Cycling in Laos
What is cycling in Laos like? Is is possible? Is it safe? I get these questions once in a while. The answer is simple: it's a fantastic country to explore on the bicycle, better than with any other form of transport. Backpackers know already for many years how nice and relaxed Laos is. But these days more cyclist come to Laos and explore many places far away from the mainstream tourism areas.
Since the borders opened, some 10 years ago, more or less, Laos started to develop quickly into a new backpackers paradise. Once the backpackers had paved the path, organized up market tourism found quickly it's way.
But cyclists suffered a bit. At that time cycling in Laos wasn't really that pleasant nor easy. However cyclists could sometimes go where busses couldn't. And, of course, it is still that way.
Although cycling in Laos is nowadays easy to do, it wasn't all too easy in the recent past. For example, the National Highway from Vientiane to Pakse, around 800 km, had not been finished until around 2000. Before that, you were on a sort of dirt road, sometimes good, sometimes less.
My first visit was with a backpack, but during later visits I was always cycling in Laos.
I pitied the bus travelers who were in buses like the one below traveled either north or south. We cyclists had an easier job I think although I am of course biased. The bus in the picture above was the one I traveled with in 1997.
However, when we speak about the ongoing roads the bad days for the main roads are all over. The road from Vientiane to Pakse (highway 13) and going north to Luang Prabang and Muang Xai are now in good condition, even if you travel by bus. For cyclists there's a lot more interesting possible, roads which are still no more then dirt paths which leads to unknown little villages where few foreigners ever go.
What to think of the road that leads from Luang Nam Tha to Huay Xai at the border of Thailand. It makes a good circle in Laos possible (Vientiane - Luang Prabang - Luang Nam Tha - Huay Xai without the need to come back the same way. Or go into north east Laos for some real challenges. Highway 11 is another nice alternative if you cycle from Savannakhet to Thakekh!
Sunset over the Mekong River at Don Det, 4000 Islands in South Laos
Preparations for cycling in Laos
So, what do you need to prepare when you want to go cycling in Laos? Laos is an excellent holiday destination. If you have only a 3 week holiday and still want to cycle exotic, Laos is a great option. But if you're a long distance cyclist, your options are numerous.
And if you have 3 weeks, you may want to fly in into Vientiane. There's a good and modern airport 15 km just outside the city center.
Virtually everybody who is not a citizen of one of the Asean countries need a visa. You can arrange a visa in your own country but it's as easy to do it in Bangkok. If you have the time, save $10 and get the visa in the Lao embassy in Bangkok. You can also get a visa at many Lao borders although it seems the price is not fixed. See my additional page about via requirements for Laos.
Getting serious maintenance done in Laos might be close to impossible. You may be able to get some material at Top-Cycle-Zone which is located at: 047 Dong Palan in Vientiane (telephone:021263871).
The best advice is to check your bicycle at home, then come to Laos. When you're on the road for awhile, you probably come either from Thailand or China. Bangkok has several good bike shops (see my recommendations here). Should you come from China, your best bet is to do maintenance in Kunming.
Coming from either Vietnam or Cambodia, it's more difficult. The nearest bicycle shops in Vietnam can be found in Danang and Hue while in Cambodia you will have to try your luck in Phnom Penh.
Laos is a tropical country so you don't need much. Summer is usually wet and hot, winter is dry and slightly cooler. In north Laos the temperature can be even as low as 5°C higher up in the mountains. However, daily temperature from November to February is rarely below 20-25 °C.
Buying clothes can be a little difficult since the bigger sizes are not widely available. Vientiane and Luang Prabang will be good places to pick up some clothes. Shoes are always a problem for us "big feet" in Asia, bring from home if your size is 41 or bigger.
Some good routes to cycle
Cycling in Laos is a real pleasure. South Laos is mostly flat with the exception of the Bolovens plateau and some roads leading to Vietnam (but not the road from Savannakhet to Lao Bao). North Laos is challenging but not impossible, even for inexperienced cyclists.
Find some ideas about south Laos here and more about north Laos on this page. If you want to go bicycling in Laos for 3 to 4 weeks, you might want to start in the south and work your way north. However, many cyclists skip the south or do it in a different trip. Indeed there's not much to see in between Pakse and Vientiane but it's a pleasant ride.
North Laos is much more visited. It's not for nothing. Vang Vieng is a tourist spot (though personally I think there are much better places to visit in Laos). Luang Prabang is good place to hang our with lots of guest houses, restaurants and hotels. The Plain of Jars near Phonsavan is something special. And if you are interested in the Lao minorities, there's no better place then Muang Sing near the Chinese border.
Hotels in Laos can be dirt cheap but sometimes very basic, especially in the countryside.
Vientiane, as the capital have a range of budget and mid range hotels offering a very decent price for what you get.
In south Laos (4000 islands) in the high season (roughly from December to March) it can be a problem to find a hotel. Best is to book in advance. Our south Laos page recommends a few of these hotels on the islands. Outside the high season prices drop.
Other pages about Laos:
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Map of Laos