Laos has only been open to tourism since the mid-90s and it shows. Relaxed, friendly, and a touch kooky at times, Laos can throw up surprises. If you’re hoping to find yourself in a land with few home comforts, eating animals you’d never touch at home, and meeting people who don’t view you as walking moneybags, you’ll love it. Laos tourism is developing quickly, but there’s still time to explore off-the-beaten track in Southeast Asia.
Laos travel resources
Laos is the only land-locked country in Southeast Asia. It’s surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma (clockwise, starting in the north). The Mekong makes its journey through, with several tributaries feeding into it along the way.
The mountainous north is also home to the mysterious Plain of Jars and is becoming a great hiking destination. The main cities are reasonably central, while south of Vientiane is home to elephants grazing through thick forests and the relaxing 4,000 Islands.
Laos is a communist country, and — although the borders are open — things are still tightly controlled. Shops and restaurants close early (we often left bars as early as 10pm), guesthouses lock their doors at midnight, and the are many internal border controls and tariffs — although they shouldn’t be a bother to the independent traveller.
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City focus: Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is a stunningly relaxed Unesco Heritage Site, and the most beautiful city in Laos. Sitting on the edge of a peninsula, you’re never far from water and you’re never far from something to eat, either. Great morning and night markets provide plenty of food for local tastes, and there will be lots that you’ll love too.
Each morning, saffron-clad monks make their way from the monastery and walk the streets in long ululating lines while people stand outside their homes and shops scooping food into the monks’ silver bowls. Tourists now throng around the monks, or buy food to give, but we strongly suggest you stand back, use your camera’s zoom function and not allow this ancient custom to become a human zoo.
The night markets are home to some of the most impressive crafts and woven cotton and silk we’ve seen in any markets worldwide. The coffee just off the high street is world-class, and small beer gardens along the river make for a lovely evening. Luang Prabang makes a great base to explore the surrounding mountains and rivers; a range of tours are on offer in addition to the independent options available.Read more about travel in Laos
Getting to and from Laos
Visa on arrival is available for many nationalities at the airports, but research your country’s visa requirements in advance and have American dollars at the ready.
There are land borders with all of Laos’s neighbours, allowing crossing by road.
There are river crossings available at some borders. Private boats will shuttle you backwards and forwards to border controls and customs on either side. Not all land and river crossings allow visa on arrival.
The only train in Laos runs over the Friendship Bridge between Tha Naleng (near Vientiane) and Nong Khai in Thailand. There are reports of Lao border guards expecting an extra fee to allow you to leave. Have an extra 10,000 kip available just in case; it’ll make a nice souvenir if you don’t need to give a farewell bribe.
Visa on arrival is available for people of many nationalities. Check with your embassy or consulate for the most up-to-date information. Please note, some border crossings may prove more complex than others.
Getting around Laos
Bus and minibus options exist along almost all routes, with very cheap prices (often less than US$20 for longer journeys). Expect a very old fleet of vehicles, which have a tendency to break down. Despite Laos’s generally good record on crime, thefts are not unknown.
There is a new hop-on, hop-off bus network run with local guides and new vehicles by a joint New Zealand-Laos company, Stray Asia. Stray offer walk-up rates at some offices (Luang Prabang, Bangkok in Thailand), but prices are normally lower when booking a pass in advance through their website.
Car and camper rental
Judging by the quality of roads and driving in Laos, we wouldn’t recommend hiring a car. If you do, definitely avoid driving at night and in bad weather: you’re as likely to hit livestock as you are to have the road disappear under your wheels.
For those with a healthy budget, your hotel will probably be able to organise a car and driver for you for day- or multi-day trips. Make sure you’re happy with the condition of the vehicle before setting off.
Cycling and hiking
Laos is home to some amazing day and multi-day hikes with registered guides available at most bases.
Cycling in Laos is demanding, with hilly country and the majority of roads unpaved, but well worth it. The road conditions are balanced against the relatively little traffic and generally warm reception from locals.
Plane travel within Laos is handled by the national airline, Lao Airlines.
Flights to less popular destinations may be cancelled with little-to-no explanation and breakdowns on the ground are not unknown. Despite the ageing aircraft, Laos has a reasonably good safety record.
Travelling by slow boat on the Mekong is a highly recommended way to get from place to place. Although travel times will be a little longer than travelling by bus, it’s a much more calm and relaxed way to travel most of the year. Speedboats do damage to the unique river environment and have a terrible safety record, so choose the slow option. Putting your way up or down the pristine river gorge is one of the highlights of travel in Laos.
Top 10 things to do in Laos
- Relax in Nong Khiaw. This dusty mountain town sits in a spectacular gorge, with excellent trekking all around, and a start-up climbing scene.
- Travel by boat along the rivers, taking in the fishing villages, high tree-lined cliffs and smooth green water. The going can be rough during the dry season, so get local advice if rafting yourself.
- Hit the markets in Luang Prabang. This Unesco World Heritage-listed town is home to a range of night and morning markets with an amazingly high-quality selection of crafts and food. Delicious for the eyes and stomach.
- Go tubing in Vang Vieng or skip it all together. Set in a beautiful river valley, this is the epitome of a place ruined by tourism. Crass, cheesy and nothing to do with life in Laos.
- Hike in one of the many national parks, paying especial attention to the north of the country where the limestone cliffs, deep river valleys and tropical forest make for adventure.
- Compare Wat Phu Champasak with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat — both were built in the same period, but we’ll let you decide which is a nicer visitor experience today.
- Motorbike around the Bolaven Plateau. Incredible coffee complements the cooler, elevated plateau, while life slows down amongst sparkling waterfalls and time-capsule villages.
- Spend some time with local monks whether you’re watching the Buddhist holy men collect their morning feed in Luang Prabang or hanging out with them in a temple somewhere.
- Visit the 4000 Islands nestled in the middle of the Mekong, with some of the world’s last pink Iriwadi dolphins.
- Chill with a Beer Lao. Although the company’s majority-owned by a Belgian brewing company, you’ll find the Beer of the Wholehearted People to be the taste of Laos. One of the best beers in Asia, in our opinion.