Right now, Laos is hardly ever the primary destination on any travellers’ agenda. Instead, it is either a transit point or a couple-of-days-tour people do while they’re in one of the neighbouring countries - Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia. Having opened its doors to tourism only in the 1990s, Laos still has a way to go in establishing itself as a worthy destination in the eyes of Western travellers. Yet there are so many things to do and see in Laos! Laos is a beautiful rural country with interesting history, delicious food, aromatic coffee and very laid-back and hospitable people. You should definitely visit it as soon as you can before masses and masses of organized tour buses flock to the area.
To help you navigate
Laos is not for everybody
Like with anything not tailored to suit masses of consumers, Laos is a country you will either love or hate. It’s not just a saying. This was the first time we saw such a huge division of opinions among our fellow travellers. Without an exaggeration, about half of people we’ve met here had cut their trip in Laos short. There were various reasons for that – some felt sick, some – unwelcome and frustrated, others struggled to see what the country had to offer or to connect with local people. It just didn’t click, there was no chemistry. And that’s ok, not everything is for everyone.
We, on the other hand, were hopelessly falling in love, deeper and stronger with every day we spent there. Before we even left the country, obsessively, we already felt the pain of separation. Counting remaining days, we already dreamt of how and when we could return to meet again. It was a short yet very passionate affair for twelve days.
8 reasons why we fell in love with Laos
We felt happy and happily ignored
Because it is not as touristy as Thailand, you still have a lot of locals going about their day to day life even in the tourist hotspots. Starting with daily monk almsgiving, farmers working on their fields, early morning markets selling fresh produce or local families having a lunch out. Not everything is targeted at tourists, not everything is translated into English, not everyone wants to sell you something. People have a life and they live it. Of course, it is not unique to Laos, but it still felt damn good. We felt like we were not part of the tourism circus, but rather had the chance and the honour to come and observe from the sidelines.
To avoid giving you false expectations – main streets in the popular tourist hubs are very busy and indeed touristy, so just make sure you make an extra turn and explore beyond the obvious.
It is difficult to stand out in terms of natural attractions when you have such famous neighbours, but Laos certainly deserves being considered. Going down the Mekong river, swimming in the gorgeous Kuang Xi waterfall in Luang Prabang, climbing the rocky limestone karsts in Vang Vieng or exploring the unusual 4000 islands in the South – there are some gorgeous places to visit for the nature lovers. The best part is that because there are not so many tourists, a lot of these and the surrounding natural resources are not (yet) fully developed into full-blow tourist attractions. There is a lot of untouched nature you can enjoy within minutes’ walk from the city.
You should never be in a hurry in Laos. Time is a very fluid concept. Some people say this is general in Southeast Asia, but we couldn’t agree. So far in our travels in the region, in other countries we were rather surprised by the punctuality and the speediness of how things got done. Not here. If something is expected to be done tonight, don’t bother asking until tomorrow. If a bus ride is said to take five hours, make sure you have enough snacks for a whole-day ride. There are probably two reasons for that. First, the unwillingness of Lao to put themselves in a stressful situation. Second – the high number of things which may and do go wrong, especially when it comes to transportation. Roads get closed, tires get flat, people get sick on buses daily.
We loved it because it forcefully reminded us that we are in no rush and should never be. We all lead such high-paced lives, it is refreshing to slow down and just go with the flow. This is the mindset you need to adapt if you want to come to Laos.
Wonderful Lao people
Like other Southeast Asian nations, you will find Lao people very friendly and hospitable. What makes them stand out, however, is how calm they are. Either because they know there is absolutely no point in stressing about things (see previous point) or they’re genetically incapable of getting angry. Yeah, probably the former. Unlike Thailand, we didn’t see people yelling, fighting or being too upset when you didn’t want to buy their service. At the same time, this also meant they weren’t exaggeratedly happy to provide a service or sell something, which made everything feel more real and authentic.
The Lao people we met were all very humble, friendly and honest. We had a fantastic conversation with Ay – a captain of the boat the deck of which we occupied almost every single night in Luang Prabang. Ay told us he was happy to see more tourists coming in but was upset the majority were not interested in getting to know the locals. He felt most come to take pictures, sit in their fancy hotels and eat their Westernized food. Don’t be like that, try to strike up a conversation with a local and see where this takes you. Most likely you will have an unforgettable experience. We surely did.
A few words about honesty
One last thing about Lao people. On many blogs we read that we should be prepared to get scammed because local currency is very confusing, and some people take advantage of that. A few travellers reported they were given change ten times less of what they were supposed to get. It is easy to imagine as many bills look very similar and only one side of the bill has its value written in Arabic numerals. In the beginning we were very aware and anxious, but soon gave up. This is not the right approach nor the mindset for exploring the world. Yes, you should be careful as anywhere, but don’t be an asshole assuming everyone is here to cheat you.
One night after a long day of traveling and admittedly a couple of beers we checked in our guesthouse and paid for the room. The next day the receptionist gave us back the 1000% we had overpaid the night before when we were “too tired”. Much appreciated.
In terms of development, Laos is still behind some of its neighbours. On the human development index scale, the country is ranked 139 out of 189 (whereas Thailand is 83, Malaysia – 57, Viet Nam – 116, Cambodia – 146). This index is an interesting one to look at when trying to understand the quality of life in a country because it is multifaceted and considers not only financial but also socio-cultural aspects of life. If you want to learn more, check out Laos Country profile and the 2018 update.
One obvious way to see that Laos is still developing is through its extremely low quality of roads. Those were by far the worst ones we have experienced in Southeast Asia until now. The dusty roads are rough, full of holes and bumps which bus drivers seem to be completely oblivious of. This makes bus transfers on the mountainous roads not just uncomfortable, but also dangerous. You need to fasten your seat belt not to fly up and hit the bus roof with your head when the vehicle hits another bump. Some countries blatantly label these routes as unsafe, meaning should something happen to you while on this road your insurance won’t cover it. You need to be aware of this before you decide to get on that bus.
Although the crazy bus drive was weirdly excitingly fun (we are not crazy, we just had too much adrenaline in our blood), what is truly amazing is how quickly the country is developing. Since there are so many construction sites in cities and on the roads, you can assume in a couple of years from now everything will look very different.
Big dreams and ambitions
Yes, this belongs to Lao people section, but we decided to highlight it in a separate section.
A lot of people speak very good English. We noticed it immediately after crossing the Thai border. When we asked Lao people where, how and why they learned English we were surprised by their answers. There is a strong understanding that speaking English will help them fulfil their dreams. Those dreams were anything from extending their tourist business to studying to become an avian engineer. The enthusiasm with which these young people spoke about their aspirations was infectious and heart-warming. We couldn’t help smiling and wishing them the best of luck.
English language courses are not cheap. Some attend only a month or two but are so motivated they achieve amazing results in an incredibly short period of time. They are willing to learn and are therefore not shy to practice their English, grateful for the opportunity to improve it. If you want to help them on their journey, you can volunteer in a couple of places to teach locals English.
Baguette, pastry & coffee
If there is anything good which came out of the French colonial period, then it must be the bakeries and cafes. Traveling through Asia for four months now, we forgot how a good baguette or pain au chocolat even tastes. And now imagine sitting in a cute little café, sipping your creamy aromatic coffee and biting your freshly baked croissant while watching the world go by. Lo-ve-ly.
If you like pasties, you will love it here. Perhaps, too much. One day Darja went nuts on a market and bought a whole bag of various pastries - with chocolate, fresh fruits or marmalade. They were delicious. The chocolate one was so chocolaty, the mind was simply blown. Damn, just writing this makes Darja drool uncontrollably.
Tasty and cheap Beerlao
Last but not least! Finally a country with decent beer and no crazy import taxes on alcohol (150% in Indonesia and 300% in Thailand)! Beerlao tastes good, comes in a big bottle (600 ml) and is rather cheap – mostly 10k (1 EUR). You can get the beer in every little shop or restaurant, just make sure you ask for the price before you buy as prices do vary. ຕຳແກ້ວ! (thum keo! – Cheers!)
How to stay sane and enjoy Laos
If you are planning to go to Laos, here are some tips on how to stay sane and fully enjoy your experience:
- Don’t have a tight travel agenda, allow some buffer time for the unexpected
- Get mentally prepared that things won’t go according to the plan
- Embrace slow travel – rather see less but longer
- Learn about the country before you come – it will help you understand it better
- Be kind in your heart, your head and your words and you will get the same in return
- Ask your hotel what the prices for basic things should be – this will give you a good base for bargaining/assessing just how touristy the price you have been quoted is
- To avoid stomach issues drink a lot of water, take some probiotics (yoghurt), avoid too cheap alcohol in huge amounts & disinfect your hands regularly
- Take a comfortable amount of risks. Do your research in advance to avoid any unpleasant experiences.
Our travel itinerary and budget
We only had 12 days before we had to be in Hanoi to meet David’s dad who is joining us on the backpacking adventure for three weeks (and that’s a whole different story 😉). With limited amount of time and no motivation to rush we only stayed in the northern and central parts of Laos. At the time of our visit the 4000 islands region was also marked as high for risk of malaria. Although we really really really wanted to see it, we decided to come back here some other time.
Here below is our route for the 12 days spent in Laos. Click on the icon in the top left corner of the map to expand the legend and see all the stops.
Country budget for two people
In total for 12 days for 2 people we have spent 6'861'500 LAK or ca. 686 EUR. This results in the daily average of 571'792 LAK (= 58.5 EUR / 67 USD / 95 AUD) with the following breakdown (in LAK). Tip - to convert to EUR, divide by 10'000 and you will get the approximate amount (at the time of writing)):
Want to learn more about our Loas budget, why we overspent by almost 15% 😲 and get an idea of how much things cost in Laos? Read about blog post about how coffee and cake ruined our Laos budget.
Check out our blog post about how we travel, budget and save money while traveling. Let us know if you have any questions about our travel budget in Laos!
Have you ever been to Laos? How did you like it? Was it a rather a love or a hate relationship? Share with us your thoughts! 🙂