One of the world’s hidden gem destinations, Laos has mostly stayed off the map for tourists with just 4.1 million visitors in 2018. But this small country in Southeast Asia is growing in popularity and is the next up and coming destination.
The country is known for being green – overwhelmingly green in its landscape and tourism. From the jungles to the rice fields and tea bushes, Laos is the ultimate playground for ecotourists and adventurists. With excursions focused on nature, culture, and food, Laos has a little something that everyone will love.
ຍິນດີຕ້ອນຮັບ – Welcome to Laos
Vientiane is the capital of Laos, which rests on the right bank of the mighty Mekong River. The capital is known for its slow pace and relaxed vibe. The low-key atmosphere of the capital also means that there isn’t a lot to do. But with less chaos, tourists can relax and still get a taste of Asia by exploring the street markets, restaurants, and shopping destinations. Or you can always take a moment to appreciate the peaceful views along the river and watch as the boats float by on the water.
Culture and Language
Laos has a long history that has been influenced by early humans, the Chinese, Indian, Tai, and French people. The Kingdom of Funan was the earliest, which existed in the 1st Century CE. The kingdom was heavily steeped in Indian culture before the Tai migration began as early as the 12th Century BCE. The Tai culture lived on in Laos due to myths and legends until the rule of Lan Xang in 1353. Under the Lan Xang kingdom, Laos was known as the “Land of a Million Elephants”.
For 350 years, the Lan Xang kingdom existed, and Laos flourished. But by 1707, the area was being split into regional kingdoms. By the 18602, the French wanted to colonize the area after they had sent successful missions of exploration. The main draw was that the French wanted to use the Mekong River as a route into China. While France moved to colonize the entire Southeast Asian area, Laos was favored for being rich in raw materials.
It was also during the French rule that many Vietnamese cultures came into Laos as the French encouraged Vietnamese people to move to Laos. During World War II, Laos struggle with its identity and who was in control. The French wanted to keep control but with the Japanese attempting to invade, the French were forced to hold off on claiming the country. It wasn’t until the Lao Issara government made a Franco-Lao treaty in 1953 that the country began to stabilize. Eventually, the French gave up all right to their Indochina colonies and Laos became independent.
Now, Laos is a socialist country whose leading political party is the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The government is very open about their acceptance of Communism, which makes them unique with China, Cuba, and Vietnam (who all also openly support Communism). But with the war over, the country has become stable and is a safe travel destination.
But with Communism in favor, the culture that travelers will experience in the country may seem guarded or restricted. People do not have freedom of expression and will not openly discuss their political ideas. With more restrictions on the people, the normal pace of life is slow. People like to operate at their own pace, and they tend to live in the moment.
While the government is not a good topic, you will find that people in Laos don’t have any problems with commenting on physical appearances. Travelers should not be shocked if locals begin to comment on the physical differences between you and them. Yet, similar to many Asian cultures, family is important, and the people take pleasure in everyday life. Eating and drinking are enjoyable activities, as are big celebrations like weddings.
Lao is the official language of Laos, which has origins with the Thai language too. As many as 3 million people within the country will speak Lao, which may also be referred to as Laotian or Isan. There are, however, 86 languages spoken throughout the country in total. Many regional or local languages like Mon-Khmer are spoken by small countryside communities.
Foreign languages that are popular in Laos include French and English. French is still taught in many schools and may be used by professionals and educated individuals. English is also an up-and-coming language because of the country’s ties to technology, business, and tourism. So, don’t be surprised if you stick to the touristy areas and people automatically address you in English.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Laos, you will need a tourist visa to legally enter the country. With a US passport, you do not have to apply for a tourist visa prior to your departure and you are eligible for a visa on arrival. The visa on arrival will allow you to vacation in Laos for up to 30 days and it costs $37 US dollars. The visa can be extended once for an additional 60 days, by applying in person at the Department of Immigration in Vientiane and paying a fee.
The visa on arrival fee, which most travelers will choose to use costs $35 US dollars and it must be paid in cash. However, you should be aware that if you are arriving to Laos by smaller ports, a visa on arrival may not be available and you would have to apply for a visa with the Embassy prior to your arrival in the country.
Most travelers will be going through the main ports, so this will not be a problem. The main ports include all the international airports and multiple locations along the borders with Thailand and Vietnam. If you are visiting from Cambodia, the visa on arrival is only accept at the Dong Calor border.
In order for you to be eligible for the visa on arrival, you will need a valid US passport that has an expiration date that is 6 months longer than your scheduled date of departure. You will also need two blank pages in your passport for the appropriate stamps. Any currency valued at more than $2,500 must be declared upon arrival. You may also be asked for proof of sufficient funds and a return or onward travel ticket.
While a visa is one of your first required documents for entry into Laos, it is also important that you consider your spending budget while you are planning your trip. Laos may be located in Southeastern Asia, which has gained a reputation as being an extremely affordable region to travel, but you shouldn’t expect to find the lowest prices. Laos is landlocked, which means that they import a lot of their goods, which raises prices. While the country is still affordable overall, you will find that it is still more expensive to travel Laos than Thailand. So, to stay on budget you’ll have to consider the cost of airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
The first big expense of your budget will be purchasing the plane ticket so that you can get to the country. Laos is far away and that means plane tickets will cost more. Most plane tickets to Laos will cost between $450 and $10,000 US dollars. That’s a big difference and the dramatic prices increase will depend on the type of ticket that you purchase, when you travel to the country, and how early you book your seat.
Some tickets can be found for nearly rock-bottom prices by looking at budget airline sights or waiting for a great deal. But most people will spend about $1200-$1500 on an economy ticket to Laos. A ticket that costs up to $10,000 dollars would have you sitting in first class. But the price can increase or decrease based on the time of your trip.
The most popular months for tourists to visit Laos are between November and February, as well as March and April. These months are during the dry, which means you won’t have to spend your precious packing space by filling it with rain gear. But this also means that tickets will be more expensive because of the increase in popularity of travel to the country. Going to Laos in the off season can save money because tickets will be less expensive. Along with picking the right time to go, you can save more money by booking your ticket well in advance of your trip, instead of last minute.
While a plane ticket will get you to the country, you also need to consider the cost of accommodation for your time inside Laos’ borders. For travelers who are on a backpacker’s budget, you should expect to pay about $3.50-$5 US dollars per night in a dorm room at a hostel or guest house. Private rooms with a bathroom will cost more with a price range of $9-$14 US dollars per night and are more common to find in guest house setups.
If staying at hostels and guest houses is not your preference, you can stay at nice hotels, but be prepared to pay more. Most traditional hotel setups will cost $46-$500 US dollars per night. The location of the hotel and the reputation can definitely affect the price. Hotels in the cities will be more expensive, while staying in the countryside will be more affordable. But a small hotel may be a manageable price of $46 US dollars per night, while a large resort could up $500 US dollars or more per night.
Once you’ve booked a flight and decided where to stay, the next most important considerations for your budget will be food and drink. Food is affordable throughout the country, but you will find that the prices dramatically increase in tourist areas. But like many Asian countries, you can eat on the cheap and experience authentic flavors by exploring the street food options.
Laos is a small country and to many people it is relatively unknown, which often means that they are overlooked in their cuisine. But if you like steamed sticky rice, then Laos is the place for you. Steamed sticky rice is the go-to food item throughout the country and Laotian people are a big fan of the dish. In fact, Laos eats more sticky rice than any other country in the world.
But while rice is a main staple, there are plenty of other dishes to try too. Laap is a meat salad that features freshly butchered and often, raw meat. But if you prefer it to be cooked, the meat can be fried too. Pork and fish are the most popular meat choices for laap. Paeng pet is a duck blood dish that is served with herbs and peanuts. While it sounds unappetizing, many travelers state this is their favorite dish they’ve tried on their travels in Laos. Khao piak kao is Laos’ oldest dish, though it has been updated and is usually served with rice instead of noodles. The dish has been served for thousands of years and many recommended adding a hint of lime.
With plenty of dishes to choose from, you’ll be able to provide endless entertainment for your taste buds. Street food is the most affordable with prices usually ranging from $1.70-$2.25 US dollars per dish. A sit-down restaurant would cost $6-$13 US dollars, while Western style restaurants will cost up to $5 US dollars per dish. In touristy hotspots, you should also expect prices to climb up to $8 US dollars for one dish.
For those who also want to drink in Laos, beer is the most affordable alcohol. Beerlao is the local beer, which costs about $1.25 per bottle. While it may be a little pricier in some areas, most people will always pay less than $2 US dollars for a bottle. Other alcoholic drinks will cost $1-$5 US dollars, depending on where you are located. In local areas, you will be able to drink more affordably, whereas a luxury resort would have prices similar to the US with each drink costing about $10 US dollars.
Overall, you can travel Laos on a budget, if you take the time to plan properly. A lower budget for traveling Laos would have you spending about $45-60 US dollars per day. A nicer trip with a higher budget would be to spend anywhere from $60-$100 US dollars per day, depending on your accommodation. While luxury vacations will easily have you spending hundreds of US dollars per day or even over $1000 US dollars per day.
How to Get Around
While Laos is a smaller country, you still may find yourself wanting to travel within its borders. There are a lot of different places to explore and you may end up traveling far and wide. Laos may not have the most sophisticated transportation systems, which means it can be difficult to find a safe way to travel.
Airplanes are the fastest way to travel around the country, but they aren’t the safest. Lao Airlines is the biggest provider and they can have affordable flights with a one-way ticket costing about $100 US dollars. While the airlines have gotten safer as of late, many people still choose to find other methods of travel.
Local buses are the best way to travel, but they are very slow. But for travelers on a strict budget, tickets can cost as little as $11 US dollars for shorter rides. Overnight buses are also affordable with tickets costing about $16-$23 US dollars. The shortest rides will cost about $5 US dollars.
Boats are also a popular way to get around, especially to the famous 4,000 Islands. Most boat tickets are very affordable with prices being less than $2 US dollars for a ride. Speedboats may be a little more expensive and they are quite common throughout the country.
Some travelers choose to see the country by hiring a private car but be aware that this is the most expensive way to travel. Most private drivers will cost about $100 US dollars per day and even more if you are going to travel for longer distances.
When you’re traveling around cities or small areas, tuk tuks are a great option that are about $4-$6 US dollars per ride. Tuk tuks can help you experience the city in a new way and a fun way to travel. However, if you want to do the hard work yourself, there are plenty of bike rental options too. With a bike rental costing less than $2 US dollars a day, you can pedal to your hearts delight and explore the lively streets.
Finally, walking is always a great option to see a location and its free. Many places are safe to walk in, but just in case, you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings close by. We also don’t suggest that you ever walk alone, especially in new areas.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While Vientiane is the main attraction, there are other cities in Laos to visit too. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Laos that are eager for tourists.
The capital of Vientiane sits on the Mekong River and was a major focus for the French as they colonized Indochina. The French’s influence can be seen in the streets on signs and in architecture. But Buddhism is a huge focus as well and the “City of Sandalwood” is one of the most popular tourist hotspots in the city. But travelers will also enjoy the cities lively energy and have fun exploring the shopping and dining options.
This is Laos’ most popular city to visit, which was once the capital of the old Kingdom of Laos. The city is filled with religion as Buddhist temples and monasteries line the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers banks. While quiet, the beautiful location nestled into nature is a great place to getaway.
Vang Vieng is made picturesque by the limestone karst hills, which act as a backdrop for this small city. In front, the Nam Song River is a great place to get into the water and cruise on a kayak or tube. With off the beaten path travelers, the area is also great for hikers and cave explorers.
Phonsavan is famous for their megalithic era structures that are scattered in a field. The structures resemble large pots and gave them the nickname, “Plain of Jars”. The jars are one of the top attractions in Laos because of their ancient history.
Points of Interest
Cities are usually the main attractions, but Laos has plenty of points of interest that are fun to explore too.
Viewpoing at Nong Khiaw
On the Nam Ou River, the small village of Nong Khiaw offers an excellent view of the area that has become famous throughout the country and amongst visitors. The large mountains almost swallow the small villages, but you can see the tops of buildings peak through once you complete the rewarding hike.
Pha Pheng Waterfall
The Pha Pheng Waterfall is Southeast Asia’s largest waterfall and it is located in a nice park that has many walking paths with multiple viewpoints. You can visit various viewpoints to see the falls and hear the thunder of the cascades.
The Living Land Company
If you want to experience an authentic Laos, this company is in the countryside and allows you the experience to farm the land. Here, you can learn to care for the plants, harvest rice, and raise animals as many locals do throughout the country.
Wat Phu is a World Heritage Site that is also one of the oldest temples in Laos. The ruins sit at the base of the Phu Kao Mountain amongst a green backdrop. While Buddhist, the influence of Hinduism can be seen with ancient relics from times long forgotten.
Kong Lor Caves
With one of the longest cave rivers in the world, you can explore the water on a boat and take a guided tour. The river tour allows you to see the caves impressive formations and witness the unique wildlife.
Also called Si Phan Don, these islands are scattered on the Mekong River and remain the top point of interest for Laos. Pakse is the main city in the South, which is where many people head to first. But there are literally thousands of places that you could visit, though the main islands are Don Khong, Don Khon, and Don Det.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
Beneath these absolutely stunning waterfalls are small pools where you can bathe in the fresh steam and stare in awe at the beauty of nature. With a 50-meter cascade, these falls remain the most beautiful in Laos. With numerous walking trails, you can explore the beauty of the entire areas and perhaps catch a glimpse of some butterflies.
Get Out and Go
While Laos may not be the first on everyone’s bucket list, this up and coming tourist destination is sure to provide you with the adventure of a lifetime. While you travel off the beaten path you can experience a quieter side of Asia and slip into a world dominated by nature. With gorgeous, ancient relics and amazing scenery, Laos will surely draw you in and leave you in awe of its wonders.