Ultimate Guide to Laos
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
What can I expect from Laos?
We took a bus from Thailand and were so excited to explore Laos. You can expect Laos to have a huge backpacker community. It is more of a road less taken and has not been overpopulated by tourism yet. To be transparent, we spent a little over two weeks in Laos but only visited Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vietianne. Laos has amazing limestone mountains perfect for hiking, plenty of blue water lagoons to cool off among other beautiful sites and landmarks. We were so blown away by the landscapes that we decided to both ride in a hot air balloon for the first time here. The country has so many unexplored corners and is the perfect place if you are looking for adventure.
Top Things to do in Laos
Hike the famous Pha Ngeun Trail
Tubing Bar Crawl down the Mekong River
Rent a scooter and explore Luang Prabang
Watch the Alms Giving Ceremony
Tarzan swing into the lagoons in Vang Vieng
Eat and shop around at the night markets
Visit the temples in Tham Jang Cave
Go bar hopping in Vang Vieng
Rent a bicycle and see the town
Typical Costs for Traveling Laos
Visa - You will need a tourist visa for Laos that you can get upon arrival. Visa for US=$35 USD.
Accommodation - There are all ranges of accommodations in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. You can find really high end hotels and resorts for $40-60 (affordable considering). There are plenty of guesthouses and hostels as well. We did guesthouses most of the time ranging from $12-14 including breakfast. We did a hostel once in Vang Vieng to join the bigger tube groups (Nana's Hostel). Hostel accommodation here was $4 USD.
Food - The food is a mix of Thai food and Vietnamese food. Food ranged from $1-4 USD per meal for the both of us.We took advantage of the yummy street market food as well.
Transportation - We took buses to get from city to city and rented a scooter and/or bicycle to get around town from $10-$15. The following are bus prices for the BOTH of us:
Bus from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos: $34 USD
Transportation from Thailand to Laos includes 2 buses. At the border, you will get off and get your visas so keep extra cash (USD preferably) to buy the visas as there are no ATMs here.
Taxi to City Center upon arrival: $~4-5 USD (20,000 Kip is the flat rate pp)
Bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng: ~$25
Scooter Rental per day: $7-10 USD (60,000-80,000 Kip)
Tip: if you are renting a scooter for more than one day, try to bargain for less since you will be renting the bike from the same person multiple days in a row.
Suggested daily budget – $20 USD per day. (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little but staying to local dishes, and using local transportation. We as a couple were to able to split costs which is super helpful when traveling. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
Street food - The night markets have stands with plastic chairs and tables to sit. A lot of the food is cooked in front of you and in our opinion, homier...and tastier!
Rent a scooter - This will be a lifesaver here. Just rent a bike and explore the cities on your own and you won't have to haggle every time to get around.
Ride the buses - The city buses have AC and are the easiest way to get around! Prices range with the buses so make sure you ask around before settling on a price.
Download Maps.me - to get around and find the places you want. There are plenty of locals willing to help and guide you for small tips.
Guide to Traveling Laos
Everything you need to know:
Our Travel Route - Entered from Mae Sot. Mae Sot is the only entry border for tourists if going by land. We made a full circle from Hpa An - Mawalmyine - Dawei - Yangon - Bagan - Mandalay - Kalaw - Inle Lake - Hpa An - Back out to Mae Sot/Myawaddy border to Thailand.
Currency - Kip (~8,900 Kip = $1 USD)
Religion and Culture - The religion in Laos is Buddhism. You will see many temples here and monks around. One of the things you must do is see the Alms Giving Ceremony that happens at sunrise especially in the Lao villages. Laotions are not as conservative as some of the other countries but still respectful to cover up in sacred areas. Most places in Luang Prabang are closed by 10-11p. Laotian time is 1000% a thing. People enjoy chatting with friends, drinking, eating and sleeping so work is never a priority above all else. Lao Beer or Bia Lao is one of the better beers in SE Asia next to the Myanmar beer. (Thank you = Khop Jai).
Dressware - We were comfortable wearing our western clothing and exposing our knees and shoulders. The only times we felt the need to cover up is a monastery or temple.
Seasonality - We got to Laos at the very end of May and spent about 2 weeks here in total. It is said that the wet season goes from May to September, however when we did experience rain it would last anywhere from an hour or two and then be beautiful blue skies again. Honestly, we prefer it here in this season because a nice cold rain shower is refreshing during those hot days, and you will find that it is "low" season for tourism. If you are looking to go in the hottest time of the year typically its hottest between March and June. at 35°C and above.
Top Places - We only explored 3 cities here but enjoyed Vang Vieng the most.
Vang Vieng- This was our favorite destination in Laos. It had a western movie feel to it, and a lot of outdoor activities. You can find something you like here no matter what you're in to: hiking, hot air balloons, paragliding, food, bars, and more!
Luang Prabang- Not as touristy as Vang Vieng, this little town was enjoyable to rent a bike and check out the side streets. There were some really cute Pagodas around with nice views as well. Get out and explore!
Vientienne- Almost any traveler that has been here will tell you the same: not much to it. It wasn't our favorite and we used this city as an in between stopping point between Laos and Vietnam. However, if you are staying a few days there are some typical small city things to do as shopping and eating.
About the Food - Laotian food is a mix of Thai and Vietnamese food. Almost everywhere you will see Khao Ji Pate, which are French baguettes similar to Banh Mis. The night markets have a ton of street food from these really tasty coconut pancakes aka Khao Nom Kok (you have to have once and you will be addicted). You must also try the Naem Khao Tod - Crunchy rice with sliced sausage and peanuts, coconut shavings, fish sauce, and a mixture of other spices. It'll leave your mouth watering. You can find your standard asian dishes here too from fried rice, fried noodles, etc.
The Uncomfortable Side - If you have read about our post of Myanmar, Laos is a little more developed. Overall, we found that within the 3 cities we visited we were comfortable and found everything we needed.
Laotians are pretty excepting of the gay community. Being so close to Thailand, the culture is similar here where there are a ton of transgenders, crossdressing and drag happening. Like most of Asia, PDA is uncommon and culturally inappropriate but we felt very safe in Laos as a couple and comfortable saying we are a couple. Locals were very welcoming of all sexes.
We were very close to skipping Laos but so happy we didn’t. We felt the most active and adventurous here. Laos is breathtaking and there really is so much to take in from the people to the limestone mountains to the night markets. After two nights, we made such amazing connections with the locals we didn’t want to leave. We actually just kept putting off our bus to leave.