Laos, like Cambodia, is often seen as a barrier between travelers trying to get from Thailand to Vietnam. However, unlike Cambodia, it doesn’t offer a must-see world-renowned landmark like Angkor Wat. For that reason, many people choose to skip Laos altogether, a mistake that I almost made. I had a week to kill between my Thailand Visa ended and my Vietnam Visa began, so I opted to take a slow boat into Luang Prabang. My friend and I went into this journey completely blind. Despite a week full of mishaps and injury, both of us came out wishing we had more time to spend in Laos.
Luang Prabang was a perfect spot to kick back and take it easy but still filled with quite a few activities to take up your time. Vang Vieng is an adventurer’s paradise, with tours offering trekking, rock climbing, kayaking, spelunking, or just gently floating your way down the river. Vientiane had a lovable chaos of its own. Aside from an overnight stop in Pakbeng during our slow boat journey, these were the only three cities we went to, but heard of so many more destinations within Laos, like Nong Khiaw or Si Phan Don.
In comparison to Thailand and Vietnam, Laos does not offer the tourism infrastructure that makes it easy for travelers to work their way through this country. However, that shouldn’t deter you from visiting this lush and exciting paradise.
Should you visit Laos? My answer is definitely, but for short-term travelers with only a limited time in South East Asia, I understand that it often gets overlooked in favor of other destinations. Here are a few of my favorite reasons that you need to go to Laos, and a few against to try to see it from both angles.
Laos is an adventurer’s dream. I have never seen a country that was almost ubiquitously covered in green jungles and South East Asia’s iconic limestone karsts. Even if your adventurous side only extends to a leisurely bike ride down Vang Vieng, you will get your money’s worth of views from Laos. With a wide variety of options, you can go rock climbing one day and then kick back with some tubing down the river the next day. You can go from exploring caves by foot to exploring caves by kayak, and there are a number of treks and day hikes available to do in Laos.
I have never been to a country so lush and filled with such beautiful natural scenery. I took the slow boat into Laos, and it finally made me believe that mind-blowing fact that there are more trees on Earth than stars in our galaxy. 3 trillion or something ridiculous like that, but I bet quite a few of those are in Laos. Vast expanses of jungles and forests lined the river the entire way down, and that greenery didn’t change throughout the rest of the journey through Laos.
You’re going to have a hard time finding a better place to kick back and relax in all of South East Asia. Despite Laos being an adventurer’s paradise, it is also one of the most relaxed places I’ve ever been to. Aside from Vientiane’s chaotic rush hour traffic, this country was one of the most laid-back I’ve been to. You can laze away so many days chilling by a river or at a number of cafes and restaurants that define “chill vibes”. Life is just easier here.
Partying is as cheap as it gets. My hostel in Vang Vieng cost me $13 to stay there for three nights, and that included a big breakfast every morning and free whiskey from 7-10 every night. They literally just laid out bottles and a cooler full of ice and it was a free-for-all for three hours. Once you get to the clubs and bars, you’re probably bound to get some free drinks. Most bars have happy hours where you just get free drinks for the entire hour. I went to one club and just downed four whiskey-cokes in an hour to set myself up for a cheap but quality night out.
The tourist trail isn’t as well-established in Laos, so if you are looking for more off the beaten path cities in Laos, you might have a hard time getting around. Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng are the most popular destinations, but aside from places like Si Phan Don and Nong Khiaw, very few cities in Laos are both worth seeing and accommodating towards travelers. Vang Vieng, as described by one of my friends, felt like a fake town that was built from the ground up literally just for tourism. There are dozens of beautiful towns in Laos that are just the complete opposite. I don’t just mean off the beaten path, but like literally devoid of hostels or accommodation for your typical tourist fare.
Laos is a pretty cheap country, but a bit more expensive than Thailand or Vietnam. On average, a meal in Laos cost me about $4-5, usually accompanied with a big Beerlao, whereas I could usually eat for $2-3 in Thailand and even less than that in Vietnam. In my 8 days in Laos, I spent about $250, which is still close enough to standard for me. Accommodation is cheap, with none of my hostels costing more than $7 a night.
Another big reason that deters travelers from going to Laos is the visa requirements. You can get one on arrival, but you have to pay $35, so for backpackers on a budget, that is quite a bit of money to simply pass through or spend a week or so here. Backpacking Laos is such a unique adventure that even spending a week here would be worth it.
All things considered, I think Laos is an amazing country that I wish I had given myself more time to explore. It was definitely one hell of an adventure.
Laos was an absurd adventure from start to finish. It began with a two day slow boat into Luang Prabang and ended with a 38 hour bus ride from hell to go to Vietnam. Sandwiched in between were a couple of flat tires, several moped wipeouts, encountering my first leech, horror movie-sized arachnids and tragically losing my @GoPro and sunglasses while doing the stupid tourist thing of drunkenly tubing down a river. Traveling isn't ever as glamorous as it looks on the 'gram, and Laos showed just how fucking muddy and bloody it can get. It's a pretty strong testament to how dopę this often overlooked country is that I still loved it after the hell it put me through. 90% of that love might be because free whiskey is offered basically all day and night 🍻