Landlocked Laos is one of Asia’s most enchanting destinations. Stunning natural beauty—think mist-shrouded mountain peaks flanked by jungle-clad valleys—combine with a fascinating Buddhist culture to make Laos a superb destination for backpackers and independent travellers, while luxury tourists are also well-catered for.
Communist Laos flung open its doors to tourism in the early 1990s and the decades since have witnessed a steady growth in traveller numbers. The country is changing fast, but pockets remain well off-the-beaten-track, ready to be explored by the adventurous few who are willing to forego the usual tourist luxuries. Those who want to experience a real taste of rural Southeast Asian life will be delighted.
Our Laos travel guide is here to help you get the most out of each and every one of your trips to Laos, beginning with the simple guidelines below aimed at first-time travellers to the country.
The big questions every first-time traveller has:
People tend to make a beeline straight for Luang Prabang when they talk about the highlights of Laos. While it's true that the northern reaches of the country have more of the top-shelf attractions, the slow pace of travel in the south can also be very endearing. Most first-time travellers head to north Laos first, south second.
Luang Prabang: The charming city of Luang Prabang, once the capital of Laos and still considered to be its spiritual heart, breathes a rich meld of French Indochinese architecture, Theravada Buddhist temples and a magical atmosphere.
Vang Vieng: Natural wonder, backpacker mecca, party central, Lima Site 6: Vang Vieng, 155 kilometres north of Vientiane on the road to Luang Prabang, has been given many labels. The small town’s striking river landscape lined with towering karst has lured travellers right from the get-go and remains stunning despite being well-visited.
Vientiane: For many years a sleepy backwater capital of an equally backwater state, as Laos has slowly opened up to foreign investment and tourism Vientiane has undergone vast changes and continues to expand. It’s a small city with an easy charm, and it harbours growing ambitions.
4,000 Islands: We’re not sure if anyone has ever actually totalled up these islands at the far southern reaches of Laos, but there are at least three worth your attention: Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Dhon.
Nong Kiaow: A small town on the banks of the Nam Ou River, Nong Kiaow boasts a gorgeous backdrop of imposing limestone mountains, picturesque river views and genuine local colour.
Pakse: While it doesn’t measure up to the low-key splendour of Luang Prabang, Pakse has a definite charm, some beautiful wats and two gorgeous rivers—great for enjoying some eats and drinks by the waterside and watching the sun smoulder into the horizon.
Don Dhet: Referred to by some as Khao San Road on the river, Don Dhet is a classic backpacker hub with just a fraction of the shenanigans that take place on Khao San Road.
Luang Nam Tha: Nestled in mountainous northern Laos just a hop, skip and a jump from the Chinese border, Luang Nam Tha is an excellent base for trekking and other outdoor activities, particularly in and around the Nam Ha National Protected Area.
Phonsavan: Xieng Khuang province is the site of the mysterious Plain of Jars, the origins of which is unclear, inciting international debate. The best place to explore the Plain from is Phonsavan.
Muang Ngoi: A gorgeous, sleepy town, Muang Ngoi gets our vote as one of the friendliest places in all of Laos. Simple as that.350
Champasak: Set on the banks of the Mekong in one of its wider sections, Champasak is the kind of town where you can end up staying a few days just reading a book and recharging. It is also the leaping off point for spectacular Wat Phu.
Don Khong: The largest island in the Si Phan Don area, the interior of Don Khong is almost entirely given over to rice cultivation and a forested mountainous area, while just about all the accommodation is crammed into and around the sleepy town of Muang Khong, on the island’s east coast. Chill out here.
Vieng Xai: About an hour by songthaew from Sam Neua is the neat and tidy town of Vieng Xai, set among beautiful karst limestone mountains rising dramatically out of rice fields. During the Secret War this area was the seat of command for the most powerful members of the Pathet Lao; the caves they inhabited are the major reason for visiting Vieng Xai.
Tha Khaek: Across the Mekong River from the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom you’ll find Tha Khaek—the biggest, most tourist-friendly town in the province—and also the base for the best scooter loop in the country.
A lot of travel in Laos is all about the journey and in response to this there are a number of straightforward loops that can be undertaken, most commonly by scooter, though car and bicycle are also possible in most cases.370
Tha Khaek Loop: A 500-kilometre motorcycle journey starting and ending in Tha Khaek in Southern Laos, the Tha Khaek Loop (also known as the Konglor Loop or just the Loop) takes in the limestone scenery of Khammuan province, remote villages and many caves, of which the highlight is Konglor, a seven-kilometre long cave which has a large river running through the middle of it.
Bolaven Loop: One of the most rewarding experiences on offer in Southern Laos is a motorcycle trip through the Bolaven Plateau. It’s home to numerous waterfalls, great scenery, tribal villages and unexplored corners galore.
Pak Ou Loop : We’ve researched and created a full-day motorbike trip that gets you off-the-beaten track while covering two Luang Prabang attractions. We’re calling it “the Pak Ou Loop” since Pak Ou village marks the furthest point from Luang Prabang.
Chompet Loop: Just across the Mekong River from town is Chomphet district with a 23 kilometre dirt road loop that will take you through the countryside, past small villages, beautiful rice paddies and mountains. It’s bumpy and hilly with some very steep sections. The experience is like stepping back in time.
Vang Vieng Loop: Vang Vieng town itself can be an eyesore but it only takes 10 minutes on a bicycle to get out and find yourself surrounded by rice paddies, karsts and people planting rice by hand.
The Gibbon Experience: With stunning vistas and lush rainforests, the natural beauty of Laos is one of the primary reasons many people visit and the Gibbon Experience is one of the best ways to appreciate this beauty.
Trekking in the Nam Ha National Protected Area: Trekking is why most people come to Luang Nam Tha—your money goes to employing the local community and to park fees that fund wildlife/forest conservation projects and maintenance. Your visit also sends a message to villages about the value of protecting the environment.
Exploring Phou Khao Khouay National Park: Sprawling yet little-visited Phou Khao Khouay National Park (the name means “Buffalo Horn Mountain”) features some beautiful scenery and a vast array of biodiversity. Experience dense jungle as well as cool, misty pine forests, rivers and waterfalls, including noteworthy Tad Leuk and Tad Xay—both can be visited in a single day trip from Vientiane.
Kayaking in Vang Vieng: Now that Vang Vieng is attracting a different sort of traveller (the kind that aren’t interested in tubing), kayaking has exploded in popularity and trips down the river, ranging from an hour to a full day, are offered by several tour companies in town. Whatever vessel you choose, a trip on the river is a must while in Vang Vieng.
Buddha Park: More curious than spectacular—which makes for a curious spectacle—a rogue monk is said to have attempted to reconsolidate Buddhism and Hinduism into his own brand of mysticism through a prolific collection of sculptures depicting various deities and scenes from both religions. Today, it is known as Buddha Park.
The most popular time to visit Laos is between November and February. There is little rain but the rivers are high and the weather isn’t too hot. The Lao rainy season runs from May to October. April is very hot and can be very smoky due to farmers burning back. On the upside, April brings Lao New Year—the party to end all parties.
How long have you got?! For a first-time visitor looking to see just see Luang Prabang on a fly-in, fly-out trip, three days would suffice, but as soon as you get into multiple destinations, you’ll be needing at least a week. With two weeks you could explore one region of the country—raising the question, north or south? Overall, to touch on all the main bases across Laos you would really need three weeks at a minimum.
Bear in mind Laos has numerous overland border crossings with its neighbours, so visas permitting you can crisscross over it as you go from Thailand to Vietnam, for example. As with Cambodia, Laos fits well into regional trips.
If you are planning a longer stay, it pays to familiarise yourself with Laos’ visa rules.
Your budget will depend very much on your style of travelling. If you’re comfortable in very simple accommodation, eating street food, not drinking too much alcohol, travelling using cheap transport and steering clear of heavily touristed (and so more expensive) destinations, you can still survive on around US$15 per day—more in Luang Prabang and maybe a couple of dollars less if you’re especially frugal and travelling as a couple.
Most independent budget travellers though tend to spend more. That air-con room is tempting, as is the pool and WiFi, latte and occasional VIP bus or short domestic flight. All these conspire to push daily budgets up to around a more comfortable US$20-$30 per day.
If your tastes veer more towards the luxurious, then Laos does offer terrific value — especially in the accommodation stakes, with lovely and tasteful offerings in the US$50-$150 mark scattered across the country. Food and entertainment costs can rising accordingly. Likewise, you can also spend north of a thousand dollars per day for truly luxurious settings — think private pool villas and so on — flying everywhere and fine dining the whole way along. We can’t speak of this personally though!
Despite being one of the poorer nations on earth, Laos is a very safe country to travel in. Petty theft, particularly the snatch and grab variety, is a bit of a problem, but only really in the capital Vientiane. Drugs are readily available in some centres, notably Vang Vieng and Don Dhet. Partakers should exercise a great degree of care as overdoses and deaths are not unheard of — not to mention buying is illegal.
Violent crime specifically aimed at foreign travellers remains rare, but does happen. Use your common sense, stay under control and, if a situation becomes uncomfortable, leave or seek assistance immediately. Don’t, in general, trust tuk tuk drivers offering extra services. Don’t change money with them, don’t let them take you to get your visa at their suggestion, don’t leave your bags with them and always agree on a price before you get in the tuk tuk.
Laos has some wonderfully warm and hospitable individuals who will have your back in a pinch. Yet, as anywhere, you may come across a predatory opportunist seeking out the unwary or naive. Be compassionate, be friendly, be open-hearted, but do remember where you are.
On the road in Laos can be interesting. Whether you’re travelling on foot or by bicycle, motorbike or car, do not enter the road with any expectations whatsoever. Be prepared for anything! Don’t expect people to drive at a speed comparable to your own, don’t expect people to drive on the correct side of the road, don’t expect people to wait for you to get out of their way, don’t expect people to use lights or turn signals, and don’t expect people to pay any attention to what you’re doing or signalling, particularly if they have a family of six and a TV balanced on their motorbike while they are texting and driving—they have other stuff on their mind.
Always, always always wear a helmet when on a motorbike in Laos.
Basically if you wouldn’t do it in your home country because it is stupid, why do it in Laos?
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.