Things to Know Before You Travel to Laos

Whenever I tell people about my travels, one question inevitably pops up:

“So what is your favorite country?”

It’s such a hard question to answer, because every place I’ve been has something wonderful and unique to offer. I can’t pick just one, but Laos is definitely somewhere at the top of my list.

From the beautiful nature to the historic cities and the kind people to the delicious food: Laos is a paradise. It’s less touristic and less developed than Thailand or Vietnam, and therefor much more adventurous.

Laos is a gorgeous country that has so much to offer. I’ve been twice and long to go back again. During my trips, I’ve learned a lot about this fascinating country. I don’t believe in over preparing, but it is good to do a bit of research before you visit Laos.

So, if you’ve added Laos to your travel bucket list, here are a few things you should know before you travel to Laos:

It’s not yet spoiled by tourism

Luang Prabang Laos southeast Asia temple sunset

Laos is my favorite country in Southeast Asia and a truly underappreciated destination. Wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is often overlooked by travelers in favor of its more famous neighbors.

Big mistake!

Laos is a beautiful and interesting country. And it’s exactly the lack of mass tourism that makes it such a treat to visit. There’s a distinct lack of huge touring buses full of tourists, no McDonalds on every corner and lots of unspoiled nature. It’s affordable and the amount of tourist traps and scams is much lower.

If you love Laos, you’ll also love Cambodia

The type of tourists that Laos attracts are mostly adventurous backpackers, culture lovers and outdoor enthousiasts. Laos isn’t a typical party or luxury destination (although both are available as well). As a result, the locals are still very happy to see the wellbehaved and respectful tourists that come to Laos. Over and over again I was told they wanted me to leave with a smile on my face and tell everyone to visit Laos.

Which is exactly what I’m doing now. The kind and welcoming locals make Laos a truly wonderful place to visit.

But you have to be quick, because Laos is rapidly developing. Tourism is the fastest growing industry here and the overall economy is one of the fastest growing in the world.

Respect the local culture

Luang Prabang Laos Buddhist alms ceremony

Of course, you should always respect the culture, customs and history of whatever country you are visiting.

And because Laos is less touristic, it is easier to experience what that culture is.

Laos is a Buddhist country with a modest culture. Respect for elders, family and nature are very important. The Lao people work incredibly hard, but they also love to wind down and spend quality time with friends and family. Many live a hard life, yet always seem to be smiling. Not once did I hear anyone complain.

Please be respectful of their culture by dressing and acting appropriately. And take the time to read up on the tumultuous history of Laos. It’s not often covered in history classes in the west, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth knowing about. Did you know, for instance, that Laos is the most bombed country in the world?

Laos has a big drinking culture, especially beer and rice wine. But do not getting insanely drunk and making a fool of yourself. Alcohol and drugs are plentiful and cheap in Laos, but that doesn’t mean you should go crazy. Drugs are officially not allowed, so be careful.

You’ll mostly be able to get by with English, at least in the bigger cities. But it’s always good to learn a few words in Lao as well. Lao is similar to Thai, so if you’ve been the Thailand, some of these will sound familiar:

Yes – Doi

No – Baw

Hello – Sabaidee

Thank you – Khop Jai

Please – Khaluna

Don’t limit yourself to Luang Prabang

Nong Khiaw Laos trekking jungle outdoor

Laos is a gorgeous country with a varied landscape. From lush rainforest and mountains in the north to endless plains in the south. And even though Laos is landlocked, there are beaches and islands in the Mekong Delta!

The north of Laos is by far the most visited, especially the beautiful city of Luang Prabang. It’s the wettest and lushest part of Laos, with rain forest, mountains and waterfalls.

And although Luang Prabang, with its temples and colonial architecture, is my favorite city in all of Southeast Asia. You shouldn’t limit yourself to just this gem. Laos has a lot more to offer.

These are the best places to visit in Laos

Go partying in Vang Vieng, hiking in Nong Kiaw and chill out on the 4000 Islands.

And definitely don’t leave without driving the Thakhek motorbike loop!

How to get around

bus laos asia budget travel

So, how do you get to all these amazing places? Well, this is where things become interesting.

Laos does not have the same developed tourism infrastructure as Thailand. The roads are generally pretty bad and there are no trains. Cars are heavily taxed in Laos, so you don’t see many off them. When you do, they are usually big trucks that can handle the bumpy roads.

Travel in Laos is mostly done by bus and minivan. The more you’re willing to pay, the quicker and more comfortable your trip will be, but that’s still relative.

I traveled all the way from Luang Prabang to Koh Lanta over land!

I personally hated the minivans. They are cramped, the driving are madmen and I got so carsick on the winding mountain roads. No, I much prefer the local buses. These are a party on wheels. A slow party, but still.

The local buses are dirt cheap and take forever. They stop at random places to let people on and off. There is no A/C but plenty of loud music. And ladies will come on the bus to sell you food and drinks and wave sticks of grilled chicken in your face. It’s a one of a kind experience.

For short distances and touring around the cities and countrysides, there are tuk-tuks and motorbikes. Tuk-tuks are really the way to go. They are affordable (always haggle!) and the drivers often make great guides.

Please only ride a motorbike if you really know how. The roads and traffic are crazy and many tourists get into nasty motorbike accidents every year. And if you’re in an accident with a local you better believe you’ll be paying for their medical expenses as well. You’re the wealthy Westerner after all!

The food is amazing (and sometimes strange)

Lao Khao Soy Lao food cuisine nightmarket Luang Prabang

Laos food is really tasty. It’s often quite basic, but very flavorful and it has clear influences from Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and French.

Laos is not a prosperous country, so the food is generally quite simple. The staples of Lao cuisine are noodle soup and sticky rice. People eat whatever is available. So in the smaller villages and homestays, you might be served bugs, rat, waterbuffalo, squirl or bat. I’ve tried several of those and honestly can’t really recommend any of them.

These are the best things to eat in Laos

Of course, in the cities you’ll also find Southeast Asian street food favorites like fresh fruit, shakes, bahn mi type sandwiches, fried rice and noodles.

And all washed down with Beer Lao of course 😉

So, this is your first intro to Laos. Now, you just have to visit this amazing country and experience it for yourself.

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8 thoughts on “Things to Know Before You Travel to Laos

  1. Laos does indeed seem an interesting country, which I still have to visit. When I am confronted to the question of my favourite country, I am unable to answer directly, what seems to me the most interesting is the whole of my travels, being able to compare, to put into perspective, each trip enriches the others. Thank you for the post.

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    1. I agree, I hate picking favourites. It’s the travel itself to different places that’s the most enjoyable. But Laos definitely deserves to be on your bucket list

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  2. Laos is definitely on my list. I want to do a cycling trip. It starts in Thailand and goes through Laos to Vietnam. Currently I have my first student from Laos and he has been a wonderful addition to the class.

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