Laos is a landlocked country steeped in nature, food, history, and Buddhism.
Laos is wrapped in a mountainous landscape, making it one of the most beautiful countries in Southeast Asia, even if it lacks the beaches of other countries. Adventure travel is big here. You can go zip-lining, kayaking, hiking, and cave tubing all in one day.
It used to be a popular destination for partying but, since the wild tubing days have been curtailed, it’s turned into a more relaxed, outdoor-oriented country.
Backpacking Laos is something you have to do, especially if you’re exploring Southeast Asia. I loved the country a lot more than I thought I would!
From the bustling night markets and stunning waterfalls of Luang Prabang to the epic mountain sunsets in Vang Vieng, I’m always amazed that more people don’t make the journey to this beautiful country.
I loved my time there and, while the country is no longer a “secret,” it’s still a lot less visited than its neighbors.
This travel guide to Laos will give you the best places to visit, tell you how to save money, how to get around, give you costs, and help you plan the best trip!
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Laos
1. Visit Vang Vieng
2. Visit the 4,000 Islands
3. Relax in Luang Prabang
4. Try the Gibbon Experience
5. See the Plain of Jars
Other Things to See and Do in Laos
1. Explore the Vieng Xai Cave City
Located close to Sam Nua (near the Vietnamese border), Vieng Xai Cave City served as living quarters for Laotian soldiers during the 1960s. You can see the living quarters as they were — the Kaysone Phomvihane Cave even has a working air-circulation pump. Guided tours are found at the Vieng Xai Caves Visitor Centre. Admission is 60,000 LAK ($6.90 USD). The bus there is 20,000 LAK ($0.25 USD) while a tuk-tuk (no matter how many people) is 150,000 LAK ($0.75 USD).
2. Trek to the Kuang Si Falls
This huge waterfall near Luang Prabang is breathtaking. Turquoise waters flow over rock ledges into dramatic pools perfect for swimming. The picture at the top of the page? Kuang Si! Definitely do not miss this place. Be sure to find the secret pool for a swim too! (My blog post has info on how to find it.) Admission is 20,000 LAK ($2.50 USD), and a tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang will cost 30,000-40,000 LAK ($3.50-4.60 USD).
3. See the Great Stupa (Pha That Luang)
The Great Stupa in Vientiane is a 148-foot gold-covered stupa (a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) and is considered the greatest monument in the country. Its exterior looks like a fortress with high walls, but the inside has many Buddhist, flower, and animal imagery throughout. You can admire the stupa from outside for free (which is what most people do). If you want to enter, admission is 10,000 LAK ($1.15 USD).
4. Head to Vientiane
The capital and largest city in Laos is full of important national monuments and temples, like the Great Stupa and the Sisaket Temple. While there, be sure to check out Buddha Park, a sculpture garden full of giant Buddha statues. It’s the most cosmopolitan city in the country, and you’ll find an up and coming foodie scene here.
5. See the waterfalls at the Bolaven Plateau
Located in Southern Laos close to the city of Pakse, the Bolaven Plateau is part of a crater that formed from an ancient volcano. Trek around the area and explore several of the waterfalls. The Bolaven Loop cuts through the entire crater and takes you close to all the falls. Each waterfall has its own entrance fee (usually between 5,000-10,000 LAK/$0.60-1.15 USD) as well as a parking fee for your bike (3,000-5,000 LAK/$0.35-0.60 USD).
6. Visit the Elephant Conservation Center
Located in Sainyabuli, the ECC was launched in 2011 by a team of elephant specialists working towards protecting the elephant population in Laos. It’s the best way to see elephants in a responsible way that doesn’t harm them. Prices start at 1,822,680 LAK ($210 USD) for a two-day visit while a seven-day volunteering session costs around 3,905,740 LAK ($450 USD).
7. Slow boat on the Mekong
Drift down the Mekong River on a long, narrow boat with comfortable seating, home-cooked meals, and a unique view of the countryside. You can find a ride typically from the border at Huay-Xai that will drop you off in Luang Prabang. Slow boats take two to three days. Prices will vary depending on the quality of your tour company, but an average tour will cost you around 1,000,000 LAK ($115 USD).
8. Phou Hin Poun Conservation Area
Mountains, a limestone forest, rivers full of rapids, and caves await you in the protected Phou Hin Poun area of Laos. The entire area is filled with unique species of flora and fauna, including macaques, tigers, and gibbons. (Yes, tigers.) A two-day guided trek will cost around 1,000,000 LAK ($115 USD) with everything included.
9. Get outdoors in Nong Kiew (Muang Ngoi)
Life in this quaint village on the Nam Ou River is slow and peaceful, but Nong Kiew is a popular draw for outdoor lovers. The towering limestone cliffs are ideal for experienced climbers, and there are many hiking trails leading to nearby waterfalls and caves. To get there, you can take a bus from Luang Prabang to Pak Mong and then a tuk-tuk the rest of the way.
10. Chat with a monk
On the first Sunday of every month, monks gather at the Sangha College in Vientiane to chat with tourists. You’re able to ask them about their practice and daily life, and in return, they’ll practice their English.
Laos Travel Costs
Accommodation – Accommodation in Laos is cheap. Dorm rooms are around 45,,000-80,000 LAK ($5-9 USD) per night, although hostels in Vientiane start at slightly higher prices around 52,075 LAK ($6 USD) per night. A private room in a hostel with air-con will cost between 115,000-175,000 LAK ($13-20 USD).
Almost every hostel offers free wifi and most also include free breakfast. It’s very rare for a hostel to have a kitchen, so don’t count on cooking your meals.
Budget hotels and guesthouses are widely available, usually starting around 110,000 LAK ($13 USD) for a twin or double room. If you’re looking to splurge on a four-star hotel with a pool, expect to pay at least 400,000 LAK ($46 USD) per night.
Airbnb is also available, with shared spaces starting at 80,000 LAK ($9 USD). A private room starts from around 130,190 LAK ($15 USD). An entire home or apartment goes for as little as 350,000 LAK ($40 USD), although prices are generally closer to 781,150 LAK ($50 USD).
Food – Since the country is landlocked, food is more expensive than in Thailand, but it’s still easy to eat cheap in Laos. Street food is usually around 15,000-20,000 LAK ($1.75-2.30 USD) per meal, like grilled meats, fresh fruits, and bowls of noodle soup. Traditional food at Lao restaurants, like laap (minced meat salad) and sticky rice should cost between 25,963- 43,272 LAK ($3-5 USD).
Western food will usually cost closer to 30,000 LAK ($3.45 USD) for fast food like pizza or burgers. If you’re looking for a meal at a restaurant, you will pay closer to 100,000 LAK ($11 USD) for food with drinks. Even with a balance of western meals and local dishes, you’ll be hard press to spend more than 120,000 LAK ($14 USD) per day.
If you have access to a kitchen, buy your own groceries. A week of groceries should cost between 216,362 -250,000 LAK ($25-30 USD).
Backpacking Laos Suggested Budgets
On a backpacker budget in Laos, you will spend about 303,780 LAK ($35 USD) per day. This budget will cover a hostel dorm, eating mostly street food, having a few drinks per night, taking public transit, and doing about one paid activity (or a couple cheap temples) per day.
A mid-range budget of about 564,162 LAK ($65 USD) per day will get you a private two-star hotel room or a private hostel dorm, taxis, fancier restaurants and Western food, and more activities per day. On this budget, you’ll be able to do whatever you want within reason. If you’re a budget traveler, you won’t want for anything.
A luxury budget from 1,657,770 LAK ($191 USD) per day will get you anything you want. Four-star hotels with swimming pools, fancy food, cocktails, tours – the sky is the limit if you’re spending this much money per day!
Use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.
Laos Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Laos is very cheap, so you’ll be hard-pressed to save tons of money if you are already traveling on a budget, eating local cuisines, not drinking a ton, and staying in hostels. That said, here are some ways to save money in Laos:
- Buy from the local markets – Buying your own food is infinitely cheaper than going to restaurants (not that they are even that expensive, however). If you’re on a budget, though, stick to the local markets. Fresh food will be the cheapest there.
- Stick to local transportation – Taxis and tuk-tuks may be convenient, but they will slowly ruin your budget. Stick to public transportation if you need to get around. If you do need to take a tuk-tuk or taxi, ask your hotel/hostel staff what you should expect to pay. This will make sure you don’t get ripped off!
- Avoid western food – Western food is always more expensive than local cuisine. While the prices aren’t that high, it will slowly add up throughout your trip. And anyway did you come to Laos to have a terrible burger? No. Eat the local food!
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will come particularly in handy in Southeast Asia since you can’t drink the tap water. Save money and thousands of plastic bottles and get a bottle that can purify the tap water for you. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw ($49.99).
Where To Stay in Laos
There are some excellent hostels in Laos to fit all budgets. My suggested places are:
How to Get Around Laos
Getting around Laos can be a challenge. The roads are poor, and you’ll likely have to navigate several mountain passes to get anywhere. Nothing is ever on time, and even short trips can turn into endless journeys.
City Transportation – Local public transportation starts around 2,000 LAK ($0.25 USD) and goes up from there based on distance. Taxis and tuk-tuks (small shared taxis with no meter) will require a bit of haggling and cost more than local transportation. If you have a destination in mind, ask the staff at your hostel how much you should expect to pay.
Flying – I don’t recommend flying unless you are super pressed for time. Domestic flights are costly, and there are frequent cancellations. Even booking far in advance, a flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang will cost you 867,940 LAK ($100+ USD) for a 50-minute flight. But if you must, these are Laos’ airlines:
- Laos Airlines
- Lao Skyway
Bus – Buses are the most common way to get between cities. Ticket prices vary between 80,000-130,000 LAK ($9-15 USD) for a five to six-hour ride. Local buses are pretty uncomfortable, and many don’t have air conditioning, but they’ll get you from point A to point B around the country. In busier towns, you’ll be able to purchase your ticket from just about any tour operator. This will include transit from your hotel/hostel to the station. Otherwise, you can show up at the city’s bus station. A trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang or Pakse shouldn’t cost more than 100,000 LAK ($11.50 USD).
There are also plenty of air-conditioned “VIP” buses. For example, a trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is just 130,190 LAK ($15 USD). Overnight buses cost 150,000-200,000 LAK ($17-23 USD) depending on the distance. You can usually buy tickets for these buses from your hostel/hotel. You can use 12go.asia to compare prices.
If you’re looking to head into a neighboring country, a bus from Vientiane to Hanoi will cost around 330,000 LAK ($38 USD). There is also a direct route between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai starting from 415,416 LAK ($48 USD), but keep in mind the ride is at least 20 hours. A bus from Vientiane to Bangkok takes about 15 hours and costs about 389,452 LAK ($45 USD).
Boat – One of the most popular ways to see Laos is via a slow boat between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang on the Mekong River. The journey takes two days, and the trip costs from about 250,000 LAK ($30 USD) per person. For a higher-end guided experience, you’ll pay more like 1,000,000 LAK ($115 USD).
For short trips (like Luang Prabang to the Pak Ou Caves), you can hire a river taxi from about 86,795 LAK ($10 USD) per hour.
When to Go to Laos
October to April is the best time to visit Laos. This is when the country’s weather is consistently warm and dry. (Keep in mind the mountainous areas experience much cooler temperatures year-round compared to the other parts of Laos.) It’s also the high season, so you can expect bigger crowds and inflated prices.
Elsewhere, April and May tend to be the hottest months, with temperatures as high as 104°F (40°C). The humidity can be extremely uncomfortable during this time too.
The rainy season is from late May to October. It’s still a pleasant time to visit. The rainfall each day never lasts long, the waterfalls flow heavier, and the wildlife becomes more active. Not to mention, there are fewer tourists around.
How to Stay Safe in Laos
Laos is a very safe country to backpack and travel around. Violent crime against travelers is really infrequent. Pick pocketing will be your biggest concern, and it often occurs in busy market areas (especially in Vang Vieng). Keep your wallet/purse close, and leave your valuables in a safety deposit box.
If you’re worried about scams, read about these travel scams and make sure you don’t fall for any!
If you’re hiking or sightseeing, always stay on the marked trail. Some places are strictly prohibited because of unexploded landmines. This is especially true around the Plain of Jars. It’s unlikely you’ll have a reason to wander off into a dangerous area but pay attention to signs and markers.
Always trust your gut instinct. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
Most people who get into trouble in Laos do so because they’re tangled up with drugs or the sex industry. Laos is strict about punishment when it comes to these offenses, so don’t be like other travelers and disrespect the local laws and customs.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in Laos. Follow that rule, and you’ll be fine.
The most important piece of safety advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Laos Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Laos. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- Momondo – This is my favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. The big cities have tons of listings!
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Agoda – Other than Hostelworld an Airbnb, Agoda is the best hotel accommodation site for Asia as it has the largest inventory and offers the best rates. If you want a guesthouse or hotel, book it via this website!
- 12go.asia – 12go.asia is the best website for booking transportation around Southeast Asia. You will be able to research your journey ahead of time and figure out the best schedule and prices.
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. Just enter your departure and arrival destinations, and it will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost. One of the best transportation website out there!
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Asia, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Laos Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Laos Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, by Brett Dakin
This is Brett Dakin’s insightful book about living in Laos as a foreigner. Most of it focuses on the characters that Brett meets along the way, like his boss, an intimidating and wealthy general who scares everyone he meets. Then there’s an elderly prince who longs for the time of French colonialism, and the American pilot who left home to fight and then never went back. You’ll learn about the new generation of Laos people who have more money than they can handle, and a communist way of life that is quickly fading. It’s an excellent read.
The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill
This is not something I’d typically read, but the Dr. Siri mystery series is legendary. This first book is set in Laos in 1978, when 72-year-old Dr. Siri Paiboun has been made the national coroner of the new socialist Laos. His lab is anything but boring, and when the wife of an important politican comes through his morgue, Siri suspects she has been murdered. Siri and his team fight their way through obstacles like corrupt government officials, spies, and even shamans to find the truth. This makes good reading for a long bus ride!
The Ravens: The True Story Of A Secret War In Laos, by Christopher Robbins
The Vietnam War in Laos did not officially exist…or at least both Vietnam and the USA denied they had troops there. But in reality, thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers invaded the country during this time — and the Americans fought against them from the air. The Ravens were the names given to top-secret volunteer Laotian pilots who flew through heavy groundfire to identify targets, working alongside the hill tribesmen above the Plain of Jars to protect their land. This is a riveting collection of survivor stories, based on extensive interviews.
Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos, by Natacha Du Pont De Bie
Laos isn’t typically considered a food destination when compared with other destinations in Southeast Asia, but Natacha Du Pont De Bie’s foodie book is here to convince you otherwise. The author will trek for hours (or even days) to search for a good meal, and this light-hearted book is the result of her adventures and the people she has met along the way. You’ll read stories about everything from drinking raw turkey blood with herbs in a tribal village to chowing down on heaps of fried crickets. It might even convince you to get adventurous!
Laos Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Laos travel and continue planning your trip:
Photo credits: 5 – Christian Haugen