Hi all and happy Thursday to y’all. Hope you are doing well in this crazy, wacky world we live in. Today I want to take you to probably my favourite South-East Asian destination, and that is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, more commonly known as ‘Laos’. I know people love Thailand, and personally I had amazing times in both Vietnam and Myanmar, but I think the place that really ‘floated my boat’ in the region has to be Laos.
Why? Because it’s just a beautiful country, it’s laid back, it’s not nearly as densely populated as its neighbours, and probably a dozen other reasons. It’s not as visited too, which for me is a real bonus as it feels a little more special. Mind you, plenty of people do visit Laos.
Laos is a land-locked country which borders a number of other countries. China in the north and Thailand in the south, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar making it five countries that it borders. Laos has an incredible history, three kingdoms that became one. French Colonisation, Japanese Occupation, Independence, French Colonisation again and the independence, communism and more.
And so we make it to the 21st Century and Laos has opened up to tourism, and although it’s not developed like Thailand is, there are a raft of great things to see and do, and loads of interesting experiences there as well. Friendly people and slowly building infrastructure. What do you need to know though, before you go? Well, that’s the point of this post!
Getting to Laos
Flying into Laos there aren’t a huge range of options, but there are enough. Vientiane is the capital and has the biggest airport, but it’s far from being the world’s biggest. If you are coming to Vientiane by air you are almost certainly going to be coming through another airport in the region, such as Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, which are probably the top two.
Air Asia, based in KL, offer cheap flights to and from Laos. Vietnam Airlines and Thai Airways fly there, and they are full-service airlines which is nice so there are connections from Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. From China both China Eastern and China Southern fly to Laos, not sure from where exactly but Guangzhou is the China Southern Hub, so that’s a safe bet.
Alternatively you can fly to Luang Prabang, everyone’s favourite town in Laos. I flew with what was booked as a Vietnam Airlines flight, but in fact it was operated by Lao Aviation. The national carrier will cover you domestically too, and their reputation and safety rating is a lot higher than it once was, twenty years ago I think they may have been flying people in converted cargo planes and they were one of the least safe airlines on the planet. But don’t stress, things are very different now!
By land you have a lot of options from Thailand, a few from Cambodia and a few from Vietnam. So it’s going to depend where you are if you are coming by land. The most used crossing is the one from Northern Thailand, across the Friendship Bridge, to Vientiane which sits on the Mekong right on the Thai border. There are plenty of others and many cross further west and then take a boat on the river east or north into Laos which sounds like the way to go!
From Cambodia you are entering some of the more remote parts of the country, but I think it would be an interesting way. People often travel from Siem Repp (Angkor) north into Laos which would give a great perspective on some of the less-travelled parts of the country. I don’t think anything is open between Laos and Myanmar at all, and with the political situation in Myanmar, you probably want to avoid it for now. There are borders open in the north with China. The northern part of the country (Laos) is supposedly very beautiful, and quite rugged and remote. Laos on the whole is not a country you can get around quickly, it’s mountainous and the roads are just generally not of a high standard, although between the main cities they aren’t too bad. As for entering or leaving via China, I don’t know a lot but I believe it is possible. From what I read the Lantouy Crossing is only for Chinese and Laotians, so it’s the Boten crossing you need to use. Mengla in China is around 40km and reached by mini-bus, and the nearest main city in China is Kunming.
Money and Visas
The Laotian Kip is the local currency, and it’s not one that makes for quick conversion in the head. As I write it is currently 1 USD to 9448 Kip. Okay, so that’s around 10,000 which isn’t too bad to convert I guess. Generally it’s not an expensive country, especially once you’re outside the tourist towns of Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. It’s not as cheap as it once was either. $15-20 will get you a pretty decent single room. I stayed at a variety of places back in 2011 and definitely didn’t pay $20 for a night and the rooms were all pretty decent bar one – and that was dirt cheap in fairness.
For money there are plenty of ATMs around, otherwise USD I think is the best bet but in this part of the world you should be able to exchange Euros and Pounds with little issue, and even Australian/Singapore Dollar and of course Thai Baht.
The Visa situation is that you need one, but these days I think it’s pretty easy to get on arrival, at least at Vientiane Airport and the main border crossings. Not sure which countries but there are also e-visas and the cost is around $45 to $65 USD.
Getting Around Laos
Outside flying, which if you have a limited time is a good way to save it (time), getting around Laos is still not a smooth and quick proposition. There are a bunch of airlines, some with some very small planes, so if you’re booking I would definitely devote some time into researching the safety record and rating of whoever you fly with. Lao Aviation are probably your best bet but may not fly everywhere you want to go.
There aren’t a lot of large buses, many roads at single lane – even highways, and often you are going around mountains or hills. Mini-buses seem to be the most common way for travellers to go by land. There are plenty of companies and honestly, they aren’t all that comfortable in my opinion. But it is what it is. One minibus trip from Luang Prabang to Phonsovan had us breaking down and waiting an hour or maybe two for a replacement. The good news was that we did get said replacement. For the main route such as Vang Vieng to Vientiane, you can certainly take the larger ‘VIP’ buses, and they are definitely preferable.
The other option is boat. I sadly didn’t try it but I think it’s a wonderful way to get around a place, and I did take a day trip on one from Luang Prabang and although the seats weren’t super comfortable, the view and experience was highly worthwhile.
Weather and Stuff
So, Laos, despite being north of northern Thailand, can still be brutally hot. And very dry at times. Parts of the country near rivers are lush – Vang Vieng for example, however out near Phonsovan it’s quite barren. Having said that, it can be cold in the winter time, especially in Luang Prabang and further north. I was in Laos in March 2011, and it was 35 degrees plus every single day no matter where I was. Pack suncream, a hat and be sensible about it.
Fooling about in Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng was always a party destination. It’s a town overrun frankly by tourists, although the area around the town is actually stunning and wonderful to explore. The key pull for young backpackers was the tubing, along the river for several kilometres. You would get driven to the start point and given a tyre tube, and ride it back to Vang Vieng.
Participants would get drunk beyond belief, as at the start there were loads of bars, and then take a tube back to Vang Vieng. And the result was, well, death in some cases. A number killed on rocks or drowned. Regularly. A few years after I was there, they put a stop to it. So I don’t know if Vang Vieng is still filled with tourists, or young backpackers. I gave it ago, but I hadn’t been drinking and the river was low, which made it pretty docile to be honest. And it’s not THAT dangerous, depending on what you have inside you.
Speaking of which, drugs are not really something worth risking when you visit Laos. They have, as do other nearby countries, some pretty strict rules when it comes to drugs. Not just drug trafficking but possession does hold the possibility of the death penalty. You will find foreigners in Laos to party, for sure. Just do it sensibly and respectfully.
Finally, I wanted to mention that whilst in Laos I was both offered drugs and also approached by prostitutes. The first in Luang Prabang and the second in Vientiane. And so, there is a darker side to tourism in Laos as there is sadly throughout the whole region. I mean, I was approached by prostitutes at dinner time in the streets!
But generally there are beautiful temples, waterfalls, and amazing places full of nature. Not to mention the Plain of Jars. So try not to let this side of life affect you too much. No-one certainly forced anything on me, nor did I accept any offers just in case you were wondering!
Laos is a place with a gentle soul that will touch yours if you let it. Thanks for reading today. Take care, and May the Journey Never End!