Laos Travel Guide
They say the Vietnamese plant rice, the Khmer watch it grow and the Lao listen to it growing. That’s probably all you need to know about the pace of life in Laos – well, and the attitude to work there, in fact.
So why should you visit Laos?
Laos remains mainly off-the-beaten-path destination even if Vientiane is well explored by the Thai expats – it is the favourite destination for visa-runs for those who live in Pattaya, Bangkok and further north. That does not necessarily mean that there is nothing to see and to da in Laos – on the contrary, it is one of few Southeast Asian countries where the commercialization of tourism has not yet taken all over the place.
Laos cannot boast beautiful beaches and warm seas which is the main draw for many travellers in Southeast Asia, but what it does boast is an abundance of beautiful natural sights and quite impressive colonial heritage which blends weirdly with traditional Lao culture to create one of a kind architectural mix.
Laos is also quite a safe destination with friendly locals, though the level of healthcare – should you need any medical help – can be quite low.
Laos? No, never been to...
Well, while Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng may be on some traveller’s must-visit lists, if you cast a broader glance at what the country has on offer, you can discover much, much more.
There are impressive Khmer ruins to explore – you will be surprised to discover the temple complex of this scale outside Cambodia; there are subterranean rivers to navigate – and you will be shocked to find out there is a whole village which can be reached only via a 7km boat ride in complete darkness; then there are those famous and mysterious jars – you can spend days, weeks and months trying to uncover the truth behind their creation. Ask you fellow travellers what of the above mentioned they have already seen and visited – and buy you tickets to Laos straight away! Before you go, check visa requirements for your passport.
It’s always the right time to go to Laos
Enjoying tropical monsoon climate, Laos is normally hot to very hot all year round with the exception of the elevated areas like Plateau Bolaven. While there is a rainy season from May to October, it is not a problem if you are not going too deep into the wild – the access to some conservation areas can be restricted then. That said, the rainy season in Laos is usually drier than the similar season in Thailand and your risks to be stuck in a hotel or a guesthouse room for the whole day are very low. Bolaven Plateau is wet all year round and the wettest place in Laos is Luang Prabang.
It is a heaven for all souls outdoorsy
Oh yes, that’s completely right! Tubing is the first thing that comes to everyone’s mind – and it still goes strong in Vang Vieng.
Caving is another one. What is the best thing about caving in Laos is that there are so many untouched caves there to explore – in the sense that there are no walkways, no lights, no big buses bringing hordes of tourists – what is actually the case with many other similar places in the region. You just cannot stop thanking the Gods that Laos has not yet started promoting itself as a prime tourist destination.
Karst formations around Vang Vieng, in the north and to the east, all along the border with Thailand, are amazing. They also offer some good opportunities for climbing – think Vang Vieng and further north again.
There are some worth-visiting National biodiversity conservation areas in Laos offering great trekking trails of different levels of difficulty – from Dong Amphan in the east along the border with Vietnam to Don Hua Sao in Bolaven Plateau to barely accessible Hin Namno in the centre and many more.
You can travel in Laos on a budget
Travelling in Laos can be affordable – without too much effort, though you may find that both accommodation and food options are on a slightly more expensive side compared to what you can find in Thailand. Yet you are likely to be able to score a very good double room with en-suite bathroom, air-con and Wi-Fi for about LAK100,000 almost everywhere in the country.
Street food and cheapies are ubiquitous – wherever you are heading, getting you bowl of rice is easy and should cost around LAK10,000.
The main means of transport connecting different destinations around the country is buses and vans. Do not expect to find luxury VIP liners, yet you will definitely have air-conditioning on longer routes, though get prepared for bumpy rides and serpentine roads.
Bigger buses are normally affordable, too, and link the largest cities within Laos with destinations in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and China.
That said, low-cost airlines have not yet made their way to Laos and the national flag carrier, Lao Airlines, is in most cases the only choice if you wish to fly. It is far from being cheap – expect to pay between USD1500-200 one-way and unless budget is not an issue, look for ground transportation options.
Another issue you may find annoying in Laos is a local habit to impose ‘a fee’ for foreigners on almost everything: need to cross that 1m wide stream? There is a shaky bridge, just pay LAK5,000. See that local that walks by your side while you are heading to explore the cave all by yourself? Be sure he will ask you a tip of some USD10 up afterwards – even if you have not asked him to accompany you. It is absolutely inevitable; so come prepared and do not let these trifles spoil your Lao trip.
Lao coffee – and baguettes! – are arguably the best ones in the whole region
We are serious. Obviously we have to thank the French for the baguettes and the cool climate of Bolaven Plateau for coffee. While the major part of coffee grown in Laos is robusta, the brew you get is always very energizing, with gentle yet full-bodied aroma and subtle ‘green’ notes of organic beans. It is easy to get your perfect cup of Lao coffee in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng or Savannakhet; do give it a try as if you are going into the wild, thing are not as easy there.
Where to go in Laos
The majority of those who do decide to visit Lao almost inevitably start with Vientiane, the capital city. The next major star destination is Luang Prabang and many tourists just make a quick beeline there taking a flight. Those who travel overland, usually check Vang Vieng en route. And that’s probably all! Only a thin flow of backpackers and adventure seekers venture out to explore further south to Pakse and Champasak or go to the wild, wild north – to Bokeo and beyond to get in touch of the most remote – and beautiful! – parts of the country.
You have not seen Laos without visiting...
Yes, we know that Thai expats – any many of expats in Laos, in fact – do not like Vientiane – to say the least. Indeed, dusty and spread out the city lacks the charm of colonial Savannakhet and cannot boats natural wonders of smaller destinations like Vang Vieng. But Vientiane is growing rapidly today with modern shopping centres and high-rise condominiums changing the skyline and lifestyle of the city and the sunsets over the Mekong River are always spectacular. Ancient wats in Vientiane are simply stunning and the restaurant scene won’t disappoint, either. Besides, wherever you are heading next in Laos, Vientiane can offer the best transportation solutions.
Full of French colonial fleur ‘shaken, not stirred’ with traditional Lao architecture Luang Prabang is simply unique. Elegant yet very cosy, often topping the ‘travellers choice’ lists of various paper and online magazines and awards, Luang Prabang offers colourful glimpses of the times when Laos was a part of French Indochine. Though it is easily reached via direct flights from regional capitals and some of the bigger cities like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Siem Reap or Hanoi, the most authentic way to get to Luang Prabang is probably by a slow boat from Houay Xai – well, if you are patient enough!
Once an open-air party capital of the country with free flow of alcohol and weed in every bar you could make a stop at while tubing, Vang Vieng has been somewhat working on its image lately and got a lot quieter in the best sense of the word after the ban of these venues. Yet tubing, awesome caving, hot air ballooning and stunning scenery are all there plus a couple of music festivals have made their way to Vang Vieng recently adding to the appeal.
Where to go if you like...
Luang Prabang is the definite must-see here, but do not miss Savannakhet, either. A quieter and more provincial experience, Savannakhet is full of charm. The historical quarter surrounds a quaint St Teresa’s Church and gets alive every evening when a bustling street food market takes over the church square.
Ancient Khmer Angkor-style ruins in Laos? No problem, lads! Listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Wat Phu dates back to the 12th century and is located near the tiny provincial capital of Champasak in the Southern Laos. Considerably smaller in size than the world-famous temple complex in Cambodia, Wat Phu is somewhat homier. With jungle-covered green cloudy hills in the background, elaborate stone carvings on lintels and exquisite blind windows make a striking contrast to dilapidating buildings.
Not exactly ruins, but definitely a unique sight, are the enigmatic stone jars in Phonsavan. Get there and make your own guess – who, when and why created these mysterious giant structures. Extra-terrestrial aliens? Epic heroes? Or Mother Nature?
Nature and trekking
We cannot just have enough of the Northern Laos – and if you are adventurous, fit and in constant search of roads less travelled, you’ll understand us! Taking a cult slow boat from Houay Xai to Luang Prabang; ziplining by day, listening to the voices of jungles by night and searching for the endangered gibbons in Bokeo Nature Reserve; or meditating amid the stunning scenery of the sleepy riverside village of Muang Ngoi Neua – the Northern Laos remains one of the most enchanting destinations in the whole SEA.
Two-wheeled road trips
The most popular and well-known route for the two-wheeled road trips in Laos is called – without too much imagination – The Loop. Starting from Thakhek in the Central Laos, it heads northwest to Veing Kham via Ban Hinboon via route 13, then turns east over route 8 to Ban Na Hin with an essential detour to the Konglor Cave featuring a subterranean river; to finally reach route 12 which branches south and brings you back to the starting point in Thakhek. This over-400-km journey is definitely one of the most scenic routes in the region.