TRAVEL GUIDE TO LAOS

Last updated on 30-APR-2020


CONTENT– Formalities/ Travel Itineraries / Places To See / Basics / Accommodation / Getting Around / Food / Cultural Sense & Safety / Shopping / Budget



Laos, a country rich in nature, hides quietly between its popular neighbours – Thailand, China and Vietnam. With fewer towns and cities, the country is filled with abundant nature, remote villages and genuinely friendly people. Mostly seen as a passage from Thailand to Vietnam, the country hides some unexplored treasures filled with unforgettable experiences. Follow through to plan your travel to this incredible country with one of the friendliest people on this planet. 

Formalities 

Flight tickets to Laos can be slightly expensive as compared to other destinations in Southeast Asia. Most people prefer to cross the border by land, from Cambodia, Thailand or Vietnam. But if you are traveling directly to Laos, then I would advise you to book well in advance to get a comparable price.

There are two main international airports that you can fly into – Vientiane (The capital) at the centre or Luang Prabang situated in the north. There are other airports that you can fly into but they would mostly connect through these two main points. 

As I said before, you can also choose to enter the country through a land port. The border crossing is hassle free and is part of your ticket. The bus agency will direct you to the gates for processing your immigration, and on the other side, you will board another bus run by the same agency or their partners. While crossing into Laos from Thailand at Huay Xai, you can also take a slow boat of 2 days along the Mekong River to reach Luang Prabang.

Travellers from many countries including India can avail a 30-day Visa on arrival. Alternatively, you can apply for an e-visa. For more details visit Government website. 

 

Travel Itineraries

Most people just stop by Laos while crossing from Thailand to Vietnam. Therefore, many backpackers stick to the north; with Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng being the most favourite.  But there is a lot to explore in the central and southern part of the country. 

6 Days (Rapid) – Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang

12-15 Days  (Moderate) – Include Phonsavan, Nong Khiaw, Luang Namtha, Huay Xai and slow boat to Luang Prabang. 

23-25 Days (Relaxed) – Explore central and south Laos as well. Go on a motorbike loop at Thakhek and Pakse before heading to 4000 islands. 

 

Places To See And Things To Do

 Cool Pool, Thakhek Loop

 

NORTHERN LAOS

Luang Prabang – Luang Prabang is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful towns in Laos. Having a religious significance, Luang Prabang has more than 30 Buddhist temples or wats. Watch the sunset from the summit of  Phousi hill, walk the Bamboo bridge and explore the bustling night market. And most importantly, visit the most beautiful waterfalls ever - Kuang Si Waterfall. During wet season, you can also visit Tad Sae waterfall.  

Phonsavan - Most people visit Phonsavan to view the plain of jars, Several stone jars varying in its diameter between 1m to 3m is to be found in these sites. 

Vang Vieng – Vang Vieng is Laos's backpacker town. There isn’t much to do in the town itself but the countryside has a lot to offer. You can hire a motorbike or a tuk-tuk to go around. The main attractions include, several Blue Lagoons where you can swim and dive, Nam Xay view point, Pha Ngern view point, Kaeng Nyui Waterfall, Tham Chang Cave, Tham Poukham cave, Orange bridge and Bamboo bridge. Golden flower cave is a personal favorite of mine. You have to travel on a village road for quite some time. The cave has to be explored using a flashlight. If you are alone, like I was, this experience can be scary. For a good motorbike deal go to Kai motorbike. (Semi automatic at 40K KIP per day). 

Nong Khiaw – People visit Nong Khiaw to experience 2-3 Day trek in the villages along Nam Ou river. In the town, there are a few viewpoints such as Pha Keo Viewpoint, Pha Daeng Peak etc.  You could also choose to take a boat to Muang Ngoy and spend a day or two exploring this beautiful village. However, I would highly recommend you to try a 2-day trek that will take you to some remote villages where you shall spend a night with the inhabitants and experience their local cuisine. A two day trek generally includes visit to several remote villages, a walk to the waterfalls and canoeing. 

Luang Namtha – Similar to Nong Khiaw, Luang Namtha is popular for its treks. One, two or three-day treks in the deep forest are an interesting experience. 

 

CENTRAL LAOS

Vientaine – The capital city of Laos doesn't have much to offer and most traveller skip it and head north or south directly. If this is your first stop in Laos, then it would be a good idea to take a day or two to relax and explore cities attractions such as Pha That Luang (Golden stupa), Patuaxay monument, Buddha park, Sisaket temple and museum, Cope visitor center, That Sam stupa and many interesting temples and monasteries. 

Thakhek Bike loop - Undoubtedly, one of the best bike loops in Southeast Asia, Thakhek loop has a lot to offer - Karst, caves, cool springs, waterfalls and remote villages. I would highly recommend a 3-day loop. Motorbikes can be booked at two rental shops at town and they will provide you with a detailed map of the loop. The attractions include Buddha Cave, Tham Pha Nya Cave, Tha Falang Cave, Tham Xang cave, Thalang village, Dragon cave, cool pool and the amazing Khong Lor caves. 

 

SOUTHERN LAOS

Pakse Bike Loop – Like Thakhek, Pakse is the starting point for another bike loop which is popularly known as Bolaven plateau bike loop. You can do the loop in 2 or 3 days. The route takes you to several Waterfalls, Coffee plantations, and remote villages. 

Wat Phu - Located 45km south of Pakse, Wat Phu is popular for the ruined Hindu temples built during Khmer empire. Climb up the steep hill to get a panoramic view of the ancient city below. 

Si Phan Don ( 4000 island) – Explore the islands of Don Det and Don Khon on Bicycle. Take a boat ride to view the Irrawaddy dolphins. Visit Khone Phapheng Falls, the largest waterfall in SE Asia and spend the evening watching sunset by the river. 

 Tham Pha Nya Cave


The Basics 

Shops at all international airports offer SIM cards with attractive packages for travellers. I chose a 'Data only' SIM card by Lao Telecom, which was valid for a month for 60,000 KIP. There are multiple options to suit your travel plan. Unitel and Beeline are other service providers to pick from. 

As always, I would recommend travellers to carry US dollars to be exchanged at the airport. Exchanges are available through out the country at a comparable rate, so it is not required to exchange all the cash at once. ATMs are also available in almost all towns. However, make sure you track the charges by your bank. 

From Vientiane airport, there is a bus service to the city centre. The ticket price is around 15000 KIP. Luang Prabang airport does not have shuttle service therefore you will have to rely on a tuk-tuk, which may cost you around 40,000 KIP. 


Accommodation 

Almost all tourist locations have guesthouses and hostels. It may be hard to find dorm beds in some small towns but sometimes the guesthouse gives away a room with two or three beds to multiple customers thus splitting the room tariff. In some small towns like Nong Khiaw and Luang Namatha, it would be difficult to find dorm beds, as there are only one or two options. 

There is no need to book hostels in advance. You can arrive at the location and book a place. It will work out much cheaper than the booking price. 

Here is a list of places I would recommend in various towns.  Most of these are hostels and guesthouses. To find other accommodations you can use Agoda app or Hostelworld. 

Vientiane  - Barn1920s Hostel, Barn Laos Hostel, Dream Home Hostel

Vang Vieng – Rock Backpacker Hostel

Luang Prabang – Downtown Backpacker Hostel 2, Y Not Laos Hostel, Sayo Naga Guesthouse, 

Nong Khiaw – Delilahs Hostel, Sunrise guest house. 

Luang Namtha – Manychan (The only Hostel)

Huay Xai – Little hostel

Thakhek – KGB Gueshouse, Bike and Bed Hostel

Thalang (Thakhek loop) – Phosy Thalang guesthouse (Dorm bed and cottage), Sabidee guesthouse. 

Kong Lor (Thakhek Loop) – Phounsouk Guesthouse

Pakse – 1918's Hostel, The hostel run by Laos Adventure Travels (Cheap and best) 

Paksong (Pakse Loop) – Savanna Guest House. 

4000 Island (Don Det) – Jungle Hostel. Walk about a kilometre from the pier and you will have a plenty of options along the river. 

 Nam Xay Viewpoint, Vang Vieng

 

Getting Around 

The country is well connected by road network. Therefore, the best way to get to a town or city is by bus. Mini vans are popular in the north. In the south, long distance buses normally comprise of VIP sleeper buses. You can also try the 2-day slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang while crossing from Thailand.

All out bound buses start and end at bus stations, which are located at the outskirts of the city. Normally, there are tuk-tuks on shared basis that can take you to city centre. While taking a bus out of a town, the bus ticket would involve a pick up at hostel or booking office. Alternatively, you can go directly to the bus station and book a ticket but it may be almost the same cost. Therefore, in most cases, it is better to book in the city. 

To travel around a given town, you can rent a motorbike. The price could vary anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 KIP per day. There are enough gas stations along the way. 

If you cannot ride, then you can choose to hire a tuk-tuk for a day trip. Ensure to negotiate a reasonable price. This may vary from town to town. Most towns also offer package tours or day trips to major attractions. The tickets can be booked at your hostel, guesthouse or hotel. 


Food

Food wise, Laos does not have a lot of options for Vegetarians. You can of course find some Laos curry, sandwiches, fried rice and noodles. There are some restaurants in every town that serve vegan options. They can also custom make dishes for you. 

Smoothies are popular here. Some places like Nong Khiaw is popular for their bakeries and therefore serves some western pastries.  

If you are a vegetarian you may want to know if the food was cooked with fish oil. Also these words will be of great use – “Bomi Pa” (No Fish), “Bomi sin” (No Meat).


Cultural Sense And Safety 

Laotians are by far the friendliest people I have come across in South East Asia. They are never short of a smile or a greeting when they see you. Learn the word – “Sabaidee” (Hello) and you will listen that often while you walk along the street. While you part, you can also use the word – Sokdee (Good luck/health to you). And of course – Kobh Chai (Thank you). 

While entering the monasteries, dress modestly. Cover your shoulders and knees. The monks are respected here and therefore travellers must be careful not to be disrespectful around them. 

One thing that needs to be mentioned here is that Asians do no express their affection towards their partners in public. It is considered to be indecent to kiss or hug your partner in front of people. These are matters to be expressed privately. Some Western travellers do not pay attention to this cultural difference and could make the locals feel uncomfortable. There are several signboards educating travellers to behave a certain way. 

To educated yourself on Laos checkout the country's official website

 

What To Buy And Where? 

Laos is full of handicrafts. The most popular is hand weaved bags, scarfs etc. You can buy them in remote villages that you visit and thus support the people living there. I also found some interesting bamboo art in a small village in Nong Khiaw. 

Luang Prabang night market is perhaps the best place to go shopping. But make sure to negotiate. The real price is less than half of what has been proposed in the beginning. 

 

Budget And Travel Tips 

An approximate daily expense is listed below. All costs are in KIP (Rupees).

*Accommodation is Single dorm bed for Backpacker and private room for two in case of mid-range and luxury.
*Transport is an average cost of renting a bike in a town. Does not include long distance travel.

Book Accommodation upon arrival – In Laos, it is hardly required to book in advance. It is often cheaper to arrive at a place and look for an accommodation. Most guesthouses charge a higher price when booking online and the same room would be offered at a much cheaper price if it is  vacant on your arrival.

Ask around for a good deal – Bus ticket prices vary from hostel to hostel or office to office. So, ask around before booking at your hostel. 

Negotiate Everywhere – Negotiation is a norm in Laos; especially, in tourist areas. Sometimes the price goes less than half the quoted price. 

Trek Fee – Trekking in Luang Namtha and Luang Khiaw can be really expensive. ($50-80 per person) . Every booking office put up a notice on how many people have registered for 1-Day, 2-Day and 3-Day treks; more the people, lesser the price. Therefore, go around, wait till late evening and confirm your booking to get the best price. 

Food – There are several restaurants that serve good food. However, the cheapest is always to walk into a local restaurant or try a roadside Banh-Mi cart. 

Water Refills – Almost every hostel, some restaurants and stores have water refill cans. You can use your bottle to refill water instead of buying new bottles every time.



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