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 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.
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.
Getting to and from Laos
There are three international airports: one in Vientiane, one in Luang Prabang, the last in Pakse. You are most likely to be arriving on a short hop from another Asian country using Lao Airlines, Thai or Vietnam Air or Air Asia X.
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.
Laos travel resources
Check out our Laos podcast or browse the articles below.