Backpacking Laos travel advice.
This overview of budget backpacking Laos covers:
general costs, things to know, tips, transport, accommodation options and my overall experience of the country.
Sleepy as the Mekong river itself, stepping into Laos was like stepping into the land that time forgot.
While Thailand is geared towards and catered to tourism, Laos is still getting used to tourists wanting to come to this majestic country.
I once watched a documentary by the late Anthony Bourdain about Laos travel (Watch it here) and it intrigued me so much, right there and then I wanted to travel Laos. This was completely off the grid and I wanted – No; I needed to experience it myself!
Laos is not your typical tourist destination, it’s not commercially developed nor overrun by western franchises like Thailand. Laos is raw, it’s dusty, it’s misty, it’s massively underdeveloped and life move at a snail’s pace. However it’s landscape, the wilderness, it’s all breathtaking and the cities and towns like Luang Prabang and Vientiane will captivate you.
So, if you’re looking for a smooth ride well, then you’re in the wrong country for you. Things will go wrong and it will be a bumpy ride but there is a charm about the place, and if you’re like me you will fall in love with the country as you travel Laos.
A few tips when backpacking Laos:
- Eat freshly made baguette’s in Vientiane, You’ll think you’re eating them in France.
- Have an open mind, keep patient, and learn to be calm when you travel Laos.
- Like is the rest of South East Asia – haggle, haggle, haggle
- Play the game of haggling, don’t be rude – learn how to haggle well (post coming in the future)
- Prepare for things to go wrong and transport to be late – Time is not important to the people of Laos.
- Laos has so many hidden gems (Temples, ruins, waterfalls etc) – Don’t be afraid to explore.
- Renting a moped is cheap and a great way to get around but you will have to brave the potholes.
- Don’t expect good quality western food.
- Don’t expect any luxury, Laos is a world away from Thailand.
- Watch a sunset along the Mekong River.
- Be prepared for long bumpy journeys.
- Sitting in the middle of the bus will be as comfortable as you’ll be able to get.
- Keep your belongings close and be mindful of them when on public transport.
- Your clothes will always be dusty, even after you have them washed.
- Beer Lao is the local beer and dirt cheap.
Some things to be wary of as you travel Laos:
- Transport breaking down – It can be a common occurrence.
- Tour touts and kids trying to get you stay at the guesthouse they work for. They get quite aggressive at times.
- Young kids hounding you, they work in groups and will try begging even if they are not homeless. They just see you’re a tourist and will ask for money.
- If they hound you, be careful of your personal belongings, some will attempt to pickpocket you.
- Buying tours and activities through your hostel – They receive commission and will mark up a price. You can find it cheaper looking for yourself.
- Being overcharged at markets and stalls – Never accept the first price, it will always be too much, you have to haggle to get a fair price.
- Tubing is not the booze crazed event it used to be – After some reported deaths, the old version was made illegal. You can still go tubing but there is no drinking on the river, you will have to stop at bars along the river.
- Be careful, you might just fall in love with this country.
Basic things to know:
- Language spoken: Lao
- Other Languages spoken: French,
- Is English spoken: A little
- Currency: Lao Kip
- National beer – Beer Laos.
- Backpacking in Cambodia is – Very Cheap
- To check live rates click here XE.com
- 30-day tourist visas are issued on arrival for a cost of $35 – You will need a passport photo, at least 2 clear pages, and 6 months validity in your passport. Also, you will need the name of where you’re intending to stay.
- If you are looking to stay longer than 30 days you need to apply for a longer term visa at Laos Embassies.
Things to know when budgeting for backpacking Loas
This stumped me, I wasn’t expecting it but as underdeveloped and poor Laos is; it wasn’t as cheap as Thailand – Make sense of that! This magical, sleepy country that has been hidden from the world led me on a path where I would run out of money later on in Vietnam.
Before you start panicking though I am talking in comparison to it’s neighboring countries. So in terms of western prices and compared to South America Laos is still dirt cheap and a heaven for backpackers to travel on a budget. You just have to be a little more mindful of your spending. (However, I did travel Laos in 2014 so costs may have changed since then)
During my time there my budget of $20-$25 dollars a day raised to $25-$30 a day and days we did excursions, slightly more.
Transport and accommodation were a little more expensive than Thailand at the time, not by a significant amount but you could tell the difference. However like in every country you should look around locally for cheaper rooms.
What to do in Laos:
You will save on your budget with activities and tours, Laos isn’t a country packed with overpriced commercialized tourist attractions, so you’re not going to be paying over the odds. Most the things you’ll do in Laos will consist of wandering around and discovering them for free. There are parks, museums, and tours you can choose but they cost next to nothing.
Eating in restaurants is slightly more than it’s neighboring countries and to be honest the food isn’t great in them. You’re more likely to get a tastier dish eating locally or from a street vendor.
And, on a plus note – Beer’s, especially beer Lao is cheaper than water.
As you can see I haven’t gone into too much specific pricing, as prices always change and information becomes irrelevant. However, if you are looking to compare live prices here is a couple of good sites for live comparisons to help you: numbeo and expatisan.
There’s no other way of saying this – Traveling Laos is a bumpy ride. When I say bumpy I mean you’re going to come off some journeys thinking you’ve broken your ass cheeks. Moving around Laos is not going to be smooth but that’s part of the charm – Everything is pretty basic and getting from A to B is an adventure in its self.
- Songthaew – Get you around locally. (Like tuck-tuks)
- Mopeds – Brave the potholes and rent a moped.
- Public buses – Can be an adventure or nerve-racking.
- Tractors with trailers – Small tractors pulling a trailer of locals.
- Private mini-vans – Safe and Cheap. (mainly used by tourists)
- Coaches and sleeper buses – 2nd class, 1st class, VIP and available (VIP here isn’t so VIP)
- Boat – Travel slowly along the calm Mekong river. (You will be sitting on hard wooden planks with no cushion)
Popular tour Companies:
Local tour companies available all around Laos and with some haggling can be very cheap
There are a good amount of guest houses and hostels available in the bigger cities but just like with transport it’s all pretty basic.
- Hostels: Widely available in the major cities where most backpackers tend to go.
- Guesthouses: Very common in the cities and in towns.
- Budget hotels: Slightly more expensive than Hostels but still very cheap
- Homestays: Organised to stay with a local family, can be arranged by tour groups or through dedicated websites.
- Hotels – The country budget backpackers can afford to stay in a hotel.
My overview of backpacking Laos:
Backpacking Laos was everything I expected it to be, it was just as Anthony Bourdain had shown me on his documentary. But yet it still surprised me, there was still a culture shock, and it was the next step in my backpacking education.
The things I had learned in Thailand bode well for me through Laos, things like haggling and not expecting amazing western food. (There are times you just want a burger or a pizza)
It’s quite difficult to put into words how I felt whilst backpacking Laos; this is a country I just connected with. There are some countries you go to and you feel one with that country like your body is in sync with it and Laos was that for me. Yes, I had an amazing time doing activities there but some countries it’s not about what you see or do, it’s just about how you feel at that time. I don’t think there is another country where I’ve felt as calm in, even though it wasn’t a smooth ride. I was just as relaxed as the country.
Some of my highlights of traveling Laos:
Discovering the hidden history of Laos.
The slow-paced atmosphere.
Buddha park in Vientiane.
Traveling through the wilderness.
Exploring and finding hidden gems.
How basic and simple life is there.
Feeling the most calm I’ve ever felt.
Exploring and discovering this wonderful country.
The mystic in the mountains.
Watching sunsets on the Mekong river.
Some of my dislikes:
The food in some places.
My ass hurting after every journey.
being served raw eggs for breakfast.
Being more expensive than I was expecting.
My Laos backpacking route:
This Laos map shows the route took through the country starting In Vientiane.
Did you find this backpacking Laos guide helpful? If there is anything else you would like to know or need any other advice on traveling Laos in the comments below.
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