Laos is often called the forgotten land of South-East Asia. What struck me most was just how remote and thinly populated Laos is: look out the window while in transit and you will probably just see endless jungles with not even a single road, path, sign, or even electricity wire in sight.
Personally I have two different perspectives on Laos. Subjectively, I absolutely loved it. After Thailand it was only the second non-Western country I ever visited as a backpacker. Still fresh and wide-eyed, I felt like I had truly gone deep and off the grid. But pulling back and looking at it in hindsight, it doesn’t feel like there actually was a whole lot to do in Laos. I think much of the appeal was simply in travelling through a remote land that I hadn’t ever given much thought to before (though there definitely were a number of interesting attractions as well, as you’ll see further down this page).
Laos can be reasonably covered within a shorter single-country trip. If you are travelling the wider region there is also obvious appeal in including Laos in your itinerary, as it serves as a perfect extension of the backpacker trail connecting northern Thailand with Vietnam. However, prepare for Laos being very back-in-time and not quite as filled with thrills as neighbouring countries, and focus instead on enjoying its wonderful Buddhist calm and off-the-grid feel.
Children coming home from school in a small town near Luang Prabang
Why you should go to Laos
- Laid back and authentic. Laos is very rustic and filled with unspoiled nature. Lao food is delicious and right up there with Thai cuisine; interestingly, there’s also excellent coffee and croissants which were introduced during French colonial times.
- Sense of adventure. The 2-day slow boat on the Mekong from Thailand, the old Soviet-era buses, the creaky old internet that takes 15 minutes just to load a page, and the occasional power cut can make you feel far from home. Laos has no railways, no ports and, until a few years ago, no bridge across the Mekong even to connect it with Thailand. It’s truly a different kind of place.
- The city of Luang Prabang. This UNESCO world heritage site is probably the highlight of Laos, and it’s a place many travellers end up staying longer. See Buddhists monks in orange robes walk around the streets, or marvel at the sunset over the mekong from a temple up on the hills.
Laos is sometimes still misunderstood as a country with no-limits partying. Actually, Laos is pretty mellow. Luang Prabang has an 11 A.M. curfew and the town of Vang Vieng is no longer home to the extreme anything-goes debauchery it was once famous for (a good thing as drunk river tubing accidents led to countless deaths each year). If you are only after partying then you are probably much better off going to Thailand or similar countries.
The mekong river running alongside the UNESCO world heritage city of Luang Prabang
A view of the Loatian landscapes from my bus to Vang Vieng
Accommodation in Laos
Budget accommodation is very easy to find in Laos. Dorm beds typically go for around 5 Euro/USD or 3.5 GBP, while basic private rooms may cost double that. Where else would you get such great value? Here are a couple of suggested hostels and guesthouses in Laos’ three main traveller hubs:
|Kounsavan Guest House||Luang Prabang||Hostel with dorms as well as private rooms. In the centre of town near the night market. Has a nice swimming pool where you can cool down on a hot day.|
|Souk Lan Xang Guest House||Luang Prabang||Basic private rooms with AC. Within walking distance of all the main sights.|
|Dream Home Hostel||Vientiane||Dorm beds with AC, reading lights, power plugs and lockers. Free breakfast, a pool table and swimming pool are nice extras.|
|Backpackers Garden Hostel||Vientiane||Private rooms and dorms with reading light, power plug, and storage space. Hot showers (rare for Laos…)|
|Real Backpackers Hostel Vang Vieng||Vang Vieng||Newly opened in 2015, this hostel has dorms and private rooms with AC.|
|Pans Place Guesthouse||Vang Vieng||Run by a friendly New Zealand expat and his Loatian wife. Dorms and private rooms. Basic but cozy (and a steal at 5 GBP / 7 EUR!). Another plus: it’s located just a bit further down the road, away from all the noisy bars.|
Cool things to do in Laos
Watch the sun set over the Mekong
Head up to Phu Si Hill in the centre of town in Luang Prabang – you can’t miss it as it has a temple on top that can be seen from every angle. From here you get views of the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang and the point where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet. Stunning.
See one of the nicest waterfalls in Asia
I spent 9 months travelling all over Southeast Asia and I must say that the Kuang Si Waterfall near Luang Prabang is the prettiest I saw. It features a large cascade from which you can jump down into pools below. A series of smaller azure-coloured falls and pools make for excellent swimming holes. (I hope you’re not ticklish, as little fish will be giving you a free pedicure…)
Take a hot air balloon ride in Vang Vieng
I recommend this only if you can spare the money, as $80 is a lot for a 20 minute balloon ride. That said, it’s probably among the cheapest balloon rides you can find anywhere in the world. I had never been on a hot air balloon, so it was definitely worth it for me.
Learn to cook Laotian food
Tamarind restaurant in Luang Prabang does a great cooking course, but there are others around the country. There’s a great minced-meat stir fry dish in Laos called Laap, which I highly recommend eating, but I also recommend learning how to cook it!
Take the 2-day slow boat from Thailand
The 2-day slow boat on the Mekong river from Huay Xai near the Thai border down to Luang Prabang used to be the only way to get into Laos proper. These days you can more easily get a bus, which will be more convenient and faster. However, I recommend taking the 2-day boat trip anyway. You will gain an appreciation for all the nature, you’ll see many local fishermen along the way, and some wildlife if you’re lucky. The slow boat is also an amazing way to meet other travellers; I kept bumping into various ‘boat friends’ in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia for months after.
Live in the forest canopy
Laos is home to pristine jungles, some of which are the last remaining habitats of the black crested gibbon (once thought extinct). One of the best ways to experience the jungles and have a chance of seeing the gibbons is the The Gibbon Experience, a conservation project near Huay Xai, which lets you sleep in tree huts in the forest canopy. Reservation required.
Visit local food markets
This goes for pretty much any country in Southeast Asia, but food markets are a true assault on the senses. If you haven’t been to a local Asian market before, you owe it to yourself to do so!
Explore caves in Vang Vieng
A much-advertised attraction near Vang Vieng is the Blue Lagoon, which is a little disappointing as its just a small swimming hole with an alluring name. However, nearby Tham Phu Kham Cave is worth checking out. You’ll need to bring lamps or rent one outside. There’s no tour guide so you can find your own way in the dark (it’s impossible to get lost however as it’s essentially a big cavern with a prominent lightsource leading to the exit).
Other caves in the area can be visited as part of the guided tours only.
See the Golden Stupa in Vientiane
Personally, I felt like Vientiane was not that interesting (compared to other Asian capitals, anyway). There’s just not a lot to see, and for such a remote country it’s a pretty standard city. However, do check out the Golden Stupa when you are there – an impressive Buddhist temple.
Relax at Four Thousand Islands
Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) is an archipelago inside the mekong river area in southern Laos. It’s known as a sleepy and laid back place to go, and one that’s very cheap to boot. Check out the local markets or ride a scooter to explore the islands.
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More info on Laos: check out the WikiVoyage page for some more destination info. Looking for a more comprehensive guide? You can grab the Lonely Planet guide to Laos right here, available in book form or as PDF which you can use at home or consult on your smartphone or tablet while you travel.
Around the web
- 15 Things To Do In Luang Prabang – A Passion And A Passport
- Laos: The Good And The Bad Of A (Not So) Forgotten Country – Nomad Is Beautiful