Laos

BACKPACKING LAOS: ITINERARY, PLANNING TIPS AND COSTS

Girl in grey tee shirt looks towards terraced blue falls, Luang Prabang
Kung Si Falls, Laos

Planning on backpacking Laos? You’re in for an epic adventure!

Somehow overshadowed by neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, landlocked Laos is Southeast Asia’s most surprising and underrated gem.  

There’s something for everyone in Laos. Adventurers can live out their wildest dreams zip lining through the jungle in Huay Xai, or go tubing down the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng.

For a taste of tranquillity head to sleepy Luang Prabang. In this charming town you’ll find brightly-clad monks, turquoise waterfalls and delicious French-infused Lao cuisine.

If you’re the intrepid type step a little off the tourist trail and venture to Phonsavan to explore the Plain of Jars. Take my word for it; Laos is an enchanting country and equally as deserving of your time as it’s more famous neighbours.

Two men walk with monk in orange robes outside Luang Prabang temple, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

THE BEST TIME TO GO BACKPACKING IN LAOS

The best time to visit Laos is between October and April when the country is dry and the weather is warm. The ‘green season’ of May to October sees heavy rainfall but often in short, sharp showers meaning travel during this period is possible (just bring a raincoat!).

BACKPACKING LAOS ON A BUDGET

Accommodation
We stayed in private rooms in hostels and hotels and spent 1,640,363 kip ($189.50 USD) for 14 nights, an average of 117,119 kip per night ($13.50 USD, or $6.80 each). You could definitely spend less if you planned on staying in hostel dorms.
Transport
Bus costs vary between 80,000-130,000 kip ($9.20-$15 USD) for a 5-6 hour journey.
Activities
We spent 3,107,000 kip ($360 USD) on The Gibbon Experience but you could expect to pay as little as 100,000 kip ($11.50 USD) for activities such as tubing or kayaking.
Food
Food is delicious and cheap; for local Laos food you could pay around 2000 kip ($2.30 USD) for a meal, or up to 100,000 kip ($11.50 USD) for a mid-range meal.
Daily Budget
With cheap food, accommodation, transport and activities Laos is a great country to visit on a budget. Budgets vary a lot depending on your travel style, but you could travel comfortably in Laos on a daily budget of $30-$35 USD.

LAOS VISA

Most visitors to Laos can apply for a 30-day tourist visa on arrival. This is a quick and simple process. You need between US$30 and US$42 in cash for the visa fee, one passport-sized photo and the name of a hotel or guesthouse.

BACKPACKING LAOS QUICK TIPS

Currency: The official currency in Laos is the Lao kip (LAK). USD and Thai baht are also accepted throughout the country, though it pays to carry kip with you. 1 USD is equivalent to roughly 8925 kip.

Language: Lao is the offical language in Laos, though there are over 86 other languages spoken in the country. French is relatively common, though English is not as widely spoken as in other Southeast Asian countries. While you should get by ok in the main cities and tourist destinations, it pays to learn a few key phrases before you go.

Credit Cards & ATM’s: ATM’s are found all over Laos, though most ATM machines have a withdrawal limit of 700,000K to 2,000,000K (about US$85 to US$250) per transaction. It pays to always carry a small amount of cash with you, as local markets and restaurants may not accept credit cards.

Plugs: In Laos the power plugs and sockets are type A, B, C, E and F. The standard voltage in Laos is 230 V and the standard frequency is 50 Hz.

Safety: Overall I found Laos to be a safe country to visit and I think it’d make a great destination for solo female travellers. Petty theft and bag snatching can occur in the bigger cities, so make sure to follow the precautions you normally would. Unexploded ordnance is still a big issue in Laos, so if you’re exploring rural areas make sure to stick to well-trodden paths and roads. Always check with your local travel advisory before you go.

Backpacking Laos Itinerary: Where To Go & What To Do

  • Huay Xai: 5 Nights
  • Luang Prabang: 4 Nights
  • Phonsavan: 2 Nights
  • Vang Vieng: 3 Nights
  • Vientiane: 2 Nights

Huay Xai: 5 Nights

Huay Xai is the entry point into Laos for many travellers who cross over into the country from Northern Thailand. This sleepy town borders the Mekong River and there’s not much to see, but it’s worth spending a day here adjusting to the Laos pace of life. Grab a Beerlao, sit back, and enjoy the views of the river.

From here most tourists will catch the slow boat to Luang Prabang, but Huay Xai is also the jumping off point for something more fast-paced.

The Gibbon Experience

The Gibbon Experience is one of Southeast Asia’s most exhilarating adventures. From Huay Xai you’ll head deep into Nam Kan National Park for three days of zip lining, hiking and the chance to spot some elusive gibbons.

A highlight of the tour is getting to sleep in one of the tallest tree houses in the world. Waking up to mist pooling over the forest beneath you is a magical experience, and the huts themselves are right out of your childhood fantasy. Seriously, taking a bucket shower on a wooden deck in the middle of the rainforest should be on everybody’s bucket list.

You’ll spend your days on a high (literally) zip lining from hut to hut over 15km of combined zip lines. In the evening you’ll return to your tree house to relax while watching the fiery sun descend into the jungle below.

The Classic Tour costs 3,107,000 kip ($360 USD). It’s expensive on a backpacker’s budget, but this jungle adventure is worth every penny.

Stay: While in Huay Xai we stayed at Oudomsin Hotel. For 112,904kip ($13 USD) we got a large, clean private room with ensuite. Oudomsin Hotel is within easy walking distance of restaurants and The Gibbon Experience office.

Close up on gibbons in tree, Thailand
Hunting for elusive gibbons in Nam Kan National Park

Read More: The Ultimate Southeast Asia Bucket List

Luang Prabang: 4 Nights

Luang Prabang was one of my favourite places in all of Southeast Asia, and a stop here on your Laos backpacking trip is a must.

A fast-growing town with the feel of a sleepy village, Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the country’s former capital. The town was once part of the French colony of Indochine, and today you’ll still find faded Indochinese villas, and baguettes alongside sticky rice.

Luang Prabang is one of those places you can’t help falling in love with, and I can guarantee four days here won’t feel like nearly long enough.

Kung Si Falls & Pak Ou Caves

While in Luang Prabang make sure to explore the region’s incredible natural features. The terraced Kung Si Falls are breath-taking and a highlight of any visit to Laos. Pack your togs and swim in the turquoise pools (beware the toe-nibbling fish), and climb to the top of the falls to escape the crowds and look out over the countryside.

The famous Pak Ou Caves also make for a fascinating visit. The limestone caves are located 25km outside of Luang Prabang and a 2-hour scenic boat ride down the Mekong River. There are two caves you can visit and each have been filled with over 6000 tiny Buddha statues.

Peeking out through the entrance of Pak Ou Caves to the Mekong River, Laos
Pak Ou Cave, Luang Prabang

Top Things To Do In Luang Prabang

Closer to town head up Mount Phousi for panoramic views of the town and surrounding countryside. For something a bit different a visit to Garavek Traditional Storytelling Theatre makes for a fun evening. You’ll get to hear traditional Lao stories accompanied by khene, a handmade bamboo mouth organ. While in Luang Prabang you can’t miss Wat Xieng Thong or the Royal Palace.

Eat: For gourmet Lao food by the river head to Tamarind. For something a little simpler but equally tasty head to Joy’s Restaurant – the curries are fantastic. To find possibly the best chocolate lava cake you will eat in your life head to French restaurant Tangor.

Luang Prabang temple with bright pink flowers in foreground
Hand holds a small bottle containing scorpion in liquid, Laos
Brown drink with ice and wooden straw, Laos

Phonsavan: 2 Nights

Phonsavan is a little out of the way for most travellers backpacking Laos. Those who do brave the winding mini-bus trip will be rewarded with an incredible megalithic landscape; the Plain of Jars.

Located a short drive out of town, the countryside is littered with thousands of ancient stone jars. They date back around 1500-2000 years, and it is believed that the jars were once used to store either human remains or rice wine. How they got there and what their real purpose was is a mystery, and something to ponder while wandering around the ruins.

Man in white tee shirt peers into large stone jar
The Plain of Jars, Laos

Laos History

While in Phonsavan you’ll have the opportunity to learn more about Laos’ recent and tragic history.

Most of you have probably heard of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, and the Vietnamese/American War, but it’s less likely that you’ll know about the Secret War.

During the war in Vietnam over two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos to disrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to dispose of unused munitions. Laos is the most heavily bombed county in history per capita. It’s estimated that 30% of the bombs dropped never exploded, and to this day parts of Laos remain littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO) that continue to harm and kill.

While at the Plain of Jars you’ll spot deep craters left by bombs, but you should make a point to visit the Plain of Jars Visitor Centre for more information.

There’s also a UXO Information Centre run by British organisation MAG (Mines Advisory Group) that’s been helping to clear Laos’ unexploded ordnance since 1994. The centre screens several powerful documentaries in the late afternoon; they can be hard to watch, but this is an important part of Laos’ history.

Lip of large stone jar with cluster of stone jars in distance, Phonsavan
Human remains or rice wine; what do you reckon the jars once held?

Vang Vieng: 3 Nights

Once the wild child of Southeast Asia there’s still a lot of adventure to be had in Vang Vieng (just not the get-wasted-on-drugs-and-drown-in-the-river kind).

Since 2012 the government has cracked down on seedier goings-on, and a new kind of tourism has emerged. You can no longer order magic mushrooms off the menu (well, not that I know of). But you can enjoy a more wholesome high in this picturesque town.

Explore the Countryside

While in Vang Vieng make sure to rent a bicycle and venture out into the stunning countryside. The Blue Lagoon (the most famous one) is within cycling distance, and you won’t even notice the burn as you’re riding past limestone mountains that look like something out of Avatar.

For something more sedate hire a tube and float down the Nam Song River. While you can stop for drinks along the way, it’s no longer an opportunity to get wasted. Instead lie back, soak in the scenery, and maybe spot a water buffalo or two.

To catch a dreamy sunset over the mountains head to Riverside Boutique Resort. You don’t have to be a guest to visit the bar, so grab a cheeky mojito, sit back and enjoy the view.

Eat: Vang Vieng has a great range of restaurants, both Lao and Western. For delicious and reasonably priced food head to A.M.D Restaurant; it’s a little outside of town but worth the walk. For tasty pizza fresh from the stone oven head to Pizza Luka. You can find surprisingly good Korean BBQ at Peeping Som’s Bar and Restaurant.

Man on bicycle rides down road with dramatic mountains in background, Laos
Sunset over the mountains and river, Vang Vieng
Sunset in Vang Vieng

Vientiane: 2 Nights

Vientiane was not what I had come to expect from a Southeast Asian capital. It doesn’t have the crazy energy of Bangkok, nor is it as crowded with people as Hanoi. Instead, you’ll find a surprisingly laid-back city that feels like a sleepy town (which I guess compared to Bangkok or Hanoi, it kind of is).

I didn’t fall in love with Vientiane, but I did enjoy it and I think the ‘boring’ label the town has acquired is a little unfortunate. Spend a couple of days here on your Laos backpacking adventure and you’ll discover glittering temples, friendly tuk tuk drivers and colourful naga statues.

Make sure to check out Pha That Luang, a glittering, gold-covered Buddhist stupa in the city centre. First established around the 3rd century the stupa is considered a symbol of Laos and an important national monument. The entrance fee is 5,000 kip for foreigners.

COPE Visitor Centre is one of Vientiane’s top rated attractions and makes for a fascinating and thought-provoking visit. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) is a locally run organisation and the main source of prosthetic limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. The Visitor Centre is free to enter but you can choose to make a donation.

Gold covered temple and buddhas, Vientiane
Vientiane, Laos

Laos is one of the most incredible, surprising countries I’ve visited. Featuring colourful temples, turquoise waterfalls, jungle tree houses and a delicious fusion of French and Lao cuisine, this Southeast Asian gem has a lot to offer.

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Backpacking Laos
Backpacking Laos