After the hustle of Vietnam, the relaxed atmosphere of Laos was a pleasant surprise. As opposed to some neighbouring countries, even the traffic here doesn’t fit to the usual chaos of South-East Asian streets and the people seem very welcoming and polite. With its stunning mountains and amazing, green landscapes full of rice paddies interspersed with winding rivers, Laos is one of the most beautiful countries we’ve ever been to.
The currency of Laos is kip: 10.000 kip equals about $1.2 (December, 2015). ATMs can be found in most places, except for smaller villages and islands. Most of the people speak the local language, Lao, but they also use the languages of their ethnic groups on a daily basis. The cold season in the country is around November – January (most pleasant time for you trip), while the peak of the hot season is in April. May to September mark the rainy period. The predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism.
Hello: Sabai di
Bye: La kawn
Thank you: Khop jai (lai lai)
No / yes: Baw / Laew
Whether you’re in a small village or one of the bigger cities, the pace is very slow and laid back. Laotian people tend to be very nice (except for some working in the tourist branch), helpful and hospitable and you won’t experience much hassle on the streets. For most locals, the day starts early in the morning and the nights here are very calm, since most of the bars and restaurants close around 11-12 p.m.
You might experience uncomfortable stares in some areas of Vientiane (mostly the riverside market), but if you’re respectful to the Laotian culture in your appearance and behaviour, you should feel generally safe and welcomed.
The standards of accommodation might be a bit lower than in some SE Asian countries, but you can find a decent double room with a bathroom from around $7 to $20, depending on the place. It’s quite hard to find a bathroom with a Western shower, as most of them have a shower head attached to the wall with no designated shower area, but it’s still a small price to pay. If you’re already a bit used to the heat, you might want to take a room with a fan, instead of the AC, as these tend to be on the less pricey side. As for the Internet, most guesthouses, hostels and hotels offer free, but also extremely slow wifi. You might be better off renting something without the Internet connection and checking your e-mail in a cafe.
Our favorite (and some of the cheapest) places we’ve stayed in are:
Sengkeo Guesthouse, Vang Vieng
Nongsak Guesthouse, Don Khone island, Si Phan Don
Pythavone Hotel, Luang Prabang
While the variety of local dishes might be a bit underwhelming, it can’t be said that you can’t get delicious food in Laos.
In most places, you’ll find delightfully cheap street food (Luang Prabang: 45.000 kip for enough food to stuff 2 people) which might be a bit more pricey than Thailand, but is a much cheaper option than restaurants and cafes; these tend to be about three times more expensive, even though it depends on the place – the ones in Si Phan Don are still pretty cheap, as there’s almost no street food. Also, in some places it is harder to find traditional Lao food than Thai, Indian, Western or French cuisine, but everyone should find something of their taste.
It’s better to ask for no sugar in your shake / fruit juice, as they tend to be filled with tons of it.
Some of our favorite places throughout Laos that we’re happy to recommend (and we’d be even happier to come back to), are:
– Nisha, an Indian restaurant that can be found all over Laos, for example in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Phonsavan; you might want to ask for your food to be mild if you’re not used to spicy dishes
– Daolin (Pakse), a restaurant with the broadest variety of food that we’ve seen in Laos – and their prices are also easy on the wallet
– Green Restaurant (Vang Vieng), excellent food and a stunning view over the Mekong river
– Lao Long (Don Khone island, Si Phan Don), delicious Lao dishes and other Asian specialities plus a friendly, welcoming service and good prices
- Staying safe:
To us, Laos felt extremely safe and welcoming. There is almost no harassment from the street vendors, and even the tuk-tuk drivers only offer you their services once and then lose their interest as soon as you decline. There was also no nagging or pressure at any of the markets that we’ve visited and we didn’t feel in any way threatened when strolling through the streets after dark.
Still, there are always precautions worth taking, because even in a seemingly safe and calm environment you can easily get your stuff stolen if you’re not cautious enough. Remember to keep your valuables in the hotel safe, locked room, or, simply, on you. Don’t leave your bags unattended, keep your gear and wallet close when walking through crowded places and avoid strolling around very late at night.
Also, don’t be stupid enough to take drugs in here. Despite what some restaurants & bars might suggest by serving the “happy shakes” or “happy pizzas” (usually spiced up with weed or shrooms), it is still highly illegal, not to mention all the dangerous situations you might get yourself into.
Another thing to take into account while planning your trip is the UXO danger – millions of unexploded bombs hiding beneath the ground throughout most of the less explored places in Laos. The problem is real, but it can also be avoided if you stick to the beaten paths when out in the nature and the rural areas. Don’t be too brave and stay mindful.
- Getting around:
Better don’t take the long-distance (10hr+) local buses. Unless, of course, you don’t mind your driver sleeping behind the wheel and slapping himself to keep conscious. From our experience, the person behind the wheel never changes, even if the drive takes nearly 20 hours, so you can imagine how worn off the driver must be at the end of your journey.
As for other connections, you’ll mostly travel in minivans or buses, all of which are in a pretty poor condition, but usually come with AC. If you book it with the tourist/ticket office or your guesthouse, hotel or hostel, there will probably be enough toilet and food stops on the way, but on the local bus they can be scarce – again, during our 20hrs bus drive with the locals, we only had 2 toilet stops, one of which was forced by another passenger.
And, most importantly: remember that it will take much longer than advertised. Even though we were lucky getting from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, and later on to Luang Prabang (both journeys took around 5-6 hours, more than expected, but not too long), our supposedly 7hrs long drive from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan stretched to 11hrs, because the car was broken. There are also landslides, flooded roads, construction works, long waits for other passengers, package deliveries and collections on the way… needless to say – expect your arrival time to be about 2-3 hours later than advertised.
Depending on where you want to get, you can usually travel North from Luang Prabang, South from Vientiane, and from Phonsavan you’ll most likely choose to come back to one of the most popular destinations (Vientiane / Vang Vieng / Luang Prabang), as the only bus to the Southern parts of Laos (Thakhek, Savannakhet, Pakse) is the abovementioned local bus that makes you seriously question your life choices.
Also, be aware that most roads are in a horrible state – it’s going to get bumpy, dusty, uncomfortable and loud. Still, with the right attitude – you can easily get used to that.
When it comes to renting motorbikes (as of November, 2015), the prices differ from around 30.000 / 60.000 kip (manual / automatic) in Vang Vieng to about 80.000 kip (semi-automatic) in Phonsavan. Good news is: you can rent a bike everywhere. On the other hand, if you’re used to the automatic ones – not all the bike rentals have them, and since some cities have only 2 places like that… you might have a hard time finding one. One thing that’s different from, let’s say, Vietnam, is that you’ll be required to leave your passport (not just its number) at the bike rental place and that some places might not allow you to leave the region or even the city you’re in.
Tuk-tuks are usually overpriced, but sometimes they can be useful if you want to reach a further destination without the hassle of bike rental and watching out for the holes in the roads.
There seems to be a bit of a disagreement on whether to haggle or not at the local markets – if you have a bit of common sense and a reference point, you should be able to tell whether it’s polite to try and bring the price down. Usually, the prices for local products (from coffee to different kinds of clothes) are very low if you buy them at the street stalls. And the markets usually have almost every souvenir that you can think of, from nice dresses, through locally grown tea and plush animals, to jewelry, handbags and shoes. As for convenience stores, you can find almost everything you need in small shops throughout the city. (Just don’t bother with buying anything made of chocolate, as it will probably have a foul taste due to the unescapable heat.) When it comes to hygiene, it might be a struggle to find tampons in a smaller city, but you should be able to stock up on them in Luang Prabang. There, you can also find some surprising items like Polish vodka, bandages, lots of Tiger Balm, and many imported products, but don’t expect too much – there aren’t any Western malls in, probably, the whole country, as even the one in Vientiane is actually only a building that provides space for the local sellers, much like an indoor market.
There might be some visa complications – you probably shouldn’t trust a guy who offers to deal with all the formalities for you, as he’ll quote a higher price and you might pay even more if you arrive in the country in the late afternoon or try to pay your visa on arrival in kip. Also, tuk-tuks tend to be overpriced and you might be sold an overly expensive tour or bus ticket by your hotel or travel office. You should always ask what exactly is included in the price and compare it with the information in other, similar places or online. It’s good to be informed and not to look like you have no clue about what you want and where you’re going.
Except for that, we had no other trouble. There’s no need to be overly cautious, as most of the people are genuinely nice to you.
While you might find a decent local or international hospital or clinic in the main cities (Vientiane, Luang Prabang), the health system in Laos is generally in a bad condition. You might get treatment for some basic diseases / injuries or find a cure in one of the local pharmacies, but for more elaborate problems, better fly to Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok.
Take into account that some less touristic places are quite isolated (Don Khone, for example, has no police station and no health facilities) and if an accident happens, it might take hours to transport you to the nearest hospital.
- Responsible travel
If you want to respect the local culture, know how to dress properly when visiting the temples. In most places you’ll be offered a traditional skirt to cover your legs if you’re showing too much, but it’s better to come prepared and dressed appropriately. Remember that there are some restrictions when it comes to monks and don’t shove your camera into anyone’s faces. Depending on your social skills, you can use your zoom or your tongue and ask politely.
Don’t support animal abuse and don’t let anyone convince you to join an elephant riding tour, even though they are quite popular. Pay attention to the conditions in the facilities that you visit (eg. sanctuaries), as some of them might only seem like an animal-friendly place at first sight.
Stay conscious when haggling – you might be ripping someone off instead of arguing for what is an objectively reasonable price.
Visit places that support and/or educate local communities, like COPE Centre in Vientiane or Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre and Butterfly Park in Luang Prabang.
Recommended Trips & Activities
- Vientiane: Buddha Park, COPE Centre
- Vang Vieng: jungle trekking
- Luang Prabang: temple hopping, bamboo bridge, Xieng Men village, Butterfly Park, Kuang Si Falls
- Don Khone: biking around the islands
Our Best Memories & Adventures
hiking up a waterfall, jungle trekking in Vang Vieng, getting a lift from a kind stranger in the middle of the night in Pakse, biking through the fields and forests on Don Khone, feasting on the Luang Prabang street food, getting attacked by a swarm of leeches, biking in the mountains, bathing in a waterfall, fish spa in the Butterfly Park, playing with the dogs on an island, surviving the bus drive from hell, temple-hopping in Luang Prabang, walking in the giant pumpkin in the Buddha Park, exploring the secret cave, visiting the COPE center
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