For 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:
1. 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).
4. 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.
7. 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.
9. 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.