This page is my overview of backpacking Laos, covering the country, some tips, general things to know, transport and accommodation options, general costs and my overall experience.
Sleepy as the Mekong river, stepping into Laos was like stepping into 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 Anthony Bourdain about Laos (Watch it here) and it intrigued me so much, right there and then I wanted to backpack Laos. This was a completely off the grid place to travel. He described it as mysterious and I wanted – No; I needed to experience that myself! Laos did not disappoint; I loved this country. Yes, it’s not developed like Thailand nor commercially overrun by western franchises but there is just this charm about it and you can’t help fall in love with the place.
Laos is the Bolivia of South East Asia (apart from the altitude) surrounded by it’s more famous and attractive neighbors. It used to be overlooked by tourists and travelers; but in recent times this is becoming a popular destination amongst backpackers. Just like Bolivia, it’s raw, it’s a poor country that’s massively underdeveloped. Laos is dusty, it’s misty, the people and life move at a snail’s pace. However it’s landscape, the wilderness are breathtaking and the old cities and towns will captivate you.
Do bare in mind, if you’re looking for a smooth ride then you’re in the wrong country. Things will go wrong and it will be a bumpy ride, you just have to ride it out; just like I learnt to do.
A few tips:
- Eat freshly made baguette’s in Vientiane, You’ll think your eating them in France.
- Have an open mind, keep patient, and learn to be calm when traveling 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 pot holes.
- 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.
Some things to be wary of:
- 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 pick pocket 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 over charged 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 visa’s 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 Laos:
This stumped me, I wasn’t expecting this but as under developed 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 other South East Asian 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.
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 is by 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 in saying this – getting around Laos is a bumpy ride. When I say bumpy I mean you’re going to come off some journeys thinking you’ve broke 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 it’s self.
Songthaew – Get you around locally. (Like tuck-tuks)
Mopeds – Brave the pot holes 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.
- Guest houses: 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 showed 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 learnt 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 while 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:
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 very journey.
being served raw eggs for breakfast.
Being more expensive than I was expecting.
My Laos backpacking route: