AIR TRAVEL, BOATS AND A LACK OF RAILROADS IN LAOS

AIR TRAVEL IN LAOS

Because there are so few roads and existing roads are often in poor condition airplanes are often the best way to get to remote locations. Airports: 42 (2012), country comparison to the world: 103. A) Airports - with paved runways: total: 9: 2,438 to 3,047 meters: 3; 1,524 to 2,437 meters: 3; 914 to 1,523 meters: 3 (2012). Of the airports with paved runways, only Wattay International Airport has runway length over 2,438m which is necessary to accommodate jumbo jets. B) Airports - with unpaved runways: total: 33; 1,524 to 2,437 meters: 2; 914 to 1,523 meters: 9; under 914 meters: 22 (2012) [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in the Thai newspaper The Nation: “One future project that will test Laos' resilience is the proposed , joint-use with Thailand, Savannakhet International Airport in Kaysorn Phoumvihane, opposite Mukdahan. Built in 1998, the airport was abandoned in 2004 after Lao Airways halted daily operations due to insufficient passengers. For Laos to attract investors and tourists, direct flights to Savannakhet are indispensable. To strengthen infrastructure links between the neighbours, the National Economic and Social Development Board has already pledged not to construct a new airport in Mukdahan. Instead, the council wants to incorporate the Lao airport as part of its domestic air network. In the next few months, Thai and Lao authorities must decide on the fate of this airport. In doing so, they have to settle one remaining contentious point. The Thai side prefers immigration checks in Mukdahan while the Lao side insists on similar procedures at its airport before passengers embark. As such, outbound passengers from Thailand would go through immigration and customs checks twice. Discussions with authorities across the Mekong revealed a fear that red tape could impede the plan. Further delay could hurt the plan to transform Savannakhet into a regional hub serving Indochina and beyond.” [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, August 6, 2007 ||||]

In October 2000, a Lao Aviation plane on a domestic flight crashed in the remote northeastern mountains of Laos. Among the eight dead were a German, a Singaporean and a South African, The nine survivors included five Indians. The Cambodia-built Yuan-12 went down at the beginning of its final appraoch. Visibilty was poor due to low clouds and smoke from fires lit by local hunters. Rescue was difficult. One survivor walked from the crash site to a village.

Airlines in Laos

Lao Airlines is the national carrier of Laos and has operated since 1976. Its aircraft carried 658,000 passengers in 2012 and it has a fleet of just 14 planes, mostly propeller-driven. Lao Airlines doesn't have a very good reputation. Lao Airlines has six ATR-72 planes, a European turbo-prop aircraft co-manufactured by Airbus parent EADS and Italian aerospace firm Finmeccanica. The ATR 72-600 model is designed to seat between 68 and 74 people. Lao Airlines operates on seven domestic routes and has international flights to China, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.

Flights are often delayed and sometimes they don't go at all or go early. The airlines also has an awful safety record. In the early 2000s the U.S. said its maintenance record was not up to international standards. Some of flights are run on aging Russian- and Chinese-made planes. French-made ATR-72 planes are used on the route between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. At one time it was possible to request this plane as it was only one that didn’t depend on visual flying techniques.

Lao Airlines has regular flights between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Savannakeht, Salavan, Phonsavan, Huay Xai, Luang Nam Tha, Udomaxai, Sam Neua, Saimyabui and Pakse. The frequency and whether flights are going to some of these destinations changes. Airline tickets generally have to be paid for in dollars. They can be purchased at the Lao Airlines office in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, where credit cards are also accepted. Try to make whatever airline reservations you need soon after you arrive in Laos. To make sure your reservation is confirmed you generally have to purchase a ticket.

Railroads in Laos

Laos for all intents and purposes does not have any trains. Because of the mountainous terrain there are no trains in Laos except for a few kilometers of track from the Friendship Bridge in Thailand. Thai railways run up to the Laotian border. Thanaleng Station near Vientiane is Laos's only railway station.

Rail transport does not play a significant part in Laos's transport sector, since the country largely lacks the required infrastructure. A short portage railway, the Don Det – Don Khon narrow gauge railway, was built by the French while Laos was a part of French Indochina. The railway crossed over the islands of Don Det and Don Khon, enabling vessels, freight and passengers to travel along the Mekong River. The railway was abandoned and fell into disrepair, although some of the infrastructure is still in place. In the late 1920s, work began on the Thakhek – Tan Ap railway, that would have run between Thakhek, Khammuan Province and Tan Ap Railway Station, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam through the Mu Gia Pass. However, the scheme was eventually aborted in the 1930s. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Laos has approved a $5 billion loan for a railway from a New Zealand based financial institution named Rich Banco Berhad. Controversy surrounds the lender as it is not registered with New Zealand's Reserve Bank and is unfamiliar to Southeast Asian investment circles. The railway will stretch across southern Laos between Thailand and Vietnam. +

Khone Falls and Limits of the Mekong River as a Transport Route

Khone Falls (on the Mekong River along the Laos-Cambodian border) is the widest waterfall in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records. The series of rapids and falls are 6.7 miles wide, with a drop of 70 feet. The falls are most impressive at the end of the rainy season when the flow is 1.5 million cubic meters per second. This is more than any other fall in the world, and twice as much as Niagra Falls.

Known properly as Khônephapheng Falls, Khone is six mile chain of cataracts. There are two main cascades: Phapheng and Somphamit Falls and several smaller sets of rapids. In some places some flimsy bamboo platforms have been set up for fishermen to use. Don’t try to use them yourself. The magic manikhot tree that sits in the middle of the falls is said to have never been touched by human hands. The river cruise to the falls passes by numerous islands and temples with saffron-robed monks.

The falls are one of the reasons why the Mekong River was one of the last rivers to be explored and developed. Fish amazingly can make their way up the falls but boats can’t. It dashed the hopes of French hoping to use the Mekong River as a transportation link to China.

The French built a 14-kilometers railway so that goods could be moved across two islands to bypass the falls. Cargo at one end of the railway was hoisted from boats and placed on railcars and unloaded back onto to boats at the other end of the line. Sometimes entire boats were lifted and put on railway cars The railroad operated until the end of World War II and was the only railroad built in Laos. After the war the rails were carried away by villagers. All that remains really are two piers, a bridge between the two islands, remains of sleepers and gravel and a rusting steam locomotive. On Khone Island you can hike on part of the old railway bed.

Railway Links in Laos to Thailand and Vietnam

In January 2007 work began on a 3.5 kilometer extension of the metre-gauge State Railway of Thailand network across the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Thanaleng Railway Station, a new passenger and freight terminal in Dongphosy village, 20 kilometer east of Vientiane. Test trains began running on July 4, 2008, and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand formally inaugurated the line on March 5, 2009. As of November 2010, Lao officials plan to convert the station into a rail cargo terminal for freight trains, allowing cargo to be transported from Bangkok into Laos at a lower cost than would be possible with road transport. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 2007, the Laotian Ministry of Transportation entered into discussion with Vietnam to discuss the possibility of opening a new railway line from Thakhek in Laos through the Mu Gia Pass to Tan Ap Railway Station in Vietnam's Quang Binh Province, on the North–South Railway. The proposed line would continue to the coast at Vung Ang, a port in Ha Tinh Province, which would provide landlocked Laos with access to the South China Sea. According to plans established by ASEAN, the line may also be extended via Thakhek all the way to the Laotian capital Vientiane. Both Laos and Thailand have expressed interest in the project as a shorter export gateway to the Pacific Ocean. +

By 2012, the Thakhek project was not in the news anymore; but a project for another, somewhat more southern, line to Vietnam, now from Savannakhet, was announced instead. An agreement for the construction of this 220-kilometre-long, $5 billion line, was signed on Nov 5, 2012 with the Malaysian company called Giant Consolidated Limited. The work is supposed to begin in 2013 and be completed in 4 years. +

Railway Links in Laos to China

Laos has a long history of negotiating with China regarding the possibility of a join railway project. In October 2010, plans were announced for a 530 kilometer standard gauge railway linking Vientiane to Xishuangbanna, in Yunnan province in China. Construction was expected to begin in 2011, for completion in 2014. There were plans to extend this railway south from Vientiane to Bangkok. However, in April 2011 it was reported that construction of the railway has been postponed indefinitely, while the Chinese minister of Transport and Railways has been arrested on corruption charges. +

In October 2012, it was announced again that an agreement with China about the construction of a railway from Vientiane to the Chinese border is to be signed "within days". The project cost is quoted at $7 bln, and the construction will be done by Chinese companies. The ground-breaking ceremony was planned for November 2012, and the completion of the project was expected by 2017. In November 2012, the Laotian press was reporting that the money for the construction of the railway would be borrowed from the EXEM Bank of China; the construction would be started in 2013, and complete in 2018. The rail link will go through Yunnan province, linking together Kunming, China with Vientiane, Laos via Bangkok, Thailand to Dawei, Myanmar. On February 23, 2013, part of the new railway line started operations. Spans from Yuxi, south of Kunming, capital of China’s southern Yunnan province, to Mengzi on the route to the Vietnamese border, and is mainly intended for freight transport with a maximum speed of 120 km/h. The new line replaces the 100-year-old, 854 kilometer Kunming-Haiphone line, which had a speed of just 30 km/h. +

Vietnam Plane with Military Personnel Crashes in Laos

In May 1998, Reuters reported: “A 40-seat Russian-built plane carrying senior military personnel from Vietnam crashed in Laos and all passengers were believed to have been killed, a Laos government official said. The official Vietnam News Agency (VNA) quoted a Laos Defense Ministry statement as saying a Russian-made Yak-40 carrying a delegation led by Lieutenant General Dao Trong Lich, chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People's Army, had been missing. [Source: Reuters, May 27, 1998]

Details of the plane's route and take-off time given by VNA and the Laos official were the same, although VNA did not say if the plane had actually crashed."All aboard the plane, mostly senior military delegates from Vietnam, are believed to be killed,'' the Laos official said by telephone from the Laotian capital Vientiane.It was unclear how many people were aboard the plane and the Laos official did not have the names of the passengers.

Lich, also one of several vice defense ministers in Vietnam, was leading a military delegation which left Vietnam for neighbouring Laos. The Laos official said the plane left Vientiane on Monday for Xiang Khoang province in the country's north when it flew into a heavy rain storm and crashed in jungle about 300 kilometers (188 miles) north of the capital. The wreckage was spotted, added the official. "A rescue team from Laos flew out of Vientiane to retrieve the wreckage and bodies,'' he said.

Lao Airlines Plane Crashes into Mekong River, Killing 49, in 2013

In October 2013, Associated Press reported: “Lao Airlines flight QV301 crashed Wednesday as it prepared to land in stormy weather at Pakse Airport in southern Laos. All 49 people on board, more than half of whom were foreigners, are presumed dead. Lao Airlines has said the plane ran into extremely bad weather as it prepared to land at Pakse. No further details on the investigation or circumstances of the crash have been released. The crash occurred about 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the airport. [Source: Jerry Harmer, Associated Press, October 18, 2013 **]

“Witnesses interviewed on LTV, Lao national television, described a heavy storm and dark skies when the accident happened around 4 p.m. One man said he heard a thundering noise overhead and looked up to see a plane shaking violently as it flew through the tops of trees. "It looked like it was bouncing in the sky," he said. "Then the plane came lower and lower. Then there was an explosion," he said, adding that he didn't see the crash but saw flames from a distance. "There was fire shooting high up." The plane is believed to have then skidded from land into the water and sunk. **

“According to the airline, 44 passengers and five crew were on the flight. The passengers included 16 Lao nationals, seven French, six Australians, five Thais, three Koreans, three Vietnamese and one person each from China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States. A person who had been listed as a Canadian was instead added to the list of Vietnamese. **

Reuters reported: “A Lao Airlines plane flying in stormy weather crashed into the Mekong river in southern Laos. The virtually new ATR-72 turboprop plane flying from the capital Vientiane crashed at about 4:10 p.m. just eight kilometers (five miles) short of its destination Pakse, which is near the borders of both Thailand and Cambodia. [Source: Reuters, October 16, 2013 ==]

“The airline said in a statement it had yet to determine the cause of the crash, in which a senior aviation official said the tail end of Typhoon Nari may have been a factor. Those killed were mostly Lao nationals. But seven French nationals were also killed, the country's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. South Koreans, Australians, Canadians, Taiwanese, Chinese, Burmese and Vietnamese and five Thais were also among the dead, said Thailand's foreign ministry spokesman, Sek Wannamethee. Several officials confirmed none of the passengers or crew survived. ==

“Southern Laos was affected by Typhoon Nari, which hit the region on Tuesday killing 13 people in the Philippines and five in Vietnam. Vestiges of the storm might have caused the plane to crash, Yakua Lopangka, Director General of the Department of Civil Aviation, told the Vientiane Times newspaper. Thai television showed a photograph of the plane partly submerged in shallow water on a stretch of the Mekong, the tail severed, next to a handful of rescuers in small boats. State-run news agency KPL quoted a witness saying strong gusts of wind blew the plane off course and rescue attempts were complicated by a lack of roads near the crash site. ==

“Lao Airlines has six ATR-72 planes, a European turbo-prop aircraft co-manufactured by Airbus parent EADS and Italian aerospace firm Finmeccanica. In a statement, ATR said the aircraft that crashed was its latest ATR 72-600 model, designed to seat between 68 and 74 people. It had left the production line in March this year. ATR said Laos authorities would lead an investigation into the crash, whose cause had not been determined.” ==

Search after Laos Crash Lacks Manpower, Equipment

Reporting from Pakse, Laos, Jerry Harmer of Associated Press wrote: “Exasperated officials in Laos said they lack the equipment and manpower to locate the fuselage and more than 20 bodies still unaccounted for two days after a plane crashed and disappeared into the Mekong River. International experts arrived from France and Thailand to help with forensics and locating the flight data recorder, which could help explain why the virtually new Lao Airlines ATR-72 turboprop crashed. [Source: Jerry Harmer, Associated Press, October 18, 2013 **]

“Heavy rain forced a suspension of the search for bodies and the plane. As of two days after the crash, 27 bodies were had been said Yakua Lopangkao, director-general of Lao's Department of Civil Aviation. He said rescuers still had not pinpointed the location of the plane's fuselage in the vast, muddy waterway. Lao Transport Minister Sommad Pholsena expressed open frustration as he awaited the arrival of more help at the crash site. "It's very difficult to find (bodies) under water," the transport minister told reporters. "If we could find (the plane), we would have found it already." **

“Thailand is deeply involved in the search, providing skilled manpower that its poorer neighbor lacks. Thai Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt said the Thai navy initially sent scuba divers but their work was complicated by strong currents, deep water of up to 10 meters (32 feet) and poor visibility in the muddy river. He said navy trawlers were being sent Friday to sweep the river with nets to try to locate the fuselage, along with a Thai forensics team to help identify bodies. **

"We think the plane broke into two pieces. The tail of the plane contains the black box," Chadchart said in a telephone interview after meeting with his Lao counterpart in Pakse. "It is believed that many bodies of the passengers are still stuck in the plane, or else they would have surfaced on the river." **

“The Thai air force said it had sent a C-130 transport plane with specialists and equipment including a large scanner to locate metal objects. He said a team of Singaporean experts was arriving Friday with equipment to help locate the black box, or flight data recorder, which stores technical data from the flight. France's accident investigation agency said it sent four investigators to help Laos with the probe into the cause of the crash. It said the team would work with technical advisers from ATR, the French-Italian manufacturer of the aircraft, which has said it delivered the plane to Lao Airlines in March. **

Lindsay Murdoch wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “The river's strong current following days of torrential rain is hampering efforts to recover the bodies, and the plane's fuselage has not yet been found. Several bodies have been found floating up to 20 kilometres downstream, while more than half remained unrecovered early on Friday. “We have asked villagers and people who live along the river to look for bodies and alert authorities when they see anything,” Mr Yakao said. [Source: Lindsay Murdoch, Sydney Morning Herald, October 18, 2013]

'Wind Shear' Suspected in Laos Aviation Crash

CNN reported: “Lao Airlines is investigating that possibility that a plane crash that killed 49 people was caused by "wind shear," an airline official said. Wind shear -- a sudden change in wind speed or direction over a short distance -- has been a factor in many air disasters. Chalerm Taiyalad, a Lao Airlines vice-president, said it was raining heavily at the time Flight QV301 was approaching for landing at Pakse Airport, near the Thai border, after departing from the capital Vientiane. [Source: CNN Staff, October 17, 2013]

Gusts from the remnants of Typhoon Nari appeared to have caused the pilots to lose control of the ATR 72 aircraft, he said. The ATR 72 propeller plane was preparing to land when a gust of wind appeared to push it away from the airport, and it crashed on or near an island in the Mekong River, reported KPL, the national news agency.

Lindsay Murdoch wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “A Lao Airlines pilot was told to change course shortly before his turbo-prop plane slammed into the murky Mekong River. The control tower at the Pakse airport had issued the instruction to 56-year-old Cambodian-born pilot Young San as the plane was approaching to land in extreme weather, officials say. “During strong winds, the air controller told [Young San] to change course,” said Cambodia's State Secretariat of Civil Aviation Mak Sam Ol, who has been briefed on the cause of the crash by Lao authorities. “He followed instructions but the plane faced strong winds and it couldn't get through,” Mr Mak Sam Ol told the Phnom Penh Post. [Source: Lindsay Murdoch, Sydney Morning Herald, October 18, 2013 <>]

Lao officials and airline engineers are investigating the cause of the crash of the French-made ATR-72 twin propeller aircraft that left deep skid marks before careering into the river on Wednesday and disappearing. “The plane appears to have crashed very hard,” said Yakao Lopangkao, director-general of Lao's Department of Civil Aviation. Young San, who had more than 30 years flying experience, had worked for the airline for almost three years. He was a former pilot with Cambodia's defunct state carrier Royal Air Cambodge after having trained in Russia and later France.

While several Lao officials have said they believe bad weather caused the crash, representatives from the plane's manufacturer ATR, a joint venture between Airbus maker European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co and the Alena Aermacchi company, have joined the investigation into the cause. The ATR-72 has been involved in 16 crashes since it went into service in 1988, including one that killed 68 people in Cuba in 2010. The plane that crashed was delivered to Laos in March.

Lao Airlines had not submitted the airline to a safety audit by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and was rated a “four out of seven star airline” before the crash by the Perth-based airline ratings service airlineratings.com.

Boats and River Travel in Laos

Waterways: 4,600 kilometer (primarily on the Mekong River and its tributaries; 2,900 additional kilometer are intermittently navigable by craft drawing less than 0.5 m) (2012), country comparison to the world: 24. As a landlocked country, Laos possesses no ports or harbours on the sea, and the difficulty of navigation on the Mekong means that this is also not a significant transport route. [Source: CIA World Factbook, Wikipedia]

The Mekong River and its tributaries provide crucial transportation links within Laos and between Laos, China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. About 4,587 kilometer of navigable water routes exist in Laos, primarily the Mekong and its tributaries. There is an additional 2,897 kilometer, which is sectionally navigable by craft drawing less than 0.5 meters. In terms of sea travel, Laos has a merchant marine consisting of 1 cargo ship of 2,370 gross register tons (GRT). [Source: Wikipedia]

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “China has blasted shallow sections of the Mekong to make it more easily navigable for cargo barges, allowing traders to ship apples, pears and lettuce downriver. The price of apples in Thailand has fallen to the equivalent of about 20 cents apiece from more than a dollar a decade ago. Roses and other cut flowers from China have displaced flowers flown in from the Netherlands, making Valentine’s Day easier on the wallet for Thais. Traders now have the choice of shipping by barge, truck or both. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 31, 2008 <=>]

River Travel is a common way of getting around. the main thoroughfares being the Mekong, Nam Ou, Nam Khan, Nam Tha, Nam Ngum and Se Kong. The main routes used by travelers are along the Mekong, Nam Ou, Nma Khan, Nam Tha, Nam Ngum and Se Kong River. With the construction of better roads water transport is become less vital to the transport system. Many ferries no longer operate. Many travelers like to get around by water because it is more romantic, scenic and mellow. Boat trips from Vientiane and Luang Prabang are very popular.

According to Lonely Planet: “The Mekong is the longest and most important route and is, in theory if no longer in practice, navigable year-round between Luang Prabang in the north and Savannakhet in the south (about 70 percent of its length in Laos). Smaller rivers accommodate a range of smaller boats, from dugout canoes to ‘bomb boats’ made from junk dropped from the skies during the Second Indochina War. [Source: Lonely Planet]

“Sealed roads and buses, however, mean that the days of mass river transport are as good as finished. Every time a new road is opened more boatmen go out of business, unable to compete with the price and pace of those modern conveyors of the masses – buses and sawngthaew. This aspect of progress means local people have access to faster and cheaper travel, and it’s not our place to begrudge them that. However, from a travelers’ point of view, the gradual death of river transport is a great shame. There were few things more romantic than sitting on a slow boat, tacking from one riverside village to another as the boat worked its way along the river, picking up people, produce and animals on the way.

“While there are barely any regular local boats on the Mekong anymore, there are still a few places left where you can do this, if you’re prepared to get right off the beaten river and seek out the adventure…and you can be certain it will be a memorable trip, one way or another. So whether it’s on a tourist boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang or on a local boat you’ve rustled up in some remote corner of the country, it’s still worth doing at least one river excursion while in Laos.

“For shorter river trips, such as Luang Prabang to the Pak Ou Caves, it’s usually best to hire a river taxi. The héua hang nyáo (longtail boats) are the most typical, though for a really short trip (eg crossing a river) a héua phái (rowboat) or one of the small improvised ferries can be hired. The héua hang nyáo are around US$5 an hour for a boat with an eight- to 10-person capacity. Larger boats that carry up to 20 passengers are sometimes available for about US$8 per hour, although higher tourist prices are often applied, and prices go up with fuel consumption if you’re heading upriver when the river is at full flood.

Along the upper Mekong River between Huay Xai and Vientiane, and on the Nam Ou between Luang Prabang and Hat Sa (Phongsali), Thai-built héua wái (speedboats) are common. They can cover a distance in six hours that might take a ferry two days or more. Charters cost at least US$20 per hour, but some ply regular routes so the cost can be shared among passengers.

Southern and Northern Lao are very different. The south is mainly about the river, staying on one of the islands in the Si Phan Don area, down towrds teh Cambodian border is well worth a few days. Mostly very peaceful, Don Khong is my favourite island but Don Dhet can be a bit of a party place. In the north The main lux. cruise operator is http://www.luangsay.com/ which runs from Huay Xai near the Thai border to LP. Don't expect to be sailing through pristine rain forest as much of it along the banks has been destroyed by slash and burn agriculture over the years. We also rented a boat to get further north along one of the smaller rivers to Luang Namtha etc. but I certainly would not describe it as "high quality" but the forest is less damaged there - real Heart of Darkness stuff.” See Mekong River, See Boat Ride on the Mekong River Between Bam Houei Sai and Luang Prabang

Speed Boats and Long-Tail Boats

Speed Boats called heua wai are used primarily between Luang Prabang and Hat Sa (Prongsali) on the Nam Ou River and between Vientiane and Huay Xai on the Mekong Rivers. They are able to cover a distance in five or six hours what might take a ferry a couple of days but are very dangerous, noisy and uncomfortable. Passengers sit on wooden benches and wear life jackets and crash helmets. They are so noisy passengers on other boats can hear them when they are almost a mile away. Speedboats can take up to six passengers and are generally rented for about $23 a hour, a cost that can be split among several passengers. A trip between Vientiane and Luang Prabang can done be done with six people for about $25 per person.

Speedboat Accidents involving very bats called heua wai are very common. These boats travel mainly on the Nam Ou and Mekong Rivers. Accidents occur on a weekly basis and often involve fatalities. Because the boats are very light and travel at high speeds, the results can be quite nasty if they hit a rock, sand bar or branch in the river, which is not all that hard to do. Sometimes a bow wave from a large boat is enough to flip them over.

Long-Tailed Boats (named after drive shaft which extend beyond the back of the boat and connects the an automobile engine to a propeller) are used by locals and tourists to get around the rivers of Laos. Tourist generally travel on boat trips sponsored by travel agencies and locals get around on boats that run scheduled routes like buses. The fares for local boats are quite reasonable. The tours aren't very expensive either. Many of the long tailed boats used in Laos are long narrow river taxis with a covering for protection form the sun and rain, A boat that carries eight to 10 passengers can be hired for about $10 an hour

Cargo Boats make the trip between Vientiane and Luang Prabang in about three to four days down river and four to five days upriver.

Slow Boats in Laos

Stephen Bugno wrote in his blog Bohemian Traveler: Before visiting Laos I had images of gliding down rivers at an impossibly slow speed all the while enjoying both the view and necessary transportation with friendly locals. That was hardly the case. In fact, it describes only one of my four slow boat rides. The reality is, the slow boat is being replaced by bus and sawngthaew as a means of transportation, especially now that roads are improving slightly. The only genuine slow boats that are still plying the rivers of Laos are the ones where no roads go. So that’s the secret to getting a real slow boat experience: choose your routes wisely. Below is a description of a few of the slow boat routes on the waterways of the Nam Ou and the Mekong in northern Laos [Source: Stephen Bugno, Bohemian Traveler, July 13, 2011]

Houayxai to Pakbeng: This is the most touristy slow boat experience. Groups of backpackers are shuttled from Chiang Mai, Thailand to the border with Laos and are packed on to huge boats for the two-day journey to Luang Prabang, stopping at the village of Pakbeng for the night. Eating, drinking, music, card playing were all commonplace on the boat I rode. Out of about 150 passengers, only two were Laotians. Needless to say, this was not a Lao cultural experience. It was, however, riding a slow boat down the Mekong. The boat is a huge one, and the scenery is pleasant, passing villages and quite remote areas of the country. It leaves more or less at 11am from the slow boat docks 1 kilometer upstream from Houayxai. This trip is a mainstay on the Banana Pancake trail. Scenery: Very Nice; Touristy: Very Touristy; Time: 5-6 hoursl Costs: 110,000-130,000 kip

Hat Sa to Muang Khoua: This is the most remote and off the beaten track slow boat that I rode, and consequently the most authentic. The boat was so narrow that it only allowed two people to sit abreast. The bags were loaded into the back of the boat and covered by a tarp. The boat was filled with all locals except for my chain-smoking Swiss friend who shared his cigarettes with our new friends as well some rambutan and bananas we bought before boarding. We passed remote bamboo villages, the inhabitants farming the hillsides with subsistence agriculture. About every thirty minutes of the we passed a village on the riverbank, usually comprised of less than 25 houses. Most times there would be a fisherman casing a net or kids playing in the river alongside their water buffalos. Hat Sa is only a village, but serves as the Phongsali’s river port, reachable by bus via a slow-going 24 kilometers winding dirt road. Scenery: Nice, but not spectacular; Touristy: Very local; Time: 4-5 hours; Cost: 100,000 kip

Muang Khoua to Muang Ngoi: You’ll arrive in Muang Khoua in the afternoon and most likely spend the night there. From the wooden balcony of my guesthouse’s restaurant, I watched life unfold in and around the river. There is no bridge on this road that passes through the village going to the Vietnamese border. A tug-boat of sorts nudges a ferry barge the short push across whenever traffic arrives. Local long boats come and go. A neighbor buns rubbish. Kids play and swim in the water on both sides of the river.

I met a teacher and freelance trekking guide who was strategically hanging out close by. We got to talking, and unfortunately I didn’t have the time or extra money to go on one of his three day treks to nearby hill tribe villages. So we’d have to hang around the rest of the afternoon and be out on the boat at nine the next morning. “Do you have internet in town?” I asked. “No,” he laughed. “We just got electricity.”

The 4-5 hour trip to Muang Ngoi leaves in the morning, usually around 9:00am and because there are very few locals making this trip, filling up a boat depends on how many travels are present. You’ll need at least 6-8 passengers to make the fare (approx 1 million kip per boat) more reasonable for each passenger. The scenery gets more and more outstanding, with dramatic karsts, as you get closer to Muang Ngoi. Scenery: Very Nice; Touristy: Mostly tourists, but small boat; Time: 4-5 hours Cost: 100,000-120,000.

Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw: Muang Ngoi is a quiet little traffic-free village. It feels very cut off from the rest of the world. My travel partner stayed here for three days as I made my way more slowly down the Nam Ou. Most of the time he spent in his hammock and at the local cafes reading, writing in his journal and soaking up the gorgeous views of the surrounding limestone mountains. If I had the chance, I would return to Muang Ngoi for some serious chill time. The following morning we got the 9:30 am boat to Nong Khiaw. This is one of the most scenic slow boat rides in all of Laos. And one of the most packed little boats I had ever been on: both with locals and their cargo and backpackers moving on downstream. It’s hard to tire of these serene mountains that have an ancient and oriental air to them. Scenery: Very Nice; Touristy: Locals and travelers; Time: 1 hour Cost: 20,000 kip

Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang: Slow-boating it from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang is also supposed to be a trip of spectacular beauty. But I opted for the 40,000 kip ride in the back of a sawngtheaw to save a bundle of money. In general, taking ground transportation saves money over river transport. The boat to Luang Prabang supposedly leaves at 11am, and if I had to guess, I’d say very few locals would be taking it, seeing that the bus is so much cheaper. But if I had the money, I’d opt for this scenic route on the river. Scenery: Nice; Touristy: Touristy Time: 5 hours.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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