The Ultimate Backpacker's Guide to Laos
Backpacking southeast Asia is a journey undertaken by thousands each year. Don’t skip Laos just because its more difficult to navigate and less developed than it’s neighbors. Backpacking through Laos means witnessing some of the most beautiful vistas in the region and having the feeling of being in a place very foreign yet very friendly. Follow this backpacker’s guide to maximize your experience in the Lao PDR.
Don’t Over Plan
The best laid plans often go astray, and there is nowhere that is more true than in Laos. Come to Laos with a rough idea of what you want to see and do but resist the urge to stick to you plan too closely. Consider waiting until you’re in the country to book any tours or accommodations, they’re easy to find for the same day or the next day once you arrive. Don’t rush through a place because you need to see it all.
You don’t need much
Laos is not as cheap to travel through as Thailand or Vietnam, but by staying in hostels, eating local food and taking in the sights, you should be able to see and do a lot on $20-$30 per day. A hostel bed costs $5-$10 depending on the city and the season. A big Beer Lao is around $1.25 at all but the fanciest of establishments. Many temples, waterfalls and caves are free, others ask for a nominal admission fee. Buying tickets at the airport or bus station is cheaper than booking online or through a guesthouse. In terms of packing a lot of stuff, don’t. There’s laundry service everywhere and plenty of toiletries and consumer goods available in every major town.
See the north and the south
The standard backpacker route through Laos includes Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. These towns are beautiful and offer excellent western-style accommodations and restaurants and are absolutely worth seeing. But so are some of the equally charming but less-often visited southern towns of Thakek, Pakse and Champasak. See the caves, waterfalls and islands in the south and really see how the terrain changes. Daily flights and overnight buses makes traveling within Laos possible, if not entirely easy.
Laos is one of the Least Developed Countries in the world. While you might not feel like you’re made of money, the mere fact you made it to Laos proves you have means. Donate to temples, spend some time reading or playing games with local children and consider swapping inexpensive accommodations in exchange for a bit of work. It’s possible to spend an entire holiday in Laos and not see how 80% of population lives. Get out into the provinces. Big Brother Mouse in Vientiane and Luang Prabang offer programs to read to and practice English with the local youth.
Timing is Everything
The high season in Laos is the dry, cool winter months November to February. Prices are higher, tours book up and the most popular destinations are crowded. Consider coming to Laos during the off season. The wet summer months July-October really aren’t that bad. It doesn’t rain every single day and when it does, it’s usually for a few hours in the afternoon. You’ll find less expensive transportation and accommodations and really be able to get into the slow paces Lao life if you travel in low season.
Get to know the locals
Lao people can appear shy, simple and lazy at first glance. When you take the time to get to know them, you’ll find the locals to be kind, generous, hilarious and earnest in their desire to better their country and introduce their culture to you. Sharing a Beer Lao or meal with Lao people is a great way to exchange cultures, learn some key phrases and see what life is like for Lao people.
Bo Pen Nyang
Bo pen nyang is a common phrase akin to the English “come what may.” Don’t expect great customer service. Don’t expect transportation to leave on time. Don’t expect much and you’ll have a great time. Laos is a poor country with relatively low levels of education and standards for service. Embrace it. Take what opportunities come to you and don’t forget to say yes to any invitations from ex-pats, travelers or locals who invite to do something in a place you’ve never heard of. Lao can be frustrating for backpackers who come in with a lot of expectations. Laos will teach you patience and spontaneity if you let it.
Eat all the things
Crickets on a stick? Papaya salad hot enough to melt your face off? Minced meat salad? Laos is an adventurous eaters’ playground. You might not like everything you try, and everything you try might not like you, but embrace the communal eating culture and try a bit of everything. Night markets and morning markets are great places to sample local cuisine on the cheap, as are local eateries with yellow Beer Lao signage and an utter lack of English on the menu. Be bold in your food choices, but don’t forget to pack the Pepto-Bismol.
Dress to impress
Lao people are very appearance-conscious and tend to judge others, especially foreigners, by how they dress. Lao people dress conservatively, and if you want to be respected, you should too. This means no short shorts, tank tops, cleavage or beards. Lao people are suspicious of bearded men and tend to think they are dirty and criminally minded. It’s hot, yes, but cover up, carry an umbrella for shade and don’t wander around town in your bathing suit.
So many travelers come home saying that Laos was one their favorite countries they visited. It’s often hard for them to describe exactly why. Laos exudes a feeling unlike anywhere else in southeast Asia – and certainly unlike anywhere else in the world. Laos is a special place. It’s a place you’ll feel nostalgic for and a place you’ll long to return to. Don’t miss it.