Backpacking in Laos: Costs, Tips and Places to See
Laos probably isn’t the first place you think of when planning a trip to Southeast Asia. There is no world famous cuisine, exotic beaches or crazy nightlife, but the stunning mountain scenery and laid back attitude of the locals make it my favourite country in the region. Backpacking in Laos is a far more relaxing experience than you’ll find in more popular countries like Thailand and Vietnam, so if you’re tired of bustling beach bars and annoying touts, make sure you visit “The Land of a Million Elephants”.
Here are some of the places you’ll want to visit in Laos (conveniently ordered from south to north, for your reading pleasure).
Landlocked Laos has 4000 islands? Confused? These islands call the Mekong River home, and while you won’t get the white sand beaches and sparkling blue water of Southeast Asia’s ocean islands, you will find plenty of hammocks, sunsets and cold beers. Relaxing is the main pastime in these parts, so if you’re burnt out from the road you’ll appreciate it more than someone who’s there to see the sights (there aren’t many!). If you’re backpacking in Laos you have to go here!
FURTHER READING: Check out my post on Don Det, the most popular backpacker island in the area.
Wat Phou, the Angkor era ruins near Champasak, is the main reason people stop off there on the way to Pakse. I visited the ruins recently and they are definitely worth a look. It’s a far smaller site than Angkor Wat but it’s unique in its own way.
FURTHER READING: A Tour of Wat Pho: Crumbling Khmer Ruins in Laos
More a place to pass through than a destination in itself, Pakse is a pleasant enough city to spend a night, but you’ll want to be moving on as soon as possible. Nearby Bolaven Plateau is apparently worth checking out, I haven’t made it there yet though.
Laos’ capital city is often overlooked, and while it’s an interesting enough place to spent a few days, you’ll probably want to be getting to the amazing scenery of Northern Laos pretty quickly. There are some great places to eat in Vientiane and the temples and general laid back charm of the city will eventually win you over, but I’d only recommend sticking around if you’ve got plenty of time.
FURTHER READING: Heading to Vientiane while backpacking in Laos? Check out my post!
The first time I was in Laos (2011) I heard a lot of negativity surrounding Vang Vieng. The consensus was that it was ruined by 19 year olds on their gap year who wanted nothing more than to get stoned, go tubing and watch endless Friends re runs. I went anyway and loved it – it was easy to avoid all of that by staying slightly outside of the main town. The drugs (and resulting deaths on the Nam Song River) dried up after the police crackdown, and while Vang Vieng is probably still the party capital of Laos, it’s nothing like it used to be. The main reason to visit now is the scenery – and the relaxing bike rides which take you past swimming holes, caves, rice fields and curious villagers.
FURTHER READING: Check out my post on Vang Vieng for more information.
Fields full of mysterious ancient jars… it doesn’t sound like your typical tourist attraction, and it’s definitely one of the more unique sites I’ve seen in Southeast Asia. No one knows for sure what the jars were used for – half the fun of visiting is trying to figure it out for yourself! Phonsavan is kind of far from pretty much everywhere, but the jars were worth the long trip (I love anything old though). I skipped the Plain of Jars on my first 2 trips to Laos, eventually visiting only a few months ago.
FURTHER READING: Check out my post on the Plain of Jars
Talk to enough people travelling in Southeast Asia and you’ll come to 2 conclusions: Koh Phi Phi is awful (I haven’t been there but I’ve heard so many terrible things) and Luang Prabang is a beautiful town that you have to visit. It’s easy to see why Luang Prabang is almost universally praised – it has an exotic mix of Asian/French architecture, 2 rivers lined with (cheap) restaurants offering spectacular views, lots of sparkling, golden temples and one of the coolest waterfalls in Southeast Asia.
FURTHER READING: Backpacking in Laos wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Luang Prabang, check out my full post for more information
If you want a cheap bungalow with a fantastic view, you’ll love Nong Khiaw. There are plenty of trekking and adventure activities in the area, but even if you don’t move from your hammock for a few days you’ll still leave Nong Khiaw happy.
Further reading: I visited Nong Khiaw on my first backpacking trip in Laos, read the post!
An hour up river from Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi is even smaller and more relaxing. There are some great walks just outside of town, and the beauty of the area will ensure you rave about it for years to come. There was no power in Muang Ngoi just a couple of years ago (and they just got wifi), but you get the feeling that the locals won’t let the influx of tourists affect the town too much.
FURTHER READING: Muang Ngoi: An Idyllic Village in Northern Laos
Luang Namtha isn’t the nicest of towns, and since I didn’t have enough time left on my visa I didn’t organise any treks (which the area is most known for). If you’re not doing a trek then I’d suggest skipping Luang Namtha, I spent 2 nights there and wish I had stayed longer in Luang Prabang or Nong Khiaw (I didn’t make it Muang Ngoi on my first trip).
Backpacking in Laos: The Details
Backpacking in Laos can be done on the cheap, and the value for money is excellent. A budget of $1000 a month is more than enough to travel in reasonable comfort, but you could do it much cheaper, especially if you stay put in one place for a while. I spent around a week on Don Det and spent about $100!
Getting around Laos is pretty easy – the only decision you’ll have to make is whether to take the local buses or stick to the tourist ones. There often isn’t a huge difference in price, and both are usually pretty uncomfortable. You’ll end up in a lot of minivans, which is fine if you get your own seat (which doesn’t always happen). Local buses can be fun and are often more comfortable, but it’s a bit of a gamble. Conclusion…mix it up a bit!
If you’re coming from Bangkok I’d recommend taking the night train – it’s one of my favourite journeys in Southeast Asia.
Laos has some of the best value accommodation in Southeast Asia, not always because of the quality of the room but more for the view that you’ll get. I’ve had rooms with amazing river views for $4, and if you’re travelling in low season there are some great bargains to be had. Accommodation in Vientiane isn’t quite as good – the rooms are completely overpriced compared to most other places.
Movies to watch
There aren’t too many movies set in Laos, so Air America (starring Robert Downey Jr) kind of wins by default – it’s a good movie though.
Food and Drink
I’m not a huge fan of the local food in Laos, but if you’re in a touristy town you can find pretty much anything. Some of the best Indian food in Southeast Asia can be found in Nong Khiaw, and you’ll find Thai food in most restaurants. People seem to love Beer Lao, and while it’s good, there are definitely better beers in Southeast Asia.
Have you been backpacking in Laos, or do you want to? What is your favourite country in Southeast Asia? Let me know!