Explore Laos: The Ultimate Beginner’s Backpacking Guide to Laos
If you are planning to do South-East Asia I would HIGHLY recommend coming to Laos. Most often people choose between either Cambodia or Laos. Cambodia usually wins due to the famous Angkor Wat temples people are mystified over.
Laos on the other hand, may not have some of the oldest ancient ruins in history, but it has a whole heck of a lot less tourists, a ton of beautiful nature to explore, and infamous river tubing. Plus, it is a small enough country where you end up travelling with the same people almost the entire time.
Beginner’s Backpacking Guide to Laos
With Laos being a bit of a question mark destination still, this beginner’s backpacking guide to Laos will be sure to inform you on everything important. From how long you should stay in Laos, the places to visit, how long you should take for each place, what kind of food you will find there, how much Laos will cost you, and what you can expect in the daytime and what the nightlife is like.
Make sure to bookmark this beginner’s backpacking guide to Laos while you are planning your trip for easy reference.
How Long to Stay in Laos
To do the entire country of Laos properly I would suggest two and a half weeks. If you are wanting to do only the North, where the majority of destinations are, I would say you need one and a half to two weeks.
If you have the time and the money, I would recommend doing the entire country. The north is very beautiful and has more places to visit, while the south really only has the 4000 islands, but they are worth the long overnight bus it takes to get there.
Best Route & Destinations
There are three main ways to get to Laos. The first most popular option revolves around you being in Northern Thailand. There is a slow-boat that you can take from Northern Thailand to Laos which takes 2 nights and 3 days.
The second option is flying into Vientiane, the capital of Laos. This is typically common for people who are coming from somewhere like Bangkok, Thailand, or Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
Thirdly, you can take a transfer van / bus. If you are coming from central Vietnam, meaning either Da Nang or Hoi An you can book a bus that will get you there in 10-14 hours. Likewise you can take transfers from Siem Reap, Cambodia, or also from Northern Thailand without the inclusion of the slow boat.
I think that the route I did was actually the best route possible so that is what I am going to recommend to you below.
- Take the slow boat from Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai, Pai, or Chiang Rai) to Laos (2 nights)
- Arrive in Luang Prabang around 4pm (3 nights)
- Transfer van to Vang Vieng (5 nights)
- Vientiane (2 nights)
- Either fly out from Vientiane to your next destination, or book a night bus down to Pakse (1 night)
- Pakse + Pakse Scooter Loop (1 night + 2 nights)
- Transfer van to the 4000 Islands (Don Det Island) (4 nights)
- Book a transfer to your next country, would recommend either going down to Siem Reap, Cambodia or across to Da Nang, central Vietnam.
Total = 18 Nights
This two and a half week itinerary will leave you feeling very pleased with the amount of time spent in each place. Sometimes people really rush through and do the entire country in just one week. If you want to enjoy your time I really would suggest spending the full two to two and a half weeks.
Food to Expect in Laos
Not sure what kind of food you will find Laos? I wasn’t either. Thankfully this beginner’s backpacking guide to Laos will explain it all to you, now that I’ve spent almost three weeks there.
Laos’ food isn’t really all that special in my opinion. They have yet to really come up with their own style or many unique dishes. It is quite common to find a mixture of thai dishes such as the various curries, as well as vietnamese food, with “Banh Mi sandwiches” available on almost all menus. Now being in Vietnam, those sandwiches, although tasty, are sadly unable to live up to the Vietnamese name.
Sadly my phone was stolen in Luang Prabang so I do not have any photos of the food I had during my stay in Laos, but I think you can use your imagination!
Common Laos Breakfasts
Free Hostel Breakfast
The free breakfasts at the hostels in laos were surprisingly very great. Typically they are made to order, which you select off of a menu with around 5 or 6 options. You can choose from scrambled or fried eggs and toast, (toast I know! Something the Beginner’s Backpacking Guide to Thailand will tell you does not happen there). An omelette with toast, banana pancakes, fruit plate, and a couple of other standard options.
Served with sometimes juice, and always coffee or tea. Although don’t get your hopes up about their coffee, it is nothing like the coffee you can find in Vietnam.
Khao Piak Sen
A traditional Laos noodle soup dish, similar to Pho in Vietnam but with different ingredients and flavours. I’m not sure how they are different as they all typically have similar noodles, fresh vegetables, and either chicken or beef, but give it a try as it is a famous dish for Laos breakfasts.
Sadly I wasn’t able to try it as I could never seem to find any vegetarian options for this dish.
Lunch and Dinner Laos Foods
The most common laos lunch and dinner foods are various versions of their noodle soups, various versions of sandwiches, and other popular thai and vietnamese dishes that are given a “Laos spin”.
Laos laap was the first dinner I had here and was absolutely blown away by it. This is the ONE dish that they have all to themselves. No twist on Pho, or Pad Thai, or anything else they’ve “stolen” from surrounding countries.
Laap is sort of like a protein salad, where you can choose almost any meat (tofu for me), mixed together with chillies, mint, garlic and onion. Typically served either on top of rice or with rice on the side.
This is what the Laotian people have re-named their version of the Vietnamese Pho. Which is a traditionally made clear broth soup with noodles, and various vegetables and protein.
Since Laos doesn’t have a ton of their own dishes, they have gotten decently good at producing western food. You can find a lot of pumpkin and tomato soups on menus. A ton of pizza, which is surprisingly decent, and loads of different kinds of sandwiches.
It’s safe to say that being a vegetarian or vegan here isn’t the easiest but you definitely don’t have to go hungry with the multitude of options available to you at most restaurants.
These little desserts just so happen to be vegan and can be found being cooked on almost every little night life street. Basically a coconut, rice flour pancake that is a nice sweet yet filling treat to have after a light lunch or dinner.
Mango Sticky Rice
You can also find mango sticky rice here, like Thailand, however in my opinion not done quite as well.
Otherwise known as Khao Nom, this dessert is slightly similar to the above Khanom Krok in that they are both slightly heavy coconut desserts. This one doesn’t have flour but rather eggs. So instead of a pancake like texture, it’s a creamier cake like texture. Typically topped with shredded coconut.
Vegetarian & Vegan Laos Food Note
You might be able to guess from my above ranting that Laos isn’t the most vegetarian or vegan friendly place you could visit. However, I was able to try a few of the local dishes, as well as enjoy a lot of the western food they have to offer.
One amazing tip I have is to get dinner from this enormous vegan buffet at the night market in Luang Prabang. It is in the aisle with all of the other night market food, you can’t miss it. Only 15,000 KIP ($1.75 USD) for an all you can eat buffet with a ton of options. Go closer to opening time (5:30/6pm) so you can have it fresh.
How Much Does Laos Cost
Laos is definitely not an expensive country. The hostel prices are on average around $5 USD. An average meal can be anywhere from 15,000 KIP to 70,000 KIP, or $2 to $8 USD. The former is if you order from a small local vendor and the latter is if you are craving some western food from a real restaurant. With the amazing free hostel breakfasts you usually only have to pay for either 1 or 2 meals a day.
The drinking in Laos is extremely cheap. In fact WAY too cheap. They have this local alcohol which they have named “Laos Laos Whiskey” and “Laos Laos Vodka” which are only $1.75 for a standard big bottle. Plus, if you are planning to visit Vang Vieng, which is the famous Laos Tubing town, you can basically drink for free. Nana Backpackers Hostel has free whiskey and vodka for two hours every night. Then the two most popular local bars, Sakura Bar, and Viva Bar both also have free whiskey and vodka drinks for an hour each night. Don’t ask me how they make money…
The only thing you are spending any real chunk of money on is any tours you decide to do. But once again even those aren’t too bad. Thus in total you can expect to spend an average of around $20 USD per day. So cheap!
To Expect During the Day
In the day-time there aren’t really any beaches to hang out at since Laos is a landlocked country. However, they do have the Mekong River running directly through, where most of the tourist destinations are located along.
Expect to spend your days lounging at cafes and restaurants along the river, hiking to many cool viewpoints, visiting lagoons, going tubing, and mostly just hanging out with the friends you have met here.
To Expect During the Night
I am hoping that this beginner’s backpacking guide to Laos helps to clarify a lot of things that many travellers don’t now before entering the country. One thing I didn’t realize before heading to Laos was that the locals have a midnight curfew, so everything usually closes at midnight.
Although, there are a couple of exceptions in each city. For instance, in Luang Prabang there is one locals club open until around two am, as well as a bowling alley that is the most common place for tourists to head to after the bars close at twelve.
If you are looking for a party then you will definitely not want to miss Vang Vieng. The midnight curfew didn’t even seem to exist there. There are a couple of bars, standing out in my mind are the Sakura Bar, and Viva Bar where free whiskey and vodka are given at certain hours before midnight, and then the dance party commences from around eleven pm until late.
Laos is a very different country to its surrounding neighbours of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is not too touristy yet, but give it another 5 to 10 years and I think it will be flooded. With talks of a railway going down directly from China you can expect the Chinese tourism industry here to explode.
In conclusion, my recommendation would be to spend two to two and a half weeks doing all of Laos. You can start from either the North or the South and work your way respectively either up or down the country. Vegetarians and vegans may have a little difficulty eating traditional Laos food here but don’t worry as there is no shortage of western food options available.
The midnight curfew may turn some people away from this country, but just remember that there are exceptions in each city where you can “turn up” until at least 2am.
Safe travels, and make sure to comment below on this beginner’s backpacking guide to Laos if you have anything to add for your fellow backpackers!