The Ultimate Laos Backpacker Travel Guide. You asked for it. You got it. Everything you need to know to budget, plan and travel Laos as a backpacker.
Laos, often overlooked by backpackers in favour of its better-known neighbours, landlocked Laos remains one of Southeast Asia’s most beguiling destinations. Caught in the middle of the two Indochina wars and long isolated from the rest of the world, Laos retains a slow, rather old-fashioned charm. Its people, incredibly laid back and friendly. Its lifeline,the Mekong River, which runs the length of the country, is powerful and brings life to this land locked country.
Most people visit the country as part of a wider trip, often entering from Thailand and following the Mekong further south. However, Laos alone rewards further exploration. With a little more time it’s not hard to feel like you’re visiting places where few Westerners venture. Stretching from the forest-clad mountains of the north to the islands of the far south, there’s enough here to keep you occupied for weeks, and still feel as though you’d barely scratched the surface.
When to go
The Laos is best visited between October and April, when the weather’s warm and dry throughout. River travel is best between November and January, when high water levels make passage easy along Laos’ main waterway, the Mekong River.
Where to go
Luang Prabang for its UNESCO world heritage site, Buddhists monks in orange robes walk around the streets, sunsets over the Mekong and the incredible Kuang Si Falls
Vang Vieng for laid back adventures, tubing, caving and hot air ballooning
Vientiane for its French colonial architecture, village like capital city and excellent Lao coffee
Pakse for its gateway to the amazing Wat Phou ruins, Tad Lo & Tad Fane, the agriculturally rich Bolaven Plateau, the elephants of Phou Asa and the Green Discovery Tree Tops Adventure.
4000 islands for its sleepy archipelago inside the Mekong river, dolphins and hammock life.
Arriving in to Laos
Many of you, like me, will begin your backpacking Laos adventure by crossing the border from Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia. Hopping the border overland is quick and easy. Visas can usually be arranged on arrival for around $35US Cash for 30 days. The laid back immigration officers don’t like working weekends so they may charge you an extra dollar or two on these days. The most cost effective way to cross the border is usually by local bus but you can also catch tourist buses, which are more comfortable and have better connections. If you are flying you will likely fly into Luang Prabang or Vientiane.
Catching public transport in Laos is an adventure in itself. Be ready for anything. Don’t automatically assume that if you pay for your own seat that you will get it. Buses and boats are really cheap and perfect for the backpacker budget. Don’t let stories of Laos transport put you off. It is improving quickly and more and more transport has Air Con. Plus Laos is a beautiful country. Backpackers are usually starring day dreamingly out of the window at the spectacular scenery you would miss if you caught a plane.
|Hostel dorm bed average: $5||One day motorbike hire: $30|
|Basic private double room average: $10||Long distance bus service: $3 – $10|
|Local beer :$1.50||Entrance to a site cost: $2-3 for foreigners on average|
|Meal at a cheap restaurant :$2-3||All you can eat Vegetarian street food buffet : $2|
* prices in Australian Dollars.
Laos isn’t particularly well known for its food. Lao cuisine is very similar to its Thai and Vietnamese neighbour’s culinary offerings. Spicy soup, sticky rice and a range of meat-based side dishes make up a meal, shared by all at the table. Vientiane is serviced by several good French restaurants, a remnant of the country’s colonial era. Baguettes and croissants are also widely available. Major cities, such as Luang Prabang, offer restaurants to suit almost any palate, although the selection dwindles quickly as you embark on roads less travelled.
I recommend trying the local specialty, Larb, a zesty mince meat dish with veggies. Morning markets found in most towns throughout Laos, remain open all day despite their name and provide a focal point for noodle shops, coffee vendors and fruit stands. In Luang Prabang and Vientiane vendors hawking pre-made dishes gather towards late afternoon in evening markets. Takeaways include grilled chicken (pîng kai), spicy papaya salad (tam màk hung) and in some instances a variety of dishes, displayed in trays and ranging from minced pork salad (larp mu) to stir-fried vegetables (khùa phák).
Helpful Tip: Don’t forget translation cards if you have any food allergies.
While history may have given them ample reason to distrust outsiders, the Lao are a genuinely friendly people and interacting with them is one of the greatest joys of travelling through the country. I recommend conservative dress. Men, Don’t walk around shirtless in public. girls, your best off to cover your thighs and shoulders.
Feet are considered low and unclean – be careful not to step over any part of people who are sitting or lying on the floor, as this is also considered rude. If you do accidentally kick or brush someone with your feet, apologize immediately and smile as you do so. Conversely, people’s heads are considered sacred and shouldn’t be touched.
Besides dressing conservatively, there are other conventions that you must be follow when visiting Buddhist monasteries. Before entering monastery buildings or monks’ living quarters, footwear must be removed. Women should never touch Buddhist monks or novices (or their clothes), or hand objects directly to them. When giving something to a monk, the object should be placed on a nearby table or passed to a layman who will then hand it to the monk.
- Theft – though not common, petty crime such as pickpocketing and theft of valuable items can strike travellers in Laos. Common sense can go along way in keeping you and your belongings safe. Keep any valuables hidden in a bag which you keep close to yourself at all times. Particularly avoid carrying a camera around your neck in populated areas. One method of theft is from the back of a motorbike. Makes sure you keep a hand on any bags, as these can easily be grabbed from a moving bike.
- Water – It’s best to drink and brush your teeth with bottled water in Laos to avoid stomach bugs. Most hotels and hostels provide water. You can buy water easily in Laos.
- Culture – Laos is a conservative country. For woman is it best to keep shoulders and knees covered to avoid any unwanted attention. Save the bikini’s and short shorts for swimming.
- Scams & Begging – Though not as prevalent as some other countries, there are still scammers and beggars in Laos. Begging is quite common, mainly in tourist areas. Most beggars will leave you alone if you say no, though you may need to be quite firm. Keep an eye out and trust your gut when it comes to protecting yourself against scams from Taxi drivers, tour operators and money exchange services.
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