A flashpacker's guide to Laos
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
Let's get right into this one. Flash-packing. Laos. In a fortnight. GO!
If you have been to this part of the world before, you'll know how easy to would be to just spend forever here! The lifestyle, the culture, the people, the affordable day to day. It is a far cry from life in the UK, and I suppose that's why we love it so much.
Laos was somewhere neither of us really knew much about, perhaps that's why we were so totally blown away by this beautiful country - we had nearly no expectations to match. Regardless, it has taken a place in my top three countries (for now) and I believe it will be pretty hard to beat. Unlike it's sister countries, Laos is still fairly 'undiscovered'. We visited in peak season, and even in the most popular locations we found it to be astoundingly quiet. There's nothing quite as magical as feeling more at one with the locals and nature, and we really felt this in Laos. Everywhere we went we were in total awe, the people were welcoming, interesting and so genuinely lovely. For us, it ticked all the right boxes! We just wish we could have stayed longer, but at least now we know that we will definitely return to explore further.
In this post I am going to tell you everything I can, from getting around Laos to how we spent our time there. Grab a notebook and start trip planning because by the end of this post I reckon Laos will be at the top of your list!
NOTE: All information below is based on a couple traveling on a 'flash-packing' budget. I would describe that as being budget, but with a wee bit of 'luxe'. We always stayed in a private en-suite room, ate out in a mixture of restaurants and street stalls, and paid for VIP buses opposed to public. Flash-packing is really just a baby step up from backpacking in my books, just forget those shared dorms!
Depending on your budget, getting to Laos (basing this on our trip from the UK) can be a little tricky. In the grand scheme, Laos isn’t a huge place and also is not yet massively popular with tourists. You have a number of options, whether you book your flight directly to Laos or not. Vientiane is the capital, so chances are you’ll be heading there. To make our lives harder but our bank balances happy, we did around a day of traveling to reduce the costs of flights. This involved going from Edinburgh - Copenhagen - Moscow - Bangkok (1 night here) - Vientiane. So all of that cost less than £250 opposed to around £400. It is also possible to get sleeper busses from surrounding countries for super cheap, so if you're already in SE Asia this is definitely an option!
NOTE: Please be aware that this information is only relevant to our time of travel (January 2019) as a UK citizen. Circumstances and requirements may be different for you, so please do check your government website first. There is also useful up-to-date information regarding any local disturbances, area's to avoid, vaccinations required, etc.
Quick requirement facts:
Cost - $35
Duration - 30 days
Random facts - Rumours have it that you must have at least 2 free pages in your passport or you will be denied entry. Whether it is legitimate or not, I cannot confirm, but it is noted on the UK Gov website so be aware. Also make sure you have at least 6 months left on your passport expiration.
Overstaying your VISA in Laos is a serious offence and will result in hefty fines.
Visa extension - You can extend you VISA twice, resulting in a total stay of 90 days
As a UK citizen you can very easily get your VISA at Vientiane airport on arrival. We read various experiences with this, all of which stated you may wait a long time, the officers may not be there, you NEED passport photos, basically a lot of negative and worrying information. Well maybe we were lucky, but our whole experience could not have been easier. The only thing I would say is make sure you have US dollars to pay as I could not see any cash points or card machines at the office. As far as I am aware, they only accept payment in US dollars.
On flight you will be given an arrival and declaration form to fill out. We walked into passport control, filled out a short VISA on arrival form (if you’re familiar with these, they ask you simple questions, name, age, address of where you will be staying, etc). For your 'Laos contact' simply write in the details of where you will be staying. Next we popped up to desk where they take your passport and forms, put your VISA in your passport, pay the guard $35 and that's that. Job done. No photos needed. Easy peasy. This VISA lasts you 30 days, after that you must apply for an extension through the embassy. Some hotels and agencies will do the extension process for you, so just ask!
Visa's for Laos are also available before you arrive, but you must contact the embassy in London to arrange this.
Route & locations
Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang - Pakse
Vientiane / 3 days / 2 nights
The capital of Laos and a VERY chill city compared to some of the other SE Asian capitals I have visited. I am not sure what I was expecting, but James and I were actually very surprised when we arrived. You can actually cross the street quite easily, no kidding! We weren’t blown away by this place, but we loved the chill vibe. We only spent one whole day exploring here as unfortunately James was feeling ill so it limited our activities. However, there is lots to do and see so make sure you save some time to explore this area.
Where to sleep? There are lots of amazing cheap options in Vientiane, sadly we didn't stay in the nicest of places (hence a lack of recommendation here) but if I were to go again I would definitely pick Mini S Hotel! Get £15 off your next booking using my code jenjaa13!
Where to eat? Via Via Pizza - I had two takeaway pizza's from here during our stay. The prices are a little higher than some of the other local restaurants but their pizza's are AWESOME. Properly done in an open pizza oven with great ingredients. Delish!
What to see?
COPE Museum: Sadly when we visited it was closed, but the COPE Museum is said to be an eye-opening experience regarding how Laos' was unfortunately effected by the Vietnam war.
Buddha Park/Wat Xieng Khuan: A sculpture park not far from Vientiane containing around 200 religious statues, definitely worth a nosey!
Wat Si Saket - A stunning Buddhist temple in the centre of Vientiane
Patuxai - Think Arc De Triumph and then add some Laotian sparkle and you're there
Vang Vieng / 4 days / 4 nights
Without a doubt our favourite spot. Again we were very surprised by how quiet this place was. We had been told that this was the busiest place in Laos, and we were visiting during peak season so we were expecting chaos. However, when we arrived we were pleasantly surprised. Vang Vieng is situated at the foot of some incredible mountains. Think of an inland Halong Bay and you’re there. Renting a motorbike is a must as there is SO much to see in the area, but it's a little far to walk (unless you're incredible fit, motivated and really love walking).
Where to sleep? We stayed at the Jasmine Hotel and loved every second of it. The two receptionist were absolutely lovely and always so interested in our day. The rooms are modern, spacious and spotlessly clean. They were also in the process of building a pool and restaurant when we stayed, so it’ll be an absolute winner when they're done.
Where to eat? For some simple comfort food come pub-grub head to Garry’s Irish Bar. We loved the vibe here and it was very affordable with an extensive drinks menu, including Guiness and Baileys! For something a little fancier, head across the road to Happy Mango. This place has AH-mazing Thai food. The service is pretty slow (be warned) but they do a mean Panang Curry.
What to see? Night Market: A fairly small street containing the usual 'tat' and beautiful local crafts
Nam Xey Mountain: A pretty tough hike up (mostly due to the temperature, I recommend doing this early morning!) but 1000000% worth it. The view is unreal!
Blue Lagoon: There are 5 to choose from, we went for number 3 which was a little harder to get to but a lot quieter than it's siblings. The perfect way to kick back and relax in an epic location.
Tham Cham Caves: A beautiful spot with a pretty incredible cave and swimming area
Luang Prabang / 4 days / 4 nights
Another beautiful stop, and probably number two for us. However, you will notice a big jump in prices from Vang Vieng. We were told initially that Vang Vieng was the busiest place in Laos, and that Luang Prabang was smaller, quieter and had noticeably more expats and mature tourists. Well, we found the complete opposite! It was undoubtedly busier than Vang Vieng, more party, more young backpackers and much more expensive! Saying that, it definitely didn't change our feelings towards Luang Prabang. It reminded me a lot of Hoi An, Vietnam, with French colonial buildings, quiet alleys and colourful paintwork. There is a temple (or Wat) on almost every corner, and monks walk the streets amongst you at all hours of the day. Despite the busyness, there was an overwhelming feeling of calm here.
Where to sleep?
We stayed at Sakura Wood House which was a lovely wee place. Located just out of the hustle and bustle you can guarantee a good nights sleep, traditional rooms and local brekkie!
Where to eat? Our favourite spot to eat in Luang Prabang was hidden away behind the night market. There is a tiny little street with a neat row of street food eats. As you walk down you will hear a Mexican wave of "Sabaidee! Hello!" from the kiosk owners, all brandishing their menus with smiling faces. It might seem bit overwhelming to begin with, but trust me! Sit down and enjoy it! Most of the stalls offer the same food, with variations and some offering more than others. All the food is made fresh, and you get the nicest fruit shakes here too! It's cheap, cheerful and delicious!
What to see?
UXO Centre: A small donation only run museum covering the effects of UXO's (unexploded ordinance) on Laos, many dropped during the Vietnam war. Although it is small, it is a hugely informative and eye-opening stop. It also covers all the charities who are making changes to prevent further explosions and injuries.
Royal Palace: Although we did not go in, this complex is interesting to wander around;
Kuang Si Falls: An absolute CANNOT MISS spot! A bit of a drive from town but oh lord is it worth it. Enjoy the bear sanctuary before reaching the falls too!
Phu Si Mountain: The perfect sunset and sunrise spot, but be sure to get there early as it gets mega packed!
Night Market: Probably the best market we have visited since Thailand! This night market stretches for what seems like forever! Filled with unique gifts made in the local area.
Watermelon Stupa: Quite self explanatory
Ethnic and Traditional Arts Centre: Worth a visit, a really insightful and well put together collection of traditional tribal clothing, techniques, music and life!
Various Temples: There is a temple on almost every corner, most of which are free for you to wander around. Please be aware you must dress respectfully. We explored the following Wat That Luang, Wat Mahathat, Wat Ho Siang, Voravihane, Wat Sene Souk Haram, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, Wat Xieng Thong and Haw Pha Bang.
Pakse / 1 days / 1 night
Pakse is not somewhere we really had on our radar. In fact we only really went because the flights to Cambodia were cheaper. Regardless, we found some pretty epic things to do in the area, and with more time I am sure it would be an excellent addition to a tour of the whole country. But for now, my recommendations are pretty limited!
Where to sleep?
You Empire Hostel has everything you need for a short or long stay. We stayed in one of the private double rooms with a ensuite which was good quality and spacious. There is also a bar and restaurant downstairs with a pool table and nice area to chill!
Where to eat?
Sadly again, James and I were feeling pretty sick during our time in Pakse so the last thing we wanted to do was eat out. However, I did my research before we fell ill and had my eye on Doc Mai Lao Caffe Restaurant which served Italian, European and Mediterranean food. Also rated no.1 in Pakse!
What to see?
Tad Paseum & Tad Fane: Two insane waterfalls out in the sticks! It's a pretty long bike ride there but they are 100% worth the drive!
If we had longer I would have loved to have seen...
Pakse Chinese Temple
Phou Asa Mountain
We did all of our internal travel by bus or hired a moped. Like most SE Asian destinations, bus travel is cheap and often pretty comfortable. Although they can take what feels like a lifetime, they are very good for the budget traveller. During our trip we took a bus from Vientiane - Vang Vieng for 50,000kip p/p (around £4.50) which was about a 4-5hr journey. The coach was half empty and very comfortable. We even got the back row! We also took a sleeper bus from Vientiane - Pakse with felt like luxury. You get a proper bed, pillows, blanket and water. This cost us 170,000kip p/p but you can easily find it for cheaper at the bus station.
For day trips I would recommend hiring a moped. For as little as a few quid a day you can have the freedom to go wherever you like. Although I am not confident enough to drive alone, most hires are comfortable and easily fit two people. So we save even more money by travelling together! If you’re not so confident, most tuktuks can take you to the most common locations, but it’ll cost you much more!
Budget & spending
Budgeting in Asia is very easy, unless you’re a really big spender. It’s very easy to get carried away when you arrive in SE Asia. With everything being so cheap, you tend to over-compensate and go all out. Regardless, once you’ve got your barings you can easily spend as little as £10 a day (dependant on what you’re doing).
We found Laos to be marginally more expensive that it’s sister destinations, but a lot of things are the same price. To give you an idea I’ve laid out for examples below.