Known for its overwhelmingly green landscape, Laos has mostly stayed off the map for tourists, hosting just 4.1 million visitors in 2018 and less than 1 million in 2020. However, this small Southeast Asian country is growing in popularity, slowly becoming the next up-and-coming destination.
One of the world’s hidden gem destinations, Laos is full of jungles, rice fields, and tea bushes, making it the ultimate playground for ecotourists and adventurists. With excursions focused on nature, culture, and food, Laos has a little something that everyone will love.
ຍິນດີຕ້ອນຮັບ – Welcome to Laos!
Vientiane is the capital of Laos, which rests on the right bank of the mighty Mekong River. The capital is known for its slow pace and relaxed vibe. The low-key atmosphere of the capital also means that there isn’t a lot to do.
With less chaos, tourists can relax and still get a taste of Asia by exploring the street markets, restaurants, and shopping destinations. Or you can always take a moment to appreciate the peaceful views along the river and watch as the boats float by on the water.
- Culture and Language
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
Laos has a long history that has been influenced by early humans, the Chinese, Indian, Tai, and French people. Dating back centuries, you can still see landmarks and ruins of past civilizations.
The Kingdom of Funan was the earliest, which existed in the 1st Century CE. The kingdom was heavily steeped in Indian culture before the Tai migration began as early as the 12th Century BCE. The Tai culture lived on in Laos due to myths and legends until the rule of Lan Xang in 1353.
Under the Lan Xang kingdom, Laos was known as the “Land of a Million Elephants.” For 350 years, the Lan Xang kingdom existed, and Laos flourished. By 1707, the area was being split into regional kingdoms.
In 1862, the French wanted to colonize the area after they had sent successful missions of exploration. The main draw was that the French wanted to use the Mekong River as a route into France and moved to colonize the entire Southeast Asian area, Laos was favored for being rich in raw materials.
It was also during the French rule, during which the Vietnamese were encouraged to move into the country, that many of their cultures came to Laos. During World War II, Laos struggled with its identity and who was in control.
The French wanted to keep power, but with the Japanese attempting to invade, they were forced to hold off on claiming the country. It wasn’t until the Lao Issara government made a Franco-Lao Treaty in 1953 that the country began to stabilize. Eventually, the French gave up all rights to their Indochina colonies, and Laos became independent.
Now, Laos is a socialist country whose leading political party is the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The government is very open about its acceptance of Communism, which makes them unique from China, Cuba, and Vietnam (who all also openly support Communism). With the war over, the country has become stable and is a safe travel destination.
With Communism in favor, the culture that travelers will experience in the country may seem guarded or restricted. People do not have freedom of expression and will not openly discuss their political ideas. Due to these restrictions, the normal pace of life is slow. People like to operate at their own pace, and they tend to live in the moment.
While the government is not a good topic to discuss, and you should be respectful of doing so, you’ll find that people in Laos don’t have any problems with commenting on appearances. Travelers should not be shocked if locals begin to comment on the physical differences between you and them.
Similar to many Asian cultures, the family is important, and people take pleasure in everyday life. Eating and drinking are enjoyable activities, as are big celebrations like weddings.
Lao is the official language of Laos, which has origins in the Thai language. As many as 3 million people within the country, out of Laos’s 7.2 million population (as of 2020), will speak Lao, which may also be referred to as Laotian or Isan. There are, however, 86 languages spoken throughout the country in total.
Small countryside communities speak many regional or local languages like Mon-Khmer. Foreign languages that are popular in Laos include French and English. French is still taught in many schools and may be used by professionals and educated individuals.
English is also an up-and-coming language because of the country’s ties to technology, business, and tourism. So, don’t be surprised if you stick to touristy areas, and people automatically address you in English.
It’s important that you consider your spending budget while you are planning your trip. Laos may be located in Southeastern Asia, which has gained a reputation as being an extremely affordable region to travel to, however, you shouldn’t expect to find the lowest prices.
Laos is landlocked, which means that they import a lot of their goods, which raises prices. While the country is still affordable overall, you will find that it is still more expensive to travel to Laos than Thailand. So, to stay on a budget, you’ll have to consider the cost of airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
You’re first major expensive will be airfare. Laos is far away, and that means plane tickets will cost more. Ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars, factors to consider are your location, when you travel, how early you book, and the type of class you wish to sit in.
Some tickets can be found for nearly rock-bottom prices by looking at budget airline sights or waiting for a great deal. If you’re looking for a luxurious vacation, be prepared to spend thousands on a first-class ticket, which can increase or decrease based on when you visit.
The most popular months for tourists to visit Laos are between November and February, as well as March and April. These months are during the dry season, which means you won’t have to spend your precious packing space filling it with rain gear.
However, this also means that tickets will be more expensive because of the increase in the popularity of travel to the country. Going to Laos in the off-season can save money. Along with picking the right time to go, you can save more money by booking your ticket well in advance of your trip, instead of last minute.
While a plane ticket will get you to the country, you also need to consider the cost of accommodation for your time inside Laos’ borders. For travelers who are on a backpacker’s budget, booking a night in a hostel dorm room or guest house will be the best option.
Private rooms, particularly in a guest house, are more costly but often come without your own bathroom. If staying at hostels and guesthouses is not your preference, you can stay at nice hotels, but be prepared to pay more.
Most traditional hotel setups come with a price tag to match and will increase depending on the accommodation’s location and reputation.
Hotels in the cities will be more expensive while staying in the countryside will be more affordable. A small hotel may be a manageable price, while a large resort could cost exponentially more daily.
Once you’ve booked a flight and decided where to stay, the next most important considerations for your budget will be food and drink. Food is affordable throughout the country, but you will find that the prices dramatically increase in tourist areas. Like many Asian countries, you can eat on the cheap and experience authentic flavors by exploring the street food options.
Laos is a small country, and to many people, it’s relatively unknown. This means the cuisine may not be something you’re well-acquainted with, however, if you’re a fan of things like steamed sticky rice, then Laos is the place for you.
Steamed sticky rice is the go-to food item throughout the country, and Laotian people love this dish. In fact, Laos eats more sticky rice than any other country in the world.
While rice is the main staple, there are plenty of other dishes to try too. Laap is a meat salad that features freshly butchered and often, raw meat. If you prefer it to be cooked, the meat can be fried too. Pork and fish are the most popular meat choices for laap.
Paeng pet is a duck blood dish that is served with herbs and peanuts. While it sounds unappetizing, many travelers state this is their favorite dish they’ve tried on their travels in Laos.
Khao piak kao is Laos’ oldest dish, though it has been updated, and is usually served with rice instead of noodles. The dish has been served for thousands of years, and many recommended adding a hint of lime.
With plenty of dishes to choose from, you’ll be able to provide endless entertainment for your taste buds. Street food is the most affordable option for travelers and will be a great choice for those trying to remain within a budget.
Sit-down restaurants, especially those that are western-style, will be pricier, particularly in tourist hotspots.
For those who also want to drink in Laos, beer is the most affordable alcohol, especially local brands like Beerloa. Priced depending on the area, it’s still a highly affordable option.
Other alcoholic drinks will cost a bit more, again depending on where you are. In local areas, you will be able to drink more affordably, whereas a luxury resort would have prices similar to the US.
How to Get Around
While Laos is a smaller country, you still may find yourself wanting to travel within its borders. There are a lot of different places to explore, and you may end up traveling far and wide. Laos may not have the most sophisticated transportation systems, which means it can be difficult to find a safe way to travel.
Airplanes are the fastest way to travel around the country, however, they aren’t the safest. Lao Airlines is the biggest provider, and they can have affordable flights. While the airlines have gotten safer as of late, many people still choose to find other methods of travel.
Local buses are the best way to travel, but they are very slow. For travelers on a strict budget, both shorter rides and overnight options should be very manageable.
Boats are also a popular way to get around, especially to the famous 4,000 Islands. Tickets are very affordable, with speedboats coasting a little more.
Some travelers choose to see the country by hiring a private car but are aware that this is the most expensive way to travel. Most private drivers charge a high daily fee, especially if you are going longer distances.
Tuk-Tuks and Bikes
When you’re traveling around cities or small areas, tuk-tuks are a great option. Tuk-tuks can help you experience the city in a new way and a fun way to travel. However, if you want to do the hard work yourself, there are plenty of bike rental options too.
With a bike rental costing only a few dollars a day, you can pedal to your hearts’ delight and explore the lively streets. Finally, walking is always a great option to see a location, and it’s free. Many places are safe to walk in, but just in case, you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings close by.
Top Cities to Visit
While Vientiane is the main attraction, there are plenty of other cities in Laos to visit. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Laos that tourists may not know about, but should add to their itineraries.
The capital of Vientiane sits on the Mekong River and was a major focus for the French as they colonized Indochina. The French’s influence can be seen in the streets on signs and in architecture.
Buddhism is a huge focus as well, and the “City of Sandalwood” is one of the most popular tourist hotspots in the city. Travelers will also enjoy the city’s lively energy and have fun exploring the shopping and dining options.
This is Laos’ most popular city to visit, which was once the capital of the old Kingdom of Laos. The city is filled with religion as Buddhist temples, and monasteries line the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers banks. While quiet, the beautiful location nestled into nature is a great place to get away.
Vang Vieng is made picturesque by the limestone karst hills, which act as a backdrop for this small city. In front, the Nam Song River is a great place to get into the water and cruise on a kayak or tube. With off-the-beaten-path travelers, the area is also great for hikers and cave explorers.
Phonsavan is famous for its megalithic-era structures that are scattered in a field. The structures resemble large pots which gave them the nickname “Plain of Jars.” The jars are one of the top attractions in Laos because of their ancient history.
Points of Interest
Cities are usually the main attractions, but Laos has plenty of points of interest that are fun to explore too. Great for outdoor enthusiasts, history buffs, and those looking to spend time in the water, there are plenty of destinations to choose from.
Discover the best of Laos’ thermal springs to add to your itinerary, on our sister site, Top Hot Springs.
Viewpoint at Nong Khiaw
On the Nam Ou River, the small village of Nong Khiaw offers an excellent view of the area that has become famous throughout the country and among visitors. The large mountains almost swallow the small villages, but you can see the tops of buildings peak through once you complete the rewarding hike.
Pha Pheng Waterfall
The Pha Pheng Waterfall is Southeast Asia’s largest waterfall, and it is located in a nice park that has many walking paths with multiple viewpoints. You can visit various viewpoints to see the falls and hear the thunder of the cascades.
Wat Phu is a World Heritage Site that is also one of the oldest temples in Laos. The ruins sit at the base of the Phu Kao Mountain amongst a green backdrop. While Buddhist, the influence of Hinduism can be seen with ancient relics from times long forgotten.
Kong Lor Caves
With one of the longest cave rivers in the world, you can explore the waters of Kong Lor on a boat and take a guided tour. The river tour allows you to see the cave’s impressive formations and witness the unique wildlife.
Si Phan Don
Also called the 4,000 islands, these islands are scattered on the Mekong River and remain the top point of interest for Laos. Pakse is the main city in the South, which is where many people head first.
There are literally thousands of places that you could visit, though the main islands are Don Khong, Don Khon, and Don Det.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
Beneath the stunning Kuang Si Falls are small pools where you can bathe in the fresh steam and stare in awe at the beauty of nature. With a 50-meter cascade, these falls remain the most beautiful in Laos.
There are numerous walking trails, and you can explore the beauty of the entire area and perhaps catch a glimpse of some butterflies.
“Peace, Independence, Democracy, Unity and Prosperity”
While Laos may not be the first on everyone’s bucket list, this up-and-coming tourist destination is sure to provide you with the adventure of a lifetime. By traveling off the beaten path, you can experience a quieter side of Asia and slip into a world dominated by nature.
With gorgeous, ancient relics and fantastic scenery, Laos will surely draw you in and leave you in awe of its wonders.