Laos backpacking tips: travel costs, things to do and see
Laos is a truly gorgeous country, it is a land of crawling broadband and pot-holed roads. Every time there is a thunder clap the electricity goes out so you better forget that fruit shake you just ordered, the blender is down! From the party haven of Vang Vieng to the little explored jungles of Luang Prabang Nam Tha, Laos has something for everyone. This is a country that requires time, the transport links are bad (for now) and it can take a whole day to get anywhere. Dawdle down cobble stone streets as you pass crowds of orange robed monks seeking alms outside brightly gilded Buddhist temples. Time does something strange in Laos, everything seems to slow down. There is little pressure from hawkers or touts and locals and backpackers alike wear a dreamy expression as they watch the countryside slip gently past from the seat of a bus or the deck of one of the Mekong’s legendary barges. Laos is one of South East Asia’s last tourism frontiers, take your time; this is a country worth exploring.
- Accommodation: Laos backpacking accommodation has been relatively limited until recently. Only Vientiene and Luang Prabang offer plentiful hostel choices, the rest of the time you will be looking at ramshackle guesthouses and quaint homestays. I highly recommend taking a mosquito net for Laos, although the situation is improving very few of the best value (cheap!) rooms have mosquito webbing over the windows and many of the walls are constructed with bamboo that leaves plenty of space for critters to crawl through!
- Food: Food is really quite cheap in Laos. In the touristey enclave of Vang Vieng it is possible to get pizza, pancakes and other western food for just a couple of dollars. Fruit shakes can be found all over the country, cost under a buck and are absolutely delicious.
- Transport: Transport in Laos can be very cheap if you opt to travel on local buses, more comfortable tourist buses are far more expensive but since many of these are sleeper buses you can save money on accommodation and so tourist buses should not be sniffed at. You need to haggle for cycle rickshaws and taxis but it’s cheaper to just walk everywhere. Hitching in Laos is relatively easy and a viable way to save money.
- Visas: You can easily obtain a visa upon arrival at the airport or at most border crossings, for UK citizens a 30 day visa currently costs $35. It is usual to tip a dollar, placed strategically inside your passport, for fast service.
- Activities: There is a huge range of activities available in Laos, from trekking and white water rafting to rock climbing and tubing; Laos has a lot to offer. Prices vary throughout the country but a well reputed activity provider is Green Discovery, they have offices all over the country and the staff are both knowledgeable and helpful. I found that the best way to have cheap adventures was to simply shoulder my pack and head off trekking into the hills.
Top Things to See and Do
- Vientiane: There are a few things to do in and around temple strewn Vientiane however I mostly used it as a stopover between other destinations.
- Tham Kong Lo Cave: If you visit one place in Laos make it this incredible cave. I was lucky enough to stumble across the cave before it was even in the Lonely Planet and it was an incredibly difficult journey to get there. I got there by going to Savannakhet and then catching a series of buses. Now I have heard that the cave has become a major stop on the backpacker circuit and that there is a direct bus from Vientiane. When you arrive at Ban Kong Lo, the village near the cave, you can stay in a local home-stay and the next day visit the cave and hire a boatman to take you through it. The entire cave is flooded and it is seven kilometers long making it one of the biggest caves in Asia. I would spend maybe two days here as besides the cave there is also some wonderful day hikes to do nearby.
- 4000 Islands and surrounding area: To get to the 4000 islands you must head towards Pakse, try not to actually stay in Pakse as there isn’t a lot to see. If you do end up staying in Pakse, the Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse is a good place to meet other travelers. From Pakse you should visit Tad Lo waterfall and stay in Tim’s Guesthouse where you can arrange elephant trekking as well as swimming near the local falls. From Tad Lo you can then head to Champasak (stay in Vong Phaseut Guest House) to visit some ancient ruins before heading onwards to Don Khon and Don Det where you should spend a couple of lazy days exploring the islands by bicycle.
- Vang Vieng: It’s a hell of a journey but Laos is an awkward shape and you will end up backtracking at least once unless you start in Luang Prabang (having crossed the border by boat from Thailand). From the 4000 islands head to Vang Vieng, you will probably have to change buses at Vientiane. I recommend spending at least four days in Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is the backpacker playground in Laos; this is the place where you can watch family guy all day whilst smoking a joint and eating banana pancakes. Many backpackers head to Vang Vieng for it’s legendary tubing. Tubing has become a major backpacker activity and Vang Vieng is where it all started; the idea is you sit in a giant tractor tire and float down the river, routinely stopping off at riverside bars. Recently many of the tubing bars have been closed down due too many stupid people diving onto rocks and dying whilst drunk. A couple of the bars will almost certainly be open so do not despair and do definitely go tubing. When tubing bear in mind that literally everything you take with you will get soaked. Do not lose your tubes or you will lose the ridiculously high deposit. I highly recommend going on a Kayaking and Caving day. If you have the time it is easy to find work on the bars where you will receive food, unlimited booze and perhaps five dollars a day. When you go tubing, many backpackers will get seriously drunk (and some may even be on shrooms!), you will have a great time but do try to be safe – people drown every year.
- Luang Prabang: Luang Prabang is an amazing city and it’s really cool to just wander around. I stayed in Mano’s guesthouse here as it was pretty cheap and in a good location. Find L’ Etranger Cafe, it shows films in the evenings and is a cool place to chill out. You should also definitely go to Hive Bar, its very atmospheric and there is volleyball. Make sure to visit the night market and search for souvenirs, this is probably one of the best places in all of S.E Asia to find good quality, relatively unique souvenirs. From Luang Prabang you can also arrange to head further north into the country towards Luang Prabang Nam Tha where you could check out the much talked about Gibbon Experience, I sadly couldn’t afford it. Luang Prabang Nam Tha is THE place in Laos to really get off the beaten track and discover jungles, mountains and remote tribal communities.
- Nong Khiaw: When I went to Nong Khiaw (2009) me and my buddy were the only backpackers around and had the whole village to ourselves. We stayed on the river in very cheap but really nice accommodation and spent a lot of time soaking in the atmosphere, the river is really beautiful and disappears into thick jungle. There is an incredible cave nearby which can be walked to and it is also possible to hike to outlying villages. When we went to the cave we made the mistake of climbing down a very rickety ladder into the final level of the cave, in my opinion this is not worth it. The cave is massive and there is plenty to explore without going down the ladder, getting back up that ladder was really rather terrifying. When I was in Nong Khiaw there was only one cafe in the whole of the town but it served the most amazing cheesy garlic bread, find it! It’s possible to arrange homestay experiences and to work in exchange for food and board in Nong Khiaw.
- Luang Prabang: From Nong Khiaw head back to Luang Prabang and book a flight to Vietnam or elsewhere to continue your travels. You could take buses out of Luang Prabang but the services to Vietnam take nearly two days and are very unreliable. If you have the time, I recommend hitching. Flights out of Laos are relatively expensive, they start at around seventy dollars.
South East Asia is hands down one of the easiest place to start your new life as backpacker; it’s cheap, safe and there is a hell of a lot of variety. Do yourself a favour though; travel to Laos, it’s just that little bit more off the beaten track and you will get so much out of stepping that little bit further out of your comfort zone.
Written by Will Hatton. This article originally appeared on thebrokebackpacker.com.