at Laos on the far side make for pleasant memories.
The southernmost crossing, between Ubon Ratchathani (Thailand) and Pakse (Laos), is useful for those visiting the 4,000 Islands.
In addition to these, the 2nd Friendship Bridge (for Savannakhet) is the best crossing if you’re just planning to pass through Laos to reach central Vietnam.
There’s just the one crossing between Laos and Cambodia, usefully located a short distance from the 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don). With an early start you can clear the distance between Si Phan Don and Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capital) in one go, though I failed to do so (alcohol was to blame) and spent a night in Stung Treng (it was on that bus ride that I tried a fried tarantula)
There are seven crossings on the long Laos / Vietnam border, with the busiest ones being those at Nam Phao (used by Vientiane – Vinh/Hanoi buses), Nam Can (Luang Prabang/Phonsavan – Vinh/Hanoi), and Lao Bao (Savannakhet – Hue/Danang/Hoi An). There is another crossing south of Lao Bao you can cross if going from Pakse / Si Phan Don to southern Vietnam… a remote far northern mountain border near Dien Bien Phu if you’re making your way through Sapa… and then there’s the remote border crossing I used on this crazy 2-day journey from Phonsavan to Hanoi – great memories, a proper old travel experience, but not a route I’d recommend!
For China, the crossing is at Boten, between Luang Nam Tha and the Chinese town of Mengla. A few hours north of Mengla is Jinghong, the main city of Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region and typically your first or last port of call in China (it’s an interesting blend of Han Chinese and SE Asian influences, and a decent place to check out for a few days). Direct buses run between Jinghong and Luang Nam Tha, and it’s a reasonably straightforward journey; there is also a daily bus (if you get up at the crack of dawn) from Jinghong right through to Houay Xai on the Thai border. I tried this in 2015, keen to see if the new Chiang Khong – Houay Xai Friendship Bridge would allow for China to Thailand in one day, and it turns out it does. A 5 am start from Jinghong has you reach Houay Xai in time for the evening’s last transportation over the border to Chiang Rai (big bus) or Chiang Mai (switching to a minivan on the Thai side). Of course, if it’s your first time in Laos it’s better to actually travel in Laos for a while; but if it’s not in your plans for this trip and you just want to transit from Yunnan to northern Thailand, it is now possible non-stop.
There have also long been plans for a new high-speed rail connection from Kunming to Laos and on to Thailand (and ultimately Singapore); this project has been on-again-off-again for years, but in late 2015 I saw construction underway on the Chinese side, and in late 2016 the formal groundbreaking ceremony was finally held on the Lao side. Turns out that the final plans have this line running at a max speed of 160kph through Laos, which is a little short of the generally accepted 200kph standard for high speed rail status; however, it will still be radically faster than the existing roads! It’s officially scheduled to begin operations in 2020, so it should be an option by the mid-2020s.
(Another option from Jinghong to Thailand used to be a boat down the Mekong, passing between Myanmar and Laos but entering (and requiring a visa for) neither, arriving in Thailand near the Golden Triangle. This was suspended following drug-related violence on the Mekong in 2011; on both of my visits to Jinghong, in 2012 and 2015, I investigated whether the boat was operating again, in the hope of perhaps taking it, and it wasn’t. As of 2016, this boat still doesn’t appear to have resumed operations, and with the bridge having opened it seems unlikely that it will)
Laos and Myanmar share a fairly short river border, facing each other on opposite banks of the Mekong. No (official) crossing point exists, but that is about to change – they have built a bridge which was completed in 2015 and scheduled to open in 2016. As of late 2016 it still hasn’t opened, so for now you can’t travel between them, and it isn’t clear when or if this bridge will be open to non-locals; I’ll endeavour to keep this updated as and when the situation becomes clear!
Overland travel within Laos
…is slow, unreliable, and absolutely beautiful. Some of the roads are paved and well-maintained, some are unsealed and turn to mudslicks in the rain; winding mountain roads are the norm in most of the country, and landslides are common in rainy season. As testing as the journeys can be, the scenery out of the window is often stunning.
The road from Vientiane up to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang is decent but pretty winding, so the travel times are longer than you’d think just looking at the map. In the north, Chinese money is pouring in and the natural resources of Laos are pouring out, and China has funded the construction of good quality roads between the Chinese and Thai borders; this hasn’t stretched as far south as Luang Prabang though, and the Luang Nam Tha – Luang Prabang road is still an unsealed mountain road which becomes a mudbath in rainy season and is prone to mudslides (I’ve done this road twice and it gets a big mention on my Overland page)
Note that I would personally never take a night bus in Laos, including those from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. Sadly but predictably accidents do happen, and besides if you’re on a night bus you’re missing it all anyway and you may as well just fly.
You can also travel by river in many parts of the country, and for overland backpackers this is particularly popular from the Houay Xai border (coming from Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai) to Luang Prabang – this is the route being referred to when you hear about the slow boat vs fast boat debate. Basically the slow boat takes two days and sounds nice but uncomfortable; the fast boats rip down it in half a day and sound mental, with serious accidents aplenty. Being a big fan of the Luang Nam Tha region, my take on this is to skip the boats and go by road, with two or three days in Luang Nam Tha; the advantage of the boats though is that you don’t have to do that damn Luang Nam Tha – Luang Prabang road!
Some Laos Highlights
Vang Vieng – formerly the party capital of an otherwise party-free country, Vang Vieng used to be synonymous with backpackers behaving badly, breaking themselves, and frequently drowning. The river tubing is much more closely monitored these days and the ‘death slides’ are a thing of the past, and Vang Vieng is being reformed as a natural beauty and adventure activity destination. Rightly so – as fun as the tubing of old was, the scenery around Vang Vieng is jaw-dropping and the karst mountains are great for cave exploration and rock climbing.
Luang Prabang – a sleepy temple town surrounded by jungle, with a night market and a main drag of French colonial buildings housing cafes, bakeries and restaurants. Something like a more chilled out version of Chiang Mai, it didn’t blow me away but it’s a nice place to hang out for a few days.
Luang Nam Tha – this little town in northern Laos makes a great base for exploring the area’s gorgeous countryside. If you enter / exit Laos from Chiang Rai or China, Luang Nam Tha is the closest main town to the borders and well worth stopping off for a few days.
Phonsavan – this is the base for visiting the Plain of Jars, and also the best place in Laos to learn about the ‘Secret War’; Laos took an absolute pounding during the Vietnam war, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the region around Phonsavan. You can see bomb craters, a burned out tank, and shell casings repurposed as keyrings, cutlery, and furniture; MAG (the Mines Advisory Group) is still working to clear unexploded ordnance in the area and runs a good museum in the town centre.
Si Phan Don, the ‘Four Thousand Islands’ – right down on the southern border with Cambodia, the Mekong fans out and runs between thousands of islands and over some dramatic waterfalls. You can rent a hut by the river, potter around on bicycles, and enjoy the sunsets with a few cold beers. There isn’t much else to do, and the electricity generators shut down pretty early so you’ll get plenty of sleep and come away feeling thoroughly relaxed (unless, perhaps, if you’re an arachnophobe – I had a tarantula for a roommate)
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting Laos
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