After 10 days in Myanmar, which was a lot easier on my wallet than I thought it would be, the next stop on my solo Southeast Asia trip was a week backpacking around Laos. I had heard wonderful things about Laos and couldn’t wait to explore it myself.
What greeted me was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited in my life, with Luang Prabang climbing high on my list of favourite cities in the world.
Backpacking Around Laos
My Itinerary: I spent around seven days in Laos, including travel days. I flew into Luang Prabang and flew out of Vientiane. I spent two days in LP, three days in Vang Vieng and two days in the capital. However, I wish I had spent more time there, especially in Luang Prabang. I’d recommend two weeks instead for backpacking around Laos.
Disclaimers: Prices are listed in Laos kip and US dollars. At the time of my visit (October to November 2016), the exchange rate was roughly 8,000K to US$1, and you should be aware that my haggling skills are awful!
Before you go
Visa: Most passports need a visa for Laos and you can get it on arrival or in advance. You will need a passport-sized photo (you can be smiling in it) or you can pay US$1 for one at the airport. For my UK Passport, I paid US$35 plus a US$1 processing fee in US dollars, though others coming from Thailand paid in Thai baht.
Vaccinations: Before I travelled, I had vaccinations against diphtheria, polio, tetanus, hepatitis A and typhoid, all of which were recommended for Laos as well as other places I was visiting on my Southeast Asia tour. There are no high-risk malarial zones in Laos, so no malaria tablets are needed, though stock up on bug spray because you will get bitten!
Insurance: I bought the Explorer plan (worldwide) with World Nomads because they are the only company I can find that will cover me once I’m already abroad, which I always am seeing as I live outside of the UK. For two and a half months this cost me £176.23 (US$215). There is a cheaper basic version, but the Explorer plan covers a lot more.
Money: Laos kip is soft currency so you can’t get it outside of Laos. However, there were ATMs in all the places I went to and they worked fine with my UK Visa debit card.
Awareness and Safety: Laos may be one of the safest places I have ever travelled to. Especially in Luang Prabang, I felt very safe on the streets at night, but as a solo female traveler I am always extra careful. I always hold my bag very close or use a backpack with a lock, as I was warned that bag-snatching is known to happen in Vientiane and that there are some pickpockets around too.
My trusty Lonely Planet warned me about potential hostel theft in Vang Vieng, which implicates staff more than burglars, so I always kept my belongings locked and out of sight even in the room at my guesthouse.
Also, it’s worth noting that Laos is a much more conservative country than other places in Southeast Asia. So, for both guys and girls, it’s a good idea to cover up your knees, carry a sarong just in case and something that covers your shoulders, as entrance to most tourist attractions requires this.
Long Bus Journeys: I travelled between Luang Prabang and Vientiane via Vang Vieng, and it was easy to buy bus tickets from my hostels the day before travelling.
- Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng (minibus) 100,000K (US$12.3) The route is beautifully scenic and I was happy just to look out of the window and listen to music. I found the journey to be smooth, but one passenger was very sick, so I guess it depends on your motion sickness tolerance. Some Canadian travellers I met told me the road was too dangerous so they weren’t going to Vang Vieng, but nothing on my journey gave me this impression and there are many buses that go every day. The driving was slow, and at one point we all had to get out of the minibus so that the vehicle could go over a bump in the road, but that was fine. The bus terminus in Vang Vieng is a five-minute walk into the centre of town, and it was easy to find my hostel from the drop-off point.
- Vang Vieng – Vientiane (minivan) 50,000K (US$6.15), leaving at 9am from my hostel and arriving at the bus terminus in Vientiane around 1.30pm. The bus terminus was conveniently right next to my hostel so I didn’t have to pay for a tuk-tuk transfer.
Accommodation: US$7 per night at DownTown Backpacker’s Hostel (two nights). It was clean, with good facilities and a great location. The WIFI wasn’t great and there were fans instead of air-con, but this seems to be a general rule when backpacking around Laos. The hostel has a great atmosphere for meeting other backpackers.
Meals: Most backpackers feast at the buffet-style, vegetarian street food places next to the Handicraft Night Market. Fill up a bowl for a fixed price of 15,000K (US$1.9), and the vendor heats up the contents in a wok for you.
Transport: I booked a transfer from Luang Prabang airport through my hostel (50,000K 10 minutes into town), but there is also a signposted 50,000K taxi stand just outside of the arrivals gate. Everywhere was walkable within the city centre.
Best café: Due to Laos’ former French colonial status, café culture is huge though, like much of Luang Prabang, only really caters to tourists and expats. I loved Indigo Café for its delicious sweet Laos iced coffee (25,000K – US$3), but the crown has to go to L’Étranger Books & Tea, where I had a light dinner of chips and dip, plus a coconut shake, followed by a viewing at their nightly film screenings (7pm).
Best attraction: Other than Kuang Si falls and the multitude of gorgeous temples around town, I loved simply walking along the Mekong River, the palace museum and climbing Phu Si for sunset (sweaty, extremely busy, and costs 20,000K – US$2). The atmospheric Handicraft Night Market is also gorgeous.
Best snack: Coconut pancakes from the night market. Stallholders rustle up these sweet doughy domes in front of you and they taste absolutely delicious. They are a steal at only 5,000K (US$0.5) for a bag.
Don’t miss: Kuang Si waterfalls (16,000K park admission – US$2), plus transport or tour costs (around 100,000K – US$12.3). I missed it and deeply regret it, but that’s all the more reason to come back!
Accommodation: US$5.6 per night at Nok et Mika Guesthouse. The French-Laos couple who ran the guesthouse were lovely, but it wasn’t the nicest place that I stayed in. Their son stayed in the dorm room too, which was a little awkward.
Meals: I really struggled for cheap food in Vang Vieng that didn’t taste generic. Everywhere seemed to be catering to the drunken tubing backpacker crowd. There were bad burgers and pizzas in ‘happy bars’ that play episodes of Friends on repeat. I ate at the famed Luang Prabang Bakery a few times. But, other than the beautifully decorated cakes it wasn’t anything to shout about.
Transport: Tuk-tuk trucks are cheap you’re in a group, otherwise cycling is better. The town itself is small enough to walk around and activities usually come with hostel pick-up included.
Other costs: There are plenty of tour packages and excursions to do, costing between 100,000-150,000K (US$12.3-18.5) depending on what you want to do. Activities including caving, zip-lining, tubing, kayaking, trips to the blue lagoon, treks and climbing, in different combinations. Day-trips often include a meal as well, and the guides are really friendly and amazingly seem to speak all languages.
Don’t miss: Kayaking on the Nam Song. Though bikini-clad tubers frequent this stream for the watery bar crawl that you can do along it, I had much more fun kayaking the river with a guide.
Accommodation: Around US$5.6 per night. I stayed at Avalon B&B and it was exactly what you want from a hostel. Very clean, helpful and informative staff, and a perfect location next to the bus terminus.
Meals: There are plenty of Laos, Asian and Western options to choose from, costing around 20,000-40,000K (US$2.5-5). There’s a night market with street food with cheap eats too. I loved the cafes, such as The Scandinavian Bakery and JoMa Bakery. (40,000K or US$5 for cake, coffee and juice).
Transport: I walked everywhere in town and took a bus to Buddha Park. Buddha Park is outside of the city and the bus costs 6,000K (US$0.7) each way. A tuk-tuk ride to the airport took 15 minutes and cost 50,000K (US$6).
Best sights: Wat Si Saket and Haw Pha Kaew are well worth a visit. Entrance to both was 5,000K (US$0.6) and they are opposite each other. Then, be sure to walk up Th Lan Xang to Patuxai, which is stunning when lit up at sunset. You can also pay to go up and see the view from the top. Patuxai is known as the ‘vertical runway’. It was made using concrete donated by the US that was supposed to be used to build an airport!
Don’t miss: Buddha Park (also known as Xieng Khuan), which is a bus ride out of town (no.14). Be aware that the bus stop is a little difficult to find. The park is a weird mix of art and religion, plus a great place to explore. Entrance to the park was 3,000K (US$0.4) and apparently 5,000K (US$0.6) extra for a camera, though I wasn’t charged for my phone.
Other tips: If you want to cool off, head to one of the hotels and pay for a day pass to their pool. Backpacking around Laos on a budget, I did the cheaper option, which was a day pass at Vientiane Swimming Pool; a public pool with an entrance fee of 15,000K (US$1.8). This was exactly what I needed for the hottest part of the day.
Things I might have missed
Kuang Si Falls, near Luang Prabang: I definitely regret not spending more time in Luang Prabang. I’m especially upset about missing these picturesque waterfalls. (16,000K/US$2 park admission, plus transport or tour costs at around 100,000K/US$12.)
Huary Xi: If I’d had more time and money, I would have taken a boat up the Mekong to Huay Xi. You can book a trip with the Gibbon Experience and stay over in their jungle treetop houses.
Basically, backpacking around Laos for only a week only gave me a taste of the country. However, it was enough to ensure that I’ll definitely be back one day for sure! Leave much more time than you think you’ll need, as everyone I met wished they were staying longer.
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