You’re travelling South East Asia. You’re gonna visit Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. But what about Laos? Are there any things to do in Laos? You don’t hear too much about the country that’s actually one of the largest in the region. Thai beaches and Vietnamese motorcycle tours have tourists flocking in droves every year. However in Laos, these associations are less forthcoming.
The first thing to know is that there is a surprisingly large amount of things to do in Laos. Most tend to split their time between the capital, Vientiane and the two other larger cities, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. If you want to maximise your time in Laos, do not split your time evenly between these places.
The capital, Vientiane is a small city with not a lot to do for tourists. After spending over 10 days in Laos, we’re yet to meet a tourist who was enthusiastic about their time in Vientiane. There’s a couple of temples to see, but really if you’re spending more than 1 day in Vientiane you’re overdoing it. Especially if your trip is time bound, you might regret spending more time in sleepy Vientiane. We actually only spent a couple of hours in Vientiane, and we’re really glad that was all. By no means is it a bad place, it’s actually rather beautiful, but there’s just so much else to do in other places.
Spend the bulk of your time in Laos in Vang Vieng. Popular with tourists since the 70’s, once you arrive it’s easy to see why. Within 10 km of the city there are numerous waterfalls, caves and view points to explore. The views are breathtaking and if you rent a scooter for $6/7 a day, easily accessible. The tubing is a particular highlight. You’re given a rubber ring to float down the Nam Song in, during which you visit the numerous bars along the river. Tubing time is probably only an hour, but if you have a few beers along the way and meet other tourists, it can turn into a full day event.
Surprisingly, the nightlife in Vang Vieng is extremely lively. There’s loads of bars and a few nightclubs that are open every night. If that’s your kind of thing, go to Gary’s Irish bar, Aussie Bar and Sakura – they were some of our favourites. If that’s not your kind of thing, stay at a guesthouse on the other side of the Nam Song river for peace and quiet during the night. We actually did both and got a really happy medium. We spent 6 days in Vang Vieng, but could easily have spent 10 days there. Many tourists we spoke to had been there for weeks, and even a few expats we spoke to had been there for years!
Luang Prabang is another city you should take the time to visit. Be warned, the bus from Vang Vieng is especially grim. They tell you it’s a nice 4 hour journey, but in reality it’s more like 6, on windy, high altitude roads littered with potholes. If you’re on an especially poor minibus as we were, the air con will give out at higher altitudes.
Don’t let that put you off however, because Luang Prabang is worth seeing. Take a day trip (again by scooter) out to the Kuang Si waterfalls. The falls themselves are beautiful, you can swim in the brilliant blue waters and even hike to the top of the highest fall. Also, there’s a bear sanctuary which is nice to see (note they preach about the freedom of bears, while simultaneously keeping them in a small zoo) and a cool butterfly sanctuary. Definitely visit the night market in Luang Prabang. It’s on every night and runs for hundreds of metres. There’s all kinds of clothes, jewellery and good food there at reasonable prices.
There are plenty of things to do in Laos, but be careful because, In general, Laos is not as cheap as you might be expecting. We were told the Lao government really cracked down on the tourism industry recently and shut a lot of bars and restaurants, fearful of getting a ‘boozy’ reputation. It looks like it worked, but prices seem inflated for tourists. It’s still way cheaper than anything in the West, but we’re told it’s not as cheap as many of the countries surrounding it. We noticed this most in Luang Prabang, where the price of renting a scooter ($13 a day) was almost 4 times the price we’ve paid elsewhere in Asia.
When leaving Laos, consider getting the slow boat from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s a 2 day boat ride up the Mekong river. There’s so many things to do in Laos, you might be glad for a two day relaxing break! The views are excellent the whole way there and you’ll spend 2 days with some interesting tourists. The boat takes about 9 hours a day, so it’s probably best for travellers with time to spare. You won’t regret it though, it’s a really beautiful way to reflect on your time in Laos (as I’m doing now, writing this half way through day 2 of the slow boat!).
After visiting, it’s hard to see why Laos is often the most unpopular of the countries in South East Asia. It’s a really beautiful country, reasonably priced and there’s loads of things to do in Laos. Be sure to visit before us tourists ruin it.