Laos is a truly gorgeous country. From the party haven of Vang Vieng to the little-explored jungles of Luang Prabang Nam Tha and the remote mountains in the north, Backpacking Laos offers something different for everyone and Laos remains one of my favourite countries in Asia.
This is a land of crawling broadband and pot-holed roads. Every time there is a thunderclap, the electricity goes out, so you better forget about that fruit shake you just ordered!
This country requires time; everything seems to slow down here, and 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.
Why Go Backpacking in Laos?
Laos has two very different regions: the mountainous north and the farmlands of the south.
The south has plenty of famous attractions, like the temples of What Phu, the Bolaven Plateau an many other beautiful cascading waterfalls. You’ll also see many more rice fields here than up north.
The North is often cooler in temperature and offers wonderful mountain scenery and rainforests.
Laos’ most famous destinations include Luang Prabang, a charming city with plenty to do and see, and Vang Vieng, a party town on the river with access to water adventures. Even though these areas are the backpacker hot spots, it’s very easy to get off the beaten path in Laos, where tourism is far behind its neighbors.
- Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking Laos
- Places to Visit in Laos
- Top Things to Do in Laos
- Backpacker Accommodation in Laos
- Laos Backpacking Costs
- Best Time to Travel to Laos
- Staying Safe in Laos
- How To Get Into Laos
- How to Get Around Laos
- Working in Laos
- What to Eat in Laos
- Laos Culture
- Some Unique Experiences in Laos
Below I have outlined three separate travel itineraries for the north, south, and central part of Laos. Each of these itineraries can be easily added on to one another or combined with a backpacking trip to Thailand or Vietnam.
If you have a month, you can easily combine parts of all three itineraries, and tackle both the north and south regions of Laos. Doing so will mean you get to experience very different scenery.
If you only have 2 weeks or less, I suggest focusing on one region of Laos. Travel distances and longer and slower than they look on the map.
Backpacking Laos 10-Day Itinerary #1 – The Classic Route
If you have 10 days to explore Laos, you may just want to focus on the classic highlights. This itinerary works well as an add-on to Thailand. You can enter and exit from Nong Khai in Eastern Thailand.
Better yet, you can even catch a slow boat ride all the way from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. If you’re already in Laos, you can also catch one from Houayxai to Luang Prabang. Either way, plan out where to stay in Luang Prabang, and explore the city for a couple of days.
Next is the famous Vang Vieng, known for its parties and the launching spot for water adventures, like kayaking, caving, and tubing. End your trip in the capital, Vientiane.
Backpacking Laos 3-Week Itinerary #2: Mountains and Rainforests
This itinerary starts near the Vietnam border, and it’s the perfect route for avid hikers and adventure enthusiasts. While you could do it in less than 3 weeks, this is the most remote area of Laos, where transportation is slow. Moreover, you can easily spend several days hiking in the hills.
Tip: You can reverse this itinerary and tack it on to the first itinerary if you have 4 or more weeks in Laos!
Begin your journey at the Vieng Xai monuments if you are coming from Vietnam. Next, make your way to Nong Khiaw. Surrounded by karst mountains, this is an excellent base for trekking, kayaking, and cycling. Afterward, head up the river a bit to Muang Ngoi.
Next, we get very remote. Make your way to the Nam Ou and take a scenic boat ride along the slow running river while admiring the lush, impenetrable jungle. From Nam Ou, you can head back down to Phongsali, a charming, high-altitude town. You can also arrange a trek to local hill-tribe villages.
If you haven’t trekked enough, make your way to Nam Ha for hiking trips in Nam Ha NBCA. You can arrange guided excursions in Luang Namtha.
From here you have the option to continue on to Luang Prabang and the first itinerary.
Backpacking Laos 2-Week Itinerary #3: The South and Waterfalls
2 Weeks is the perfect amount of time to enjoy the south of Laos. If you have 3 or more weeks to backpack Laos, feel free to combine this route with the Laos 2 Week Itinerary (#1).
This itinerary works best if you are coming from Thailand. Start in Savannakhet, the south’s colonial gem. Head to the Tad Lo, a great stop for backpackers thanks to the Tad Lo falls and swimming holes. Next, you can head to Pakse, which is the natural base for trips around the Bolaven Plateau and nearby sleepy villages, though there isn’t much to see in the actual town. If you don’t plan to visit the nearby Bolaven Plateau, move on.
Once you’re sick of beautiful waterfalls and coffee plantations, head to yet another beautiful waterfall: Tad Fan and Tad Yuang. Continue south to Champasak on the west bank of the Mekong River. You are now near the Wat Phou, a beautiful ruin that gives Angkor Wat a run for its money.
The final stop is Si Phan Don, where the Mekong splits into a web of islands and invites tourists to kick back and enjoy the scenery on an island on a landlocked country. Who would have thought?
Now that we’ve covered three awesome Laos itineraries, below I’ll cover the destinations and what you can do around each place.
Backpacking Luang Prabang
Many travellers arrive into Luang Prabang by slow boat from Thailand. It’s a great place to begin your Laos backpacking trip. There are heaps of cool hostels in Luang Prabang and lots of other adventurous travelers to join forces with.
Make sure to wander around the streets and explore the old town, a historical preservation zone declared by UNESCO. 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 or get a massage after your long journey.
A perfect day in Luang Prabang consists of: grabbing a cup of coffee at Saffron Café, checking out the monk offerings in the morning, the Royal Museum by day, catching the sunset on the mountaintop and finishing the day at the night market.
Other cool things to do in Luang Prabang:
- 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!
- 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 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!
- Utopia Yoga classes for 40,000 kips.
- Tamarind Restaurant offers Laos cooking classes.
Backpacking Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is the main backpacker playground in Laos; this is the place where you can smoke a joint and eat banana pancakes all day. For the journey to be worth it – and to enjoy all those banana pancakes – stay at least four days here.
The four hour journey from Vientiane to Vang Vieng travel by bus 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 used to head to Vang Vieng for its legendary drunk tubing, but it’s nowhere near the same scale anymore. After far too many stupid drunks and fatal accidents, many riverside bars have shut down. It’s still a good time, 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 on the river; literally everything you take with you will get soaked. And 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 laidback! 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.
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 Vientiane’s vibrant neighborhoods and explore some of the beautiful, grand monuments and temples.
Thanks to an 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 Sailomyen Hostel and 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, and the murals and Buddha carvings are beautiful. You’ll easily spend a few hours wandering around here.
Also, check out Buddha Park, which as the name suggests, is a park with Buddha statues.
I wouldn’t spend more than two days in Laos Capital, Vientiane. It’s a great place to base yourself, and maybe meet some fellow backpackers at one of Vientiane’s awesome hostels, before catching a bus to explore the rest of the beautiful country or relax after finishing your Laos trip!
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 many more backpackers while here. I certainly didn’t!
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!
Stay at the rustic Nam Ou River Lodge to prepare for your trek! As for the best places to eat? check out Mekara Restaurant and Chennai Restaurant.
You can rent bikes to ride around town, or a mountain bike to visit nearby villages.
Backpacking Muang Ngoi
About an hour by boat (25,000K) from Nong Khiaw is this beautiful, sleepy village. I definitely recommend staying at Nicksa’s Place Bungalows (50,oooK) for 2 people.
The main thing to do in Muang Noi is to immerse in the local culture, kick back and relax Laos style. When you’re not chilling out, there are many caves you can explore (this is Laos, afterall), like Phanai Cave and Muang Ngoi viewpoint.
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Backpacking Tad Lo Village
Want some rest and relaxation or to recoup before heading out to backpack Laos some more? Tad Lo offers a slower pace of life. There is such a chilled vibe with some awesome hikes surrounding the village. If you find yourself here, hang out 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, and 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 beautiful old buildings by the way 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 exploring 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. And then I made it…
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 it is quiet. I would spend maybe two days here as besides the cave there is also some wonderful day hikes to do nearby.
For those backpacking Laos and craving adventure and culture, this is definitely one of the places to do it.
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 at 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 Four Thousand Islands, head towards Pakse. 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 around.
The Gibbon Experience
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!
Essentially, they built some of the world’s highest tree houses so you can experience flying through the forest canopies and waking up surrounded by gibbons.
The project raises awareness for forest conservation and made the Nam Kan National Park possible. Hundreds of people make a living from this project.
Getting Off The Beaten Path in Laos
Laos is a pretty small country that attracts rather a lot of backpackers. However, it is still possible to find quieter, less frequented corners of the little nation. Our Top Things To Do in Laos run down offers both a mix of popular experiences as well as some more niche offerings.
Top Things to Do in Laos
1. Take a Slow Boat Down the Mekong River
One fun way to cross the Thailand/Laos border is by taking a slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang cruising down the Mekong River. It’s a two day journey filled with amazing scenery, a visit to a Laos village, and a visit to a cave used as a temple.
2. Visit the Plan of Jars Site in the North
This archeological site dates back to 500 BC, but no one knows the purpose of the giant stone jars.
3. Chill out in the Beautiful Luang Prabang
This beautiful town takes you back in time. The architecture, French cafes, bustling night markets and street food can draw you in for days.
4. Party (or Chill) in Vang Vieng
Though the river tubing parties aren’t what they once were, there are still a number of bars and backpackers partying. Even if you don’t have an interest to party, it’s a scenic destination with plenty of outdoor activities.
5. Get some Mountain Therapy in the North
Often overlooked for the south, the mountainous northern region of Laos is beautiful and far more remote. This is a great region to visit if you want to hike through isolated villages.
6. Boat around the Four Thousand Islands
Also known as Don Det, this is a great place to boat on the river and explore the islets on a landlocked country.
7. Do Go Chasing Waterfalls
You should not be allowed to visit Laos without swimming in a clear turquoise pool surrounded by some of the world’s most stunning waterfalls.
8. Explore Laos’ Temples
Laos – like all of South East Asia – has no shortage of stunning temples to be admired. While in Luang Prabang, don’t miss Golden City Temple (Wat Xieng Thong). For a full day out in Champasak, climb to the top of the hill to see the stunning Wat Phu and mountain views.
9. Explore Laos’ Cave System
Laos has no shortage of underground river caves to explore. Don’t miss Kong Lor Cave, surrounded by unspoilt mountains, or Tham Kong Cave hidden in a valley of limestone Karsts.
10. Be a Part of the Gibbon Experience
Did you ever think you would be able to sleep in one of the highest treehouses in the world surrounded by gibbon monkeys? Well now you can at the Gibbon Experience!
My missus travels with all her clothes in ziplock bags: don’t be like my missus. UP YOUR PACKING GAME!
Packing cubes for the globetrotters and compression sacks for the real adventurers – these babies are a traveller’s best kept secret. They organise yo’ packing and minimise its volume too so you can pack MORE.
Or, y’know… you can stick to ziplock bags.View Our Fave Cubes Or Check Out the Sacks!
Backpacker 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!
Hosting travelers through Couchsurfing and Airbnb are slowly beginning to catch on in Laos, but they are not really reliable once away from the main tourist areas.
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!
Finding a cheap place to stay in Laos is pretty easy:
- 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.
Where to Stay in Laos
|Location||Hostel||Why we like it?!|
|Luang Prabang||Downtown Backpackers Hostel||Clean and comfortable; central location. Wonderful staff.|
|Vang Vieng||Real Backpackers Hostel||Social party atmosphere; pool table; clean beds.|
|Vientiane||Dream Home Hostel 1||Decent party hostel in Vientiane.|
|Nong Khiaw||Nam Ou River Lodge||Beautiful View and location.|
Laos Backpacking Costs
You can backpack Laos for as little as $10 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.
A Daily Budget in Laos
|Expense||Broke Backpacker||Frugal Traveler||Creature of Comfort|
|Total per day:||$11-$38||$37-$69||$85|
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… $1 =8270.45 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 take a travel money belt to hide it well.
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.
Travel Tips – Laos on a Budget
The typical tools of the budget backpacking trade: tips that any dirty, smelly, and golden-hearted broke backpacker needs:
- 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!
- Camp: If you’re heading off on some far-flung adventures, take the best backpacking gear you can for sleeping out. Pitching a tent – or even stringing up a backpacking hammock – is not just an amazing adventure, but it’s also an awesome way to save on your travel costs in Laos.
- 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!
- Pack a travel water bottle: and save money – and the planet – every day!
Why You Should Travel to Laos with a Water Bottle
Plastic washes up on even the most pristine beaches… so do your part and keep the Big Blue beautiful
You aren’t going to save the world overnight, but you might as well be part of the solution and not the problem. When you travel to some of the world’s most remote places, you come to realise the full extent of the plastic problem. And I hope you become more inspired to continue being a responsible traveller.
STOP USING SINGLE-USE PLASTIC! If you’d like some more tips on how to save the world, be sure to watch the video below.
Plus, now you won’t be buying overpriced bottles of water from the supermarkets either! Travel with a filtered water bottle instead and never waste a cent nor a turtle’s life again.
Drink water from ANYWHERE. The Grayl Geopress is the market’s leading filtered water bottle protecting your tum from all the waterborne nasties. PLUS, you save money and the environment!
Single-use plastic bottles are a MASSIVE threat to marine life. Be a part of the solution and travel with a filter water bottle.
We’ve tested the Geopress rigorously from the icy heights of Pakistan to the tropical jungles of Cuba, and the results are in: it WORKS. Buy a Geopress: it’s the last water bottle you’ll ever buy.Buy a Geopress! Read the Review
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 Laos (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 a proper winter jacket!
- 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. This 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.
Festivals in Laos
- Boun Pi Mai : Pi Mai translates to “new year.” Laos’ New Year is celebrated in April. The entire country grinds to a halt for the festivities in all-out water fights, which makes one of the best time to visit Laos.
- Haw Khao Padap Din: Held in September, this is a holiday where Lao families respect their dead kin and cremate their loved ones. On a lighter note, the holiday is also celebrated with boat races on the Nam Khan River.
- Khao Pansa: Held in August, this holiday marks the beginning of the Buddhist equivalent of Lent – a time of fasting and contemplation for monks.
- Awk Pansa: Held in October, this holiday marks the end of Khao Pansa. Monks are presented with gifts from townsfolk. That evening, people release banana-leaf boats with candles and flowers on top, a ceremony known as Lai Hua Fai (similar to Loy Krathong in Thailand).
- Boun That Luang: For a full week (in November or October), the temple in Vientiane comes alive with fairs, contests, fireworks, and music.
What to Pack for Laos
Get your packing for Southeast Asia right! On every adventure, there are six things I never go traveling without:
Travel 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.
GRAYL Geopress Filtered Bottle
Having a filtered water bottle means you can drink from just about any source. The GRAYL Geopress is hands-down the most effective one we’ve ever used as well!
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 need be.
Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
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.
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.
Hanging Toiletry Bag
I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super-efficient way to organize your bathroom stuff. Well worth having as it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
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!
Here are a few extra travel tips for staying safe in Laos:
- For more general information, check out top tips for backpacker safety for advice on how to stay safe on the road.
- 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 headlamps to take traveling.
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. Party place Vang 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 our drug safety post, for tips on how to stay safe whilst getting fucked up!
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How To Get Into Laos
Arriving in Laos
Many of you, like me, will begin your backpacking Laos adventure by crossing the border after backpacking in Vietnam, Thailand 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 Southeast 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 is 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, Etihad via Abu Dhabi, and Bangkok to Vientiane or Luang Prabang.
Entry Requirements for Laos
Laos – like its 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!
If you are 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 cash.
ALternatively, Laos has now initiated an eVisa system for more than 180 countries worldwide. If you’d like to get set ub before you arrive, or are unable to obtain a visa on arrival, you can apply for an evisa for Laos online.
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 compared to the ten dollars a day you’ll be charged if you illegally overstay your visa…!
Traveling To Laos During COVID Times
Southeast Asia and the Far East locked down kind of hard when Corona hit and have not quite opened up. As of 18/11/2020 Laos remains closed to foreigners.
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How to Get 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.
Traveling by Bus in Laos
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!
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 Southeast Asia using Bookaway.
Hitchhiking in Laos
Hitchhiking 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 during 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. Traveling by 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.
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Onwards Travel from Laos
If you do not extend a visa for $2 a day, make sure to leave Laos before your 30 days are up! From Laos you can easily cross into:
- Thailand to the west.
- Vietnam to the east.
- Or, travel south to Cambodia overland.
Many people make visa runs between Laos and Thailand. Of course, you can always just catch a plane and travel around Southeast Asia cheap.
Working in Laos
Like many South East Asian nations, Laos does attract ex-pat workers seeking an altogether more leisurely pace of life. There are a few multi national’s and NGO’s operating in Loas.
Naturally, there are also English teaching jobs available.
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Work Visas in Laos
All workers in Laos need a visa. Anecdotally, we hear they can be arranged on the ground so it is fine to enter on a tourist visa and then change it once you find work. There are a number of different tourist visas available depending on employment type. The criteria for obtaining these is slightly different.
- Expert Visa (E-B2) – for foreign workers employed in international organizations or non-government organizations;
- Investor Visa (NI-B2) – for foreign nationals investing in an enterprise registered in Laos; and
- Labor Visa (LA-B2) – for foreign nationals working in Laos on a fixed employment contract.
Teaching English in Laos
Speaking English is a highly-valued skill all over the world. For locals, it opens up whole new worlds of employment opportunities and travel.
In Laos, expats are welcome to apply for teaching jobs in local schools with minimal qualifications (a TEFL should be enough). However, for international’s schools a degree and CELTA may be required.
In terms of pay, the range varies from $700 – $1500 per month depending on the school. Better schools pay more but require a better qualified applicant.
TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR).
To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read our in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Volunteer in Laos
Volunteering overseas is a great way to experience a culture whilst doing some good in the world. There are lots of different volunteer projects in Laos which you can join ranging from teaching, to animal care, to agriculture to pretty much anything!
Laos is a popular destination for volunteers from across the globe. English teaching gigs can be found pretty much anywhere in Laos, as well as in social work and hospitality. Laos’ stunning natural landscape also provides loads of opportunities to help out in agriculture and eco-villages. Most travelers will only need a tourist visa to volunteer in Laos.
Our go-to platform for finding volunteering gigs is Worldpackers who connect travellers with host projects. Have a look at the Worldpackers site and see if they have any exciting opportunities in Laos before signing up.
Alternatively, Workaway is another excellent common platform used by travellers searching for volunteering opportunities. You can read our review of Workaway for more info on using this terrific platform.
Volunteer programs run through reputable work exchange programs like Worldpackers and platforms like Workaway are usually very well-managed and reputable. However, whenever you are volunteering do stay vigilant, especially when working with animals or children.
Worldpackers: connecting travellers with meaningful travel experiences.
What to Eat 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!
With some of the best street food in the world, kerbside stands and hole-in-the-wall 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): It is 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.
For Laos cooking classes, check out this site for awesome deals.
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 Laos 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 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.
Useful Travel Phrases for Laos
If you are backpacking Laos, chances are you are going to get off the beaten path a bit. This means you’re going to come across locals who do not speak very much English. It’s always good to learn a new language for travel; learning some Laotian travel phrases will help you connect with the local culture
!Hello – Sabaidee
Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening – Ton sao
How are you? – Sábaidee baw?
Goodbye! – La khãwn
Yes – Jao
No – Baw
How much does this cost? – Laka tao dai?
Please – Khâluna
No plastic bag – bomi thong yang
Thank you – Khãwp Ja?i
Sorry/excuse me – Khãw thôht
Where is the restroom? – Hàwng nâm yuu s?i?
I need a doctor – Khoy tong kan Maw
I’m lost – Khoy lohng taang
Can you help me? – Suay khoy dai boh
Books to Read about Laos
We’ve listed some of the best books set in Laos to inspire and inform you before your trip to Laos!
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
Want more than just the suggestions above? Check out fifty of my favourite books to reads on the road…
A Brief History of Laos
Around the 1880s, Laos started to become a part of the French empire in Southeast Asia.
In 1945, the Japanese forced Laos to declare independence under a new government, but it didn’t last long as the French quickly took control again.
Then in 1950, the Pro-Communist Prince Souphanouvong formed an organisation that became known as Paphet Lao (Land of the Lao). Meanwhile, the French were losing control of Southeast Asia and Laos became independent.
Laos in the 1950s was a divided country. Most of Laos was ruled by Royalist governments – supported by the USA – while other parts were ruled by the Pro-Communist Paphet Lao assisted by their allies the Viet Minh.
From 1964 to 1973 the USA bombed Paphet Lao territory but failed to defeat them. In 1975 South Vietnam and Cambodia fell to the Communists. The Royalists fled from Laos allowing a full Communist regime to be introduced. However, in 1988 the government of Laos introduced market reforms. As a result the economy of Laos began to grow rapidly.
Some Unique Experiences in Laos
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Trekking in Laos
If you want to get off-the-grid and go trekking in Laos, I recommend making the long journey to the the northern town of Phongsali. Though tough to reach, it’s equally rewarding for trekkers. While there isn’t much to do in the actual town, there are plenty of opportunities to visit remote hill tribes through the Provincial Tourism Office.
The treks are between one and five days long.
You will most likely be the only backpacker for miles, so this is a great adventure for any travellers with some time, looking to get away from the other backpackers.
As for places to stay, you can book something when you get to town. This area doesn’t have a huge online presence.
Joining an Organized Tour in Laos
For most countries, Laos included, solo travel is the name of the game. That said, if you are short on time, energy, or just want to be part of an awesome group of travelers you can opt to join an organized tour. Joining a tour is a great way to see a majority of the country quickly and without the effort that goes into planning a backpacking trip. However—not all tour operators are created equal—that is for sure.
G Adventures is a solid down-to-earth tour company catering to backpackers just like you, and their prices and itineraries reflect the interests of the backpacker crowd. You can score some pretty sweet deals on epic trips in Laos for a fraction of the price of what other tour operators charge.
Check out some of their awesome itineraries for Laos here…
Final Advice Before Visiting Laos
So there you have it amigos: despite a turbulent past, Laos is on the incline and things are getting better for the Laosian people. They have endured hardships, but they welcome foreigners with open arms.
Laos has a lot of tourism potential and so many beautiful parts of their country to share. I hope this Laos travel guide has supplied you with everything you need to know to hit the road and begin backpacking Laos. So get out there already!
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.
Bye for now, but not forever!
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