We had high expectations coming into Laos — it had a lot to prove to us, given the blog name and all. It’s funny, while we were there we didn’t quite LOVE it. Yes we enjoyed it, we had great experiences that we appreciated then and there, in the moment. But overall, Laos is sleepy, less comfortable, and more homogeneous than its neighbors in SE Asia – at least that is what we found. Looking back though, we realize that Laos grows on you, crawls under your skin, and says come back! I wouldn’t mind with those gorgeous mountains, plenty of sabai-dees!, and the most fun we’ve had in a single day at Songkran.
So with that in mind, here’s some general observations, fun facts and some advice on traveling in Laos:
We were in a fairly unique position when it comes to entering the country. Traveling on a Russian passport, we were permitted to enter the country visa-free and stay for up to 15 days.
We crossed Laos borders three times, all by land:
- Twice between Laos and Vietnam: Na Maew – Nam Xoi, and Dansavanh – Lao Bao border crossings – and we had no trouble getting our entry stamps.
- For Dansavanh – Lao Bao crossing we came from Hue, Vietnam by VIP bus, which was very easy to arrange once in Hue (you can find detailed account over on 20 Years Hence).
- We brought our motorbike (with Vietnamese plates) across Na Maew – Nam Xoi border, and again had no problems.
- We also crossed into Thailand over at Vientiane – Nong Khai Friendship Border Crossing, which was a breeze. There are so many regular buses running between the two cities, it’s almost like hopping on inner-city bus. The whole journey is maybe an hour at the most.
We have never been asked for / nor given any ‘informal’ fees at any of these border crossing points.
We took the bus a handful of times, and learned two very important things:
- It will most likely leave early, once it gets full – so ALWAYS show up early, even if you already have tickets.
- There is no need to purchase tickets through a hotel, you can always buy at the bus station.
Our main mode of transportation was a motorcycle, and it was spectacular. On our journey from Vang Vieng to Na Mae – Nam Xoi border we encountered almost ideal roads until the very end. From what we could glean the reason is that China is building infrastructure to ensure trade. For us that meant smooth riding, high up into the mountains, with no traffic but an occasional delivery truck or tourist bus. That said the roads were full of twists and turns, and often steep hills, so take that into consideration if planning to take the DIY motorcycle approach. There are elevation maps available if your really want to plan your itinerary.
With the exception of Xaychaleuang Guesthouse in Luang Prabang, we found budget accommodations to be so-so in Laos. We had plenty of enjoyable stays due to overall ambiance – but they just weren’t extremely comfortable. We slept on a LOT of hard beds, dealt with stuffy rooms due to mosquito nets, and struggled with wifi access. In general, accommodations were less charm, more shabby vibe. I do have to say that most of the places we stayed had awesome views – the nature in Laos is glorious.
FOOD & DRINK
BeerLao, BeerLao, BeerLao. Did we mention BeerLao? That’s one national brand in Laos, and it’s a big deal. You will consume lots of it, even if you try to avoid it. You see, locals like to play this game, which can be loosely called: one beer case, one glass.
It goes like so: crack open a beer, feel a glass with ice, pour beer over it – first person, bottoms up. This first person then refills the glass, and passes the beer and ice glass on to the next person. Bottoms up, repeat until the case is empty. And remember, it’s impolite to refuse the offering.
The food was good, but not great. In general we found the amalgamation of Thai and Vietnamese fare to be less tasty and more pricy. Jenia was into the Laos’ national dish – laab, a salad made of minced meat lightly poached in broth, then dressed with chilies, fresh herbs, and roasted rice. Also – sticky rice, which is served as accompaniment to every meal! A full fish or chicken thigh, rubbed in salted, stuffed with lemongrass and fried on a grill is commonplace. We had dinner by the river in Vientiane, which was excellent. What we both enjoyed most were the western-style sandwiches sold everywhere across Laos. In Luang Prabang, there is quite a bit of Western food on offer, but do your research or you’ll eat a lot of duds.
And last word of advice – beware, traditional Lao food is spicy, even compared to Southern Thai cuisine, so humble your ego and temper your expectations, order “medium” spicy and adjust from there.
MOBILE & INTERNET
We got sim cards from Unitel when we arrived in Savannakhet, our first destination in Laos. It was relatively straightforward and easy process, and we paid 50,000 LAK for one card plus 1 GB of data that lasted us all three weeks, though we were careful and monitored our usage unlike the never-ending sim card we purchased in Vietnam. Overall, having internet connectivity was clutch for motorbike traveling to remote areas, but it wasn’t fast, nor was it steady. If you are doing buses and regular guesthouses, we would say skip it.
Internet connectivity in guesthouses and cafes was spotty – with exception of Luang Prabang. In general though we could always get a connection to check email and do some research on destinations ahead. Laos is not a digital nomad destination unless, of course, you can do your work without the internet (ha!).
We shopped and shopped to our heart’s content in Luang Prabang night market and loved it! Tourist markets is one place where Lao really shine – no pressure, browse as much you like, come back several times, whatever. You probably won’t be able to bargain much, but prices are low and quality is excellent – at least for hand-woven textiles. I love the blanket/ throw piece that I got and only wish that I bought more.
There’s not much opportunity to shop for souvenirs elsewhere in the country, so if you do want to take mementos home Luang Prabang is a must stop in Laos.
Sergey got a UXO t-shirt in Phonsavan as a token of support really, rather than souvenir.
VALUE, CASH, MONEY
Laos was our most affordable country that we visited on our 14 month long trip through Southeast Asia and Southeast Europe. Aside from choosing budget accommodations, we did not restrain our spending and in the end only averaged about $26.50 per day per person over 25 days. That total includes the bit of extra money we ended up paying for a motorcycle purchased in Vang Vieng, but which also ended up saving us a bunch of money in the way of bus tickets and scooter rentals in places like Luang Prabang – so that’s probably a wash.
Prices for everything generally start at 10,000 Lak – or about one US dollar – and increase from there in those increments. That’s at least how much it costs to take the tuk-tuk for any length, to buy a bottle of water, or a bottle of BeerLao, etc. Bargaining is generally futile – it’s just not how Lao do. Maybe at the tourist market in Luang Prabang, but even then, it’s touch and go. However, if you do get to bargain, Lao people are too nice and you will feel bad, given how affordable prices are.
I read The Indochina Chronicles by Phil Karber. A retired US Army veteran who fought in Vietnam and now lives there as an expat, Karber takes the readers down the memory of the US military engagement in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, his personal involvement in the fighting, and the changes that have transpired in the region since the wars ended. The narrative jumps between personal anecdotes, historic facts, and general commentary on daily life in Southeast Asia, as Karber traces the Mekong River with a friend – which can sometimes get confusing. But overall a highly enjoyable travelogue, which had me laughing more than a few times, and crying (but just a little).
We mostly relied on Lonely Planet and Rough Guides when we needed to get the gist on Laos, and googled from there. There’s plenty of blog posts about Laos, but few travel sites provide comprehensive information on Laos.
20 years hence has a very nice round-up of Laos travel posts.
Travelfish – generally the best travel planning resource on Southeast Asia, including Laos.
Pinterest – I generally like to collect all my travel ideas and resources on pinterest, so take a look at my Laos board as well.
Lastly, please read up on good manners guide for observing Tak Bak ceremony in Luang Prabang.
Oh, and before we sign off, one last tip – DON’T DO DRUGS in Laos. We aren’t preachy, you do what you do, and as long as you aren’t hurting anyone we aren’t bothered in the least. But we’ve heard from a number of Westerners in Laos that when the party ended in Vang Vieng, the crackdown on drugs spread to the rest of the country. Plainclothes and uniformed policemen have since caught on to the fact that tourists who break the “No Drugs” rule are lucrative targets – so you can expect a vigilant watch for those who break the rules. A hefty $500 fee will be required to retrieve your passport, if taken away.