Communist, landlocked, replete with limestone towers, riddled with caves, gilded temples, and home to the rarest wildlife; Laos offers a unique charm for the most adventurous traveler. They relish the charming locals, the sleepy and tranquil atmosphere, and the stark contrast with Vietnam or Thailand. If you don’t have the luxury of boundless time to visit Laos, read on this comprehensive travel guide to Laos in 2021 to make the most out of your trip.
- Brief Recent History of Laos
- What is Laos known for today?
- Is Laos an expensive country for tourists? Laos budget tips
- Best Things to see and do in Laos
- Planning your Laos Trip
- When is the best time to visit Laos?
- How to get around in Laos
- Where to stay in Laos?
- Laos traditional dishes and what to eat while visiting Laos
- Is it safe to travel around Laos?
- Laos etiquette and cultural tips for visitors
- What to pack for a Laos adventure
- What you need to do before traveling to Laos?
- Laos movies and documentaries to watch before you go
Brief Recent History of Laos
Laos is jammed between neighboring countries Thailand and Vietnam and it is landlocked through the borders of China and Myanmar to its North. Laos is a place that is hugely overshadowed by the neighboring countries. Nevertheless, if you wish to know the history of Laos, you’ll have to pay heed to the tale of secret wars, exile; kingdoms set on war against each other and toppled colonies.
Fa Ngum was born in the royal family of Muang Sua, which was the capital of a state that was ruled by King Souvanna Khampong. Fa Ngum’s grandfather was the reigning king of this place when he was still a baby. Fa Ngum’s father failed to live up to the kingly responsibilities and hence was expelled.
As a grown-up man with a princess wife, Fa Ngum fought recklessly to get back his birthright in Muang Su and later on established the Lao Kingdom. His father-in-law, a Khmer king, sent a sacred Golden Buddha called Phra Bang. This was later on deemed to be the symbol of right to rule Laos.
What is Laos known for today?
Laos is a place that combines the most stunning hilly landscapes with cultural attractions. In fact, it can easily be said that Laos, the landlocked nation, is one of the few exotic travel destinations that are left in the whole world. Laos is well known for its retro feel, excessively friendly locals, eclectic heritage sites, and beautiful Buddhist temples. If you’re set to visit Laos, expect a rollercoaster cultural ride during the exploration of the place. Here are few places for which Laos is known throughout the world:
- Luang Prabang
- That Luang
- Vang Vieng
- Wat Sisaket
- Bolaven Plateau and Tad Fane Waterfall
- Buddha Park
- The Plain of Jars
- Vat Phou
- That Ing Hang Stupa
Is Laos an expensive country for tourists? Laos budget tips
Though costlier as against its neighboring countries, Laos is still an affordable country to visit. And even if you’re on a budget, you would still have to try hard to spend money in Laos. The majority of the attractions are located near cities and hence you don’t have to visit them with an organized tour. You may either hire tuk-tuk drivers or rent a motorbike to reach the spots.
For a backpacker on a budget, $30-35 USD (315,000 LAK) per day should be enough. This budget would include sleeping in a hostel dorm, taking a few drinks per night, eating street food (mostly), taking public transport, and engaging in one paid activity in a day. Here are a few prices (in LAK) to get an idea of the cost of things in Laos.
- Hostel Dorm: 45,000
- Tuk-Tuk: 50,000
- Overnight bus: 150,000-200,000
- Entrance fee to attractions: 10,000-25,000
- Restaurant: 28,000
- Western Food: 45,000
- Beer: 11,000
- Bike rentals: 15,000
Best Things to see and do in Laos
Seep yourself in the tranquility of Luang Prabang temples
With patched roads, saffron-robed monks, markets that stretch for a mile, and a riverside hosting the best sunsets against a splendid backdrop, it’s hard not to feel at peace in Luang Prabang. You could spend day after day exploring the temples and watching the morning alms-giving.
Go on an adventure in Vang Vieng
Tucked between pockets of jungle and lush green karst, Vang Vieng is no longer the city that had earned a bad reputation. You can kayak through Nam Song at the speed of rafting, stop at the riverside, swap paddles, and get a zipline experience through the treetops to explore it further.
Immerse yourself in the history of the Vieng Xai Caves
Despite witnessing the bombing of the US, Vieng Xai is still strikingly beautiful with its picturesque cabins, green hills, and man-made lakes. This will not be a trip to a normal cave, since the rocky shelters were inhabited by politicians and civilians during the 9 years of war and today they can be visited as if they were a kind of museum.
Feel like a monkey in the treehouses for a few days.
Huay Xai is located near the border of Thailand and offers its visitors the so-called ‘Gibbon experience’. Thus, visitors have the opportunity to spend a minimum of 3 nights in the treehouses of the Bokeo Nature Reserve and see gibbons and other wildlife in the morning.
Planning your Laos Trip
What to visit in Laos if you have just a few days
Day 1: Arrive at Luang Prabang and visit Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Visoun, and Mount Phousi
Day 2: In the morning, spend time at Royal Palace National Museum, and in the afternoon, head to Pak Ou Caves or Kuang Si Falls.
Day 3: Transfer to Vientiane. Check out few famous spots like Wat Sisaket, That Luang Stupa, and Wat Ho Phra Keo
Day 4: Drive along the Mekong River to the splendid Buddha Park.
Day 5: Continue your trip from Vientiane
How to make the most out of one week in Laos
Day 1: Arrive at Vientiane. Take a short break and start discovering the city. Visit Wat Sisaket, Buddha Museum, Victory Gate, That Lung, and then head towards the Centre Market for shopping.
Day 2: Take a cruise trip along Nam Ngum Lake and head to the scenic province of Vang Vieng. Stunning landscapes, the Ban Keun salt factory, and the Talat fish market in Huay Mor await you.
Day 3: Head to Phonsavanh and admire the landscapes of hills, karst formations, and lush valleys along the way.
Day 4: Visit Xieng Khouang and Plain of Jars, two key sites to learn about the prehistory of Laos and Southeast Asia.
Day 5: Head to Luang Prabang.
Day 6: Visit Kuang Si falls. En route back to Luang Prabang, stop at Banh Phanom, Santi Chedi Stupa, and H’Mong village. You can also visit the Royal Palace National Museum.
Day 7: Take a boat to view the rural surroundings of the Mekong River and explore the beauty of Pak Ou Caves before leaving the country.
Suggested itinerary for two weeks in Laos
Days 1-3: The first stop could be Vientiane, the land crossing point from Nong Khai in Thailand, a major stop for buses from Hanoi in Vietnam, and also the main international airport of the country. Days 1-3 can be spent exploring Vientiane, a perfect blend of Laotian and French culture.
Days 4-6: Once famous for wild parties, Vang Vieng riverside parties still exist. Once you are done with tubing if that’s your thing, visit the Kaeng Nyui Waterfall and do not drink its water, supposedly poisonous.
Days 7-9: Head towards Luang Prabang, the second-largest city in Laos (4 hours north of Vang Vieng in a minivan). Don’t miss the early morning procession of monks where they engage in alms-giving. Feed yourself sticky rice and bananas from the locals. The Kuang Si falls are pretty similar to the Erawan waterfall and its beauty is of a whole new level.
Day 10-14: If waking up early to go fishing on the river and trekking in the nearby mountains is your cup of tea, the riverside fishing village of Muang Ngoi is a great spot to spend your last days in Laos.
Combining Laos and other SE Asia countries
If time is not a problem, combining a visit to Laos with other Southeast Asia countries is a great idea.
One of the classic options is Thailand, traveling from Chiang Mai to Laos. The trip takes between 14 and 18 hours and costs around $ 30.
Cambodia is another great choice and 12-15 days should be enough to explore the beauty of Luang Prabang, the 4000 islands region, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat.
Vietnam, China, and Myanmar are also excellent options.
Here’s an article of all the things you should not miss in Laos. Check it out!
When is the best time to visit Laos?
It is usually said that the best season to visit Laos starts in October when the weather is dry and warm. If river cruising is in your plans, the best time to do so is between November and as the water level rises, which facilitates navigation through the main waterway of the country, the Mekong River. You can also visit the Bolaven Plateau during this time of year.
On the other hand, if you want to see the country when it truly comes to life, head there during the “green season” or monsoon. It falls between the end of May and October and the intense rains don’t usually last long so they should not turn you off.
How to get around in Laos
Laos’s road system has improved considerably in recent years. Thus, with improved roads, getting around Laos has become easier than before. The country’s main roadway, with a constant flow of buses, is Route 13 which runs from Luang Prabang to the Cambodian border, passing through Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Pakse.
- Inter-town transport: Visitors hoping to see rural Laos can expect hours of grueling travel on the country’s diverse fleet. There are several buses that connect with the larger cities. In the rainy season, some unpaved roads can turn into muddy rivers.
- Buses: Common buses offer inexpensive transportation between the main cities and connect the provincial centers with the surrounding districts. Breakdowns can happen and, if the driver is not assisted, they may require a long wait on the road while the bus gets repaired.
- Sawngthaews: In village areas far from the Mekong Valley, the bus network is often replaced by songthaews aka. converted pick-up trucks. In these vehicles, drivers pack as many people as they can causing newcomers to often hang from the back.
Where to stay in Laos?
The main types of accommodation that you can use in Laos are the following:
- Hotels: As expected, in Vientiane and Luang Prabang there are many good hotels, some housed in the colonial buildings recognized by UNESCO. Visitors who love comfort as well as honeymoon couples, often choose them.
- Guesthouses in Laos: Affordable and intimate, guesthouses and B&Bs are some of the best ways to experience Laotian culture and have lately become a favorite accommodation option for visitors in tourist spots like Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.
- Camping in Laos: There are several opportunities to camp in Laos, mainly in the National Protected Areas of the country. Thus campers can pitch their tents on a picturesque lakeside or even in the middle of a bamboo forest.
- Ecotourism accommodation: Far from cities and towns across the country, there are many eco-lodges in Laos where visitors can enjoy the splendid scenery while engaging in outdoor activities.
Laos traditional dishes and what to eat while visiting Laos
Laos cuisine is similar to Vietnam and Thailand ones in terms of ingredients and taste. They usually consist of spices, fresh herbs, rice, and noodles. Khao niaw or sticky rice, conventionally steamed in a bamboo basket, is a very popular staple among Laotians.
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is home to some of the best French restaurants and cafes, as the place is a holdover from the French colonial era. Some dishes you must try in Laos are Kaipen, Khao Jee, Khao Poon, Lao Sausage, Larb (minced meat salad), Laos Pho, Or Lam, Sien Savanh, Som Moo, Tam Mak Hoong, and papaya salad.
Is it safe to travel around Laos?
Laos is a relatively safe country for travelers, although there are few areas that are still considered unsafe. As a visitor, you could be a target for thieves, therefore it would be wise to take some precautions such as carrying your passport and valuables in a hidden money belt and avoid leaving anything lying around in your room.
Safety in Laos
Although regarded as a safe country, there have been reports of violent crime in Laos, some including sexual assault, theft, and the snatching of motorcycle bags. Incident-prone areas are concentrated in Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and other busy tourist spots. Furthermore, there are also said that there are unexploded landmines that would pose a notable threat to tourists in Xieng Khouang province and on the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Safety tips for solo female travelers in Laos
That said, Laos is a pretty safe destination for solo female travelers.
The main religion in Laos is Buddhism, and in addition, the people of Laos are extremely hospitable. However, just like men, women also need to be aware of petty theft by pickpockets and theft of purses and purses while wandering on crowded roads.
Laos and COVID-19
Flights to Laos were suspended for a while and passengers had to carry a medical certificate with a negative RT-PCR result for Coronavirus (COVID-19) issued 72 hours before departure, as well as a confirmed reservation for 14 days in a hotel to quarantine and undergo a PCR test upon arrival at their own expense.
As measures can change quickly, we advise that before heading to Laos, you should assess whether it is safe or not to visit Laos considering the current pandemic, travel restrictions, entry requirements, and quarantine regulations.
Laos etiquette and cultural tips for visitors
Laos is a conservative place with strict social reins. Unfortunately, education rates are lower than average and people are sometimes easily surprised. The people of Laos dress modestly and will find both men’s and women’s clothing conservative, exposing very little skin.
If you’re a tourist you can get away with t-shirts and shorts, but if they’re too short, you could get a look of disapproval.
When in Laos, avoid public displays of affection.
Take off your shoes when entering a temple. Women should not have any physical contact with a monk.
Never make the mistake of stepping over people or food. In Laos, the feet are considered “dirty” and the head as “sacred”.
Their traditional greeting is via “wai” or “nop” and when you can master this, you are considered polite. This is a sign of respect for your peers or superiors and should not be used with children or waitresses.
What to pack for a Laos adventure
When you’re planning to visit Laos, here are a few things that you should definitely carry:
- Comfy footwear and lightweight – and light-colored – clothing
- Earplugs and eye mask for a good sleep
- Eco-friendly sunscreen and mosquito repellent
- Refillable water bottle
- Universal travel adaptor
- Unlocked mobile phone to use with a Lao sim card
- Dry pack if you’re planning to engage in water-based activities
What you need to do before traveling to Laos?
Now that you’re all set to visit Laos, you should get your Laos tourist visa. This visa can be extended to another 60 days through the Department of Immigration in Vientiane.
In case this is your first time visiting Laos and you have visited Vientiane, the ‘Sleeping Capital’, make sure to take a photo of Patuxai (a sort of Arc du Triomphe), visit the Buddha Park, learn about the secret war in the COPE Center, visit the Laos Textile Museum, explore Pha That Luang and make the most of your time in Luang Prabang, kayak Vang Vieng, bathe in the Blue Lagoon and visit the Plain of Jars in Xiang Khoang.
Laos movies and documentaries to watch before you go
Here is a list of Laos-based movies to watch:
- Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice (2015)
- Sabaidee Luang Prabang (2008)
- Love Is Forever (TV Movie 1983)
- Lost in Laos (2015)
- Chanthaly (2012)
- Dearest Sister – Nong Hak (2016)
- The Long Walk – Bor Mi Vanh Chark (2019)
- The Rocket (2013)
- The Betrayal – Nerakhoon (2008)
- At the Horizon (2011)
- Air America (1990)
- River (2015)
Enjoy your upcoming adventures in this wonderful country!