For a capital city, Vientiane is small by any standards and as a sightseer, you can visit many of the city's attractions on foot, or if you're a little more adventurous, by bicycle.
Renting bicycles is quite popular with tourists wanting to visit the local sights around Vientiane. While many of the roads are not well paved, they are more or less flat and there are no real hills in the urban area or suburbs. There are several shops that rent push-bikes including Walkman Village on Thanon Fa Ngam, the river-front road. Cycling can be a pleasant and cheap way to get around the city, needing care in the day time, but not at all recommended after dark. The Lao, much like Thais, have little awareness of or consideration for anyone else on the roads, especially pedestrians or cyclists. They are totally preoccupied with their own journeys, driving or riding motorcycles with their cellphones held to one ear. Care is needed, whether you are on foot or on wheels youself!
For longer distances there are tuk-tuks and jumbos. These are noisy three-wheeled contraptions with a motorcycle engine and two inside-facing bench seats. There is a canopy that provides shade from the sun, but little protection from the elements during the rainy season. For some reason their brakes make a screaming sound like a donkey being throttled! Always negotiate the price with the driver before setting off on your journey.
Here is a typical jumbo – believe it or not 10 or more passengers can be carried!
Conventional taxis (some are very old cars, but there are also new ones and a few even have meters) are available in several areas such as behind the Morning Market (Talat Sao) at the airport and also at the Friendship Bridge which spans the Mekong and leads to Nongkhai on the Thai side of the river. Many of the better hotels operate mini-bus services, offering pickups and tours around the city for their guests.
Local bus services do exist around some areas of the city and there is a service from town to the Friendship Bridge. These small buses are slow and make many stops. There is also a 'VIP' service between Vientiane and Udon Thani (75km) or Nongkhai (25km). See more about this and travel in and out of Laos on our transport page.
Due to the lack of good public transport, longer term residents really need some form of personal transport. Although there are many compact cars imported from China and Korea seen on Lao roads now, for the majority it's a motorcycle. Chinese and Korean Honda copies are readily available from $450, while a local Honda assembly plant sells branded models for more than double that.
In much of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia – and for that matter, Japan, vehicles are right-hand drive and driving is on the left. However, in the former Indochina, now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, driving is on the right hand side of the road. Burma (Myanmar), China and the Philippines are also LHD, driving on the right.
There are some driving habits that have to be appreciated in Laos. White centre lines and/or striped areas are for guidance only and totally ignored most of the time, as are stop signs and red lights at non-police-monitored intersections and the few 'zebra' crossings (usually without traffic lights) which give a false sense of security to those crossing busy roads. It's safer to cross at controlled intersections.
White lines or not, there is an invisible 'middle lane' which is used by traffic travelling in both directions for overtaking or stopping to turn left. Combine this with motorcycles winding in and out of the cars and trucks, and making U-turns or crossing the road directly in front of you, without any warning or hand signal, you have the recipe for frequent accidents – often serious when involving motorcycles, as although the law requires the wearing of crash helmets, many Lao refuse to do this and will just pay a small fine if they are stopped by police. Rarely do you see serious accidents between four-wheeled vehicles, though.
Many roads in Lao do not allow very high speeds due to their condition. There are new roads being built and because they are smooth and wide, they become race-tracks at times for impatient Lao and Thai drivers, but local expats are guilty too. Be especially careful driving at night, especially with other motorcyclists – young Lao in high spirits and varying states of intoxication (there is no control on alcohol intake) on their way home after the evening beer-drinking session or disco. Many do not have (or do not use) their lights. This also applies to cars and trucks too. There are many explanations for this: forgetfulness, bulbs or wiring has failed and never been fixed, it saves the battery, there are street lights, (so no need) and even riding with lights attracts 'bad spirits' or ghosts. Take your pick!
A car if you can afford it, is a far safer and more comfortable option, especially during the rainy season between May or June and November. In December and January, there is a noticeable change in the weather and it can get quite cold at night and the early morning, 15-20 degrees C, and much colder in the higher, mountainous regions. The climate and latitude are similar to Northern Thailand including Chiangmai. Cool nights are a welcome respite before the hot dry and dusty weather starts, followed by a humid build-up to the rains. Riding a motorcycle is even more dangerous in the wet weather, and with the added chill factor from the wind, is cold enough to require a warm jacket, especially in the evenings.
This is Lane Xang Avenue which runs from the Presidential Palace on the river to the Victory Monument (Patuxai) in the distance. Quite a way beyond that is the famous That Luang temple. Directly on the right is Vientiane's famous 'Morning Market'. Except for a short morning and evening rush hour, there is a general absence of heavy traffic around much of the city.
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Updated: Dec 13
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