You wouldn't expect it, since Laos' tourism industry isn't as booming as Thailand's, but it's an amazing country to visit. I'm not sure why people don't visit it more, since it absolutely surprised me. It's filled with beautiful mountains, lush greenery, scenic rushing rivers as well as bustling cities. Not to mention, its French-influence makes their coffee and pastries incredibly delicious.
Thankfully, Laos isn't as crowded as other Southeast Asian countries. Because of that, I found Laos' culture to be more well-preserved from Western influences. Unfortunately, it's one of the more expensive Southeast Asian countries. So, don't be surprised if your costs are higher.
Okay, so their transportation system is outdated and kind of sucks. And by sucks, I mean it's a slow, dangerous and bumpy ride. The roads aren't too great and have many potholes. I also found the transportation system to be more expensive. For example, a three hour bus ride ended up costing around 50,000 - 60,000 kip.
Taking a mini-bus is the fastest way to get to different cities. It's easy to book them at a guesthouse or a bus station. Booking at a guesthouse is more convenient since you don't have to make a trip to the station, but you'll be paying a little more (usually just 10,000 kip). If you book at a bus station, it'll be cheaper, but the buses might be full when you get there.
Depending on your driver, these rides can be a little crazy as they get aggressive and overtake other cars with no hesitation.
Getting around a city or to an attraction is easiest by tuk-tuk. They're everywhere, so it's easy to find one. Make sure to ask for pricing and bargain with the driver if you think it's too expensive. Asking other travellers to share a tuk-tuk with you can also cut down on costs. Just note that for attractions, tuk-tuk drivers will wait for it to be full before departing.
Some towns will be located by the river, so you'll have the option of using a boat to get to them. We took the two-day slow boat trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Depending where you are in Laos, some attractions will need a boat to get to them. Also, in northern Laos, you would need to take a boat to some villages.
Here are some transit guides for the places we went to:
- Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang
- Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw
- Nong Khiaw/Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
- Vang Vieng to Vientiane
Here are the travel guides to the places we visited:
Luang Prabang: A smaller city than Vientiane, but it has tons of activities to do. Kuang Si Waterfall is beautiful and worth the visit.
Nong Khiaw: This small town in northern Laos has some pretty sweet views. It's nestled along Nam Ou river, surrounded by limestone mountains.
Vang Vieng: This is the party central of Laos, best known for it's river tubing, caves and adventure treks.
Vientiane: The bustling capital city of Laos is filled with delicious food. However, there aren't too many things to see.
Lao food is similar to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, but with a twist. Here are some of the things we tried.
- Fresh Spring Rolls: Fresh greens, noodles and meat are wrapped in rice paper and dipped with a chili fish sauce. These are similar to the Vietnamese spring rolls, but have a different type of meat. Just be careful, since some of the ones we bought were a little dry because they've been left out all day. 10,000 - 15,000 kip.
- Spicy Green Papaya Salad: It's a fresh salad that's salty, sweet and spicy. It's made with green papaya, tomatos, fish sauce and chilies. 10,000 - 15,000 kip.
- Laap/larb with sticky rice: It's a minced meat (chicken, pork, beef or fish) salad with mint leaves, fish sauce and lime juice. We love it most with sticky rice. It's a good meal to share. It's usually 30,000 kip and 5,000 kip for sticky rice.
- BBQ meats: Meats-on-a-stick can be found everywhere on the streets. There's usually chicken, pork, beef, fish and sausages. Be careful with some of the meats being dry from being overcooked. It can range from 10,000 kip - 40,000 kip depending what you get.
- Riverweed with sticky rice: If you like seaweed, you'll probably like riverweed. It looks like a green mushy blob, but it's actually quite tasty. We tried it at our hostel, so I have no idea how much it usually costs. I haven't seen it on too many menus.
- Lao Sandwiches: We found these mostly sold on the streets in bigger cities. The ones sold in Vang Vieng seemed more westernized whereas the ones in Vientiane seem more authentic. Both are delicious. The cheapest ones are in Vientiane (5,000 - 10,000 kip) and the pricier ones are in Vang Vieng (10,000 - 40,000 kip).
- Laos Coffee: Found pretty much everywhere. It's hard to be in Laos without trying it. Try the iced ones with condensed milk! 7,000 - 15,000 kip.
- Rotee/Paratha: You can find this in other parts of Southeast Asia. It's our favourite street dessert. It's deep-fried and offers different fillings and toppings. Our favourite is banana and chocolate with condensed milk on top. 12,000 - 15,000 kip.
- Sweet Coconut Cakes: You can also find this in other parts of Southeast Asia. Usually found at street vendors, they are sweet, creamy and chewy snacks. 10,000 kip
Laos is a little pricier than its surrounding neighbours, but don't let that deter you from visiting. It's still quite cheap.
Our everyday budget ended up being 163, 000 kip per person. Note that we didn't do any tours since all of our adventures are self-guided. We also didn't drink that much, since those costs would add up, but we did get shakes/coffee most days. We like to share our dishes and do not eat more than two meals a day.
Transportation: Pricier than Thailand.
Food: Pricer than Thailand. Eating Laos food is cheaper than Western food.
- 1.5 litre bottle of water = 5,000 kip
- Bowl of noodles or rice soup = 15,000 kip
- Laap = 30,000 kip
- Sticky rice = 5,000 kip
- Oreos (check the expiry date!) = 10,000 kip
- Drinks = 10,000 kip
Accommodation: Guesthouses are the most popular form of budget accommodation. Although, it's cheaper if you travel with two people, since you can share the cost of the room. There aren't as many hostels with dorm style here, so your choices would be limited to only a few places if you're solo. Accommodation ranged from 60,000 kip - 120,000 kip for private rooms, depending which city we were in.
Overall, costs are cheaper in smaller towns (Nong Khiaw and Vang Vieng) and pricier in big cities (Luang Prabang and Vientiane). We found that it was better to hang out in smaller towns if you're taking rest or lounging days.
Also, if you're looking to cut down costs, you can find accommodation and food that's a farther out from the city centre.
You'll need a tourist visa to get into Laos. The prices differ depending on what your nationality is. However, I noticed Canadians pay the most at $42 USD.
You can get the visa at the border crossing, so no need to worry about it beforehand. You can read more about our experiences here.
- For accommodation, we usually look up a few places to stay before we head to the next city, so we know what to tell the tuk-tuk driver. You don't have to book in advance, as we never really had a problem with just showing up and asking for a room. If you're up for it, it's better to shop around for a room before committing online. But some days, the travel will tire you out and you'll go with the first place that's affordable and clean.
- If you stay in the city centre, most places have everything you need within walking distance. Only the bus station would be located far enough that taking a tuk tuk is worth the money.
- The people are friendly here. We've never really had a problem with anyone. They'll try to help you out if you're lost. Just be careful with people trying to scam you for money.
- Transportation runs on their own time. Almost always, it's late. Usually it's because they're picking up other people. So, if you're planning to catch another bus after, you probably won't make it.
- Be cautious if you're out late. Try to stay in groups to be safe.
- Always buy bottled water to drink and have spare toilet paper. Be prepared to squat at some washrooms - usually the rest stops on the bus.