Traveling Laos’ Waterways and Highways

June 3, 2014 by | Filed Under: Adventure Travel, Authentic Experiences, Laos, News

When in Laos…do as the Laotians: travel by boat, bus and motorbike to experience the country like the locals. Depending on the destination consider a river cruise, the iconic long-tail boat, or the opportunity of sharing a sǎwngthǎew (truck taxi) between towns. For shorter trips and the flexibility to stop along the way in small villages, we recommend trying the adventure of renting a motorbike.


Laos is traversed by more than 4500 kilometers of navigable rivers. Aside from the mighty Mekong, the other main rivers are the Nam Kahn (nam means river), Nam Ou and the Nam Tha Rivers. Naturally with so much water to navigate, transport by boat is very common. There are many different types and sizes of water transport. The Mekong is suitable for overnight cruise ships and this is an inexpensive and leisurely way to travel to Luang Prabang from Northern Thailand. If you are lucky you might spot a bomb boat – made from scrap metal from the Indochinese war – on the smaller rivers. The river taxi can be a good option when you are traveling a short distance, for example from Luang Prabang upriver to the Pak Ou Caves. River taxis are also used to ferry people and cargo across the rivers. Although the powerful long tail boat is the most common, there are still smaller boats paddled by one oar for smaller and idyllically slower river crossings.

Unfortunately for boatmen who earn their living on the water, there has been a lot of road building over the last decade in Laos. Transport by land is developing quickly and is much more economical since it is faster and cheaper. This does allow plenty of extra travel options for our guests to get from A to B.

For overland travel, such as between major towns and cities, the bus or the sǎwngthǎew are great ways of transport. The sǎwngthǎew, meaning “two rows” is basically a converted pick up or covered truck containing two fixed benches. More recently, there are several bus companies who offer air-con buses, known as VIP buses, since air-con is considered a luxury to the local population.

990 Traveling in Laos

By far, the most common mode of transport throughout the country is the motorbike. Although the bicycle seems to work just as well around town, Lao people love to drive or ride on the motorbike. The cool breeze in the face is really pleasant on days when the temperature rises above 30 degrees Celsius. Almost everyone in Laos can ride a motorbike, no matter what age. It is not uncommon to get passed by a motorbike driven by kids as young as 12 years old!

Renting a motorbike is one of the best ways to discover the beautiful Laos countryside and explore small villages. Your traveler can cover enough distance but at a more intimate pace than riding in a bus or sǎwngthǎew and have the flexibility to stop when and where they want. Two-wheel transport can really provide one with an off-the-beaten track feeling. But watch out for cattle on the road. They can be very unpredictable! If a tourist has an accident with a buffalo or a cow, the rule is as follows: if you are on a ‘highway’ or main road, the owner of the cattle is responsible. If you are driving on a small dirt road, you are responsible for the damage that has been done. Khiri Travel Laos can organize motorbike tours with a guide both for beginners and more experienced drivers.

For more information on the different ways to travel around Laos and for booking requests, please contact

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