Laos (pronounced with silent “s”), is undeniably the most underrated country in Southeast Asia. Sandwiched among the beach paradise Thailand, the street-food heaven Vietnam, the land of ancient ruins in Cambodia, Laos is often overlooked by travellers who are backpacking Southeast Asia.
Communist Laos flung open its doors to tourism in the early 1990s and the decades since have witnessed a steady growth in traveller numbers. The country is changing fast, but the lifestyle of the people remains the same, revealing that the true meaning of “Lao PDR” in Lao – Please Don’t Rush.
Getting to Laos
Depending on where you are, how much time and budget you can spare, there are a few ways getting in and out of Laos.
Flight: There are several international airports in the country: Vientiane, Pakse and Luang Prabang.
Bus: There are overnight bus from Thailand or Vietnam. However be prepared that the ride will take a lot longer than you might think!
Train: There is a daily overnight train that runs between Bangkok, Thailand and Vientiane, Laos.
Boat: It is possible to travel by boat from Cambodia and Thailand.
Best time to go
Similar to the rest of Southeast Asia countries, there are only 2 seasons in Laos: Wet or Dry.
The wet season in Laos is between May and October and the dry season between November and April. The weather is much cooler and drier in January compared to other months, making it the best time to do hiking in mountainous area. The hottest time of the year is between March and May, with temperatures reaching a scorching 38 degrees.
Most European nationals, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada, you can apply single entry tourist visa-on-arrival for between US$30 – US$45. Check here if you’re not sure.
For the Laos tourist visa-on-arrival, you’ll need:
- One passport photo (if you don’t have a photo with you, you’ll have to pay $2 extra).
- Cash in US dollars, regardless of where you’re from. The fee varies between US$30 – US$45 depending on where you’re from.
- A US$1 service charge.
- Completed application form. There’s an arrival and departure card so make sure to hold onto the departure card for when you leave Laos. Immigration will ask for it.
Nevertheless, there are other countries where tourists can enter Laos for visa-free:
- Length of stay of not more than 30 days: Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam
- Length of stay of not more than 15 days: Japan, Luxembourg, and Switzerland
- Length of stay of not more than 14 days: Brunei and Myanmar
The official currency used in Laos is Lao Kip, but occasionally, some merchants do accept US Dollars, but rarely. The best is to exchange your currency with the money changer in Laos for better rates. Likewise, change your remaining Kip before you leave the country. You literally cannot change it anywhere outside of Laos.
ATM machines are extremely rare outside of big cities so it’s better to not depend on them. Even if there are ATM machines, they might not be working. The fee was generally 20,000 kip (US$2.30) per transaction and 1,500,000 kip (US$167) is the max withdrawal.
Travelling in Laos is a lengthy process, so it’s important to factor in these slow travel times into your itinerary. A lot of buses and pick-ups don’t have set times and just leave when they’re full. In addition, the infrastructure and roadways are not as developed as other countries which makes driving between two places quite slow, even when actual distances are not that far. There isn’t much traffic in Laos but sometimes delays just happen, and you’ll never know why.
You are most likely travel around via sleeper bus as it’s the cheapest and time-saving option. If you’re expecting the sleeper bus in Laos is as comfortable as in Vietnam, you’re going to be very disappointed! Here’s some tips-off I’ve experienced to get you mentally prepared:
- Buy bus tickets directly from the bus terminal if possible, as hostels and travel agents in town will mark it up. I did not experience times whereby bus ticket was sold out.
- The scheduled times are probably not accurate. Most of the time the drivers would prefer to have a full bus before moving off, even if it means waiting for another 2-hours.
- The bus is likely be old and uncomfortable. Don’t expect the A/C to be working too.
- Your big bag will have to go under the bus as there will not be space. Take all of your valuables with you and leave nothing of value in your bag.
- You’ll need to take your shoes off before getting in. The bus staff will provide you with a plastic bag for you to keep your shoes in while you’re on the bus.
- The sleeper bus comes with upper and lower deck. There is only one small mattress for two people, without a divider. So if you’re traveling solo, you may be cuddling up to a stranger.
- Overnight buses may not make many stops for food or to use the bathroom so be sure to eat dinner and bring snacks if needed.
As with anywhere, keep an eye out for pickpockets and other petty theft. Don’t leave your belongings unattended, don’t get drunk, don’t go along with any people if you don’t feel safe, be aware of popular tourist scams. Always negotiate prices before agreeing to get in the vehicle.
Backpacking Laos as female solo traveller, you are unlikely to get more than a handful of cat-calls. The vast majority of men you meet will be shy, kind, and respectful. Having said that, I can only advise you to follow common sense safety rules as you would anywhere else in the world.
Laos can be expensive
Perhaps it’s not the most expensive but worse value for money, comparing to its neighboring countries. This is mainly to do with the fact that tourism is so new, and a lot of prices are just kind of made up. The quality of guesthouses and food in Laos is worse than those in Thailand and Vietnam, but they are being priced higher. Nevertheless, it is still cheap to backpack in Laos, especially if you’re from or are used to travelling in Western countries, but it’s just not one of the most budget-friendly countries in Southeast Asia.
Laos offers the best French cuisine (apart from France)
Laos was a French colony from 1893 until 1946; which means that it still has a lot of French architecture and still serves plenty of food inspired by the French. It’s pretty much the only place in South East Asia where you’ll get decent wine – even though Cambodia and Vietnam were also French colonies, you won’t get as much French wine or French anything there.
Please don’t do drugs
Laos really doesn’t need an undercover drug world that’s supported by tourist dollar. Same goes for opium in the north; Lao communities are working hard to eradicate opium abuse, so please don’t encourage the locals by buying from them. Plus, if you’re caught, you could be facing a fine of a few hundred dollars or deportation in the best case, or a couple of years in a Lao prison in worst case scenario.
Just go and enjoy a Beer Lao or some Lao Lao whiskey.
Beware of UXOs
Do you know that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capital in the world? More than 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the so-called “Secret War”.
Up to 80 million of the dropped bombs did not explode, leaving large parts of the country to be inhabitable due to the bomb hazards. Even today, many still trigger them and die, or lose their limbs. So as a tourist, it is extremely important that you do thorough research for where you’re going and to not go too far off the beaten track.
Vientiane is nothing like any other South East Asian capital
Compared to anywhere like Bangkok and Hanoi, Vientiane is definitely a very chill and small city. Nevertheless, this city still deserve some credit than just transiting over. Best part is, there aren’t many tourist in most attractions!
A off-beaten nature lover’s paradise
If you’re big into the outdoors and hiking, Laos is probably the best country in the region without much crowds. The hikes are incredible and mostly reward you with stunning views.
Elephant tourism is still a big problem here
Elephant tourism is still an issue all over South East Asia: Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, as well as Nepal and India. We all know that we shouldn’t be riding elephants, but we also shouldn’t be supporting ‘sanctuaries’ that aren’t actual sanctuaries. Many places in Laos still offer riding, and even those who don’t, make the elephants behave unnaturally for tourists amusement. Please do your research before deciding if you really want to see these elephants.
Lastly, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @wanderrsaurus on Instagram!