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Laos Waterways

The Mekong River is the longest, biggest and the most important inland navigable mode of transport in Laos. It is Asia’s fourth longest river, which flows through Lao territory for 1,865 km. It stretches from the north to the south and help alleviate the difficulty of reaching the mountainous areas of the country where land transport is neither feasible nor economic.

For thousands of years the Mekong River has been an important conduit for people and goods between the many towns situated along its banks. Traditional forms of trade in small boats linking communities continue today, however the river is also becoming an important link in international trade routes, connecting the six Mekong countries to each other, and also to the rest of the world.

Narrower and more turbulent sections of water in the upstream parts of the Mekong River, coupled with large annual water level variations continue to present a challenge to navigation. The seasonal variations in water level directly affect trade in this section of the river. Volumes of trade being shipped decrease by more than 50 percent, primarily due to the reduced draughts available during the low water season. Despite these challenges, the volume of this trade is expected to increase by 8–11 per cent per year. Port infrastructure is being expanded to accommodate the expected growth in traffic.

Laos has twenty-one river port facilities. The Department of Waterways, under the MPWT, is responsible for policy, planning, and managing all inland waterways in the country. This includes port and navigation channel management, flooding and river bank protection, and waterways transport. These port are small and typically used for domestic trade, however, recent years have witnessed a growth in cross-border trade with the People's Republic of China (PRC), Myanmar, and Thailand.

Domestic trade can be conducted through Mekong River in three main parts: Houayxay-Luangpabang, Luangpabang-Vientiane, Vientiane-Thakek-Savannaket and Savannaket –Champasak (Pakse). But because of rapids, water falls, and low water levels during the dry season reduce the navigable length for river transportation to less than 1,000 km.

In Laos, 50 and 100 DWT vessels are operated for regional trade. The main types of cargo carried are timber, agricultural products, and construction materials. 

River/Lake Port Assessment

Along the Mekong River in Lao territory, the two sections of the river between the China border– Houyxay –Luangpabang, have many small rapids that are a barrier to navigation in the dry season. The section between Luangpabhang--Vientiane is navigable throughout the year but also has difficult sections, even at high water levels. The most easily navigable section is from Vientiane – Thakhek – Savannaket, where the navigation could be improved at a relatively low cost, although there are also several dangerous areas. 

 The main barrier along the Mekong is the Khemarat rapids between Savannaket—Champasak (Pakse), which completely close the river to dry season transport and severely limit wet season navigability.  In the Pakse – Don Deth (in Champasak province) section navigation is easier only as far as the Cambodia border where the Khone Falls are an impassable obstacle. 

Since the national Road No. 13 South was improved, river freight traffic between Vientiane and Savannaket has fallen away, whereas there is still thriving river transport on the section between Vientiane and Luangpabang because the more severe terrain influences road transport costs on that section.

Additional decline is greater projected with the opening of 1st Lao-Thai Mekong River Friendship Bridge in Vientiane Capital, 2nd Mekong River Bridge in Pakse , Champasack province as well as the 3rd Savannaket-Mukdahan Mekong Bridge in Savannaket.


For information on Laos Waterways additional information, please see the following documents: 

LAO worker discharging photo

Laos Mekong Waterways

Laos Waterways Assessment Additional Information

Note: The information provided in the attached documents, which has been taken from the old DLCA, does not match the structure of the new LCA and is therefore provided separately.