Laos – Country Guide

Kuang Si waterfalls, Laos

Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It can often be overlooked in favour of its neighbours such as Thailand or Vietnam, but is full of wonders of its own. It’s very laid back, has a devout Buddhist population and is one of the few remaining communist states in the world. In recent years it’s really started to come into its own as a popular backpacking destination. 

Getting there:

Slow boat Laos
The Slow Boat boarding area in Huay Xai

If you’re coming from the north of Thailand a popular way to enter Laos is to cross at Chiang Kong into Huay Xai.  You can then take the 2 day slow boat ride down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang.

Otherwise there are various other land crossing points from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. I’ve also read that there is one crossing point from China . There are also a few flights into the country which land at Vientiane, Luang Prabang or Pakse. These are generally from neighbouring countries and a few other big Asian cities.

Most countries are eligible to purchase a Visa on arrival in Laos when entering from Thailand, Cambodia or by air. But as always, check your won own nationalities rules in advance and be aware visa situations change.

Getting around:

Mini vans and local buses are a popular method of transport here.  Many of the hostels/guesthouses will offer tickets for these, and if not then there are plenty of tourist agencies that will. Once you’ve reached your destination tuk-tuks and songthaew’s (shared taxis) are the general way to get around. You can also catch night buses for the longer journeys, though they are cramped! Boat journeys are required for some places as well, for example Muang Ngoi Neua can only be reached by boat. It’s usually best to negotiate with the boat operators themselves.

Currency:

Lao kip can only be purchased or sold within Laos. So make sure you have exchanged unneeded currency before you leave! Some places, particularly in the tourist areas, will also accept US Dollars or Thai Baht. or at least be willing to exchange it, though you may not get a good rate.

Food:

They eat sticky rice with just about everything is Laos. It’s the staple of every meal! They have plenty of spicy Thai style cuisines, for example curries and papaya salad.  The national dish is Larb which is a mixture of spicy meat or fish served with vegetables. And sticky rice of course. Lots of places will do a vegetarian version with tofu. And when I say spicy I mean very spicy, be careful just how much spice you order!

There is also a whole host of great Indian restaurants in Laos. These restaurants serve some of the best Indian food outside of India itself, it really is that good.  These places are great for vegetarians, these Indian restaurants will have just as many veggie dishes on the menu as meat ones, if not more.

Look out for the remaining French influence too, baguettes are a popular option.

Restaurant sign in Laos
My favourite restaurant sign in Pak Beng!

Accommodation:

There are plenty of hostels in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane which you can book ahead for on sites like hostelworld.

Beyond those cities you will generally need to turn up and find yourself a bungalow or cheap hostel/guesthouse. In most places this is fine and there is loads of accommodation, though Pakse can be pretty booked out at times.

General advice:

I’d advise you allocate at least 3 weeks to explore Laos. Many people try to rush it in just a week or 2 but I feel you need a bit longer to get a real feel for the place.

There is a lot of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the country so be careful if you are remote areas without a guide. This is as a result of the ‘secret war’ in the country, which featured a heavy US bombing campaign during the time period of the Vietnam war. Read up on it on Wikipedia if you are curious.

Whilst you may come across some places that have a relaxed liberal attitude towards things like drugs and drinking Laos is a communist country and you should be mindful of the authorities. Discretion is key! Be alert to the dangers!

Bearing that last point in mind there is technically a curfew of midnight in Laos. What this generally means is that in all the big backpacker places all the bars except one will close at that time. The one that remains open has a ‘special licence’ of course.

Please don’t go on any rope swings whilst tubing in Vang Vieng. The river is shallow and full of rocks! The fact is people have died here, so don’t be stupid and risk yourself!

Suggested Itinerary

The ‘big 4’ places to visit are as follows:

These 4 destinations are the typical ones for the banana pancake trail. That is the term used for the usual stops for any backpacker touring around Southeast Asia.

Luang Prabang

Kuang Si Waterfall in Laos
Kuang Si Waterfall

This wonderful french influenced city is the main city in the north of Laos. For those coming on the slow boat from Thailand it’s the end stop and a good place to relax for a couple of days.  There is a large night market with an amazing vegetarian buffet and during the day there are plenty of temples to explore and cafes to relax in.

Make sure you venture out to the Kuang Si waterfalls which are pictured above. Take a songthaew to get out to there. It’s also an excellent base to go into the remote areas, see further entries below.

If you’re looking to socialise head to the Utopia bar. In the evenings it is packed with Backpackers and it’s very laid back.

Vang Vieng

2 hot air ballons flying above fields in Vang Vieng in Laos

Heavily associated with the backpacker party scene, Vang Vieng is actually a great place to both go wild and relax.

Its party fame comes from its tubing scene. Essentially backpackers float down the river for a while, stopping off at bars on the way. Evenings here see the (in)famous Sakura bar packed with drinkers. Gary’s Irish Bar is nearby if you want more of a pub atmosphere rather than a club one.  Some of the hostels focus heavily on the party too, so be sure to research where you book first! The town features some establishments that have a pretty relaxed attitude towards certain substances as well. Look out for the ‘space’ signs.

But beyond this it’s actually an amazing place just to chill out. The above picture was taken across the river. A very chilled out place to walk at sunset! Look for the hill with a flag, it’s a short climb and gives amazing views over the area. There are cafes in town that show Friends all day, (yeah the TV show!) so you can just sit around and unwind. And there’s some good spots by the river to relax with a drink or meal.

Vientiane

COPE visitor centre in Laos
COPE visitor centre

If you’re heading north or south or vice versa in Laos then you inevitability pass through the capital Vientiane. In truth there isn’t a great deal to do here, at least I didn’t think so anyway.

One must see is the COPE visitor centre that focuses on the horrors of the secret war and the injuries and deaths that all the UXO in Laos has caused. The pain Laos has suffered is often ignored by the rest of the world so I really recommend you go there and educate yourself.

There is a decent night market down by the river. You can often watch people there doing high energy aerobics which is quite a sight! Across the river is Thailand, in case you are wondering!

4000 Islands

Sunset in the 4000 island in Laos

Also know as Si Phan Don, this place is the ultimate relaxation spot. Its right in the south of the country, with great views of the Cambodia border. The islands are in the Mekong river, and you come here to laze in hammocks and on restaurants pillows for days on end.

Don Det is the backpacker island here, though Don Khon gets a good amount of people staying there too. The former has a couple of bars and a really great Indian restaurant. The latter has an awesome waterfall to check out. Most of the small restaurants/cafes on these islands are linked in with bungalows. The scenario being that the owners will have maybe 6 to 8 bungalows they rent out and then a chilled out space for food and drinks. Don Det has a path running around the whole island. When you arrive go left for the sunrise path. Go right for the sunset path. Personally I choose sunset as its better for relaxing in the evenings in a hammock!

You can see a small report and more photos here.

And if you have time add these places:

Many backpackers tend to just hit Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane, with a reasonable amount heading to the 4000 islands too. Hence I’ve listed these above as the ‘big 4’. I personally feel these people are really missing out as there is a lot more to see in the country. I’ve put a few suggestions below.

Muang Ngoi Neua / Nong Khiaw

Dusk in Muang Ngoi Neua, Laos
Muang Ngoi Neua

The very scenic small town of Nong Khiaw can be reached by minivan from Luang Prabang.  The journey takes about 4 hours on a very bumpy road. To get to Muang Ngoi Neua you will need to take an hour-long boat ride from Nong Kiaw. I have been trekking from there and it’s a really great experience. You can visit and stay with local mountain tribes. Very interesting to experience their culture and hospitality.

The towns themselves are very laid back. In truth the term ‘town’ is probably implying they are larger than they are, by western size terms they are basically villages.

If you really enjoy Laos remote north you can venture even further up to Phongsali. The road there is said to be pretty bad mind so be aware that in rainy season it might be too difficult. Luang Namtha is another city in the north that could be on interest to you.

Konglor

Cave entrance and pool at Konglor, Laos

This small village has a huge cave which is what attracts people to the area. You can take boat ride through the cave which is a very fun experience. Its 3 people to a boat and you are in pitch black, with only headlamps for light. Konglor village itself is really laid back with only handful of travellers staying there at any time. This gives it a really nice local vibe. Take a look at the farmers growing crops along the river and admire the surrounding mountain landscape.

Champasak

Khmer ruins in Champasak, Laos

This small town has a big french colonial influence and a pleasant laid back feel. It’s alongside the Mekong so has that sleepy riverside vibe. It also gets very few foreign visitors! Nearby are the ruins at Vat Phou. These are the largest Khmer ruins outside of Cambodia. You approach them via a lake and then pass through the columns above to reach the mountainside. If you arrive early enough you can just spend 1 day and night here, before moving on to the 4000 islands. The ruins only take an afternoon to see and the town itself is small and can be explored quickly.

You can read my diary entry about Konglor and Champasak here.

 See route on the map:

Other places

In addition to the above list I should highlight The Plain Of Jars too. It’s an interesting archaeological site that can be visited from Phonsavan. I haven’t been there yet and I know they have a problem with UXO in the area.

The Thakhek bike loop in central Laos is popular too if you can ride a motorbike. It’s generally 3 days and takes in Konglor on the way.

Savannakhet and Pakse are large cities that you might want to stay a night or 2 in to break up the long journeys in the south of the country.  Staying in Pakse will likely be required if you reach it at night-time coming from up north! In truth I’m not a fan of either city, I found them pretty boring.

If your planning to cross into Vietnam by land I have done so at Dansavan. You can reach it by local bus from Savannakhet. There is a guesthouse in the middle of the village. I stayed there and found it was very nice and the next day I walked across the border.  The border point was quick and easy, though on the other side it was the case of waiting for a minivan to turn up by a gas station! There are no English signs or anything and no apparent timetable for the minivans. Definitely somewhere you have to wing it!

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