a budget travellers guide to laos
Laos is an experience completely different to other countries in southeast Asia. While Thailand and Vietnam are all hustle and bustle, Laos is far more laidback; which may take you by surprise. But once you get used to the vibe, you won't want to go back to the busier Asian hotspots.
Laos is often overlooked by travellers while hopping from one Asian country to the next. It doesn't have the beaches of Vietnam, the reputation of Thailand or the Modern tech-savvy city feel of Tokyo.
Laos is the perfect locale for anyone coming from the busy streets of Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. It is quiet, sparsely populated and can give the feeling of 'off the beaten path'.
Get off the grid with a budget holiday through Laos and see a truly authentic Asian country.
Laos is landlocked and surrounded on all sides by its Asian neighbours. China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia all share borders with Laos. Over the years, each country has had some kind of influence on Laos, from minimal to full-on.
In the late 1800s, Laos became a French colony until World War II when Japan occupied the country. The French returned after the war and stay until the early 1950s.
Today, Laos shows influence from those that once ruled it along with its neighbours. Yet, the country has its own traditions, customs and norms that are distinctly Laos. Helped by natural borders with its Asian neighbours, the country has been able to hold on to some of its old ways thanks to Laos' geography. Which means some regions will differ in certain cultural aspects than others.
Places to visit
According to travel research, Luang Prabang is the most popular Laos city to visit. Located at the meeting point of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, Luang Prabang
is a historic city containing Buddhist temples and monasteries. You will even see Buddhist monks walking the streets when you visit the city.
Vientiane is the capital of Laos and the city shows off its French influence in its architecture and layout. You will even see street signs in French. Vientiane has some very important Buddhist sites to see. Pha That Luang is a Buddhist shrine that dates back to 1586. It is said to contain relics of Buddha himself, which makes it a must-see venue for anyone interested in Buddhism.
Venture to the northern reaches of Laos and you will find Luang Namtha. Budget travellers the world over have explored the city and told tales of unforgettable experiences. The rural area is great for hiking, mountain biking and motorcycle riding. Explore the region and visit local tribes. Luang Namtha gives you the opportunity to interact with Laotian people unlike any other country in southeast Asia.
As with other Asian countries, sticky white rice is a food staple. You will eat it will all meals, and like other Asian countries, you will get your own serving of rice. Meanwhile, the rest of the food will be shared by the diners at the table. According to reports, Laos eats more sticky rice than any other country in the world. So, you should be prepared to put away the rice while travelling through Laos.
You will find the remnants of France's influence on some Laotian cities like Vientiane. Cafes, baguettes and other French foods can be found there. However, Laos' other regions will have cuisine that are specific to them.
Laos' favourite dish, other than sticky rice, is larb, which is a meat salad dish. Larb can be made with chicken, beef, fish or pork, and it is seasoned with a variety of sauces and juices. Unofficially, larb is the country's national dish, so be ready to eat it early and often on your trip.
What to see?
The Pha That Luang is a must-see when visiting Vientiane as the 49 metre tall shrine is outstanding. If you can take a look inside, then it is even more striking. Keep in mind, it supposedly holds relics of Buddha. Meanwhile, the city is a beautiful blend of modern and French colonial with a Laotian vibe. Completely laidback compared to other cities in Asia, you will think you are somewhere else entirely.
Vang Vieng is four hours from Vientiane and offers activities to tourists that go hand in hand with the local Nam Song River. Kayaking, boating and tubing are popular activities to partake in at Vang Vieng. The local hills are also perfect for hiking and exploring.
Wat Phu is located at the foot of Mount Phu Kao. The ancient ruins of the Khmer temple date back to the 11th century. The site was part of the Khmer empire and was connected to the site at Angkor Wat.
The Bokeo Nature Reserve offers visitors the chance to see the rare black-cheeked gibbon. The area was created after the breed of gibbon was rediscovered in the late-1990s. While you are visiting the reserve, stay at the Bokeo Experience, which is an ecotourism project. You can stay in treehouses that are connected by ziplines. It is a cool experience that will have you recalling your childhood when you used to sleep in your best friend's treehouse.
The best nightlife found in Laos is in the capital Vientiane. You can find a handful of nightclubs, bars and plenty of restaurants. The nightclubs and bars in the capital will stay open past midnight, but you might not find many that do outside the big city. Laos is sleepy and laidback, so late night beer bar parties aren't the norm like in other Asian destinations.
You won't find the intense party atmosphere of Bangkok or the buzzing party nights of Ho Chi Minh City in Laos. Which is perfect, especially if you just came from those two cities. Outside of Vientiane, you will find laidback riverside bars and quiet corners to have a drink. Some may close before midnight, but that is part of their charm.