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, Backpacking Laos offers something for everyone and Laos remains one of my favourite countries in Asia.
Laos is a country that requires time; everything seems to slow down here, people are not in a hurry to get anywhere. Dawdle down cobblestone streets as you pass crowds of orange robed monks seeking alms outside brightly gilded Buddhist temples. 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.
Table of Contents
- Arriving into Laos
- Travelling Around Laos
- Hitchhiking in Laos
- Entry Requirements for Backpacking Laos
- What to wear in Laos
- Accommodation in Laos
- Money in Laos
- Where to go in Laos
- Must Try Experiences in Laos
- Best Time to Travel to Laos
- Food in Laos
- Laos Hospitality
- Backpacking Travel Costs in Laos
- What to pack for Laos
- Top Tips for Broke Backpackers
- Backpacking Laos for Free
- Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll in Laos
- Being a Responsible Backpacker
- Useful Apps To Download Before Backpacking Laos
- Books to Read in Laos
- Staying safe in Laos
Arriving into Laos
Many of you, like me, will begin your backpacking Laos adventure by crossing the border from Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia. Hopping the border overland is easy, quick and visas can usually be arranged on arrival. I have entered Laos from both Vietnam and Thailand. For a South East Asian country, Laos is relatively well organised on the border and I’ve picked up visas on arrival a total of three times now without any problems.
The most cost effective way to cross the border is usually by local bus but you can also catch tourist buses, which are more comfortable and have better connections – e.g. Bangkok to Vang Vieng. If you have hitched a ride to the border, you can simply walk across and arrange onwards transport on the other side.
If you are planning on flying to Laos, it’s likely you will land in Luang Prabang or Vientiane. The likes of Air Asia and Tiger Air are your cheapest option to fly into Laos from within Asia. If you are travelling to Laos on an international flight, you can get great deals with Vietnam Airlines via Ho Chi Minh and Etihad via Abu Dhabi and Bangkok to Vientiane or Luang Prabang.
Travelling Around Laos
Backpacking Laos using public transport is an adventure in itself! There is a lot of really cheap local transport around in Laos but some of the buses and (barely water-worthy) barges are truly ancient and accidents are not uncommon. You can book comfortable AC buses in advance here.
Something strange happens with time in Laos; seemingly short rides can take hours as tired vehicles slow to a crawl in their uphill battle against muddy, mountainous roads. But don’t let this put you off, I met the best people while travelling around Laos on a bad bus ride. The scenery is truly spectacular as well so you will have plenty to keep you entertained!
Travelling in Laos by bus is getting more organised. Rather than just rocking up at the bus stop in the hope they will have space to fit you on, you can now book tickets in advance for most of South East Asia using 12Go
Hitchhiking in Laos
Hitching in Laos is relatively easy and a viable way to save money. The main highway, Route 13, stretches from Luang Prabang to the Cambodian border and is a popular hitchhikers route. Make sure you hit up the highway in daylight hours, no one will see you in the night and drivers can be mental once the sun goes down! Away from the main highway stretch, expect short lifts as cars and tourist buses become less frequent. Hitchhiking is a great and popular way to get around when backpacking in Laos. The local people are friendly and many backpackers in Laos hitch so you shouldn’t run into to much surprise from drivers.
Entry Requirements for Backpacking Laos
Laos, like it’s neighbours is easily accessible for the majority of nationalities. Most of us will be able to get our visas on arrival, whether that is by land, boat or plane the process is the same. On arrival typically you will receive 30 days to travel and explore Laos which is usually long enough to get a taste of Laos. The visa on arrival costs roughly $35 so make sure to have cash on you!
Entering by land make sure to have at least two passport sized photos with you, proof of some kind of onward travel (even if it’s a flight home from another country) and $35. If you’re planning to stay longer than thirty days in Laos, you can extend your visa easily at the consulate in Vientiane. It only costs an additional $2 a day, nothing really compared to the ten dollars a day you’ll be charged if you illegally overstay your visa….
Once through immigration and visa clearance, Laos is a beautiful place to go backpacking and relatively safe. You will fall in love with the people and the culture fast, thirty days can go very quickly when you’re having fun and, if you have the time, it’s worth planning for more than thirty days backpacking in Laos.
What to wear in Laos
Unlike its neighbours, Laos does not have a huge party scene; in other words, dressing like you’re going to one is not the best idea. Backpacking Laos is like going back in time, to South East Asia before tourists. The people of Laos are extremely spiritual and religious and they believe heavily in respect and modesty. While it’s unlikely you’ll encounter problems from the locals in general, this can change when you try to enter any religious site and aren’t dressed appropriately. And there’s a lot of them in Laos! Avoid wandering around shirtless and girls, keep your boobs out of sight. Dress casually but try to keep your shoulders covered, cleavage away tops on and over the knee pants or skirts when entering any religious sites.
Accommodation in Laos
The increasing number of backpackers travelling to Laos means hostels are beginning to pop up all over the place. Standards of hostels in the tourist areas such as Luang Prabang and Vientiane are improving and there are some cool places to stay where you can meet other backpackers in Laos. Out in the boondocks, change comes more slowly (and it’s mostly local guesthouses that are available) but finding accommodation is much simpler; you’ll basically have two options and they will be within walking distance of each other!
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!
Hostel Accommodation: At only around five dollars for a night in a dorm, or ten dollars for a double room. Hostels are super cheap options in the city and often close to good bars, sites and street food!
Hotel Accommodation: For not much more than the price of a hostel you can upgrade to a private room in a guesthouse. Or if you fancy treating yourself, backpacker style, basic hotels are all over the place in the tourist areas.
|Luang Prabang||Kounsavan Guesthouse||Awesome value for money. Free swimming pool, locker, breakfast + coffee & tea flow all day long. They organize daily tours, cheap motorbike rental & are located conveniently. |
|Vang Vieng||Real Backpackers Hostel||Located in the town center, walking distance to all the major places in town. Has a pool table & awesome common area that’s great for socialising. |
|Vientiane||Dream Home Hostel||The hostel has a very chilled vibe & a pool! The common area is great for socialising & making friends over a game of pool. |
Money in Laos
Lao Kip; sounds like you’re going to take a nap in the middle of the day but no, this is the national currency of Laos. And wow, do you get a Bang for your buck! Broke backpackers try not to hyperventilate when exchanging currency to Backpack Laos…. $20 = 161,995.79 Lao Kip! To put this into perspective, one beer in Laos is around eight thousand Laos Kip. That’s a lot of beer!
Exchanging your money in Laos is best done in the Airport of Luang Prabang or Vientiane or of course, the cities themselves. US dollars are easily exchanged and welcomed. ATMs in Laos are found more frequently now in the major cities and tourist areas, but many of these, charge pretty insane withdrawal fees so it’s advisable to avoid small ATM transactions and get out a bunch of cash at once – just make sure you hide it well. If you need to transfer money internationally, use Transferwise, it’s the fastest and cheapest way to move money around when travelling.
Once leaving the tourist trail your best option is definitely cash. You will find it pretty impossible to get to an ATM in the countryside and the small pop up shops on the side of the road will not accept your card. Take enough cash for what you’re planning to do, but you should always have some emergency cash hidden on you and I’ve written an entire post on the best places to hide your money. If you want to carry a fair bit of cash safely on your body, your best bet is to get hold of a backpacker belt with a hidden security pocket.
Where to go in Laos
For a capital city, Vientiane is incredibly quiet and is more like a collection of small villages than a bustling city. The small town feel offers a nice chilled out pace of life; wander the streets and explore some of the beautiful grande monuments and temples. Thanks to the increase in tourism there are some wicked places to stay and in the last few years, even a shopping mall has popped up. I stayed at the Dream Hostel 2 for only five dollars a night, it was a good place to meet other backpackers to go for a beer with.
When in Vientiane check out the cities oldest temple, Wat Sisaket. Constructed by the king in the early 1800’s the monastery was a site for ceremonies for lords and nobles to swear loyalty to the king. This temple is also an incredible work of art, the murals and Buddha carvings are beautiful. You’ll easily spend a few hours wandering around here.
I wouldn’t spend more than two days in Laos Capital, Vientiane. It’s a great place to base yourself before catching a bus to explore the rest of the beautiful country.
Backpacking Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is the main backpacker playground in Laos; this is the place where you can watch family guy all day whilst smoking a joint and eating banana pancakes. For the journey to be worth it – and to enjoy all those banana pancakes – stay at least four days here. From Vientiane to Vang Vieng travel by bus! The four hour journey will take you through some awesome scenery, I can guarantee you will end up backtracking at least once unless you start in Luang Prabang.
Many backpackers head to Vang Vieng for its legendary tubing. Tubing has become a major backpacker activity and Vang Vieng is where it all started. If you don’t know what tubing is; basically you sit in a giant rubber ring and float down the river. The only difference, you’ll be pulled into riverside bars for shots and beers! It’s fucking awesome! Thanks to a few too many stupid drunks many of the bars have been closed down and health and safety has moved in. This doesn’t mean it’s no longer awesome, it’s just much more chilled out! However, you’ll still come across the drunk and mushroom happy floaters; use your own judgement to stay safe – drownings happen pretty much every year….
Top Tip: Don’t take your phone, passport and wallet; literally everything you take with you will get soaked. One last thing, keep a hold of your tube or you will lose the ridiculously high deposit.
Don’t fancy floating down the river with a beer and want something more adventurous? Kayaking is awesome in Vang Vieng; explore the river, head into the limestone caves and the rugged krusts. It is a great day trip and relatively chilled! There are plenty of companies to choose from in Vientiane so haggle for the price and enjoy!
If you’re short on money and need to make a quick buck, finding work in Vang Vieng is easy! Work the bars; you are likely to get food, unlimited booze and perhaps five dollars a day. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me! Check out Real Backpackers Hostel in Vang Vieng, it is freaking cool hostel! You’ll meet heaps of backpackers up for a good time here.
Backpacking the Four Thousand Islands
Si Phan Don, better known as the Four Thousand Islands is found in the South, just above the border of Cambodia. But Laos is landlocked, how can there be islands? Well, the Islands have formed thanks to the complex river system of the Mekong River. Take a boat tour on the river and visit the villages and inhabitants on the islands and experience traditional Laos culture. Thanks to the isolation the river brings these villages, they are relatively untouched by modern influence. Learn the culture and how involved these communities are with ecological awareness and conservation; if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll spot the rare freshwater Dolphin!
A visit to the 4000 islands is not complete without stopping as Asia’s highest waterfall, the Khon Phapheng and Somphamit waterfalls, otherwise known as Li Phi Falls.; they are breathtaking. Once you’ve had enough of swimming and staring at the falls, head to the island of Don Khon you’ll find the ghostly remains of an incomplete railroad. China abandoned the build once the discovery of the falls was made in the nineteenth century; it created a bit of a natural barrier. The Four Thousand Islands would definitely not be the same if the Chinese had continued with the railway…
To get to the 4000 islands head towards Pakse, I wouldn’t stay in Pakse as there isn’t a lot to see. Base yourself in the small island of Don Khong. Chill out on this island and explore a beautiful collection of quaint villages and ancient temples. There are heaps of accommodation options here but I would recommend stopping by Don Khong 1 Guesthouse.
Backpacking Tad Lo Village
Want some rest and relaxation? A slower pace of life or just to recoup before heading on to backpack Laos some more; then Tad Lo is perfect. Such a chilled vibe with some awesome hikes surrounding the village. If you find yourself here, chill for a couple of days and definitely head to the Tad Lo Waterfall. Made up of three waterfalls Tad Hang is the first set of falls you see upon arrival. It is the smallest and gentlest of the three, providing the best opportunity for taking a dip and enjoy a beer.
Top Tip: Be warned—and this applies to all the falls—a dam is released every day around 16:00 causing the water to sharply rise. You need to be well clear of the water before then.
Champasak is incredible, almost totally off the tourist trail you’ll struggle to bump into another backpacker here! The town of Champasak is historic and charming, lined with decaying colonial buildings which were once home to the royals sit side by side with wood-shuttered Chinese shophouses and traditional wooden homes. You can tell the locals are proud of the history and beauty of the old buildings as many of the modern homes mimic the style. The only difference is they are painted in bright cheerful colours. Spend the best part of the day exploring this island and the ancient buildings before chilling out in Vongpaseud Guest House.
If you have found yourself in Champasak it is likely you are looking for Wat Muang Kang (or Wat Phuthavanaram). Champasak’s oldest running temple, it sits on the banks of the Mekong and is home to many Monks in the area. This is not a major tourist area, it’s so surreal to wander through a working temple with no other tourists. Incredibly refreshing and I would get here before the crowds do come!
Backpacking Tham Kong Cave
If you visit one place in Laos, make it this incredible Tham Kong Lo Cave. I first heard about this place on the backpacker grapevine when sharing a beer with a motorcyclist explore Laos, he told me of a massive cave hidden in a valley of limestone Karsts and guarded by a village of friendly locals. Without a motorbike, my journey to this place took a whole day and involved seven different vehicles, nobody seemed to understand where I was trying to go. But now, Tham Kong Lo Cave is a lot easier to get to since Lonely Planet covered it and regular buses started running from Vientiane to Ban Kong Lo, the village near the cave.
Spend the night with the locals in a homestay, enjoying some local delicacies and swapping stories. Wake up early and hire a boatman to take you through the seven kilometre flooded cave. It is incredible and if you can avoid high tourist season, so quiet! I would spend maybe two days here as besides the cave there is also some wonderful day hikes to do nearby, or pack your camping hammock & stay the night for free! For those backpacking Laos and craving adventure and culture, this is definitely one of the places to do it.
Backpacking Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is one of those cities that you don’t get bored with. Luang Prabang is beautiful and just wandering the streets and exploring is an awesome way to spend the day! The strict building code, drawn up by UNESCO, keeps it from becoming another modern architectural nightmare without turning it into a museum. Spend half a day taking a walking tour of the town to find hidden treasures before checking into Souk Lan Zang Hostel a quality place to meet other backpackers.
Spend some time in the Old Town of Luang Prabang, a ‘historic preservation’ zone declared by UNESCO it’s almost as if you have stepped back in time. Climb Mount Phousi before the sun comes up, take some coffee and wait for an incredible sunrise over the Ancient Kingdom… there is not much of a better way to start your day!
The city of Luang Prabang is absolutely gorgeous…
Wat Xieng Thong is a temple not to be scored off on your backpacking Laos adventure. If you don’t see any temple in Laos or Asia for that matter, check this one out. Otherwise known as the Golden City Monastery built in 1560 by King Setthathilat this temple is a complete work of art. Even if you don’t go inside, wandering the temple grounds early in the morning before the rush of tourists arrive is awesome.
Luang Prabang Nam Tha: Often a starting point for those Backpacking Laos and hoping to enter into the Northern Hilltribes. Although the town itself offers no more than a rural village with a few guesthouses, those seeking off the beaten track adventures will make it here. As well as hiking into the Northern Hilltribes mountain biking is popular among backpackers travelling Laos. You’ll often get a map of the area and neighbouring towns when you hire a bike, so go off and explore!
If you want to get back in touch with nature, you can’t leave here without trying the Gibbon Experience, I sadly couldn’t afford it. But from what I’ve heard – and enviously looked at – it’s freaking awesome and I’m definitely trying it out on my next visit!
Backpacking Nong Khiaw
Nong Khiaw is a rustic town on the bank of the Ou River in Laos, squeezed in between some of the most fantastic limestone mountains north of Vang Vieng. It is unlikely you will bump into any other backpackers while here, I certainly didn’t! Stay at the rustic Nam Ou River Lodge to prepare for your trek! Nong Khiaw attracts those looking for some rural, raw adventure in the form of caves. The Pha Tok Caves, are set high in a limestone cliff accessed via steep concrete steps. You’ll have to pay a small amount to enter the caves and you should take a headtorch. You don’t need a guide to explore these caves, they are big and beautiful but easily navigated. The caves themselves were once used to house villagers and Pathet Lao fighters during the Second Indochina war… Pretty freaking cool!
Must Try Experiences in Laos
Floating down a river drinking a beer: Vang Vieng may not be as wild as it used to be, but there’s still a very cool party scene here! Float down the river, catch the ropes and pull yourself to the bar to grab a local cold one.
Stuffing your face with street food: A trip to South East Asia is never complete without thoroughly stuffing your face with the food. Laos is no exception; the food is awesome and super cheap! As always, head to the stalls with queues, no one ever queues for bad food; only delicious food!
Stay with a local: Accept the offer to stay with a local in the rural areas, there is no better way to truly immerse yourself in the culture and make some incredible friends. Laos people are incredibly friendly and love to get to know those backpacking Laos, so share your story!
Hand out Alms to Monks: Whether you see or participate; the Alms giving ceremony is highly important to the locals and they encourage travellers to get involved! Be respectful if you are, buy the food in advance and arrive early, it’s deemed disrespectful to disrupt the ceremony. It is incredibly beautiful and a great way to give back while you travel Laos.
Go Caving: Laos has some pretty awesome caves to explore, so adventurous backpackers rejoice! Some of my favourites I checked out while backpacking Laos were the Tham Kong Lo Cave, one of the biggest cave systems in Asia which can be easily explored on your own without a guide! The Pha Tok Caves should definitely be on your list, they are so far off the tourist trail it is likely you will be the only backpacker there! If that doesn’t attract you I don’t know what will.
Best Time to Travel to Laos
Laos is often thought of as this small landlocked country in the middle of Asia. But it is actually bigger than you think, big enough that the weather in the North is completely different to the season in the South! This can make it hard to figure out the best time to Backpack Laos.
So Amigo’s let me help you with that by breaking down the weather in Laos…
Lowland Laos (November – January): The best time of the year to visit the lowlands is in these months. The temperatures during the day are comfortably warm, with chillier evenings but beautiful green scenery thanks to the recent rain fall.
Lowland Lao (Feb – April): The temperatures are starting to climb and it is increasingly more humid in the day and the evenings. If you like hot climates with the humidity giving you a good excuse to swim in the rivers; this is a great time of year.
Highlands of Laos (November – January): Pretty chilly up in the mountains, temperatures can drop as low as freezing at this time of year! Perfect for those wanting to hike without many people around… just bring warm clothes!
Highlands of Laos (February – April): Like the lowlands, the temperature is increasing, but comfortably. The lowlands will be hot and humid whereas the highlands at this time will be equally as hot, but not nearly as humid. At this time of year, the highlands become more popular with tourists escaping the humidity.
Burning Season (March – May): Okay, so I’ve kind of made this name up. But basically starting in March, farmers will begin burning their land to ready it for the upcoming monsoon. This happens mostly in the northern areas even Luang Prabang and means that cloud you see, is actually smoke. Not ideal time of year for those visiting for awesome picture and can make travel in the North uncomfortable.
Monsoon Season (May – September): When it rains in Asia, it really rains. Transport leaves the roads – as they get washed away – and turns to the rivers. Water taxis, ferries and locals will use the rivers to travel around Laos which are now high with flood water.
Food in Laos
I love Asian food and Laos does not disappoint. It is said that Laos has some of the most unique food in Asia, and they also eat more sticky rice than anywhere else in the world! Crazy, but with good reason; it’s freaking delicious! Street food stands and restaurants are filled with the local delicacies, but what to choose? Well Amigos let me share some of my favourite foods in Laos;
Khao Niaw (Sticky Rice): If you manage to travel through Laos without trying sticky rice. Just wow. This can be served with your savoury meal or sweet with fruit and ice cream! Roll it into balls with your fingers and enjoy!
Tam Mak Houng (Spicy Green Papaya Salad): So refreshing after a hot and humid day to tuck into this fresh, spicy and sweet salad. Made using five fresh ingredients, which are mixed with hot chilli, sour lime, salt, fish sauce and sugar. Honestly, so freaking good!
Ping Kai (Grilled Chicken): Basically the best BBQ chicken or Sunday Roast in the world – sorry mum! They take a whole chicken, marinate it in black pepper, garlic, coriander root, fish sauce and salt and is then cook on hot coals. Yum!
Larb (Laap, Larp or Lahb): A must try when in Laos! Laap is made with chicken, beef, duck, fish, pork or mushrooms; flavoured with lime juice, fish sauce, and fresh herbs. It’ll be served with the staple, sticky rice and sometimes raw veggies. I ate SO much of this while backpacking Laos!
French Inspired Food: Yep, beautifully stuffed baguettes in the middle of Asia. Well, it’s not a surprise as Laos was colonised by the French for sixty years, something rubbed off. These delicious sandwiches are popular in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Stuffed with pork pate, assorted greens and jeowbong (chilli paste), is sold everywhere as a quick snack.
You’d think with the history the Lao people have suffered (Laos was extensively bombed during the Vietnam War by American forces) they would be a little iffy towards outsiders. Think again, people of Lao are without a doubt, some of the most friendly I have ever met. Throughout your travels, it is likely Lao people will invite you to join them for a meal or to celebrate a birth or marriage. This is a massive privilege, and you should definitely go! It’s polite to join and to accept at least one drink. The best thing about this though is it gives you the opportunity to meet the locals, live and interact with them.
Lao people are extremely curious about you and enjoy hearing your stories just remember, though, that Laos is a Buddhist country and so it’s important to dress and behave in a way that is respectful. On that note, feet are considered to be dirty so don’t step on/over people or touch people with your feet. Also, it’s considered rude to touch someone on the head, especially monks; old or young.
Backpacking Travel Costs in Laos
You can backpack Laos for as little as $15 a day. More if you want a fancy cocktail rather than a beer or a day trip up the river. Stick to cheap guest houses, good street food and local buses rather than flights or tourist buses and you shouldn’t spend more than forty dollars a day.
Average room cost: $3 – $7 per night for double with fan!
Average Meal Cost: $1 – $5
Long Distance Coach: $3 – $10
Entrance to a site cost: $0 – $5
Price of a beer: $1.50 – $3!
On every adventure, there are five things I never go travelling without.
1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
2. Pocket Blanket: This lightweight, waterproof, super compact pocket blanket is a must for all adventures. Doubling up as an emergency poncho, this picnic blanket is worth it’s weight in gold when chilling, or camping, on the beach. It comes with a carabiner, a secret zipped pocket where you can hide stuff and pocket loops which you can weigh down using stones.
3. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if needs be.
4. Headtorch: I would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, a decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).
5. Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colourful and tough.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
Top Tips for Broke Backpackers
Stay with a local: Accept the invitation and spend some time with the locals. Listen to their stories and accept the bed, couch or floor that they offer. Not only does it save you money, but you’ll have an unforgettable experience! If you’re heading off on some far-flung adventures, take a tent.
Eat the street food: Nothing better, cheaper or more fresh than Laos street food! They have everything from traditional Asian yumminess to fresh french baguettes stuffed with spicy goodness. Your stomach and wallet will be so happy.
Hitchhike: The locals are super friendly and not new to backpackers. It doesn’t take long to get a ride, most are short rides but can often be more comfortable than the local buses. Just make sure to let them know you’re trying to hitchhike and have no money before you hop in…
Haggle: C’mon my friends, get your haggle game on! It may seem cheap to you but what they are charging you is definitely more than the locals pay. Be respectful and enjoy, it is super fun and you’ll bag some awesome bargains!
Volunteer: If done properly, volunteering is an excellent way to cut down your costs on the road. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board.
First time backpacking Laos? Check out this awesome guide to help you pack for the adventure!
Backpacking Laos for Free
Perhaps one of the best options for backpackers wanting to explore Laos long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country is to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Alternatively, if you want to find a cheap way to stay in this incredible country for as long as possible, check out Workaway – for just $29 a year you get access to literally thousands of projects around the world where you can volunteer in exchange for food and accommodation.
Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll in Laos
Believe it or not, Laos was home to one of the wildest party areas in South East Asia a few years ago. Thanks to Alcohol being readily available throughout Laos it’s easy to have a shindig – the local beer is awesome by the way and so cheap! It was only a matter of time before Laos hopped on the party scene. Van Vieng was home to the infamous tubing, bar hopping and drunk zip lines over the Nam Song River. Back in 2011, this place was jumping and completely wild! So wild that unfortunately, a number of people died. Since then, the situation in Vang Vieng is much more controlled and relatively, sensible? Bar crawling, tubing and zip lining are still available but it’s a bit more chilled now.
Drugs in Laos are pretty fucking illegal but easily found! Ganja is easy to find but it’s illegal to smoke it. Backpackers tempted by a cheeky smoke, if caught by police will risk substantial “fines”, police do not need a warrant to search you or your room by the way! Like it’s neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, there have been many instances of locals selling foreigners marijuana and then telling the police. In Vang Vieng, mushrooms and weed are offered at most backpacker bars often baked into a dizzying array of “happy” pizzas – Consume pizza at your own risk! Check out Blazed Backpackers 101, for tips on how to stay safe whilst getting fucked up!
Being a Responsible Backpacker
Writing your name in black marker on temples, chugging your beer Laos while shirtless, swearing loudly and visiting unethical animal attractions? You Sir, are a twat. Luckily, most backpackers don’t fall into this category but, when you’re out and about and have had a few too many drinks, it can be easy to embarrass yourself. It’s easy to get carried away in South East Asia, everything is so damn cheap and so much fun. I’m in no way the perfect traveller; I’ve been the drunken idiot on the street. I know first hand just how hard it is to be the one person in a group to say no when somebody comes up with a stupid idea that, for some reason, everybody is down for.
By no means am I telling you not to drink, smoke and party. Do it and love it. Just don’t get so drunk you turn into an imbecile your mum would be ashamed of. If you can’t handle drinking buckets, then stick to beer. If you want to see Elephants, then go and see them but do your research first. Look up ethical animal sanctuaries such as The Elephant Jungle Village in Luang Prabang, who treat and care for animals properly. Don’t ride elephants. If you’re not into seeing the temples, no worries but don’t be disrespectful, inappropriate or deface them – certainly, do not try to wander in shirtless.
Wear a helmet when you hop on a motorbike in Asia. Despite being an experienced driver, I’ve had a total of three crashes in South East Asia over the last ten years. On the one occasion, I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I split my head open and had to go to the hospital. It was an expensive mistake. The local people are sick of scraping foreigners off the road and, trust me, you don’t look cool for not wearing a helmet.
Humans are humans; treat people you meet along the way with the same respect you would show your friends and family back home. You are not superior to anyone including the girls/guys walking the streets. Sex workers in South East Asia are people like you and me; they may enjoy what they do, or they may be on the darker side of it. Regardless of your beliefs and thoughts on prostitution, remember this is another person with thoughts, feelings and a life outside of the sex industry too. You are not superior to these people, you just happen to be from a more privileged background.
Go to Asia and have the time of your life, do the things you’ve dreamed of but be respectful along the way. Travelling the world makes you an ambassador for your country, which is awesome. We can make a positive impact on people when we travel and get rid of any ugly stereotypes that may be associated with your country…
Useful Apps To Download Before Backpacking Laos
XE Currency – My go-to currency app when travelling, you will definitely need this when travelling Nepal. If not, you have some fantastic maths skills! A great way to keep track of how much your spending and understanding the exchange rate.
Google Translate – This app helped me out BIG time! Especially when exploring the rural areas not yet blessed with English signs. Working offline you don’t have to worry about a huge data bill. It won’t necessarily help you learn the language but it’s great for practical and quick day to day scenarios.
Maps.Me – The most useful app you will ever download. Download the full map of the country before you go and use it offline while you backpack and Trek Nepal. No data used and minimal amount of time getting lost means more time for fun stuff!
HIDE.ME – I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide.Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.
Books to Read in Laos
The Backpacker Bible – Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income. Shameless bit of self promo here but this book is basically my dissertation on backpacking, nine years of tips and tricks and your purchase helps keep the site going. If you’ve found the content on this site useful, the book is the next level up and you will learn a ton – if you don’t, I’ll give you your money back. Check it out here.
Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos: Read about how the CIA began the war in Laos before spilling over into Laos neighbour, Vietnam. For those who are interested in conspiracies, war, history and action this will grip you for hours at a time!
The Rough Guide to Laos 2nd edition (Rough Guide Travel Guides): Rough Guides are my go to when it comes to researching the places I’m travelling to. Their guides are great, lighthearted and will tell you everything from haggling tips to the best corner for street food.
A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between: Great book for those wanting to peak into Laos history in an easy read. Great for those of us heading off backpacking Laos and want to know a little about the culture, history and politics. I would recommend this to everyone planning to backpack Laos.
Stalking the Elephant Kings: In Search of Laos: Follow Christopher Kremmer’s journey to find the lost Royal Family of Laos, the secrets the country has buried in the rural areas, bomb craters and enigmatic stone containers of the Plain of Jars, the brooding caves and limestone peaks of Houaphan near the Lao border with Vietnam and more. Seriously awesome read which just sucked me in. I read the whole thing on the plane!
Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos: Let yourself get immersed in the lives of those living and working in Laos. From the poverty stricken to the incredibly wealthy all struggling to find happiness. Be introduced to Americans who stayed after the war, adjusting to life in Laos and how the locals have welcomed them into the community. A great read to understand life in Laos today.
Curse of the Pogo Stick (A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery): For anyone who loves fiction, thrillers and ghost stories this is an awesome book. Read about possession in the rural areas of Laos and how old medicine men were brought in to help. Awesome and creepy read!
Lonely Planet Laos (Travel Guide): I don’t often use travel guides, but Lonely Planet made a pretty epic guide for Laos. There are some handy maps inside along with plausible itinerary recommendations.
Lonely Planet Lao Phrasebook & Dictionary: Your phone has no more space for language apps, or it’s ran out of battery, a phrasebook in your pocket is a lifesaver! This phrasebook is awesome for simple phrases to help you hail that next bus or river taxi!
Want more than just the suggestions above? Check out fifty of my favourite reads for the road…
Staying safe in Laos
Backpacking Laos is pretty safe for us backpackers. While the majority of Laos is open to explore, there are still certain areas that are off limits. Why? Unexploded ordnance left over from decades of warfare, that’s why. Not worth hopping that fence…
Sadly as a backpacker, you are an obvious target for thieves, so be smart. Being drunk (or stoned) in Vang Vieng is pretty fun, but also the most popular way backpackers leave themselves open to theft and robbery. Although crime rates in Vientiane are low, be on your guard in darker streets outside the city centre, and along the river. Motorbike thieves have been known to snatch bags out of the front basket of other motorbikes that they pass. But really, that’s about the worst of it. I had a great time in Laos and didn’t have any problems while exploring… So have fun!
Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.
Pick yourself up a backpacker security belt to keep your cash safe on the road.
Check out this post for plenty of ideas on ingenious ways to hide your money when travelling.
I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in Laos; there are frequent power-outages plus lots of caves and fairly dark temples to explore – check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
Insurance for backpacking Laos
Whenever you hit the road and go travelling, you need insurance. I have been backpacking for years and have had to claim from time to time; if I didn’t have insurance I would have been utterly screwed on all occasions. It’s just not worth the risk to go without.
I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance – they hands down have the best support and if you do need to claim they will help you get it sorted quickly.
Even if you don’t get insurance with World Nomads, Please do get some sort of insurance from somewhere, there are lots of decent options online. – check out this article for more info
So there you have it amigos, everything you need to know to hit the road and begin backpacking Laos. So get out there already!
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