When travellers discuss their adventures in Southeast Asia, Laos is not a common topic of conversation. That’s precisely why you should include Laos in your Southeast Asian travel itinerary.
Having only opened up to tourism in 1989, this landlocked country maintains an authentic and off-the-beaten-track vibe, which is becoming increasingly rare to find. Many people are unaware that Laos boasts breathtaking landscapes, a rich cultural heritage, thrilling adventures, and warm hospitality.
We’ve created this ultimate guide to Laos to share with you everything that this unique country has to offer.
Is Laos worth visiting?
Unlike certain Southeast Asian countries, Laos offers a place where time appears to slow down, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the present moment and embrace the genuine warmth exuded by the Laotian people.
There are plenty of things to keep you engaged during your time in Laos, such as kayaking along the tranquil Nam Ou River, exploring the mesmerising Kuang Si Falls near Luang Prabang, and observing saffron-robed monks partake in the silent alms-giving ritual.
That’s before we even mention the unforgettable treks that await throughout the country, allowing you to uncover remote villages in the northern region along the way.
Is Laos safe?
Generally, Laos is considered a safe place to travel. Like with almost every other country in the world, petty theft and pick-pocketing can occur, especially in busier areas. Always make sure to keep an eye on your belongings.
Another thing to be aware of is that Laos has a relatively high rate of traffic accidents, especially ones involving motorbikes. If you’re going to rent a moped or motorbike, make sure that you’re confident driving one, understand the rules of the road and wear a helmet.
Best destinations in Laos
Top 3 destinations in Laos
For a relatively small country, there are a whole host of destinations to pick from in Laos — islands in the Mekong River, remote villages and motorbike loops comparable to those in Vietnam. As hard as it was to choose, these are our favourite places in Laos:
Vientiane — a charming Southeast Asian capital city
First up is the capital city of Laos, Vientiane. It doesn’t compare in size to other Southeast Asian capital cities, but what it lacks in size, it makes up with charm. After being colonised by the French, this city boasts a unique blend of French colonial architecture right next to stunning Buddhist temples.
If you’re looking to try some of Laos’ best dishes, then the place to head is the night markets. They’re full of delicious food and smiling faces. Aside from eating your way through the capital city, it’s also an important place to learn about Laos’ challenging history and resilience.
If you’re flying into the capital of Laos, here’s everything you need to know about getting to and from Vientiane airport.
Luang Prabang — mystical waterfalls and meditative monks
Luang Prabang is one of Laos’ most famous destinations. It might be due to the mystical Kuang Si waterfalls or it could have something to do with the fact that you can witness observing saffron-robed monks partake in the silent alms-giving ritual — a truly magical experience.
The city itself is filled with streets that you could wander for hours and a surprising amount of greenery. The historic centre of Luang Prabang is so beautiful that it’s been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Vang Vieng — Laos’ party and adventure hotspot
Vang Vieng is pretty well known in Laos but for very different reasons from Luang Prabang. Have you seen travellers floating down a river in rubber rings with a beer or two in their hands? That’s more than likely Vang Vieng. It’s become a thing here.
Aside from partying, there’s plenty of potential for adventure in Vang Vieng. Hop on an ATV or explore the river by kayak instead. It’s also a popular spot to jump in a hot air balloon, take to the skies and admire Laos’ incredible countryside.
Fancy visiting Vang Vieng after Luang Prabang, here’s how.
When is the best time to visit Laos?
Understanding the best time to visit Laos is simple, as it experiences two seasons: dry and wet.
Dry season (October to April)
Laos’ dry season runs from October to April, offering sunny days and comfortable temperatures, sparing you from constant sweating.
While there may be more tourists during this period, Laos is not overly crowded yet, so it won’t really impact your experience of the country.
Wet season (May to September)
The rainy season occurs between May and September, coinciding with some of the hottest months in Laos, with temperatures reaching 35°C and above from March to June.
Fortunately, the rainy season shouldn’t ruin your visit to Laos as rainfall is generally intermittent throughout most months. Only August and September, with the heaviest rainfall, should potentially be avoided.
Another thing to note is that certain regions in Laos are at higher altitudes, resulting in lower temperatures. The north, central, and eastern regions are generally higher in altitude, while the south experiences higher temperatures.
How to get around in Laos
Laos certainly isn’t as developed in its infrastructure as its neighbours, but things are improving. New roads are currently being built that will cut journey times in half and make them a lot more comfortable. Right now, here are the best ways to get around in Laos:
One of the cheapest ways to get around Laos is using the local, government-owned buses, but we can’t guarantee an enjoyable ride. These buses are usually cramped, hot and uncomfortable. But if you’re on a budget, maybe it’s worth the adventure.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are VIP buses that are run by private companies. These buses are more like coaches, won’t be overcrowded and are much more comfortable. If you’re travelling on a VIP night bus, then you can expect to enjoy a flatbed-style seat.
How to book bus tickets in Laos
A slightly different option to the bus is to take a minibus. These run between the most popular destinations in Laos, but they’re not too dissimilar to the public bus situation. They can be crowded and uncomfortable, but the journey time will be shorter.
An expressway is currently being built in Laos, with the first section being opened in 2021. This has decreased journey times significantly. For example, the journey between Vientiane and Vang Vieng used to be 4 hours, now it’s 2 hours. But, you will have to pay a few more dollars if your bus takes the route to cover the tolls.
The Laos-China Railway (LCR) is doing a great job at making travel around Laos easier. It currently connects six stations in Laos including Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Muang Xay, Luang Namtha and Boten.
There are two types of trains, ordinary and fast trains that can reach speeds of up to 160 km/h. This means that you can now travel between Vientiane and Luang Prabang in a little less than 2 hours.
How to book train tickets
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to book the train tickets online. You’ll need to go to the train station no more than two days in advance to buy your tickets. You’ll need your passport when you purchase the tickets and when you board the train.
You’ll find taxis in the form of cars, tuk-tuks and moto-taxis here in Laos. Each form of transportation varies in price as they also differ in comfort. You’ve probably guessed that a taxi will be the most expensive, but you’re in Southeast Asia so it won’t break the bank.
When using any form of taxi, make sure to agree on a price before getting in.
Grab isn’t available in Laos
Unfortunately, the popular ride-hailing app, Grab, isn’t available in Laos, but they do have their own local version called Loca. It operates in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, Vang Vieng and Savannakhet. It essentially works the same as Grab. You install an app, order your ride and you can pay with either card or cash.
There are two domestic airlines in Laos, Lao Airlines and Lao Skyway. They provide domestic flights between places such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Pakse and more.
Flying can be a more efficient and time-saving way to travel around Laos, but it’s also more expensive and not great for the environment. Taking a short-haul flight can be up to 10 times more polluting than taking a more environmentally-friendly option like a bus.
Entry requirements and visa for Laos
All travellers need an approved visa to visit Laos. Thankfully, citizens from around 160 countries are able to apply online for Laos eVisa. You can check whether you’re from one of those countries on Handyvisas.
The visa is a single entry permit that allows travellers to stay in the country for up to 30 days. For the UK, US, EU countries and more, the visa fee is $50. You can check how much the visa will cost for you using Laos’ eVisa calculator.
The eVisa is usually processed within 3 working days and will be sent to you by email. Make sure to have a paper copy of your visa.
You will need your passport to be valid for at least 6 months to apply for the eVisa.
Must-try Laotian food
You’ve probably been to a Vietnamese or Thai restaurant at home, but have you ever eaten Lao food? For many of us, the answer is probably not. It really doesn’t get as much attention as its neighbours, but trust us, it should.
Here are some foods that you can’t leave Laos without trying:
- Sticky rice — Laos loves sticky rice. You can find it being served as part of every meal of the day. It’s said that the average Lao citizen eats more sticky rice than anyone else in the world.
- Larb — you could describe Larb as a minced meat salad, commonly made with any type of meal or fish. You can also find vegetarian variations of it where tofu or mushrooms are used instead. It’s made with a combination of herbs, greens and spices, and can be served either cooked or raw. Obviously, it’s served with sticky rice!
- Baguette Paté (Khao Jii Paté) — when France left Laos, they left behind their architecture and also their baguettes. Khao Jii Paté is very similar to the famous Vietnamese Banh Mi, but instead of cilantro and pickles, Lao uses watercress, grated carrots and chile-garlic sauce. You can find these all over the streets.
- Lao Sausages (Sai Uah, Sai Gok) — after trying a Lao sausage, you’ll find western sausages pretty boring. These are pork sausages that are packed with herbs and spices that create a brilliantly flavourful taste. You can also find a variation that is made using buffalo meat. You’ll find this sausage served with sticky rice (obviously) and fresh vegetables.
Essential travel tips for Laos
Here’s a selection of the best tips and pieces of information that may make your trip to Laos that bit easier:
Paying with Lao Kip in Laos
The official currency in Laos is the Lao Kip (LAK). In Vientiane, Thai Baht and US Dollars are also widely accepted.
Credit and debit cards are mainly only accepted in hotels and upscale restaurants, so most of the time you’ll rely on cash. Even if a place does accept card, they’ll often add a 3% fee to the transaction.
You’ll find plenty of ATMs throughout Laos, especially in the bigger cities, however, they’re pretty annoying. They have low withdrawal amounts and all of them charge a withdrawal fee.
You will find ATMs all over Laos, but there is a low maximum transaction. Laos ATMs may only dispense 700,000k to 2,000,000k. BCEL has the highest single transaction limit.
Fees also vary between ATMs. Some will charge you a flat fee of around 20,000k per transaction, whilst others will apply a percentage fee.
When using an ATM, it might ask you which conversion rate you would like to accept. Always decline the ATMs conversion rate. Your bank will always give you a much better exchange rate than the ATM.
Buying a sim card in Laos
While a lot of cafes, restaurants and hotels offer free Wi-Fi, it’s likely that you’re going to want internet whilst out and about. We recommend getting a local sim card.
The four main mobile providers in Laos are Unitel, Lao Telecom, TPlus and ETL. You’ll be able to buy a sim card from one of these providers at most international airports in Laos or at a mobile provider’s store.
Sim cards are extremely cheap in Laos and can be purchased for less than $1. Data plans for the month also won’t set you back much.
You’ll need to make sure that your phone is ‘unlocked’ which means that you can put any sim card in your phone, rather than being locked to a specific provider.
Laos language cheat sheet
The language spoken in Laos is Lao.
It’s always good to know a few essential words before travelling to a place, so here are a few to get you started:
- Hello – Saibaidee
- Thank you – Khop Jai
- Please – kaluna
- Sorry – kho othd
- Beer – Bia
The perfect packing list for Laos
Laos is relatively hot all year round, but if you’re travelling to regions at altitude, we recommend bringing a jumper or a jacket as it can get chilly, especially in the evenings.
Of course, if you’re travelling to Laos during the rainy season (May to September) make sure to bring a rain jacket with you.
And don’t forget that there are some incredible treks to embark on in Laos, so make sure to have suitable shoes for hiking.
Aside from the essential travel gear, here are some that have become permanent fixtures on our packing list:
- Reusable water bottle – they’re better for the environment and can save you money on water.
- A portable charger – there’s probably going to be a time when your phone’s battery is on red, at a time that you desperately need it.
- An adaptor – Laos uses 5 types of electrical outlets — A, B, C, E and F, with F being the most common. For this reason, we recommend having a universal travel adaptor so that you will have an adaptor that works for all electrical outlets in Laos.
Check out our full packing list for Southeast Asia.
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Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.