The ultimate guide to backpacking Laos
When winding your way through the many delights of South East Asia, don’t do yourself dirty and give Laos the swerve. This beautiful country is more than worth your time. While it may not be such a backpacker staple as big-hitters like its neighbours Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, really that works in Laos’ favour. Laos is a peaceful country, home to 6.9 million people, with a fascinating history, delicious food, ancient traditions and more riverside paradises than you can shake a travel guide at. Laos may be small and landlocked but it is truly stunning from every angle. Its lush countryside of winding rivers, waterfalls, lagoons, imposing limestone mountains, karsts and caves is something special. This is one of the rare few places in South East Asia where you can actually feel as though you’ve escaped the typical tourist trail. There may be no Full Moon Party, but you won’t miss that chaos when you’re soaking up the tranquillity of the Laotian landscape. Mark our words: your days or weeks spent lounging in a hammock as the Nam Song or Mekong River wind past your door will be some of the most memorable of your time in South East Asia.
Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about backpacking Laos!
Jump straight to:
- The best time to visit Laos
- Laos visa
- Travelling around Laos
- Backpacking Laos budget
- Accommodation in Laos
- Laos itineraries
- The best places to visit in Laos
- Laos food
- Laos culture
- Laos travel advice
Best time to visit Laos
Laos weather is at its very best between October and April, when it’s dry, warm and positively lovely day in, day out. Temperatures in Laos at this time do vary depending on the region (whether you’re at sea level or up in the mountains), but generally hover pleasantly between 20-27°C. The hottest months fall between April and May, when temperatures shoot up to an average of 30-34°C. If you’re visiting the Laos highlands (northern, eastern and central regions) the ‘green season’ falls between May and October. During this time you will experience brief, heavy showers, but they won’t affect your enjoyment. In fact, they provide welcome respite from the heat. The green season is so-named because it’s at this time of year that the countryside bursts into life, fuelled by the rains – flowers bloom, waterfalls flow and all the wildlife comes out to play.
Lowland Laos (the south) is at its best between November and January. Daytime temperatures are pleasant and the countryside is lush after the rains but evenings tend to be a touch chilly. Make sure you pack some layers. River travel is also best between November and January, just after the rainy season, as water levels are nice and high and fast-flowing, which means boats reach their destinations faster. If you’re visiting this neck of the woods between February and April, prepare for seriously steamy temperatures.
The monsoon and typhoon seasons both fall between May and November in Laos. During this time, plan for tropical downpours most afternoons. While it’s not impossible to enjoy the country at this time of year, torrential rain can seriously scupper travel plans, especially if you plan to travel between destinations by bus. The road network in Laos has improved vastly over the last decade, but many roads remain unpaved, particularly in rural areas. This is fine when the ground is hot and hard, but torrential rain can make your route akin to Glastonbury on a very bad year. This makes getting from A to B a massive struggle that can take hours longer than usual. Laos is home to almost 40 rivers, many of which are partial to flooding following heavy rain. Mountainous areas are also vulnerable to landslides at this wet time of year. However, it’s not all bad news, everything is cheaper during the rainy season, and the storms can really bring out the sights and smells of the Laos countryside; especially around Luang Prabang, the mountains surrounding Vang Vieng and in the National Protected Areas, of which there are 20! These protected areas make up a wonderful 14% of the country – we urge you to visit as many as possible. Should you go tubing at this time of year, be aware that the rainfall can really speed up the flow of the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng. This means much more care must be taken when tubing down river, especially after the obligatory beers you will likely be drinking en route.
You can obtain a Laos visa on arrival for 1,500 Thai Baht, or around US$35 (£27). Your passport must have at least two blank pages in it, and be valid for a minimum of six months after the date that you arrive. You require two passport photos along with the fee for your visa, so remember to bring them with you or have them taken at home or in a larger town or city in your stop before the border. There are no means of taking passport photographs at the borders. Make sure your passport is stamped upon entry. Without this stamp, you can be fined or arrested by Laos authorities.
If you’d prefer to secure your visa before you arrive in the country, you can get one from the Lao Embassy in London, or from the Lao Embassy in Bangkok or Hanoi. Whatever you do, don’t overstay your visa. It’s a serious offence in Laos, and you’ll either be fined or detained, and no one wants that. Fortunately, extending your visa is easy as pie. You can extend it twice, up to a total of 90 days. To secure an extension, visit the immigration office in the Ministry of Public Security Building in Vientiane. You will have to fill out a form (44p), pay an admin fee (£2.20) and shell out a further £1.80 for every additional day you wish to add to your stay. It’s standard practice to leave your passport at the office, and return the following day to collect it. Do be aware that Laos visa requirements change relatively regularly. To be on the safe side, always double check things before you visit by contacting the Lao Embassy for the most up-to-date information.
Travelling around Laos
Travelling into Laos from Thailand…
One of the most popular ways to enter is by travelling from Chiang Mai to Laos. You can fly direct from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang for around £70, but if you’re headed to Vientiane, the cheapest and easiest way is by bus. Most buses leave Chiang Mai at 7pm and arrive to the border (located just half an hour from Vientiane) at 6am. The journey takes between 14-18 hours and costs £24. You can book your bus ticket at your hostel or at the bus station. Generally, booking travel at your hostel can cost a little more than booking directly at the bus station…but, let’s be honest, it is far less hassle!
Another popular and memorable way to enter Laos from Thailand is via slow boat or speed boat. The slow boat is cheaper and takes a leisurely two days. It’s a perfect way to see the countryside and to experience the sights and sounds of the Mekong River. Thailand lies on one side and Laos to the other. It’s a pretty special journey that you’ll never forget. Yes, the boat is basic, but it has a toilet and a social vibe thanks to its backpacking crowd. Remember to pack snacks – onboard you can only buy beer and instant noodles. One of the joys (?) of being aboard the slow boat is the unscheduled stops it takes en route. The crew might be dropping people off, or picking up deliveries of rice, food, or sometimes even the odd farm animal. On my slow boat to Laos, we had two noisy pigs on the roof for much of the way!
The slow boat stops for the night at Pak Beng. Depending on the ticket you’ve bought, your accommodation might be sorted, or you might have to fend for yourself. There are lots of guesthouses to choose from so you won’t have any trouble finding somewhere for the night. You usually arrive in the afternoon, which gives you a little time to explore. Walk up to Wat Kok Kok to stretch your legs and for some aerial views of the town and surrounding countryside. There’s a market to mosey around, which is perfect for stocking up on snacks for the next day. You can also get a really decent Indian curry in Pak Beng at Hashan or Khopchaideu. Hive is the town’s most banging bar, if the idea of being hungover on a boat doesn’t faze you…
The speed boat is a fun (but seriously noisy) option, and it takes just six hours to reach Luang Prabang. Book your journey in Chiang Mai and they will arrange your transport to Chiang Khong in northern Thailand where the boat sails from, your overnight accommodation in Pak Beng, and the boat for around £48.
If you plan on entering Laos from Bangkok, you can catch an overnight train to Nong Khai on the Thai border, then use buses or tuk-tuks to get you from the station to The Friendship Bridge which connects the two countries. Once you’re across the border into Laos, you’re only half an hour or so from Vientiane. If you are headed to southern Laos, the best entry point into the region is Ubon Ratchatani in Thailand, which you can get to easily via bus or train. From there, you can cross the border into Pakse in Laos’ Champasak Province, which places you perfectly for heading to the Si Phan Don Islands (Four Thousand Islands).
Travelling into Laos from Cambodia…
Those travelling from Cambodia to Laos will enter into the beautiful Si Phan Don area of southern Laos. Buses from Phnom Penh to Stung Treng take six hours and go daily. From Stung Treng it’s two hours to the Laos border at Dom Kralor. Once across the border you can catch a boat to Don Det, the most popular of the islands with backpackers. If you choose to enter Laos this way, we recommend having your visa in place in advance to avoid being charged or not being able to secure a visa upon arrival at the border. Plan wisely so you arrive between 8am and 5pm to ensure the border is open.
Travelling into Laos from Vietnam…
Those travelling from Vietnam to Laos usually opt to travel from Hanoi in the north to Luang Prabang, or to Vientiane if you plan on catching a plane. A one-way plane ticket will cost in the region of £50. The overland route between Hanoi and Luang Prabang can be tricky and a little slow, particularly in rainy season. Again, make sure you secure your Laos visa in Vietnam before you travel, as there is no guarantee you’ll be able to secure one at the border.
Those travelling overland between Laos and China will cross at the Boten border in the very north of Laos close to Luang Namtha. The border is straightforward. It is not possible to enter Laos via Myanmar (Burma) as the border is closed to foreigners.
Transport in Laos
Transport in Laos can be slow, so ditch that ‘must-rush-everywhere’ attitude and decide to just go with the flow. Bus travel in Laos typically involves double decker night buses, which come with bunks, air-conditioning, blankets and pillows, a toilet and bottles of water. Always pack snacks, an eye mask, earplugs and a plastic bag to pop your shoes in when you board. The huge benefit of catching an overnight bus is that it gets you from A to B and it saves you having to pay for accommodation. A typical overnight journey will cost around £14. During peak season, securing a ticket can get competitive. This is exacerbated by the fact some companies won’t let you book your ticket until the day before you wish to travel. Therefore, it’s wise to factor in a little wiggle room around your travel dates where possible. If you know where you’re heading next, chat to your hostel or guesthouse to establish the best time to get the ticket booked and then follow their instructions.
A faster way of getting around Laos is via mini-van, which is ideal if you’re travelling shorter distances, such as from Vientiane to Vang Vieng or Thakhek to Savannakhet. Mini-vans cost around a fiver and there’s no need to book in advance. Simply rock up at the bus station, locate a mini-van with your destination on it and hop aboard. Be warned, these buses fill up – to the rafters – so expect to get up close and personal with a fair few strangers. Your bags will be tied to the roof and covered with a tarpaulin. Keep your passport, cash and valuables on you, plus the cash for your ticket. You will usually be asked for your fare a little distance out of town, so keep your bus fare somewhere you can access it. Where possible, get the earliest mini-vans of the day (7-7:30am). They leave on time, avoid traffic and are far less full of punters. Plus, you’ll arrive in your destination in good time to enjoy the day. Your parents will be so proud!
The most cheap and cheerful bus option is a Jumbo or Songthaew. Essentially, these are pick-up trucks that have been converted into giant tuk tuks. Fares are cheap (£1-2) but you’ll be packed in and there are no regular departure times. They are an ideal option for getting around towns and cities and to attractions outside of town, as are the typical smaller tuk-tuks which are everywhere in popular towns like Pakse and Vientiane, and which you’ll be familiar with if you’ve visited Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam. If you’re planning a day trip to a waterfall or cave, ask your driver to wait for you so that you won’t encounter any bother getting back at the end of the day. Typically, a journey around town or to the airport or bus station in a tuk tuk will cost £4. You can also catch local buses, which are much cheaper than the tourist equivalents, but times are less predictable and you should expect to stop multiple times en route, whenever someone wants a cigarette, a toilet stop, or to be let off in the middle of nowhere!
When travelling by bus in Laos be aware that the roads are seriously windy. This not only means that journeys can take longer than they might look on the map, but that they can cause motion sickness, whether it’s you or the person next to you! A plastic bag in your backpack is a sensible idea.
Backpacking Laos budget
Laos currency is called Kip. It’s used for most everyday transactions, so always carry some in your pocket – small denominations where possible so that you can avoid problems getting the correct change. It is possible to pay for bigger items, accommodation and tours in US dollars or Thai Baht. As a general rule, if something costs more than $100, you will be charged in US dollars.
ATM’s are located all around the country, but if you are headed to an especially rural area, take out cash in the nearest town or city to ensure you aren’t caught short. A word of warning – the maximum amount that Laos ATM’s dispense is $250 (£190), and all of them charge a withdrawal fee. Minimise costs by getting a bank card that doesn’t charge you for withdrawals. Banks in Laos’ larger cities offer cash withdrawals from Mastercard or Visa debit or credit cards for a 3% transaction fee. You might be able to find more competitive rates if you have time to shop around.
Laos is very cheap compared to the western world, but is slightly pricier than its South-East Asian neighbours. If you’re on a shoestring, budget $50 (£38) per day. A bed in a hostel costs $5-10 (£3.80-£7) per night as standard, although cheaper rooms can be found. Local buses cost $2-3 (£1.50-£2.30) per kilometre and food costs in Laos are nice and cheap. Street food and meals in standard restaurants cost between $2-4 (£1.50-£3.10) and you can buy a 500ml bottle of Beerlao for $1 (75p).
Haggling is acceptable in Laos. As a general rule, go for half of the price the Laotian seller is offering. They set it higher because they expect you to haggle. Don’t be petty, if you find yourself haggling over the equivalent of 20p, you need to wind your neck in. You will help your chances of securing a good price by being polite, friendly, and speaking a little bit of the language. Khop chai (lai lai) means ‘thank you (so much)’, tao die means, ‘how much?’ and paeng lai means ‘too expensive’. Took means cheap and please is kaluna.
Accommodation in Laos
In the more remote corners of Laos, you are likely to have only a couple of guesthouse options available to you – which certainly makes choosing where to stay a much simpler process. Don’t expect the same flurry of accommodation touts you find at every bus or boat stop in Thailand or Vietnam. Usually you’ll be able to pay in Kip, Thai Baht or US dollars. For a basic double room in the countryside, prices start from around £2.50 per night.
In Laos’ most popular spots, like Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang or Pakse, there will be a wide range of options available to you. In general, hostels in Laos are clean, great value for money and have English-speaking members of staff who are handy sources of information about onward travel, attractions, the best food in town and where to find the party!
In Luang Prabang some great hostel options include Chill Riverside Backpackers Hostel, which has lovely garden river views and is located right by the foot of Mount Phousi – the town’s popular viewing point. Sunrise Riverside Pool Hostel is a good shout (and it has a pool), as is Downtown Backpackers Hostel, located just a couple of hundred metres away from the unmissable Night Markets. In Vang Vieng, Vang Vieng Rock Backpacker Hostel (which has its own nightclub) is a sociable option, as is Nana Backpackers with its epic pool area.
Being the capital, Vientiane has options to suit all budgets and ideas of a party. The capital city is pretty small so your best bet is to focus your accommodation search downtown or close to the river. Check out Dream Home Hostel or Barn 1920s, which has an in-house café serving some of the best drip coffee in the whole city.
You could easily while away a month in Laos, lounging in various peaceful riverside locales, soaking up the vibes, but sadly most of us have strict itineraries to stick to and flights to other exciting destinations to catch. Fortunately, Laos is small enough to travel through relatively fast, although do always factor journey times into your planning, as they can be longer than you might guess due to the standard of the roads. Here are some suggested itineraries for your time in Laos:
Laos itinerary 2 weeks:
- Day 1-4: Luang Prabang
- Day 5-7: Vang Vieng
- Day 8-10: Vientiane
- Day 11-12: Phonsavan and Plain of Jars
- Day 12-14: Si Phan Don Islands
North Laos itinerary:
- Day 1: Huay Xai
- Day 2-5: Luang Namtha – Allows time to enjoy a one or two night homestay in one of the surrounding villages, combined with a hike through the scenic region.
- Day 5-6: Nong Khiaw
- Day 7-8: Luang Prabang
- Day 9-11: Vang Vieng
- Day 12-14: Vientiane
South Laos itinerary:
If you’re coming into Laos from Cambodia you can hop in a mini-van from Kratie (£12), Stung Treng (£9) or Banlung (£12). Make sure your ticket gets you all the way to Don Det or Don Khong in the Si Phan Don Islands, including the boat ride to your final destination. You can also catch a bus directly from Phnom Penh, which takes around seven hours. If you’d prefer to arrive by boat, you can do so from Stung Treng. Boats leave early in the morning, but are a very scenic way of travelling into Laos from Cambodia.
- Day 1-3: Si Phan Don Islands
- Day 4-5: Pakse
- Day 6-8: Champasak – Visit the beautiful Bolevan Plateau and the UNESCO-Heritage listed, Wat Phou Khmer temple complex.
- Day 9-12: Thakhek and the Kong Lor Motorcycle Loop
- Day 13-14: Vientiane.
One month Laos itinerary – north to south:
- Day 1-2: Muang Sing
- Day 3-5: Luang Namtha
- Day 6: Muang Ha
- Day 7-8: Et Phou Louey National Protected Area for the Nam Nerm Night Safari.
- Day 9-10: Nong Khiaw
- Day 11-12: Muang Ngai
- Day 13-14: Huay Xai – For an overnight stay at the Bokeo Nature Reserve.
- Day 15-17: Luang Prabang
- Day 18-20: Vang Vieng
- Day 21: Thakhek – One day rock climbing
- Day 22-24: Thakhek Motorcycle Loop
- Day 25: Tad Lo
- Day 26: Pakse
- Day 27-31: Si Phan Don Islands
Best places to visit in Laos
Some of the very best places to visit in northern Laos are often passed over completely by travellers entering on the slow boat from Thailand. This is a crying shame, as the north of the country is spectacular. The region is known for superb hiking, scenery and homestay visits with fascinating local tribes.
Muang Sing is a peaceful town right on the border with China, perfect for a few chilled days of hiking or bike riding. Plus, if you’re a temple fanatic, this town has a whopping 25 – more than any other location in Laos bar Luang Prabang. Muang Sing also has an interesting history. It was a stop on the Ancient Tea Horse Road trade route between China, Burma and Siam. It was invaded by British troops in 1895, before falling under French control and being used as an opium weighing station and market in the Golden Triangle.
Nearby, Muang Long is tucked in the valley where the Nam Long and Nam Ma rivers meet. Folk from surrounding tribes journey here to stock up on goods and to peddle their wares at the local markets, so it’s great for people-watching and souvenir buying. For the most authentic homestay experience, head to Hat Sa, although be warned – the villages here are incredibly remote and offer no electricity or running water. Luang Namtha, also close to the Chinese border, is widely-considered the best place in all of Laos for trekking. It sits beside the Nam Ha National Park, which you can choose to explore by bike, raft or kayak. The national park is home to tigers, Asian elephants and a whole host of other cool creatures you’ll want to glimpse in the wild. The more people you have on your trek here, the cheaper it will be, so if you’re flying solo, try to latch on to a group of other travellers or recruit others to join you. Hire a bike or motorbike to explore the surrounding countryside (thankfully it’s nice and flat) and villages. Nip 5kn out of town to Ban Nam Dee waterfall, or enjoy a relaxing boat ride down the Nam Tha River. If you’re in the market for a longer road trip, hire a motorbike and enjoy the ride to Muang Sing. This is widely considered to be the most beautiful journey in all of Laos.
For a little off-the-grid magic, Muang La on the banks of the Nam Pak River is worth a day or two. There is very little overnight accommodation in town though, so Muang La is often best visited for the day. While in town, tou can visit the Nam Kat waterfalls, explore the nearby Khmu farming villages or soothe muscles that are tight from hiking (and your backpack!) in the town’s natural hot springs, which overlook the river. Make the pilgrimage to the sacred 400-year-old Buddha, one of the most important in Laos, at Wat Pha Singkham.
Nam Et-Phou Louey is Laos’ largest National Protected area, located between Luang Prabang and the Secret War-era Viengxai Cave on the Vietnamese border. The biggest attraction here is the Nam Nerm Night Safari Adventure, which allows you to stay in the park overnight. The area is home to Asiatic black bears, white-cheeked crested gibbons, slow loris, and six cat species. On your tour, you will float down river and a crew of expert spotters will point out giant porcupines, monitor lizards, barking deer and more. The tour includes an overnight stay in a jungle camp, you’ll be able to enjoy a refreshing dip in the river and guided walks to see temple ruins and to discover the region’s many medicinal plants. March to May are the hottest months here, but also the best for spotting wildlife. If the idea of mozzies and leeches (blergh) turn your stomach, visit between November to February, but remember to pack warm clothing for the colder nights. Treks start from around 1,300,000 kip per person (£115), and you must bring cash as local ATMs are either non-existent or unreliable. Always book your tour at least two days in advance.
Nong Khiaw is yet another attractive riverside paradise, which straddles both banks of the Nam Ou River. The town is a jumping off point for, you guessed it… guided treks, homestays and bike rides to waterfalls. You can also try your hand at rock climbing, enjoy a spot of tubing that’s far more sedate than what you’ll find in Vang Vieng, or visit the Pha Thok Caves, which were used as hideouts during the Indochina War. The larger of the caves was home to 300 people for eight years. It even had its own hospital, police and military sections. Keep an eye out for the bomb craters that surround the cave – a stark reminder of how dangerous Laotian life once was.
Muang Ngoi is a seriously calm spot on the backpacker trail known for its riverside bungalows and hammocks, which hasn’t quite reached the same levels of popularity as the Four Thousand Islands. While relaxation is definitely the name of the game, there are also more active options to enjoy. Sign up for a three day hike to nearby remote villages, visit Tham Pha Noi and Tham Pha Kaew caves and hike to the Mount Phaboom viewpoint for the best views in town. Muang Ngoi is the cheapest spot in Laos for hiking. A one-day hike is 210,000 kip (£19) per person. You can also hire kayaks for half a day for 50,000 kip (£4.50).
Another scenic area in the Laos’ north is Phonsavan, which when translated means ‘Hills of Paradise’. Rather surprisingly the area is known for its cowboy culture! Keep your eyes peeled for people wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots. It’s also close to the Plain of Jars, a mysterious megalithic archaeological site on the Xiangkhoang Plateau that is scattered with thousands of stone jars. It’s quite a sight to behold, but don’t expect any explanation for where the jars came from!
Now to Luang Prabang, without a doubt one of the major highlights of the whole ‘banana pancake trail’ through South East Asia. This UNESCO-Heritage protected city is known for French colonial architecture, sunsets and its whopping 33 burgundy and gold temples. Rise at sunrise to witness the morning alms. The ancient ritual happens daily and involves hundreds of monks leaving their respective temples (oldest monk first) in single file to collect food offerings, usually sticky rice, from the people of the town. This is the monks’ only meal of the day. Witnessing this Buddhist tradition is an absolute must when in Luang Prabang, but remember to be quiet, respectful, and watch from a safe distance so as not to get in the monks’ way.
While in Luang Prabang, visit Mount Phousi (£1.70 entry), a viewing point 100m high offering 360-degree views of the town, its temples, the Mekong, and the surrounding countryside. This is a dream spot for sunrise or sunset, but it can get very crowded. Visit the Royal Palace Museum, which was home to the King of Laos during the French colonial era. The museum showcases French Beaux-Arts architecture, and traditional Laos design, plus provides a fascinating glimpse into Lao history and culture. It is well worth a couple of hours of your time, but visit early in the day to avoid the crowds. While it’s unlikely you’ll want to visit all 33 of the temples, hiring a bike and pedalling your way between a few is a lovely way to get to explore the town and to see some of its finest, and oldest buildings.
The Kuang Si Waterfall is another highlight of Luang Prabang – a tropical oasis located 30km outside town. The 50m high waterfall cascades into three impossibly blue swimming holes, which are the perfect place to spend a hot day. On the same site is the Kuang Si Butterfly Park, the Sun and Moon Bear Sanctuary, and the Laos Buffalo Dairy, where you can feed baby buffalo and try buffalo milk cheese and ice cream, should you so wish! Also, if you haven’t had your fill of caves, the Pak Ou caves are on-site and well worth a visit. On that note, given Laos has so many caves, we highly recommend carrying a torch around with you in your day pack so you can explore the caves safely. The best way to get out to the falls is to catch a tuk-tuk or hop in a jumbo/songthaew with other backpackers. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Luang Prabang, so it won’t be hard to find people to travel with. To make the most of it – leave early and pack your food and drink for the day.
Luang Prabang is home to lots of European-style cafes and restaurants, many of which are found along the scenic banks of the Mekong. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on the town’s morning and night markets, and make sure you visit street food alley, to try Khao Soy…a delicious Bolognese-like noodle soup. While a strict 11pm curfew is imposed on bars and restaurants, bizarrely there is a bowling alley that stays open all night, and that is where the party’s at.
If you like river travel, Huay Xai, on the border of Laos and Thailand, is great spot for Mekong River cruises, and more importantly, is the gateway to the Bokeo Nature Reserve, known for its spectacular gibbon experience. Guests stay in awesome treehouses built high above the rainforest canopy. As well as encountering gibbons on your balcony, you might spot elephants, bears, tigers, buffalo and whole host of birds. There’s also ziplines for you adrenaline seekers.
Vang Vieng is another absolutely essential spot for your time in Laos. Located on the banks of the Nam Song River, and surrounded by thick rainforest and limestones karsts in all directions, this is a truly stunning location. Once the most hedonistic party town on the Laos backpacker trail, things have calmed down considerably in recent years – but you can still locate a good spot of debauchery if you look for it. The main attraction in town is of course tubing! What better way to spend a hot day than floating down a river with your mates, enjoying a few beers, and the odd rope swing. Back in the day, safety wasn’t top of the town’s list and tragically there were a number of casualties. Nowadays, there are far fewer bars along the river and the number of people allowed to tube each day is strictly monitored. During peak season, expect to spend about four hours floating…with time factored in to hang out at the four bars that dot the route. You pay 50,000 (£5) Kip for your tube, plus a 60,000 Kip (£5.40) deposit that you get back as long as you return before 6pm. If you get back by 8pm, you get half. The rental prices include a bus to the designated jump off point. It’s a good idea to hire a dry bag for your belongings, but do be warned – they aren’t 100% reliable, so bring your own if you have one. To make the most of the day, start your tubing journey around 11am.
Vang Vieng has a whole host of other activities to enjoy besides floating. Fill up on decent street eats – the banana pancakes here are world-class, or get your pulse racing with zip-lining, caving, kayaking or a hot air balloon ride over the karsts. Hire a bike, motorcycle or quad bike and explore the surrounding countryside. The Blue Lagoon is around half an hour out of town, and its azure waters are more than worth the pedalling. Leap into the water from surrounding trees, swing from rope swings, or just lounge in the sunshine with a picnic and a few beers. Although it is a tourist hotspot, it’s busy for a reason – its beauty!
Even though Vientiane is the nation’s capital, it still retains an old-fashioned, slow town feel. It’s a million miles away from hectic South-East Asian cities like Bangkok or Phnom Penh. So calm in fact that you can hire a bike and explore without fear of death! Bike tours are a really great way to see the sights of the city if you’re short on time. Plus, they are excellent for getting your bearings. Nowhere is Laos’s French influence more felt than Vientiane. French architecture is all around, there’s a lovely French quarter to explore, and there’s even a Laotian version of the Arc de Triomphe, the Patuxai. Climb to the top for aerial views of the city. In addition to gorging yourself silly on amazingly cheap pastries, other essential activities in Vientiane include visiting Wat Si Siket, one of the oldest temples in the country, Pha That Luang – a 500-year old Buddhist monument, and the Buddha Park – which is home to over 200 Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, some more than 40m high. You can climb some of the monuments, or clamber inside. While in the capital, take a wander through the markets and Mekong Riverside Park. If you look across the river – you can see Thailand! At 6pm every night join the hundreds of locals participating in an hour-long aerobics session. It’s important to understand the history of the country you are visiting, so we highly recommend visiting the COPE centre to brush up on the country’s past. The best way to approach seeing Vientiane is to do your sightseeing in the morning when temperatures are cooler, then spend your afternoons wandering by the Mekong and your evenings at the Night Markets followed by beers on the river.
If you’re feeling particularly intrepid, you might want to venture to the Xaisomboun Province, which only recently opened to tourists. Waters still remain a little murky about whether or not tourists are truly welcome, particularly around Long Chieng, which was Laos’ biggest city until the 70s. Long Chieng is also referred to as ‘the most secret place on Earth’ and was once the centre of a guerrilla-led war on Communism backed by the CIA. Rumour has it the city has a distinctly American vibe, complete with saloon bars and steak houses. Before making the journey out there it’s best to consult other backpackers who have tried, as well as speaking to employees at your accommodation or in tour offices.
If you do make it out there, Xaisomboun is an extremely scenic province, which has barely been touched by tourism. If you’re in the market for a spot of mountain climbing, the region is home to Laos’ highest peak. Plus, you can pay a visit to the Chao Anouvong Cave, a civil war battle site in the 1970s and a former hideout of the last monarch of Vientiane during the Laotian Rebellion of 1826-1829.
Some of the best places to visit in Southern Laos include Thakhek in the Khammouane Province. This is the top spot in the country for rock climbing. Over 300 climbing routes have been mapped out on the limestone karsts here, catering to all abilities and daredevil levels. Novices can take lessons, longer courses and can rent affordable equipment. Another highlight is the 450-mile Thakhek Loop motorcycle journey, which starts and ends in town. Take your sweet time to fully appreciate the exquisite natural beauty of the loop, or zoom through it in just three-days. We reckon five days is absolutely perfect as it affords you plenty of time to stop whenever the mood takes you. The route takes you through Khammuan and Bolikhamsai Provinces, over the Nakai Plateau, past the Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area, an immense reservoir, a karst ‘forest’, through villages and to the Konglor Cave, where you can take a thrilling boat ride on an underground river. Most choose to complete the circle anti-clockwise, in order to have the Konglor Cave as the finale. Always get insurance, wear a helmet and watch out for water buffalo, who aren’t at all selective about where they decide to cross the road. This route used to be notoriously tricky to navigate because of the quality of the roads, which made it a rite of passage in the biking community. However, back in 2016, the whole loop was paved so no matter the time of year, the route should be passable. Nevertheless, some experience riding a motorbike is important.
Savannakhet is a spot that’s often overlooked by backpackers, or is just seen as a stopping point for those entering Laos via the nearby Friendship Bridge. However, if you have the time, give it a couple of days and you’ll be bowled over by its many charms. The city’s buildings hint at its French colonial past, as does the superb food that’s on offer. There’s a great local market, several wats to explore, and a Dinosaur Museum. Dong Natad Forest and Nong Lam Lake are nearby, and afford visitors a glimpse into traditional Laos life. Don’t be surprised to spot people from local tribes foraging for fruit in the region. The Dong Ling Monkey Forest is a fun day out too. They brag that they have the most well-behaved monkeys in South East Asia! You can buy bunches of bananas to take with you from the market stalls en route.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail passed through Laos and was an essential route for getting supplies to the Viet Cong in the south of Vietnam. As the US tried to cut off this essential supply stream, sadly Laos ended up being one of the most heavily bombed countries during the Vietnam War. If you want to understand more about Laos’ role in the war, as well as the CIAs secret war in Laos, visit the War Museum in Ban Don.
Tad Lo, at the edge of the Bolaven Plateau, is home to three gorgeous waterfalls and lots of bungalow accommodation on the water, complete with obligatory hammocks and elephants bathing in the river. It’s a low-key spot, but backpackers do swing by, and when they do they gravitate to each other to drink beers and watch the sunset…all from their respective hammocks. The guesthouses in town serve up family-style feasts that give you a glimpse into how Lao people enjoy meal times. Expect the whisky to make an appearance! Tad Hang is the best of the town’s three waterfalls for taking a dip, but make sure you clear out of the water by 4pm as a nearby dam is released at that time each day, causing water levels to rapidly rise. If you tire of lounging, there are some hiking options which provide a glimpse into the natural beauty of the Plateau, but they can prove quite challenging! There are also a number of coffee plantations knocking around Tad Lo and the Bolaven Plateau too, which are perfect for anyone who wants to dip a toe into the wonderful world of Laos coffee culture.
Pakse is one of Laos’ largest cities, and is the logical stopping point before journeying to the Si Phan Don Islands and Wat Phou, a complex of Khmer temples located at the base of Mount Phu Kao. These temples date back to the 11-13th centuries and are on a par with Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Pakse is well worth a couple of days of explorations. It’s located on two rivers, the Mekong and the Sedone, so this is a great spot for dining on freshly-caught fish. The best restaurants in Pakse are found along the rivers, so start your search for a feast there. The city is also known for its herbal saunas, so embrace the chance to unwind and soothe your muscles with an affordable spa day. You’ll be able to find decent massages all around Laos – but these herbal saunas in Pakse are truly sublime.
Around 50km from Pakse, is Ban Khiet Ngong, which is located right beside the Xe Pian National Protected Area. This area of lowland forest and extensive wetlands is home to 320 species of birds. Enjoy a ride in a dug-out canoe through the wetlands to experience true serenity. The village is also known for its domesticated elephants, which tourists can meet, ride and feed. Elephant tourism is a real grey area. In many cases, the elephants you will encounter have been saved from other ‘occupations’ like logging or hard labour, which sound awful. Obviously, being used as a tourist attraction is better, but it is still far from ideal for these beautiful animals who should be roaming the wild. If you do choose to participate in elephant tourism, always do your research first and exercise discretion. The good news is that there’s plenty to do in town that doesn’t involve elephants. Explore surrounding farmland by pedal power, hike Phou Asa mountain to walk amongst temple ruins, or challenge yourself with a two-night trek to Ta Ong village.
The sleepy town of Champasak is the ideal place to base yourself for a couple of days of exploring UNESCO Heritage-listed Wat Phu. Enjoy a stroll around the historic town. The main road that runs alongside the Mekong is lined with decaying colonial manors once called home by the Lao royal family. Also in the Champasak Province is the Dong Hua Sao National Protected Area, where you might spot monkeys, elephants, peacocks and endangered yellow-cheeked gibbons.
Finally, we reach the beautiful Si Phan Don Islands, which translated means Four Thousand Islands. The Mekong cuts through the landscape, creating lots of islands of varying sizes…although four thousand seems ambitious to us! Laos may not have the beaches of Thailand or Cambodia but this is their version of chill-ville. Don Khong is the largest of the islands and it’s the place you’ll arrive to on the bus from Pakse. There’s not a whole lot to do there other than chill or ride a bike so we recommend hopping on a boat and heading to Don Det or Don Khon, which are the most popular islands with backpackers. The accommodation here is the cheapest. Don Det has a sunrise and sunset side, both equally relaxed, both populated with riverside bungalows strewn with hammocks. There are also lots of riverside bars and restaurants ideal for watching the sun go down and meeting other travellers. The most raucous corner of Don Det is in the northwest of the island, where you’ll find reggae bars and happy shakes galore. Things still usually shut down at around 11pm, 12pm at the very latest. You’ll be grateful for the early night though when the cockerels start their morning chorus and noisy boats start chugging along the river at an ungodly hour!
Relaxing is the name of the game in this neck of Laos, and for this reason, many choose to end their stay in the country with a few days in the Si Phan Don Islands. However, should you be one of those people who can’t sit still all day (what’s wrong with you?), there is plenty to do. The islands are small enough that you can walk around, but most choose to rent a bike. Walking across an island in the blazing heat isn’t ideal, but should you enjoy a challenge, pack lots of water and wear a hat. You can rent bikes by the day for just 10,000 kip (86p) or a motorbike for around 70,000 (£6). The roads can be a little pot-holey, especially on the way out of town. This can be a pain during rainy season, so always be cautious and take things slowly if you can’t see how deep a puddle is! Enjoy a ride through the rice paddies and farm land. Don Det and Don Khon are attached by a bridge so you can cover the attractions of both islands in one day. Visit Khone Phapheng Falls on Don Det – the largest waterfalls in all of South East Asia, and Tat Somphamit on Don Khon – a fast flowing waterfall perfect for looking at but definitely not for swimming in. There are a few beaches nearby, if you wish to take a refreshing dip in the Mekong.
Other popular activities in the Four Thousand Islands include boat rides along the Mekong River, swimming, hiring kayaks and going on excursions to spot the elusive Irrawaddy Dolphins, who particularly like to frolic around at sunrise and sunset. If you do take a boat tour to see the dolphins, make sure you take sunscreen and water as most of the boats don’t offer any shade. Forget the camera – just enjoy the sight of the dolphins, because any photos you do take won’t capture the magic of seeing these rare dolphins in the wild.
Lao people take their food very seriously. In fact, rather than ‘hello’, they tend to greet each other with a far more important question, namely ‘have you eaten food?’ I like their style! Lao people love nothing more than introducing curious travellers to traditional Laos food, so don’t be shy about asking for recommendations. Laos food isn’t dissimilar to what you find in Thailand or southern China, so prepare yourself for some seriously tasty grub. The food isn’t quite as spicy as what you might find in Thailand, instead cooks aim to create a balance of sweet, sour, spicy and salty flavours. Most dishes are flavoured with ingredients you’d expect from Asian food – chili, lime, fish sauce, coriander and so on – the usual suspects.
Some of the tastiest Laos street food includes larb – a minced-meat salad made with either chicken, beef, duck, pork or fish, generally considered to be the national dish of Laos. Your protein of choice will be flavoured with fish sauce, lime juice, herbs, ground rice and chilli. Green papaya salad (tam mak hoong) is another favourite, which although of Lao origin has become popular across the border in Thailand. The Lao version is made with fermented fish sauce, and is served without peanuts.
Mok Pa is steamed freshwater fish prepared with lemongrass, shrimp paste, onions, fish sauce and kaffir, wrapped in banana leaves. Did you know that Lao people eat more sticky rice than any country in the world? Expect it to be served as standard with most dishes. Khao Piak Sen is a delicious noodle soup made with pork or chicken, lemongrass, galangal, garlic and coriander. Usually you’ll be given your broth, and then you are encouraged to add your own fish sauce, chili, sugar and lime to suit your own palate. Another favourite is Naem Khao Tod, a ‘salad’ made from deep-fried rice balls, soured pork sausage, peanuts, grated coconut, plus flavours like lime, chili and fish sauce. This is eaten by wrapping the Naem Khao mixture in lettuce leaves. Phor is the Laos version of, you guessed it, Phô. You’ll find this widely served around the country for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Jeaw is a chunky, smoky tomato salsa that you’ll want to pour over just about everything. There’s a peanut variety too that’s to die for.
Vegetarian options are easy to come by in Laos, but if in doubt, just order vegetables and rice. Fruit and veg are staple parts of the Laos diet. Get your fill of the juiciest watermelon, pineapple, mangoes and guava, but try something a little different with jack fruits, rambutan, custard apples, sapodilla and more. Yam Het is a super tasty vegetarian option made with grilled oyster or wild mushrooms and seasoned with mint, shallots and coriander. Yum.
When it comes to meat, Lao people like nothing more than wild game. This is wide-ranging and can include deer, squirrel, monkey, wild pig, lizard, wild dog and even rats…you have been warned. If you’re concerned about what meat you might be served, always ask them to confirm! Also, raw duck, pig and goat blood is considered a delicacy, if you can stomach it. Typically it comes mixed in with meat and herbs, which might make it a touch more palatable. Meat eaters must try Lao sausages, which are made from pork and then seasoned with lemongrass. Soured sausage is the same thing, only sticky rice is added to the sausage mix and it’s left outside for a couple of days to sour. Trust me, it’s far tastier than it sounds!
Laos was a French protectorate until 1953, which means there’s a certain ooh la la lurking in more than just the country’s architecture. You can enjoy French food and wine in most parts of Laos, which is a welcome break from the beers, rice and noodles of the region. You’ll never be more than a few hundred metres from a croissant, pastry or baguette, which is ideal come breakfast or lunchtime, especially as they are nice and cheap. Créme caramel is a favourite dessert too. Other Laos desserts to try include khao nieow ma muang (sticky rice with mango), kuay namuan (bananas cooked in coconut milk) and baked coconut rice pudding.
While not technically a food, we have to mention Beer Lao – the perfect accompaniment to any Lao dish. Lao lao is a strong rice liquor loved by the locals, distilled over charcoal fires in old oil drums. Expect to pay around 20p per shot. If you’re invited to eat with locals, lao lao will absolutely make an appearance at some point. Watch out, it’s potent – Lao people know how to drink, and the bottle will miraculously keep finding its way back to you because you’re the guest! When hydrating (the morning after or any time), always drink bottled water, rather than from the tap.
Laos may be small, but it is extremely diverse. There are 49 ethnic groups in the country. If you are excited to visit and interact with these tribes, you’re most likely to meet folk from the Akha, Khmu, Yao, Lanten and Hmong tribes. One-third of Laos’ inhabitants live in cities dotted along the Mekong River valley, with the biggest centres being Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet and Pakse. Another third live along the country’s other major rivers, of which there are 39 – most of which are tributaries into the Mekong River.
With just 6.8 million people, Laos is one of the least densely populated countries in Asia. This is partly due to around 10% of the country’s population fleeing after the 1975 communist takeover. The majority of people who left did so from Vientiane and Luang Prabang. However, times have changed and now the population is now growing quickly. In fact, it has more than doubled in the last 30 years. This influx is due to Lao people returning home, as well as immigrants from China and Vietnam.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos for short) is a socialist country ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The country was a French colony until 1953 when communist party Pathet Lao fought to seize power from the Lao monarchy. The country’s communist connections saw it caught up in the Vietnam War, and its location and the fact it was used as a supply route for the Viet Cong led to it being the most heavily bombed country in the war. In 1975, communists overthrew the monarchy and took control. It wasn’t until the 1990s, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that Laos really opened its doors to visitors.
Despite the intense conflict in its history, Laos is a peaceful place and Lao people are as laid-back as can be. The national motto may as well be ‘no worries’. Buddhism is a huge part of Laos culture, with the major religion in Laos being Theravada Buddhism. This is practiced by around half of the country’s population, mostly those residing in the country’s lowland areas in the south. This type of Buddhism focuses on the cooling of human passions, which means displays of strong emotion – anger, happiness, excitement – are rare and not encouraged. Interact calmly and politely with the people you meet and your interactions will be pleasant and strife-free. Theravada Buddhists are also firm believers in karma. They pray, work hard and try not to obsess too much about the future, but rather aim to live in and savour the present. They focus on finding the fun in every activity and are often heard saying they feel sorry for those who ‘think too much’. If you’re wondering how their attitudes match up to their neighbours, the French summed it up as, ‘The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians tend the rice, and the Lao listen to it grow.’ Around two-fifths of the population follow non-Buddhist local religions. Due to much of the Laos population being made up of migrants from southern China and Vietnam, many people practice religions that are a combination of Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism. There are also smaller Christian and Muslim communities.
Following the rules
It is illegal for foreigners to have sexual relations with Lao nationals, unless they are married. The penalty for doing so ranges between £380-£3,850, but you could also be subjected to a lengthy stint in prison. Lao authorities have been known to be rather heavy handed when it comes to gaining access to hotel rooms or guestrooms where they believe sexual mischief may be afoot. It’s best not to risk it. Also, don’t visit or take photos of any military sites.
Perhaps due to their rural roots, this is a nation of early risers. For that reason, you’ll find bars, restaurants and businesses all shut up shop early. Most bars will close at 11pm or 12am, although you can sometimes find the odd spot that’s open until 1am or 3am if you’re lucky. On the flip side, as everyone has had such a good night’s sleep, life is in full swing by 6am. Happy shakes and weed are pretty common in backpacker hotspots, but always be cautious with drug use. Much like its neighbours, Laos is very strict on those caught in possession.
Cockfighting is not uncommon in Laos, particularly in more rural areas. One small saving grace is that the cocks are not fitted with blades, so many survive the fights. Another popular ‘sport’ taking place in Tai areas during wet season is beetle fighting. Rhinoceros beetles, known for being aggressive, hiss and attack each other while crowds drink liberal amounts of lao-lao and back a winner.
The country produces some seriously outstanding coffee, which means Laos coffee culture is something your need to experience. Lao people take their coffee rich and damn strong, mixed with a mixture of powdered milk, evaporated milk and sweet condensed milk. You can choose to have your rocket fuel hot (café nom) or iced (café nom yen). If you take yours black, it’s just café. Expect to pay between 7,000 to 12,000 kip (60p-£1) for a large cup. Most of the country’s coffee hails from the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos, where they also grow delicious organic green and black teas that have given rise to the thriving Laos tea culture. Paksong is a good place to enjoy a coffee plantation tour located on the Bolaven Plateau.
Laos Travel Advice
Is Laos safe?
Is Laos safe? Yes! It is a very safe place to travel. People are friendly and welcoming to backpackers. It’s important to be mindful and respectful of the fact their nation has suffered through war and violence for decades. Don’t ask tricky or prying questions, or bring up issues that could make someone uncomfortable. Always carry ID or your passport on you as failure to produce it when asked by the authorities can result in a fine.
During monsoon season, there is an increased chance of flooding and landslides, plus roads can become difficult to travel on, especially in rural areas. Speaking of which, landmines are still a problem in some rural parts of the country, particularly around the Plain of Jars. Keep your eyes out for warnings signs and don’t go leaping any fences, or walking off marked paths.
Vaccinations for Laos
Visit your doctor at least eight weeks prior to your departure to take care of your vaccinations for Laos. Typically, you need Diphtheria, Hepatitis A and Tetanus, but you might also be recommended Tetanus, Hepatitis B, Rabies and Japanese Encephalitis. If prior to reaching Laos, you have been in a country where yellow fever transmission is a possibility, you will need a certificate to prove you’ve been vaccinated. Yellow Fever vaccines can be hard to come by, even in the UK, so don’t leave it to the last minute to get yours sorted.
There is a risk of Malaria in all parts of Laos, bar Vientiane and the Bokeo and Houaphanh Provinces. The Laos malaria map outlines which areas are high risk, and which are low risk. If travelling to high risk areas, like Champasak or Savannakhet, you must take anti-malarial medication. In low risk areas, you can usually avoid medication unless you’re planning long stays in rural areas. Be sensible – sleep under a mosquito net, use repellent and wear long-sleeved trousers and tops when possible. Dengue fever is another illness transmitted by those pesky mosquitos, usually in urban areas. If you experience a fever, headache and severe joint pain, consult a doctor immediately. The risk of bird flu to humans is very low in Laos, but just in case, it’s best to avoid fraternising with poultry and make sure chicken and egg dishes are well-cooked. Those travelling to Laos are at risk of Zika virus transmission, so if you are planning to visit, brush up on what that means for you.
Please note that medical care in Laos is very limited, even in Vientiane. If you have an accident, it’s likely you will be transported to a country with better medical care, so get travel insurance that covers you for all eventualities or face going bankrupt! Also, sourcing medication in Laos is pricey and a real pain, so where possible, do this elsewhere before you arrive.
Have we managed to convince you that Laos is just as much of a backpacker’s paradise as its hard-hitting neighbours? When you’re planning your South East Asian backpacking adventure, make sure you don’t forget the little guy. What Laos lacks in size it more than makes up for with epic landscapes, incredible people, delicious food and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. This laid-back tropical paradise is calling our name!
About the author:
Amy Baker is the author of Miss-Adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America, and founder of The Riff Raff, a writers’ community that supports aspiring writers and champions debut authors. You can follow Amy on Twitter.