Motorcycle travel in Laos is not without risks but the rewards of truly independent travel are great. There are several rental shops in Vientiane only and bike rentals in other parts of the country are few. Quality of machines varies from shop to shop so you need to fully inspect your new friend before you head out on the road. There are many good roads and many paved ones and touring Laos is done easily. Most bikes in Laos are Honda Baja or XR 250 dual purpose bikes and anything else is usually mechanically questionable. Helmets are not only mandatory in the country but a valuable item in a place where traffic rules are made up by the minute. Police have been cracking down on people who do no have a motorcycle licence, so expect to pay a fine if caught without one.
There is an operator in Laos that offers not only bike rentals but full support and tour guidance for self drive trips, Remote Asia Travel based in Vientiane. (http://www.remoteasia.com)
VIP, minibus or car?
Minibuses are quicker and more expensive, however that doesn't mean they are necessarily better. A typical VIP Bus is just an old bus by Western standards generally retired Chinese tour buses, and may be more prone to breakdowns, but they usually have more leg room which can make a long journey much more comfortable. VIP buses also include a bottle of water, a snack and a stop for lunch/dinner. Both types are usually air conditioned though it doesn't always work.
Even more expensive, but certainly the most convenient, is a rented car with driver. A car with a driver will cost around $95 USD per day. Some can even drive over the border to Thailand, China, Cambodia and Vietnam. The cars can be arranged at tour agencies, tourist hotels and car rental companies. The cars are new, so they're reliable. They have the bonus of your being able to stop the car at any time for photos, nosing around a village or just stretching your legs.
The highways in Laos have improved in the past ten years, but the fact that 80% remain unpaved is a telling statistic. Still, the main routes connecting Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet are now sealed, and the transport options on these roads include bus, minibus, and converted truck.
Some common routes through Laos include:
Luang Prabang to Phonsavan - minibus: cramped, so arrive early to get good seats as near the front as possible; beautiful views so secure a window seat if possible.
Phonsavan to Sam Neua - converted pickup truck: beautiful views but lots of hills and bends, hence possible nausea
Sam Neua to Muang Ngoi - minivan: a 12 hour trip along a horrible road; good views and a necessary evil, but fun if you're prepared to get a few knocks and talk to some Lao people who are, after all, in the same boat
Muang Ngoi to Luang Namtha - Minivan: 10 hour trip Oudomxay; all right road, much travelled by backpackers
Luang Namtha to Huay Xai - road only passable in the dry season, but the same journey can be made by boat in the rainy season. China builds a new road to Thailand. The road from Luang Namtha to Huay Xai is part of this road and it is a very good road.
Paksan to Phonsavan - there is a new road between Borikham and Tha Thom. In Tha Thom there is a guesthouse with 8 rooms. The forest between Borikham and Tha Thom is still in a very good condition but it's a dirt road. Since most of the forest in Laos has gone this is one of the last roads surrounded by primary forest. If you travel by motorbike this is a must go! And tell it to everybody - if no tourists go there the forest will be burned or sold. There are substantial road works being undertaken by the Vietnamese between Paksan and Phonsavan and there can be some fairly long delays along the way. Even though the trip is only a couple of hundred kilometers it can take 16-20 hrs to traverse this section.
Local transport less than 20 km in Laos consists of tuk tuks, jumbos and sky labs, motorised three or four wheelers. A jumbo should cost no more than 20,000 kip about US$2.5 for short journeys of 1-5 km.
You can now also travel the entire length of the country using a fully guided 'hop on hop off' bus service provided by Stray Travel. This is the only guided hop on hop off bus in South East Asia.
Especially women' should be aware that often during lengthy bus or minibus trips there is no opportunity to go to the toilet during breaks, so it may be advisable to wear a wide skirt.
Boats along the Mekong and its tributaries are useful shortcuts for the horrible roads, although as the road network improves river services are slowly drying up, and many of the remaining services only run in the wet season, when the Mekong floods and becomes more navigable. Huay Xai on the border with Thailand to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse are the main routes still in use.
There are so-called slow boats and speedboats - the latter being tiny lightweight craft equipped with powerful motors that literally skid across the water at high speeds.
State carrier Lao Airlines (http://www.laoairlines.com) has a near-monopoly on domestic flights, a dodgy safety history in the past, but a good safety record now. The fairly comprehensive network is by far the fastest and, relatively speaking, the safest way of reaching many parts of the country. As of 2009, the popular Vientiane-Luang Prabang route costs US$87 one-way full fare for foreigners, but covers in 40 minutes what would take you at least ten to twelve hours by bus. Flights to more remote destinations, though, are flown on the Xian MA60, a Chinese knockoff of the Soviet An-24, and are frequently cancelled without warning if the weather is bad or not enough passengers show up.
Lao Airlines also flies 14-passenger Cessnas from Vientiane to Phongsali, Sam Neua and Sainyabuli Xayabouly several times a week. These airfields are all rudimentary and flights are cancelled at the drop of a hat if weather is less than perfect.
Cycling is a great option with quiet roads. Laos offers wonderful remote areas to discover, very little traveled roads, friendly people and even some companies providing cycling tours with the help of professional guides all over the country. The more time people seem to spent in Laos the more they seem to like the quiet travel mood and the opportunity to actually be in contact with the people along the way. Good maps are available about the roads in Laos and all major routes are with good roads. In normal distances you find simple guest houses and in all major towns better choices and restaurant. Food is not a problem as long as you remember to carry some stuff with you. Tropical fruits and noodle soup is one of the standards. There are a number of local operators running a wide selection of guided mountain biking tours through Laos:
"Biking-Laos.com based in Luang Prabang" (http://www.biking-laos.com)
"Exotissimo" in Vientiane.
"Greendiscovery" operating from Vientiane and Luang Prabang (http://www.greendiscovery...)
A thing to note if you travel on your own...there are very few proper bike shops outside of Vientiane but also for bikes with 28 inches wheels you would have a hard time. Bring your equipment with you and make sure you get contact details to a supplier maybe from Thailand Chiang Mai or Bangkok
Some may prefer the speed of a motorbike, note that some roads are still not brilliant condition for a scooter due to the poor balance of those chinese imports.