It may have taken us 19 months of traveling, but we finally made it to Laos. Who can say why it took us so long to finally make it to this sleepy little country—we had heard such great things from so many people about it, and yet whenever logical travel plans would send us to Laos, we would always find ourselves scurrying off somewhere else. The country seems quite comfortable to slumber in the shadow of its brasher Asian neighbors, but finally it was time for us to visit and discover for ourselves what so many others before us had been raving about.
Known for its beautiful landscapes, laid back way of life, and dirt cheap prices, Laos has a well-earned spot on most backpacker’s itineraries for South East Asia. Despite this, there’s a fairly standard tourist trail, and much of the country remains unexplored. Stray at all from this path and you’ll find yourself with the place to yourself and plenty to discover. We weren’t quite as intrepid as we might have been during our time in the country, but we still learned quite a few things along the way that might help future travelers to Laos. If you’re looking for an in-depth run-down on the realities of traveling in Laos—from what to eat to a full budget breakdown revealing how much money we spent during our time there—this post is for you!
As the astute amongst you will have guessed, the official language of Laos is Lao (or Laotian). Striking dread into the hearts of tone-deaf language learners, Lao is a tonal language featuring six different tones. To make things even more difficult, Lao has its own dedicated script that will be illegible/unintelligible to individuals familiar with the Roman alphabet.
All is not lost, however! Lao is remarkably similar to Thai, so if you have spent any time traveling in its neighbor to the west, you may find some of the vocab you picked up there is of use. For example, to say hello in Lao, you say “sabaidee”; in Thai this is “sawadee ka/krup” (the latter choice dependent on your gender). Additionally, if you learn to count in Lao (always helpful for when asking prices or when ordering! Also, the numbers are really easy after you learn the first 10, so you’ve no excuse not to!), you’ll essentially be able to use those same numbers over in Thailand (the only difference we noted was with the number 20). We did our best to learn our standard repertoire of phrases and essentially paid no attention to tones and yet we never had any real difficulty making ourselves understood. Eventually we would exhaust our limited Lao and switch to English, and for this most part this was fine. In some of the smaller towns you will certainly find people who don’t speak much/any English, but this was the exception rather than the rule—generally anyone working in the service industry will speak enough English to understand you.
As for the writing element of the language, pretty much all signs involve English or, in the case of street signs, non-standard Romanization of the Lao so that they are legible to foreigners (though spelling will vary with each source you consult). I can’t recall us ever visiting a restaurant that didn’t have at least some English on the menu (or, at the very worst, pictures perfect for pointing). The only place we found a marked lack of English was at the bus station—tourist buses will generally have the destination written out so that you can read it, but some times the destinations were only written in Lao (and this will always be the case if you take a local bus or mini van). We would just ask a driver or at the ticket counter and all was well.
Food & Dining
We didn’t know all that much about Lao food before our arrival, although most of what we had heard from other travelers tended to suggest the food scene wasn’t very good or memorable. Anticipating another Cambodia, we were pleasantly surprised to find that by and large, the local food was very tasty. Although it was easy to find plenty of standard Vietnamese & Thai dishes, Lao cuisine definitely has its own flavor profile and we often delighted at dishes that tasted like a Thai-Vietnamese fusion.
It’s easy to find plenty of Thai dishes (like green curry) masquerading as Lao food, but two things that are distinctly Lao and easy to find pretty much everywhere? Sticky rice and larb. Best served together (though you’ll have to order each separately), you use the sticky rice as a utensil and squeeze up bits of larb and pop it into your mouth. (Most Lao food—with the exception of soup—is eaten with your hands.) Larb is a minced meat salad, that is liberally seasoned with fresh herbs, toasted rice powder, and plenty of chili. Traditional larb proteins are beef, pork, or duck, but you can go really adventurous and get ant eggs in some places or even get veggie options with tofu subbed in at more tourist-oriented joints. The larb we ordered in Savannakhet is one of the spiciest things we have ever eaten (or tried to eat, as the case was), so when they ask you if you want something spicy, proceed with caution. (It is worth noting that in more touristy destinations & restaurants, they will probably naturally tone down the spice. We asked for medium spice plenty of other times in places like Vientiane and Luang Prabang and it was nowhere close to what we were given in Savannakhet when we asked for “little spicy”.)
Another dish that’s fairly easy to find everywhere is papaya salad. This is another dish that you will probably have seen in Thailand, but the Lao version is slightly different. It is less sweet & vinegary, and definitely as a more pronounced “funky” flavor to it. This is due to the fermented fish sauce that is used to dress the salad; though it smells awful, it’s not an unpleasant flavor, giving the salad an earthier “umami” dimension.
Although street food can be found in Laos, it tends to be mostly of the “grilled meat on sticks” or “baguette sandwich” variety—more snacks than full meals. For the most part, we tended to eat our meals in proper restaurants (even if just local, hole-in-the-wall ones) rather than curbside.
For vegetarians: It was my impression that Lao food is not naturally very vegetarian friendly. However, every city we visited had at least one (and generally, far more) restaurant that clearly catered to tourists more than locals, and these invariably had several veggie options. There are always baguette sandwiches, although these tend to be stuffed with meat… but we also ate our fair share of Nutella slathered ones, and even saw a local kid get one drizzled with condensed milk. All to say you may have to eat in tourist restaurants rather than the cheapest local joints, but the benefit of this is that you will still be able to try local dishes prepared without meat rather than simply subsisting on sticky rice.
We found Laos to have the full gamut of lodging options, from budget backpacker digs to swanky high-end hotels; nearly all options were available everywhere we visited, though in some of the smaller cities, choices tend to skew a bit more towards the low & mid-range end of things.
Accommodation standards at the backpacker end of the budget spectrum were fine if not necessarily the best in their class. Rooms tended to be Spartan and clean albeit a little bit shabby and low on charm at times, but we never stayed anywhere horrifically grubby or soul-crushing. If you are willing to spend a little bit more, you can find some delightful places—highlights for us were bungalows found in Vang Vieng and on The Loop outside of Tha Khek, and the gorgeous boutique hotels of Luang Prabang. As is our general routine in Asia, we never pre-booked anywhere, we simply showed up and browsed until we found something to our liking; once again, this resulted in us being offered better prices than we would have found online. We did find that, for whatever reason, hoteliers in Laos were more reluctant to give multi-night discounts or deviate from the rack rates that were posted, but we did find places that would and generally the budget lodging was so cheap that it didn’t really matter if no additional discount was given. (Note: We were traveling in shoulder season.)
Laos has no trains, so your options for getting around will largely be limited to bus/mini van, plane, or private car/motorbike. Although internal flights will save you lots of time and will undoubtedly be the most comfortable means of covering large distances in the country, flying in Laos tends to be quite expensive (at least for budget travelers). Consequently, we stuck to the buses for getting from place to place (and realistically, you probably will too).
We had been warned that bus rides in Laos would be quite hellacious, particularly in the northern portion of the country. Think overcrowded vehicles filled with nauseated passengers on horrible winding roads. Maybe our time in Nepal hardened us, but we expected the worst here and found the buses really weren’t that bad… we even braved a 12+ hour ride from Luang Prabang all the way back to Vientiane! Some of the buses we rode were rather rickety (and in one instance, we rode in a minivan that was carpeted with bags of bolts…), but we found for short distances that these were fine if not excessively comfortable. Roads north of Vientiane did tend to be a bit bumpy, but again, it was far smoother riding than Nepal so we had no complaints. If you can, try to secure a seat near the front of the vehicle—the ride tends to be far smoother than at the back. We never experienced overcrowded buses or vans, and the only bus ride that featured pyrotechnic vomiting was the ride from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (miraculously, despite the number of hungover backpackers in the van out of Vang Vieng, there were no accidents!).
Overall, we felt that transport in Laos was generally not as nice as in Thailand and certainly more expensive, but as good (or perhaps slightly better) than Cambodia (though the roads are generally better in Cambodia) and of a similar cost.
Laos is a cheap country by pretty much any Westerner’s standards. We met plenty of travelers prior to our visit who crowed that Laos was their cheapest country in Asia.
Personally, we found that, although Laos was very cheap on certain fronts, it was more expensive in unexpected ways. We found we could keep our lodging costs down, even though this often meant taking basic no-frills rooms. Meals were also fairly cheap, however we found prices here more on par with Cambodia, and therefore more expensive than dining in either Thailand or Vietnam (even when sticking to local food). Part of this is probably because we ate in more restaurants rather than on the street, but this is also because food costs are generally just higher in Laos due to the need to import most items. Similarly, although we found the buses from point-to-point were priced fine (perhaps slightly more than they would be in Thailand), renting motorcycles was much more expensive in Laos than anywhere else in South East Asia.
The local currency is the Lao Kip (LAK) and pretty much all prices will be quoted to you in that (not U.S. dollars… except for your visa). Occasionally you might see things priced in both LAK and Thai Baht, but generally speaking, if you’re quoted a price in some other currency, you will be overpaying. We had no trouble getting money out from ATMs—every city we visited had plenty of them and nearly all of them accept foreign cards.
Connectivity & Communication
With the exception of when we were on The Loop in Thakhek, pretty much every city we visited in Laos had WiFi (in Thakhek, our hotel was supposed to have WiFi, but we could never ever connect… and on The Loop, one place we stayed had a computer with internet access for free, but it was via dongle & so slow as to be unusable). Speeds weren’t always great, but they were generally good enough to check email or do some research on your next destination, etc.,
We supplemented dodgy WiFi with 3G internet through Unitel. We had read that they offered the best coverage throughout the country, but we also noticed that Beeline was promoted quite heavily, so that might be an option. We wound up paying about $3US for the sim card itself, and then $5US gave us 1GB of data for 30 days. We sometimes had issues actually accessing 3G even within big cities, and we found it difficult to share the connection with our laptops (generally not a problem for us), but this tended to only be temporary and often waiting a few minutes or moving to a different location would solve the problem.
Laos By the Numbers
Total Number of Days Spent in Laos: 22
Places Visited: Savannakhet, Thakhek (+ The Loop), Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang
Total Number of Cities Visited: 5 (7 if you include The Loop)
Average Daily Cost, per person: $23.88US
Projected Daily Budget, per person: Based on numbers we took from guidebooks & other travel blogs when planning our trip, we anticipated spending about $18US per person. Going by this, we were over budget by about $5 per person. However, we totally forgot about this goal (which might have been realistic 4 years ago when I came up with that number, but probably isn’t as reasonable now…). Instead, if we went with our overall trip budget of $50/person then we were $26.22 (per person!) under budget!
Cost of bus from Hue, Vietnam to Savannakhet, Laos: $14.23US per person ($28.47US total)
Cost of 30-day visa: $40US for American Citizens; $42US for Canadian Citizens
Total Laos costs per person: $580.63US
(Note: We traveled in Laos during March & April 2014.)
A Note On Daily Costs: In our daily costs, we have separated out the cost of our transport into the country as well as any visa costs. We did this because we believe that including the price of getting into or out of a country results in a figure that does not accurately reflect our actual day-to-day costs. Moreover, not everyone will choose to enter the country in the same way or from the same departure point as we did, so we include the price we paid separately for your edification. We believe our Lodging, Food, Transportation, Attractions, and Miscellaneous Shopping costs are reasonable estimates that may be informative for other likeminded travelers; however, we believe the cost of our transportation into any country is best considered a separate lump sum expenditure, and we will continue to treat it as such.
(Also, the Miscellaneous Shopping category is one that many travelers fail to include, which we believe is shortsighted and misleading. Although it is true that on an extended trip you are unlikely to spend money on extravagant souvenirs, other unexpected but necessary expenses will crop up such as replacing toiletries and other daily necessities, or purchasing gear and helpful items that you may have forgotten or find you require. Although these costs are rarely extreme, (though they sometimes are!) it would be an oversight not to include them in your long-term travel budget. At some point on the road you will find yourself buying shampoo and deodorant… we hope!)
Accommodation: By sticking to backpacker options, we were able to keep our lodging costs extremely low in Laos. Note that we always had private rooms with private bathrooms, and generally this meant a hot water shower as well (we had one cold water shower when out on The Loop). Everywhere we stayed always offered WiFi as well, though it did not always work very well/at all. Generally we felt that lodging in Laos was acceptable value for money—the rooms weren’t always very attractive, but they were all clean and sufficiently comfortable.
We found Vientiane to be the most expensive city in terms of lodging—it was on the only place where we couldn’t really find anything private for less than $10US per person/night. Our cheapest city was Luang Prabang where we received a three-night complimentary stay, however, barring that, our cheapest city were the little no-name towns we stopped in on The Loop ($3US per person!).
For more information on the few places we stayed during our time in Laos, check out our Lodgings page.
Food: One of our main goals in visiting Laos was to learn about the food explore the local cuisine. We said from the start that we would spend a little extra on food if it meant that we ate well and enjoyed our gastronomic investigations. We didn’t really try to keep our food costs down in Laos, instead eating at places that appealed and ordering the items that we wanted. This meant eating at some slightly nicer restaurants aimed at making Lao food approachable to tourists; if we had limited our meals to markets and street stalls, we could probably have cut this number in half. Also, if we had stuck to just eating fried rice/noodles at every meal, this would have also kept our numbers down, but we didn’t want to do that. To be honest, we found that eating local didn’t tend to be much cheaper than eating western food in most cases… however, we still tended to eat Lao because we enjoyed the food. We tended to eat 2 meals per day.
Transportation: We moved around quite a bit in Laos, as evidenced by our relatively high daily average transport costs. Most journeys between cities that we took tended to average about $10US per person, however a few factors pushed up this category’s costs: our bike rentals on The Loop (which cost us $15US each per day, not including gas) and the VIP bus that we took from Luang Prabang to Vientiane which cost $20US per person (but was well worth it… it was a long journey and that was a nice bus!).
In most cases we found that buying our bus ticket at the bus station was the best way to ensure we got the absolute cheapest price—in many cases we could walk to the bus station, or the cost of a tuk tuk to reach it was still cheaper than the commission charged by agencies/guest houses. (One perk of buying your ticket through an agency is you will get picked up at your hotel.) The only place this did not seem to be true was in Vientiane where the cost of the mini vans to Vang Vieng seemed to be the same price as what we paid at the station directly. We didn’t pay much to take the public bus to reach the station, but in that instance, we would have been just as well to book at an agency. Still, it is nice to be able to see exactly what vehicle you’ll be getting on and what your money is getting you.
Attractions: One of the nice things about Laos is that it’s a country you can enjoy simply by being there and soaking in the ambiance. Of the 22 days we were in Laos, we only spent money on attractions on 7 of those (so, less than a third of our time!), because we were so content to simply wander and see whatever we could for free (or take in the countryside via motorbike).
On the occasions we did pay to visit attractions, these tended to be of the natural variety—swimming holes and caves—with a few wats thrown in for good measure too. Just be aware that Laos isn’t afraid of tacking on extra charges—one cave we visited had a parking fee, an entrance fee, and a separate tour/visit fee. None of these were horribly expensive, but they will add up. Also, be aware that when visiting some of the natural attractions like caves, you may have a “friendly local” tag along and do a half-assed guide job only to demand a fee at the end. Sure, you could probably refuse to pay it since it was for services you didn’t request, but we’ve found it’s simply better to nip these things in the bud from the get-go: if you don’t want a guide, stop them and say you’d prefer to explore on your own. They may talk quite a lot to prevent you from interjecting, but be assertive. If you do stick with a guide and they ask for a crazy fee at the end, feel free to haggle. We had someone ask us for $12US for about 20 minutes of guiding (in a cave that it was impossible to get lost in) even though we had only paid about $1.50 each to see the cave!
Highs & Lows
Best splurge: Our meal at Tamarind—the food was delicious and I learned a lot! It really showed me a different & very unique side to Lao food. (Steph); Renting motorcycles on The Loop—they were a little bit more expensive than I was anticipating, but they were pretty much brand new, very comfortable and very reliable. The countryside in that part of Laos was really beautiful & I always love riding a motorbike, so I’m glad we spent the money on this experience. (Tony)
Worst splurge: Our bus tickets from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. Let me be clear: I’m glad we got to take the fancy VIP bus, but we stupidly bought our tickets at a travel agency where we were each charged about $4US more for our tickets than we would have been had we purchased them at the bus station. Given that we had a motorcycle the previous day, we could have easily gone and picked them up ourselves. (Steph); We didn’t really splurge very much while in Laos, so I guess I’d agree with the bus ticket option. (Tony)
Best surprise: How tasty Lao food was! We had a few duds and not all of it was appealing, but I loved how fresh and light the larb salads were, and the ample use of fresh herbs was a great hold-over from Vietnamese food. We ate very well in Laos, mostly sticking to local food, even though I anticipated we would eat a lot of international food. (Steph); I was really blown away by how much I liked Savannakhet. I was really expecting it to be a nothing town, but I was sad when we decided to leave and still think it was my favorite place in the country! (Tony)
Worst surprise: This wasn’t a horrible shocker by any means, but I was a bit surprised at how difficult it was to find true budget lodging in Vientiane. I would have thought a capital city would have a greater variety of lodging options, but Vientiane skews high pricewise. (Steph); I guess it shouldn’t have actually been a surprise, but when the motorcycle rental lady turned into Greedy Granny over the broken shock, that was a nasty turn of events. Certainly the most unpleasant rental experience we’ve had in all of our travels, and I wasn’t anticipating it happening in Laos. (Tony)
Favorite meal: Obviously that meal at Tamarind in Luang Prabang. But close runner-up might be the food at the Organic Mulberry Farm in Vang Vieng… Or that soup in Savannakhet? So many choices! (Steph); If you’re claiming Tamarind, then I’ll name the Organic Mulberry Farm as my favorite. That satay! That mango sticky rice! That mulberry tea! So good. (Tony)
Least favorite meal: Probably the “traditional” soup I had in Vientiane that I dubbed “hot ham water”. It was watery and not very flavorful and totally forgettable. Plus I wound up hungry about an hour later! (Steph); If I had to pick a worst meal, I’d probably pick the ant egg larb that we had in Savannakhet. It was actually crazy delicious, but it was just way too spicy! (Tony)
Best memories: Discovering the ins & outs of Lao cuisine—a delicious exploration!; luxuriating in the peace and quiet of Savannakhet after busy, bustling Vietnam; riding The Loop and floating through miles of pitch dark while exploring Kong Lor Cave; Seeing all the wats and taking all the pictures in Vientiane; Witnessing the morning market & tak bat in Vang Vieng (& jumping out of a tree into the blue lagoon!); Visiting Kuangsi waterfall & the bear sanctuary in Luang Prabang
Hidden gem: To be honest, nearly anything that is not Vientiane, Vang Vieng, or Luang Prabang is generally overlooked by most travelers to Laos. We didn’t make too much of an effort to branch out and forge our own trail, but that said, hardly anyone goes to Savannakhet, and even fewer people spend as long as three days there. It has really no attractions of which to speak, but if you want to enjoy a laidback slice of Laotian life that hasn’t really been gussied up much for tourists, it’s a great place to do just that. Also, we really enjoyed our time wandering around the market there—the people genuinely seemed to get a kick out of us and it was great photography playground.
Best Lessons Learned: Our time in Laos was fairly drama free and didn’t have too many revelations attached to it, but probably the biggest lesson we learned was regarding motorbike rentals: you generally get what you pay for, so don’t pick the cheapest bike from a random shop and expect things to turn out ok. They very well might be fine, but if anything does go wrong (and surely the chances will be higher that they will), you’re probably in for an unpleasant few hours and a lot of hassle. After months of smooth rentals in Asia, we got complacent and we shouldn’t have. (For more about this particular lesson, read Tony’s account of our motorcycle drama here.)
If we could do it all over again?
In some ways, we only scratched the surface in terms of available destinations in Laos: there’s the entire north and eastern portion of the country to explore, and we didn’t make it down to the southernmost reaches where the 4,000 islands rest. And yet, we both left Laos feeling intensely satisfied with what we had seen and done—the five destinations we visited gave us a good taste of the country and we left feeling we had had our fill. We had more time on our visas and could have stayed to explore more, but the truth is is that we felt done and ready to move on. No regrets.
With that said, we wouldn’t change the itinerary we wound up with, because we can’t think of how we could improve upon it, really. Maybe we would have spent a few extra days being lazy in Savannakhet, but that’s about it. If we were to ever head back to Laos, we’d probably start in Luang Prabang and rent a bike there and do a loop through the northern reaches of the country—maybe that would allow us to find some corners of the country that felt different from the rest of what felt to be a very homogenous nation. Then again, maybe not, but it would be one heck of an adventure!
The Bottom Line
We enjoyed our time in Laos well enough, but we did not fall head over heels in love with the country as many have before us. We enjoyed exploring the food and we saw some very pretty things during our visit, and it’s certainly true that there is nowhere else in South East Asia that is quite like Laos. The torpor about the place is so striking and different from the bulk of Asia, it’s a bit befuddling to think that a place like Laos still manages to exist in the world. There certainly was a charm to be found in the extreme laissez-faire approach to life, but we also found ourselves rather bored with the country after a while. Nothing about it really grabbed us, and it seemed like every place we visited offered more of the same, and eventually we found ourselves thinking that Laos is the perfect place for people who like to do as much of nothing as possible. But we are not those people. We like to be busy, we like to be out adventuring, and so it only seemed fitting that we eventually became tired of a place that seems to be perpetually napping. In a weird way, Laos was a country of diminishing returns for us—we liked each destination we visited just a little bit less than the previous one, and we didn’t feel like seeing more places enriched our experience very much. Although the country was cheap by pretty much anybody’s standards, we felt that neighboring Vietnam and Thailand were better value for money and more our speed. We don’t regret our time spent there and certainly found a lot to enjoy, but Laos wasn’t quite the right fit for us in the end. However, if you are looking for a destination with plenty of natural beauty where life moves a whole lot slower and you can feel guilt-free for doing absolutely nothing at all all day long, then Laos may well be the perfect place for you!