What was once a forgotten region of Southeast Asia, sandwiched between its neighbors of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, is slowly becoming a destination for those seeking to sight-see off the beaten path. While it’s certainly not a luxury destination—Laos is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia—it’s nonetheless gaining a reputation for the rural ease, laid-back attitude of its citizens, and authentic natural beauty.
Unless you are an ASEAN country national, you will need to acquire a tourist visa at a Lao consulate prior to your visit. The best way to get into Laos is through Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia: if you’re flying in, you can get a visa-on-arrival by arriving at the Vientiane or Luang Prabang airports, if walking, cross from Khon Kaen, Thailand and grab your visa at that city’s Lao consulate before you head to Vientiane.
Traveling around Laos, you will mostly need to rely on busses, rented bikes, and tuk-tuks. Renting a motorbike or a car and driver, even if they’re more expensive, are probably your best bets because the busses and roads aren’t incredibly well maintained; you will need to budget your time for delays, breakdowns, and price haggling otherwise, and won’t be able to stop if you need to find a bathroom.
Food & Culture
Most Lao food is fairly similar to the food of the countries surrounding it, especially northeast Thailand. Spicy vegetable soups and stews, herbal teas, and raw veggies are common; laap, a chopped meat and herb salad with copious amounts of chili and lime juice, is considered the national dish, and sticky rice served with mango is a popular dessert. You shouldn’t drink the tap water, but kaafee thung coffee, local rice-made Beer Lao, and lao-lao rice liquor are all praised by visitors.
While its small size might suggest otherwise, Laos is actually incredibly culturally diverse, hosting over 49 different tribes and ethnic groups. The country is mostly Buddhist, and the monks are highly regarded—make sure you treat any you encounter respectfully, and do not touch them. Laotians live at a slow, relaxed speed—part of the reason Laos is becoming more of a tourist destination—but it’s important to keep a cool head if things aren’t going fast enough for you. Yelling will not only get you laughed at, but you’ll lose considerable face as well.
When in Laos, it is important to always carry your passport, as officials may stop you and fine you heavily if you do not have one.
Sights & Attractions
Vang Vieng Tubing—A strange mix of outdoor relaxation and party scene, tubing down the river in Vang Vieng is certainly an experience! The first half of the riverbank is lined with bars which will throw tubers a line. Enjoy a beer or two (avoid unsafe ziplines and tube thieves) and then just relax on your float down the river.
Luang Pravang—The entire city is considered a World Heritage site. Visit the formal royal palace and Vat Xien Tong monastery, then catch a show at the Garavek Traditional Storytelling Theater, which tells traditional Laos folktales in English. Outside the city, the Kuang Xi waterfall offers multilevel natural swimming pools, and is worth a day trip to just enjoy.
Plain of Jars— A very cool iron-age monolith, consisting of thousands of large stone jars which served some undiscovered purpose centuries ago; Laos’ version of Stonehenge.
For more Laos travel resources, visit these pages: