The bus system has vastly improved over the last few years in coverage, speed, and comfort. Nevertheless, taking a long-distance bus in Laos can be an arduous option, and may be very slow and often quite crowded. Quality really varies. Buses can also be packed with other passengers' luggage or great piles of goods being transported from one place to another. Buses are slow, so unless you're in a big hurry it will help your blood pressure to plan trips in short stages. They are cheap though, so the adage that you get what you pay for certainly holds true here.
Private car hire, generally with driver, can be arranged through any travel agent in Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Unless you have very specialised needs (or are travelling with your family in tow) private car hire is not a cheap way to explore Laos.
The national carrier, Lao Airlines (Pangkham Rd., Vientiane; tel. 021/512-028; www.laoairlines.com) is the only domestic airline in Laos. It used to have a very bad reputation for safety, and indeed the United Nations banned its staff from using it. It has improved greatly in the last decade. They fly in both directions from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Pakse, Phonsavan, Udomxai, Huay Xai, Luang Nam Tha, and Savannakhet; and from Luang Prabang to Pakse and Phonsavan.
Larger enduro-style dirt bikes can be hired long-term from some travel agents. Prices are reasonable, but be sure to carefully check the bike, and whatever you do, do not use the chain and padlock provided by the shop to lock up the bike at night -- use your own.
Given how hilly Laos is, it is surprising just how popular the place is with cyclists. Most nearly every town in Laos will have some lodgings, so you shouldn't struggle for a room. Things to pack include a good supply of inner tubes and patch kits, and of course, your bike -- you will need to bring your own.
The river used to be the main means of transport in Laos. That has changed rapidly as the whole country progresses to being sealed and paved, and road transport has undercut river transport in both money and time. Yet for tourists who look forward to the experience of slow river trips through jungled limestone canyons, it is a different story. The journey down from Huay Xai in the north to Pakbeng remains very popular and a number of companies run vessels of varying luxury. You can book a ticket from a travel agent on the Thai side of the border in Chiang Khong before you cross, though this is not recommended because you won't see what you are getting. For the normal tourist boat, you can simply walk through immigration in Huay Xai and then wander down to where the boats are moored and buy a ticket for $20. The trip can be wonderful unless the boat is too crowded, so that is something to watch out for. The boats leave when they have enough passengers loaded on, and the trip takes about 6 to 8 hours. One tends to leave by about 10am and arrive around 4:30pm. Pakbeng has transformed from the sleepiest of backwaters only a decade ago to a place flooded with tourist money, so people may be pushy. Boat traffic south of Luang Prabang is virtually nonexistent. Elsewhere in the country you can charter your own boat, but that is expensive and logistically complicated.
By Tuk-Tuk & Jumbo
These three-wheeled vehicles are ideal for short journeys around town. Jumbos (found only in Vientiane) are a bit larger than tuk-tuks, and their engine and cabin size mean they can carry more people. Both are generally motorbikes with a trailer welded to the back and cost about 25¢ per kilometer. In both Luang Prabang and Vientiane, you will need to haggle hard.