Laos is a great place to kick back and relax especially after a few months on the road. We had originally planned to travel from north eastern Cambodia through the south of Laos up to the northern mountains, but after the realisation of how much land travel this would involve (at least 2 on busses and not so great roads), we changed our minds. Rightly or wrongly, we flew from Siem Reap up to Luang Prabang. This meant missing out the four thousand islands region, some caves, Vientiane and Vang Vieng. It did however mean we had plenty of time to enjoy the north and minimised long bus journeys.
While travelling in Laos, we spent for 17 days, we spent £625. Of that sum, we spent 19% in accommodation, 33% on food, 11% on transport, 29% on activities and 8% on various other things.
Many nationalities receive a 30 day visa on arrival in Laos. The cost of this ranges from $15-45 along with the additional visa processing fee of $1. The whole process at Luang Prabang airport was very well organised and queue times were minimal. The officials were friendly and efficient.
The currency in Laos is the Laotian Kip (LAK). Even though some guesthouses and tourist agencies will display prices in USD, they all accept Kip. We never paid for anything is USD as the exchange rates tended to be fairly poor. We withdrew Kip from ATMs but all of them have a charge which is usually around 22,000LAK regardless of amount withdrawn. This is a little annoying but just the way things are. We paid everything in cash. Card payments seemed to more relevant when buying higher priced items in shops (which we did not do). We could have paid our trekking tour by card but with the 3% card fee it was cheaper to pay cash.
Laos is slowly developing a transport system that relies heavily on buses, minivans and boats. The roads are in variable states of repair, but mostly paved and in good condition. This relates more to holes than bumps though. Our biggest complaint was the motion sickness inducing rally driving style of our minivan driver between Nong Khiaw and Luang Namtha. We also heard similar stories from other travellers on different routes which makes it sound likea countrywide issue. If possible, we recommend taking a bus or minibus over a minivan. They take longer and cost onky marginally more. From our experience there are way more vans than bigger busses so they might be difficult to avoid. All of them are well organised at bus stations although these tend to be situated well out of town (as far as 10km). If you book your ticket through a hostel of agency the price includes pickup (at your accommodation) and the ride to the bus station. Boat travel is bearable, but not necessarily comfortable and pretty slow. Bear in mind that certain places can only be reached by boat. We found boats to be well organised.
The choice of accommodation in the places we visited was decent. It is worth pre booking accommodation in Luang Prabang, especially around Chinese New Year as it often gets booked out. In Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi we found showing up and haggling to be a good way to get a deal. It definitely helps with the bartering if who intend to stay more than just two nights. Chances for discounts go up the longer you stay in one place. When looking at rooms it is worth checking the bed for signs of bed bugs. They seem to be a problem in Laos and we were unlucky enough to meet a few. Also we heard stories from other people who had even more of them than us. On average we paid just under 90,000LAK (£7.80) per night for the two of us. Paying around 60,000 for a room usually gets you a clean (probably abit dated) room with a fan. If you are lucky you even get a private bathroom but don’t expect air conditioning. Those rooms tend to start at 80,000.
Lao food has influences from all it’s neighbouring countries and we found it pretty tasty. Most main dishes cost around 30,000 LAK (£2.60) including rice. The national dish Laab is like a mincemeat salad and worth a try. The best value sandwiches in South East Asia can be found in Luang Prabang near the night market. We found eating out for breakfast to be less value for money compared to the more local dishes. The locals we saw eating breakfast had a bowl of soup in street eateries so anything that resembles a western style breakfast automatically costs more as it is purely aimed at tourists.
Laos has enough to do to keep you busy but not so much to stuff your itinerary. There are fewer tourists but a well established well trodden path between attractions. We really enjoyed taking part in some of the charity activities such as Big Brother Mouse and the UXO museum in Luang Prabang. Generally the main things to do in the north are trekking to villages, caves and/or waterfalls, meeting elephants and going rafting or kayaking on a river. The water options depend on the river, time of year and whether somebody built a dam across the river.
Lao for beginners:
Hello – Sabaidee
Thank you (very much) – Khop Chai (lai lai)
Goodbye – La Khawn
Laos is the most laid-back country in South East Asia, so it is a great place to relax. The people are friendly, the food is good and the culture is interesting. We enjoyed our time there enough to go back, but it is probably best to focus on one part of the country as travelling between places isn’t the most enjoyable experience.