A GUIDE TO TRAVELLING LAOS ON A BUDGETWe have loved every minute of our trip through Laos (aside from when we were sick in Tha Khek), and have put together a bit of a ‘Laos Travel Guide’ to what worked for us. Our corresponding blog links have a more emotional tale of our journey and more specific details on what we did, where we ate and what we thought of it.
OUR JOURNEYInitially, we had planned to take the slow boat from Chiang Rai across the boarder to Huay Xai. Unfortunately, they don’t issue a 30day visa-on-arrival at this boarder crossing. We met a lot of people in northern Thailand who were risking the crossing but we decided to take an overnight bus from Chiang Rai to Vientiane instead. In hindsight, a flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang would have been well worth the added cost. Instead we travelled the following route:
- Vientiane to Vang Vieng,
- Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang,
- Luang Prabang to Vientiane for an overnight stop before continuing to Tha Khek,
- Tha Khek to Pakse.
ENTERING THE COUNTRYThis was a really easy boarder crossing. The process of travelling from the bus stop in Nong Khiaw, through the boarder, and to Vientiane had a few different components but we had no complications, which was good. The only thing worth mentioning, there was a man hovering around the visa application area in official clothing offering advice and assistance with the forms. In the end he was quite pushy and tried to split Jimmy and I on several occasions. Once he had Jimmy in a separate line he flipped his badge to reveal he was actually a taxi driver and tried to force me to agree to use his taxi service for the trip to town. In the end it worked out alright and we managed to get a taxi for a reasonable price (I think). Our trip through to Vientiane was as follows:
- Overnight bus from Chiang Rai to Nong Khiaw, Thailand (15-16hours 650B).
- Tuk tuk to the friendship bridge, from memory we payed 60B, it’s about a 3-4km trip (which is handy to know for bartering the price down).
- Officially exit Thailand and catch the bus (15B each) across the friendship bridge.
- Apply and purchase a tourist visa-on-arrival for 1,300B each. You can pay in US dollars or Kips, which I think makes it a little cheaper, but we were unable to get either currency at the time.
- We opted to catch a taxi to central Vientiane (about 23km away from the bridge) that was 100B each (he tried to charge 500B each at the start). There is a bus that runs for 50B per person but we didn’t want to wait.
BUDGETThe daily budget for both of us was as follows:
- 120,000K for food,
- 400,000K for activities
- 130,000K for accommodation,
- 30,000K for transport.
As opposed to previous countries, we managed well with this budget. I knew there were a few extra tours we wanted to do and allocated a lot more than I had previously for activities. The food allowance was a bit tight, we were spending 40,000-50,000K per meal and that (usually) didn’t include drinks. Transport nearly balanced out, 40,000K per day is probably a better amount to allow for two people.
We bought a flight from Pakse to Siem Reap, and also organised our Vietnamese Visa from Pakse. With these excluded, we spent about $2,200 AUD over 27 nights between us; about $80 AUD per day (so $40 per person per day). This is less than what I had budgeted for. I really allowed for activities here, it would be easy to adjust this budget and spend a lot less. A side note for budgeting, the more costly things will be charged in US dollars.
ACCOMMODATIONFor majority of our travels through Laos we chose not to pre-book the accommodation. This made me a bit anxious as it was the high season (December) but we had no major issues with finding a place to stay. In fact, I think it worked much better for us when we didn’t pre-book. There are so many guesthouses and budget accommodation options, you are bound to find somewhere without major issues. Majority of the smaller guesthouses don’t have a website or any online presence which increases the chances of finding somewhere on arrival. We found the prices at these places were much less than anything online too.
TRANSPORTGetting around Laos can be interesting to say the least. Mini-van drivers seem to double as deliverymen, often making multiple stops to pick up and delivery various items. The bus drivers seem to have their own agenda, you will never know if you are stopping for 5minutes or an hour, but when the drivers are ready to go they leave without a second glance. But it all seems to work and certainly makes the trip more interesting!
- Vientiane to Vang Vieng – 4hours, 35,000K per person. We booked a VIP bus but ended up in a mini-van, and apparently the trip is quicker this way. No problems with the mini-van, the roads are horrendous though, there are huge potholes the driver has to dodge majority of the way.
- Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang – 4-5hours, 90,000K in a mini-van. After the trip was tolerable from Vientiane, we decided to opt for another mini-van, hoping the trip would be nice and quick. Nothing could have been quick enough for this particular journey! They had overbooked our van and we were squished into the back fold down seats with all the luggage. Uncomfortable doesn’t begin to describe the horrendous trip. On a positive note, the mountainous scenery is incredible and I would have loved the opportunity to truly appreciate it.
- Luang Prabang to Vientiane – 12hours (VIP bus), 155,000K including pick up from the guesthouse. We purchased these tickets from an agent after shopping around to find the cheapest (they start from around 180,000K). When we got our ticket issue at the bus station we discovered the cost is 130,000K if you buy from the ticket booth directly. There would just be the added cost of transport to the bus station. The ticket includes a coupon for lunch but definitely pack some snacks and water! You do stop on occasion but you can’t guarantee they will have what you want. The bus nearly took off without us at one stop too, so it saves a bit of stress if you have what you need from the start.
- Vientiane to Tha Khek – VIP bus 105,000K including pickup from the guesthouse. Make sure you are on the bus well before departure time. When the bus has ‘clearance’ to leave, much like an plane, it takes off. One girl had gone to the toilet just before and the bus started leaving without her. Luckily, there was someone on the bus who could translate what we were saying to the driver and he waited just down the road. Not worth the risk in my opinion!
- Tha Khek to Pakse – local bus 100,000K each including pick up from the guesthouse. The tickets are 80,000K (for a bus with air conditioning) from the bus station but the tuk tuk drivers from town will try charge ridiculous fees (upwards of 40,000K per person) so it can work out cheaper if you buy the ticket from an agency with the pickup. The bus also stopped for about an hour at Savannakhet. They didn’t tell us how long we were stopping and I’m not sure if they stop for this long every time. There should be enough time to go to the toilet and get something to eat but again I wouldn’t go too far.
ACTIVITIESWe definitely splurged on the activities in Laos! Some were more enjoyable than others but there is a lot of money to be spent on various things throughout Laos. We spent far greater on our activities here than we did in Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand.
- Hot air balloon, Vang Vieng: $80 USD per person.
- Half day cave tour with Green Discovery, Vang Vieng: $26 USD per person.
- Tubing Nam Song river, Vang Vieng: 50,000K plus a 60,000K deposit per person.
- Pak Ou Cave Mekong river cruise, Luang Prabang: we payed 80,000K each through an agency but you can get boat tickets for 65,000K from the operators themselves. Your best bet would be arriving at 8am on the morning you want to go and purchase a ticket there. The cave entry fee is 20,000K per person.
- Luang Prabang scooter hire: 120,000K for an automatic scooter for 24hours. Includes helmet hire.
- Kuang Si Waterfall, Luang Prabang: We hired a scooter to travel the 30km to the waterfall at a cost of 120,000K for 24hours. This is the most expensive place in Laos to get a scooter (we saw them for 50,000 in Vang Vieng) but a mini-van ticket was 60,000K and tuk tuk 150,000K each so this worked best for us. The entry to the falls is 20,000K and you have to pay 2,000K to park the scooter.
- Tad Sae Waterfall, Luang Prabang: We used the scooter to get here as well. It is about 12km out of town in the opposite direction to Kuang Si. There is a 5,000K parking fee, 10,000K per person to catch a boat across the river and 15,000K to enter the waterfall.
- Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang: 20,000K entrance per person.
- Luang Prabang Museum: 30,000K entrance per person.
- Imprint of Buddha’s foot, Luang Prabang: I think there is an entrance fee here but we couldn’t find anyone to pay.
- Kong Lor Cave with Green Discovery, Tha Khek: $125 USD per person. This was a total rip-off and we were quite disappointed with the tour. The cave itself is pretty cool but you can definitely get better deals around town.
- Pakse scooter hire: 100,000K for an automatic scooter for 24hours. 90,000K for multiple days. 60,000K for a semi-automatic for 24hours, 50,000K for multiple days.
- Tad Yuang, Bolaven Plateau: 5,000K parking fee and 10,000K per person to enter the falls. Each of the waterfalls between Pakse and Paksong had similar charges which would make it a very expensive day if you visit all of them. We opted to continue to Pakse from Tad Yuang and skipped a few for this reason.
- Phu Salao (Golden Buddha), Pakse: There is a charge (3,000-5,000K per person I think) at the bottom of the hill if you are feeling spritely and decide to walk the stairs. We chose the lazy option and drove to the top, skipping the charge, so our only cost was the scooter hire (which we had already after the Bolaven Plateau trip).
- Wat Phu, Champasak: 50,000K entrance fee per person. It is a really easy, beautiful drive on a scooter (which we still had hired from the previous day). Otherwise, there are plenty of tours that go to the temple as a day trip.
- Tree Top Explorer, Pakse: $299 USD per person if there are more than 4 people in the group. I would recommend joining a group (unless you are already travelling as a larger group), the easy camaraderie we shared with our group really made the experience more enjoyable, although it is a bit of a lucky draw as you can’t pick and choose the people in the group.
FOODThe food in Laos changes quite considerably as you move through the country. The more northern cities have an obvious Thai influence and the food is very similar to what you will find in north Thailand. As you move through to the south, there is a more obvious Vietnamese influence. For me, my meal options are directed towards those meals most likely to be gluten free. My go to options were:
- Breakfast: Rice soup or rice porridge. This is often served with a poached egg and chicken or pork meatballs, topped with fresh ginger and spring onions. I really enjoyed these meals! Every place serves it slightly different but it was all really enjoyable. Everywhere we went in Laos also served a western breakfast with various options. We found it was much easier to find a good breakfast in Laos than Thailand or Malaysia.
- Lunch and Dinner: These meals were driven more by price, we tried to find meals for between 20,000K and 30,000K each. We always chose local food and sometimes had to search a bit further for a more reasonable price. Usually, we opted for a curry of some sort and then it was always a bit of a toss up between fried noodles or mixed vegetables. I found the curries the most reliable (and a very enjoyable) gluten free option.
- Dessert: Sweet sticky rice with mango, another amazing rice dish! This treat is found throughout Southeast Asia but because I don’t really like mango I didn’t try it until Laos! I really shot myself in the foot here, it’s incredible and well worth trying.
OTHER IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONSAs Laos is a conservative country, I feel it’s important to respect the culture and endeavoured to cover my knees and shoulders as much as possible. This was less important in the townships but vital for any temple or religious centre.
- The main religion practised is Buddhism; consequently there are many monks throughout the country. We observed many tourists behaving badly around monks, something I found to be quite embarrassing. Most important is to avoid taking photos without permission and women should never touch a monk.
- In Buddhist practices, the head is most sacred and moving downwards, the feet are least sacred. Consequently, it is extremely rude to touch a Lao person on the head or put your feet on furniture.
- Public displays of affection are frowned upon.
- Most places will require you to take your shoes off before entering.
- There is a charge (usually 2,000K) to go to most public toilets. Make sure you take your own toilet paper too.
- The country is still recovering from the war, thousands of UXO’s (unexploded ordnance) are still scattered throughout the countryside. When I researched Laos I read the rural communities can be a bit wary of Westerners (which is understandable considering), however, we found the people incredibly warm and welcoming.
- We found some people asked some personal questions, the most common was “are you married?” when we replied “no” people would walk away laughing. This didn’t bother us at all, just something I found interesting.
- Laos is one of the 20 poorest countries in the world. While it was a personal choice, we tried to support the locals as much as possible. We chose Green Discovery for our tours as they support local development, feedback to the community and pay fair wages.
- The country has big plans to improve the economy. Entering a risky deal with China, the Lao government has borrowed up to $7 billion USD (I have found it difficult to find exact figures) to fund part of a high-speed rail network from south China, through Luang Prabang to Vientiane. This train will eventually be destined for Bangkok and possibly even Singapore. It is expected the first stage will be completed within the next 5 years. Travelling at a speed of about 200km/h, the trip from Boten (a town on the Laos side of the Chinese boarder) to Vientiane will be dramatically reduced (I would guess it would take well over 24hours to travel 680km road distance by bus). Long story short(ish) I foresee the country changing dramatically in the not too distant future. While it may be for the better, Laos has been the most authentic country we have been in to date and we both loved it. It would be awesome if the economy could be boosted without drastically changing the culture and environment. So what I am trying to say (in a round about way) is travel now before the country changes. I don’t think the changes will be bad, it just won’t be the same country that we had the luxury of travelling.
While it can be a bit of information overload, I have tried to keep our ‘Laos Travel Guide’ as condensed as possible (which I struggle with sometimes, sorry!). If you have any specific questions, leave a comment below and I will do my best to answer. Feel free to check out our guides to Malaysia and Thailand too!