Ten things you should know before travelling to Laos

A temple in Luang Prabang, LaosFor such a small country, Laos has a heck of a lot to recommend to backpackers: the best beer in South East Asia (Beerlao), one of the prettiest towns (Luang Prabang) and one of the more unique drinking activities in the world (tubing in Vang Vieng) just to name a few.

But, like anywhere in South East Asia, Laos has a few quirks that may be jarring for the average Western traveller. Equally, there is always a dishonest few looking to take advantage of unwitting tourists.

So, in the interests of providing practical travel advice for anyone travelling to Laos, here are ten travel tips you need to know before visiting the Jewel of the Mekong:

A hot-air balloon floats above Vang Vieng, Laos1. Don’t be in a hurry. Life just moves at a slower pace in Laos and, as a result, service can be slack to say the least. I’ve waited nearly an hour for a meal at relatively quiet restaurants on several occasions. And don’t waste your time waiting for the bill: pay on the way out.

2. Public transport is similarly slow – whether you’re bussing through the country’s notoriously terrible roads or even catching a tuk-tuk to the bus that will take you across the country.

3. And while we’re on the subject: in Vietnam you have to watch out for taxi drivers ripping you off but in Laos it’s the tuk-tuk drivers you should be wary of. There’s always at least one driver at any bus stop who will try to charge you an extortionate price for ferrying you the two blocks into town. Sometimes it is reasonably far (Vang Vieng), sometimes it really isn’t and you’d be better off walking (Vientiane).

The view of a wooden bridge in Luang Prabang, Laos4. Sleeper buses in Laos are infinitely better than their Vietnamese counterparts but you can still expect a long and uncomfortable journey. The beds are arranged in doubles so, if you’re travelling alone, it’s a good idea to book the seat next to yours as well to avoid having to get up close and personal with whoever books the bed adjacent to your own.

5. You can live in comfort but you’ll pay extra for it in Laos. Accommodation is slightly more expensive than in Vietnam but it’s still unlikely to break the bank. A similarly priced room with air-conditioning in Vietnam is likely to come with only a fan in Laos and much slower internet…

6. Prepare to travel back in time to a place where “highspeed internet” is but a distant dream. Most of the better hotels, guesthouses or hostels offer free Wifi that is so painfully slow that you’re better off paying for slightly-faster internet access at an internet cafe.

A water buffalo on Don Det Island, Laos7. Joma Bakery and Cafe. I know what you’re thinking: worst travel tip ever, right? Wrong. With branches in Luang Prabang and Vientiane, Joma’s food is worth paying a little more for. Plus the Wifi is actually half decent.

8. Laotians are justifiably proud of their language. Unlike Vietnam, say, where everyone speaks to you in English, in Laos most locals will at least greet you in their language and they love it if you reciprocate. Say sa bai dee for hello and kop chai means thank you.

A bottle of Laos whisky at Don Det9. Beware the risks of drinking random locally-produced alcohol. It’s cheap but it could well be nasty, as one Melbourne woman found out while tubing in Vang Vieng. Laotian whisky is unregulated and could contain delightful additives such as macerated scorpions and snakes. It is cheap and delicious though – and plentiful in buckets!

10. Any guide book worth its salt will give you a huge list of do’s and don’ts for travelling around Laos, which I will now summarise in two words: be polite. Take your shoes off at the door, don’t point, don’t go sticking your camera in someone’s face (especially a monk’s) and keep your feet off the furniture, etc.

So there you have it, ten things you should know before travelling to Laos. It really is a lovely country but it’s always wise to be prepared. Feel free to email me or comment below if you have any questions – or you have anything to add.

About Simon Petersen 296 Articles
Travel blogger, journalist, sports and movie fiend. Chronicling the life and times of a Kiwi at home and abroad.

17 Comments

  1. I’m in Laos now. One think I wasn’t prepared for was that it’s not only cheaper than Cambodia (presumably because Cambodia has converted their currency to dollars most of the time and rounded everything up) but also cleaner, with better roads and much better food.
    I’m writing this from Nong Khiaw and it’s about a third cheaper here for everything than it is in Luang Prabang. We haven’t had too many problems with tuk tuks.. Not sure when your post was written however I don’t think you can walk from the southern bus station in Vientiane, conversely in Vang Vieng it’s only 5 minutes if you get dropped off at the bus station that’s just south of the old airfield

  2. I’m a bit confused as I’ve been told Laos is similar to “the rest” (meaning some of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia) and now after reading you I truly believe Luang Prabang at least should be visited once. As I’m travelling next month to SEA would love to have your comments. Also have you entered Laos from Mekong? bus? plane?
    Great blog! Keep travelling!
    Luciana

    • Luang Prabang is not like the rest of Laos, in my opinion. It’s so much better – and I loved Laos! I didn’t enter Laos via the Mekong. I flew in from Hanoi, having travelled through Vietnam from south to north. I figured it would be too difficult going overland from up there to Luang Prabang.

    • Hi – Im in Luang Prabang right now. It’s expensive! I reckon at least 3x the cost incurred in Vietnam. I was very concerned that I had to leave Hanoi with 2 million Dong (no money exchange at Hanoi airport). I didnt need to be worried. he 2 million that would have lasted me a week in Vietnam (not including accom) lasted 2 days in Luang Prabang. DO NOT change money at Luang Prabang airport- the rates approach half what you get in town.
      A good room for 2 will cost 100,000 Kip. A wonderful Beerlao ranges from 9 to 15000 Kip.A restaurant meal – breakfast for example at 100,000 kip for 2 incl. 2 coffees each is a ripoff. Similarly, evening meals in restaurants are just to high. TukTuks- avoid them, ridiculous prices. Renting a motorbike is 5x the price of Vietnam at 20 dollars US per day. Sights- Luang Prabang is exceptionally lovely, temples everywhere.
      Infrastructure – non existent. The usual dirt roads and open sewers running directly into the Mekong.
      cheers

      • I know what you mean, we found it expensive straight after being in Vietnam. Unfortunately, most of Laos is more expensive than Vietnam – especially the 4,000 Islands. Great advice, though! And the price difference is something that’s definitely worth warning people about (I actually forgot about it).

  3. Nice one, Simon. Been a while since I was last in Laos so need to get back there soon (maybe New Year). Agree that Beer Lao is (by some distance) the best beer in South East Asia!

    Good tip too by Shimelle about having a meal somewhere first and chatting to staff; also holds true for other places around the world.

    • My God it’s a great beer! Yeah, it’s always worthwhile having a chat. I got talking to a barmen when I was in Cambodia and it was seriously one of the highlights of my trip. Imagine Sam Malone from Cheers but Cambodian with no teeth and the dream of one day buying a tuk-tuk!

    • No problem, I hope you have an excellent trip! Be sure to visit Luang Prabang; it’s my favourite place in all of SE Asia!

  4. Great list – Laos is the place I most wish I could just transport myself to when I need a break from real life!
    A couple things we learned from out time there:
    Know the fair tuk-tuk prices by having a meal somewhere near first and asking a staff member there what it should cost. We found the wait staff were almost always aware of these scams and helpful in telling you what you should expect to pay so you could ask up front then take it or leave it as deemed acceptable. I’m convinced these scams exist purely due to the number of times you just wouldn’t know what to pay because you don’t know the area. 🙂 at least in Laos we never met someone who tried to intimidate us into the price scam – which we got a lot in Hanoi.
    And in addition to Joma, the Scandinavian bakery is your friend. 🙂 great wifi, delish treats and they are in both Luang Prabang and Vientiane. We had been on the road for about 6 weeks by the time we got to Laos and I was lamenting the lack of brownies in SEAsia (forgive me, we all miss something now and then!) and my husband quietly snuck to the guesthouse desk to ask if they knew of anywhere and the desk clerk’s face lit up, as a brownie there was her favourite birthday treat. We always found it a little less busy than Joma if you need to work or concentrate, while Joma is great for meeting other travellers. 🙂

    • Thanks for the brilliant comment, Shimelle. Those are some very good tips! I do hear wonderful things about the Scandinavian bakery. Mmmm, brownies…

  5. Internet access is a problem, agreed, but I had excellent 3G data reception on my phone everywhere I traveled. Even in remote villages I found myself with full bars. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m lucking to get one bar of 3G reception in some neighborhoods.

    • Thanks Troy. It’s a reflection of the times we live in that not having decent signal strength is such an inconvenience!

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