Backpacking Laos: Top experiences
- Renting a motorbike to explore the Bolaven Plateau
- Jungle trekking in Nam Ha National Protected Area
- Sipping world-class coffee at a Luang Prabang cafe
- Hitching and hiking to remote caves near Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi Neua
- Riding a longtail boat through Kong Lo Cave
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Laos itinerary ideas
While most long-term Southeast Asia backpackers only spend about a week in Laos, this is a country that is well worth taking your time in. Getting off the beaten path is extremely rewarding — the best experience you can have in the region — but travel is slow and challenging.
The typical one-week Laos itinerary begins in Vientiane and ends in Luang Prabang, passing through Vang Vieng in between. If you’re heading to Thailand before or after Laos, you could add a stop in Huay Xai for the Gibbon Experience.
With two weeks in Laos, you could do the above, plus spend a little more time in Luang Prabang. (4-5 days would be totally justified — the city is absolutely magical.) Then, you could go north to trek in the hill tribe areas like Luang Namtha or Phongsali. Alternatively, go south, passing through Kong Lor village to see the epic cave before reaching Savannakhet, Laos’ charming second city.
However, the ideal backpacking Laos itinerary is a full month. Start in the little-visited east — take a slow boat from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi Neua, and onward to Nong Khiaw. You need plenty of time for this trip, as boats run on unpredictable schedules that often depend on a minimum number of passengers. You may have to wait several days to get between Muang Khua and Muang Ngoi Neua. However, these are my favorite places to visit in Laos and it’s well worth the slow travel.
From Nong Khiaw, a combination of sŏrngtăaou and buses can get you to Luang Namtha, where you can trek in the Nam Ha NPA. Brace yourself for the long bus trip to Luang Prabang, then spend at least four days soaking up the city’s atmosphere and visiting the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls. Stick with the typical backpacker route through Vang Vieng and Vientiane before catching a bus to Kong Lor. Alternatively, bus all the way to Tha Khek and rent a motorbike to visit the cave.
From Tha Khek, continue your backpacking route south to Savannakhet. Spend two days cycling through the sleepy streets and watching the sunset over the Mekong River. Finally, head to Pakse and rent a motorbike for the four-day Bolaven Plateau loop. If you’re traveling onward to Cambodia, you can end your Laos travel itinerary on the Four Thousand Islands, right on the border.
Laos weather and when to visit Laos
Laos follows the same weather pattern as the rest of mainland South East Asia. Winters are cool (relatively, at least) and dry. April-May are scorching hot before the rainy season picks up in June. The monsoons hit in earnest in September and October.
The best time to visit Laos is during the winter. You’ll have relatively mild days and get almost no rain. It can be chilly in the mountains up north — pack warm clothes if you’re trekking. This is also the most crowded time of year to visit. That being said, crowds in Laos are nothing like the crowds in Thailand or Vietnam.
The only time that’s really worth avoiding backpacking Laos is September and October. While the Luang Prabang-Vientiane corridor has good roads, most of the rest of the country doesn’t. You may face washouts and landslides on mountain passes, and travel by river may be impossible. If you do decide to visit during monsoon season, build plenty of time into your itinerary for travel delays.
Language in Laos
The primary language spoken in Laos is Lao. It’s a complex tonal language with its own unique script and many sounds that have no equivalent in English, although it has a lot in common with Thai. Since you’re unlikely to pick up much of the language before you travel to Laos, it’s worth investing in a Lao phrasebook.
A couple of words in particular are very useful to know in advance. Sabaidee (pronounced “sah – bye – dee”) is the most common greeting, and you’ll hear it everywhere. Khop jai (pronounced “cop jye,” rhyming with “goodbye”) means “thank you.” People will often say “khop jai lai lai,” which roughly means “thanks so much.” Knowing how to order basic food items — like laap (pronounced “lab”), somtam (papaya salad), and foe (pronounced like Vietnamese pho, but transliterated differently here) — is handy for when the only food options are street stalls with no menu.
In addition to Lao, most hill tribe cultures speak their own languages. You’ll almost certainly interact with Hmong people in Luang Prabang and elsewhere. The Nam Ha NPA is another place where many locals don’t speak much Lao. If you’re venturing into rural tribal areas, always bring a culturally competent guide who speaks both English and Lao, and a second guide who speaks both Lao and the local language. The tribal communities are very welcoming to foreigners but you’ll miss out on the whole experience if you can’t communicate. Most Laos tours automatically include two guides.
Unlike elsewhere when you’re backpacking Southeast Asia, you’ll encounter few Lao people who speak English outside the major cities. Expect to use a lot of hand-gesturing, Google translate, and phrasebook-pointing.
Budget for backpacking Laos
The budget for Laos backpacking surprises many travelers. It’s a notch more expensive than pretty much anywhere else in Southeast Asia, and value for money is lower. This is largely because much of the country is still very undeveloped for tourism, bus trips are long, and almost all food has to be imported.
The minimum budget for traveling in Laos that you could get by on is about $20 USD per day. You’d need to stay in dorms when they’re available, eat nothing but street food, and skip pricey activities like trekking and tours.
A more comfortable backpacking Laos budget would be $25-30 a day. This would allow you to always stay in private rooms, albeit basic ones. You could occasionally go to a mid-range restaurant or have a good coffee at a high-end cafe. You wouldn’t be nearly so restricted in terms of activities, provided you can find travel buddies to form groups with. And you could even rent a motorbike for a few days to explore on your own.
$50 and up per day would be a high-end budget for backpacking Laos. You’d be pretty much completely unrestricted with that amount of cash. That being said, you’ll still find yourself in pretty bare-bones hotels and with few options for food in places like Luang Nam Tha, Kong Lor, anywhere in the east, and across the Bolaven Plateau. And you’ll still have to cram yourself into super-uncomfortable sŏrngtăaou to get around. The biggest difference with a higher budget is you could afford private guides.
Private room in a hostel or simple guesthouse: 130,000 kip
Street-stall meal of laap or papaya salad: 10,000 kip
Cup of coffee at a nice cafe: 15,000 kip
Museum or historical site admission: 20,000 kip
Bus ticket from Luang Prabang to Vientiane: 115,000 kip
Motorbike rental per day: 50,000 kip
Two-day, one-night camping trek in the Nam Ha Protected Area: 430,000 kip, discounts for joining a bigger group
Laos visa requirements
Nearly everyone needs a visa for travelling to Laos. Visas are typically 30 days for tourists. Most Europeans, North Americans, and Australians can get a Lao visa on arrival at most borders.
Canadians pay the most for their visas — $42 — while other nationalities pay $30-$35. Pay in U.S. dollars if you can; otherwise you’ll be overcharged in Thai Baht. If you’re traveling throughout the region, withdraw some extra dollars in Cambodia and save them for your Lao visa.
Entering the country is pretty straightforward, especially at the major border posts. The borders with Thailand are busy and efficient.
The one crossing that deserves special mention is between Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and Muang Khua in Laos. This crossing still gets very little foreign traffic, so make sure you come with passport photos and crisp U.S. dollars. The process takes a very long time — like, 3+ hours for the 10 people on your minibus to get through.
Cash is also an issue at this crossing. You’re unlikely to see an ATM for several days after you cross, so bring enough Vietnamese dong to live on for at least a week. Before hopping on an onward boat, change your money at the pots-and-pans shop at the top of the hill on the main road in Muang Khua. The lady gives very fair exchange rates and even if she didn’t, it would be your only option.
Accommodation in Laos
You’ll stay in all sorts of places while backpacking through Laos. The most-visited backpacker centers, like Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Tha Khek, have dorms for about 70,000 kip and private rooms for around 130,000 kip. These guesthouses have the typical traveler amenities that you find throughout Southeast Asia — good travel information, bus booking services, help arranging tours and activities, free WiFi, etc.
Elsewhere, you’ll find small guesthouses with private rooms. Most Laos hotels in places like Luang Namtha and Savannakhet cater to local businesspeople. The prices are a little lower than in main travel-centric cities and what you lose in travel information, you often make up for in cheap air conditioning and hot water.
In really remote corners of Laos, you may not have 24-hour electricity or running water at your hotel. Guesthouses are very, very basic here. Bucket showers are the norm. Just make sure you have a mosquito net, since malaria is a risk. These guesthouses tend to be very cheap, with private rooms as low as 20,000 kip. These types of places are most common in the east.
If you go hiking in Laos, especially in hill tribe areas, you’ll camp or do a homestay with a tribal family. Sometimes it’s wild camping, while other times you’ll have access to a washroom. You don’t need to bring your own equipment — tour agencies provide everything. Expect basic conditions and bring plenty of mosquito repellent.
Food in Laos
While many travelers’ first reaction is that Laos doesn’t have the foodie culture of Vietnam, Thailand, or Malaysia, the truth is many of those countries’ specialties were actually born in Laos. This is especially true of Thai food, although you’ll see similarities with Vietnamese and Chinese dishes too.
You can eat well on a budget while backpacking in Laos, but there isn’t always much variety. Street stalls are usually limited to the four most common meals: papaya salad, laap (minced-meat salad), foe, and baguettes. Nearly everything is served with a little basket of sticky rice, one of Laos’ most endearing inventions.
You eat with your hands — take a small ball of sticky rice in your right fingers, roll it up, use it to scoop up some of the main dish, and stick it in your mouth. It’s not that hard after you’ve practiced a few times. Noodles and soups are eaten with a fork and spoon.
If eating at street stalls, watch carefully as the vendor prepares your food. The true “national dish” of Laos is the ridiculously-hot chili pepper, used in extreme quantities. If your vendor looks like they’re about to throw an entire handful of them into your dinner, intervene quickly!
When you get tired of the same four Lao dishes, look for Indian restaurants. They’re ubiquitous in bigger cities. Travel centers like Luang Prabang and Vientiane also have international cafes with baked goods, wraps and salads, and other treats you may be missing from back home.
Nearly all food has to be imported in Laos, so it’s quite expensive. Street meals cost at least 15,000 kip (you might find papaya salads for 10,000). A meal at a traveler-focused cafe or Indian restaurant will set you back 20,000 kip and up.
Drinks in Laos
Coffee is big business in southern Laos — particularly around the Bolaven Plateau. You can get really excellent beans here, and many cafes employ expert baristas who would be at home in Seattle or London. JoMa (with branches in Luang Prabang and Vientiane) remains my single favorite coffee shop in the entire world.
Beer Lao is arguably Asia’s best beer. It costs 10,000 kip for a large bottle. You can find darker brews and lighter ones, but the most common is a surprisingly flavorful lager. It’s the one thing available in even the smallest villages.
The fire water of choice is a rice whiskey called laolao. It’s disgusting, but you’ll invariably be goaded into trying it by locals. It’s very strong and it doesn’t mix well.
In addition to laolao, you may encounter lao hai. More like a rice beer than a rice wine, this beverage is unique to Laos and northeastern Thailand. It’s a communal drinking experience that will be among the most memorable parts of your trip if you are invited to try it.
The rice is fermented in a giant urn for several months, often kept by the village chief. When you’re ready to drink, the chief will crack open the urn, give everyone a bamboo straw, and add a cup of water. Then he’ll drink until the liquid level drops to where it was when the water was added. This is repeated, in turn, for everyone drinking together. It’s rude to refuse to drink at least one cup. It tastes sweet, and it’s weak — your biggest concern should be the safety of the water.
Activities you can do while backpacking Laos
Laos offers some of the best jungle adventures in the region. It also has cities worth exploring. But the real allure to backpacking Laos is the opportunity to experience rural Southeast Asia without hordes of tourists. The country oozes authenticity at every turn.
The center of Lao culture is Luang Prabang. The city — my favorite in all of Asia — has an indescribably laid-back vibe. The food is good, the Hmong night market is unforgettable, and there are plenty of temples to explore. You can do a day trip to some nearby waterfalls as well. Vientiane and Savannakhet are other cities worth exploring for their historical and cultural attractions.
Vang Vieng is where most people experience the outdoor adventures that Laos has to offer. Popular activities include tubing down the river and through caves, kayaking, cycling, and hiking.
The Nam Ha Protected Area is Laos’ most popular ecotourism destination. Not only is it a massive region of protected jungle, it’s also home to fascinating hill tribe cultures who completely reject the “human zoo” model of cultural tourism. Tour companies in Luang Namtha post signs with their departures and how many people they have, so if you’re traveling alone you can easily join an existing tour. While I have done better treks, the cultural connections I formed on my trip in Nam Ha made it the single best experience I had in my year on the road.
In the remote corners in the south and east, you can get way off the beaten path. Nong Khiaw, Muang Khua, and Muang Ngoi Nua are tiny villages accessible by longtail boat from which you can hike to nearby caves, swim in the river, or just hang out in one of the quietest corners of the continent. Kong Lor is another popular caving destination.
One of the biggest highlights of backpacking in Laos is renting a motorbike to explore the Bolaven Plateau. The route takes you to the popular backpacker hangout of Tat Lo, the far-flung town of Attepeu, past giant waterfalls in the middle of deep jungle, and to the coffee capital of Paksong before you return to Pakse.
These are just a few of the adventures you can have in Laos. The Gibbon Experience, trekking near the Chinese border, the Plain of Jars, “The Loop,” … there’s plenty more to explore.
Transportation in Laos
Backpacking Laos requires a healthy dose of patience for transportation. Unfortunately, transport is both uncomfortable and annoyingly expensive. Bus tickets are around $3 an hour — and distance is not necessarily an accurate gauge of how long the trip is.
Old, slow, non-air-conditioned buses ply major routes throughout Laos. They usually depart from bus stations well outside the city center, so you’ll need to catch a sŏrngtăaou to get there. You can buy tickets the day you travel. Most trips are pretty short, and unless you head to the far north, you’ll never need (or want) to travel overnight.
Minibuses are the next rung on the transport ladder. Unlike in neighboring countries, the driving standards are reasonable. But drivers stop for everyone and overcrowd their vehicles, forcing you to hold someone’s chicken or child in your lap. Breakdowns are common.
If you can get a bus or a minibus, you’re in pretty good good shape. But you’ll want to avoid the dreaded long-distance sŏrngtăaou (pickup truck with wooden benches in the back). These cover little-used routes — like Nong Khiaw to Pak Mong (to get to Nam Tha) or Kong Lo to Tha Kek. If they’re your only option, the best you can hope for is paved roads.
Some villages in Laos are easiest to reach (or only possible to reach) by boat. It’s especially common to travel by longtail between Nong Khiaw, Luang Ngoi Neua, and Muang Khua. If you’re venturing out to these parts, build in plenty of time — boats don’t run unless they have enough passengers. This can often mean waits of two days or more. Boats are pricey — a five-hour trip will cost you 125,000 kip.
Laos is slowly but surely — emphasis on the slowly — catching up to its neighbors in terms of regional and domestic flights. Luang Prabang and Vientiane have busy airports, and you can even fly to Phongsali now. Delays and cancellations are very common.
Safety when backpacking Laos
Backpacking Laos is safer and more hassle-free than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. You are unlikely to run into touts, scammers, pickpockets, or robbers. Even the traffic and driving is fairly safe. People are genuinely friendly, and at worst, will make a gentle attempt to overcharge you a few cents. Aggressive bargaining is not appropriate.
Laos has a reputation for being a party destination where you can get cheap drugs. Until recently, Vang Vieng in particular was a hotbed of dangerous parties combined with river activities. Bar owners would spike drinks with opium and then let their customers use rope swings to jump into the river. This naturally led to an alarming number of deaths and serious injuries.
The government shut the river bars down in 2012, but the scene still exists on the fringes. People will approach you on the street with offers to buy opium, heroin, and magic mushrooms, often marketed as “happy” products (as in, “Happy Pizza” or “Happy Tea” or “Happy Bucket-of-Whiskey”). On top of it being really stupid to put anything like that in your body, remember that it’s often a set-up by undercover cops — and you don’t want to end up in a Lao prison.
The other major risk to life and limb is the high number of unexploded ordinance (UXO) in Laos left over from the Vietnam War. If you venture off the beaten track you may well encounter real, live UXO. No matter where you are — in a big city, walking down a suburban street, or hiking in the jungle — never venture off the path or road. And never, ever pick up an unidentifiable object, even if it looks completely harmless. For more information about the UXO crisis and its impact on Lao people’s lives, visit the COPE Center in Vientiane.
More mundanely, if you travel by river while backpacking Laos, always opt for a slow long-tail boat or barge. You can often arrange what would be a much faster and more convenient speedboat, but unfortunately, the speedboats have a horrible safety record.
Laos travel advice for women alone
Backpacking Laos is easy as a woman alone. You are unlikely to even get more than a handful of cat-calls when traveling in this country. The vast majority of men you meet will be shy, kind, and respectful.
Local women dress conservatively. You’ll blend in better if you cover to your shoulders and knees. But no one will be offended if you wear shorts or sleeveless tops. (You’re always better off wearing pants if driving a motorbike, to avoid burns on your leg.)
It’s technically illegal to have a relationship with a Lao man who is not your husband. If you are traveling with an ethnically Lao partner and don’t have a marriage certificate, be discreet and expect to get questions at guesthouses. Public displays of affection are generally frowned upon regardless of who your partner is.
It’s easy to meet other travelers in Laos’s big cities. In more remote areas, you may be on your own for days at a time. Everything is cheaper with travel buddies, so try to form groups when you can.
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