From Dec 18th to Dec 30th, 2014 I hitchhiked in Laos from north to south, stopping in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Thakhek, Pakse and Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Dong). It’s the dry season but not the end of the dry season, so perhaps the best season for visiting Laos and hitchhike. This article is based on experiences of mainly myself but also other travellers I met, so it’s surely all true but can be limited. You are welcome to make comments and contribute some input! 😀
Is it safe to hitchhike in Laos?
YES! Although it’s a poor country, the people are generally gentle and polite and the safety is good. Do not worry. 🙂 Minor crimes can happen inside cities, especially in Vientiane, but on the road it’s very safe.
How to hitchhike in Laos?
Hitchhiking is not that known in Laos but riding along for free, especially as foreigners, is accepted to many. Thumbing up does not work here. If you want people to know you are hitchhiking, there are two ways. First, you can stretch your right arm straight, with palm facing the ground, wave your hand up and down. When cars stop, tell them you do not have money before stepping in. Second, you can simply write a sign indicating your destination and hold it.
An easy thing for hitchhiking in Laos is the fact that there is one and only one road connecting almost all the touristic sights — National Road Number 13. This road starts from the Chinese border in the north and passes Muang Xay, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Pakxan, Thakhek, Pakse and Four Thousand Islands. I hitchhiked mainly on this road. The following division of Northern, Middle and Southern Laos is based on my experience on this road.
Hitchhiking in the North of Laos, from Chinese border to Luang Prabang, is difficult. Hitchwiki said that sometimes one could only make as many kilometer as walking. That’s not true but waiting time like half an hour can often happen. It’s probably the poorest area of Laos. Although there are some vehicles of local Lao people, they either insist on getting paid or are not open-minded enough to take foreigners in their vehicles. I talked with a few travellers (all of them westerners) who had hitchhiked there and almost all of them told me that in Northern Laos, mainly, if not only, Chinese cars pick up hitchhikers. This is a unique situation in Northern Laos. In other areas of Laos mainly Laotian drivers take you. This matches my own experiences. So perhaps writting your sign in both Chinese and Lao, or both English and Lao would help. To clarify, not every Chinese there speaks English, but since in China we have pinyin, the romantized system to indicate the pronunciations of Chinese characters. the English names of Laotian cities are readable to Chinese drivers.
I have heard of extraoridnary hospitality from those Chinese drivers, like inviting hitchhikers for food and paying for their accommodation. This surely can happen. Most Chinese people in Laos or going to Laos are business people or expats working for some projects in Laos. They are open-minded enough and many of them are also rich enough to afford such hospitality. As a Chinese myself, I was picked up by 3 Chinese cars from Chinese border to Luang Prabang and the drivers were nice to me, buying me dinner and trying to help, very sincere people. I could never expect this to happen for me inside China.
In the North of Laos, the roads are in a very bad condition and there is much construction going on. I talked with many travellers, including some Europeans who drove with their own RVs and we all agreed that the road from Muang Xay to near Luang Prabang is the WORST we have EVER experienced, so be prepared. It will be your life experience! 😀
From Luang Prabang to Pakxan, it is relatively easy to hitchhike and the road is also not the worst. There are trucks and cars going long distances, especially from other places to Vientiane. You are all set. No worries! 😉 Still, often you should expect drivers asking for money and some of them are actually taxis but don’t have any sign of that, so confirm with them before stepping in, otherwise awkward and unpleasant situations for both parties can happen.
Signs works well for this area since there are vehicles going between big cities, but if you get really stuck, put away your sign and use the “waving hand” method. This might not get you long-distance rides but it can get you rides fast and you can keep going with short rides offered by scooters and pick-up trucks.
From Pakxan to Cambodian border the road is probably the best in the whole Laos, not so many big holes on the road surface and no mountainous area anymore. However, this area in general is rural. If you look at the map you will see this area is so vast while there are only so few cities, the only mentionable cities being Savannakert, Thakhek and Pakse. The peasants north of Pakse may not be open-minded enough to take you (I was actually picked up by a British girl with her scooter for the ride from 200 km North to Pakse to Pakse.) but there are always kind people. Don’t lose your faith! Drink enough water and stay positive! 😀
From Pakse to Cambodian border, passing Four Thousand Islands, the traffic is light and most of the long-distance vehicles are organized transport for commercial tours. It can be hard to get a long distance ride. In some area every five minutes one vehicle passes and probably a scooter. If you are hitchhiking alone, it works better to use no sign but only “waving hand”. In that way you can get rides rather fast and get youself going all the time by scooter/pick-up truck/tractor relay.
Other information about hitchhiking in Laos
Cars drive on the right side, like in most countries. If you are on a scooter, expect most, if not all of drivers not to have an extra helmet for you. If you are picked up by a pick-up truck, expect to be mostly in the trailer instead inside the driver’s cab. Some cars, even some very nice ones do not have a number board. Stay calm. That’s not uncommon in Laos and it’s ok to get in if it’s a free ride. 🙂 The Lao is a gentle and polite folk. The drivers will insist paying for the bill if you eat together. The English level in Laos is pretty low, so learning some phrases in Lao would be helpful, especially “I don’t have money”, which sounds like Bu Mi E(like “e” in herb) Ren. Unlike Europe and some Middle East countries, there won’t be any problem with police when hitchhiking outside cities. The Laotian road in general is in a poor situation. Among all the countries I have visited (44 all together, Europe, Middle East, South East Asia, China), Laos is perhaps the poorest and has surely the worst “highway” (national road). Also Laos is the first country without a running railway I have ever been to. 😀
For writting signs, except in Northern Laos, it’s recommended to write it both in Laotian and English. How to find the Laotian name of cities? You can resort to a map if you have one, otherwise use Wikipedia.
Laotian people are generally gentle and polite, so if you get stuck, which surely can happen, do not panic and ask for help. 🙂
Last but not the least: HAPPY HITCHING! 🙂
If you want to know the details of my hitchhiking experiences, you can read my previous blogs in the category “Hitchhikers Never Die — Hitchhiking in Laos”. (no pressure, I don’t write for clicks, only to preserve memories and share information 😉 )