Dubbed the “Land of a Million Elephants”, Laos is steeped in the mystery of Old World Orient offering a haven to nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts the world over. Laos is a landlocked country in southeast Asia, nestled between Thailand and Vietnam. With Cambodia to the south and China to the north, this is often a forgotten country when it comes to mainstream tourism…but that is what makes it a wonderful place to visit!
Much of Laos’ border is along the famous Mekong River, and the country is known worldwide for its beautiful mountainous terrain and pristine natural wonders., Laos is an amazing travel destination offering something to every traveler willing to cross her boundary line. The pace is slow and languid here, making it a wonderful retreat from the hectic schedules of everyday life. In fact, the capital city of Vientiane is the smallest capital city in the region…and it actually does feel like a small town!
Visas to Laos
Visas for Laos can be obtained prior to your trip at embassies and consulates abroad; however, most people can also get a visa on arrival at the border (be sure to check in advance to be sure your country is eligible for a visa on arrival). Regardless of where you get your visa, be sure that you get it stamped on arrival into Laos, otherwise you could face a hefty fine.
Visas cost $35 US dollars. If you get a visa on arrival, they prefer US dollars, but will accept Thai Baht (for a higher fee). Also, be sure to bring 2 passport sized photos and make sure that you have 1 blank page in your passport and that it is valid for 6 months after your entry. Tourist visas are valid for 30 days and start upon the date of entry into the country, but they can also be extended in twice in Vientiane (as of the date of this post).
Currency in Laos
The currency in Laos is the “Kip.” And they are in big denominations, the smallest being 1,000 kip – no coins are used. It’s kinda crazy to think about taking 1 million kip out of the ATM, but a typical meal costs around 45,000 kip and even a beer can cost 10 – 15,000 kip.
It’s also good to try and break your big bills into small ones when you can, because there may be “fees” for things like bathrooms which cost around 2,000.
** IMPORTANT: Lao currency CANNOT be bought our sold outside the country! So you won’t be able to buy it before you enter, and you can’t exchange it out after you leave. We always find it best to use ATMs to get local currency when traveling because it gives you the best exchange rates, even with the small transaction fee. For more information, check out our complete Money Travel Tips post.
Lastly, credit cards are rarely used in much of Laos. This is especially true outside the major tourist cities. You will find some nice restaurants, hotels, and shops in the main touristy areas that will accept cards, but it’s best to rely on cash mostly during your trip to Laos.
Getting in / Getting out of Laos
There are many ways to reach Laos and each mode of transportation offers a unique glimpse into the country’s natural beauty. Your choice of transportation in Laos really depends on your budget, the amount of time you have, where else you are traveling in SE Asia…and how adventurous you are!
Flying into Laos
There are many airports in Laos; however, most of them are extremely limited in the flight schedules they offer. Below are the four primary airports for travelers that provide both domestic and international flights. Many of these airports offer connections to major SE Asia cities, such as Bangkok.
Flight Travel Tip: Booking a direct flight from your home country to Laos may NOT be the cheapest way to go. In fact, you may be better off searching the routes for you destination city in Laos – such as Luang Prabang, and seeing what cheap direct flights are available from other cities…and then book a flight there (essentially booking 2 flights). For example, there are daily, cheap flights on Air Asia between Luang Prabang and Bangkok. So if you can find a great deal on a round-trip flight to Bangkok, you might just book a second ticket to LP from BKK (that’s what we’ve done) and save a lot of cash!
Wattay International Airport
The Vientiane airport is located in Vientiane Prefecture. It is approximately 3 km outside of the city center of Vientiane. It is the main airline hub of the country catering to a combination of domestic, international, and military flights scheduled daily. This airport boasts such amenities as: restaurants, shopping, a post office, ATM, currency exchange, bars, banks, and an internet café.
Transportation to and from this airport includes public taxis and minibuses which are available at the domestic and international terminals. You can also find taxis near the arrivals exit. If you are planning to utilize the taxi service be sure to purchase a taxi coupon from the Airport Taxi Counter before you leave the airport.
Luang Prabang International Airport
The Luang Prabang airport is a small one, located approximately 4 km from the center of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. Newly modernized, this site services seven different airlines with domestic and international flights arriving and departing daily. Other amenities offered at this airport include: shopping, a restaurant, ATM, currency exchange, information, and transportation options.
Transportation from this airport is limited with fixed rate taxis and tuk-tuks available at the arrival exits. Good luck trying to negotiate the price! During our recent trip (2016) the price was roughly 40,000 kip for two people.
Pakse International Airport
This airport is located in Pakse, Laos (southern region). The airport is quite small but services both domestic and international flights. Guest amenities are extremely limited excluding food and shopping. Transportation to and from this airport is offered through motorbike taxis and tuk-tuks, which are available to take you into town or to your desired destination.
This is a smaller airport located in the city of Savannakhet. It has a limited flight schedule and services both domestic and international flights. There are very few traveler amenities here. It is important to note that this airport does not have a currency exchange or an ATM.
Transportation options from this airport are extremely limited. No taxi or tuk-tuk services are available. Locals can be hired to take you from the airport to your destination. You can find the locals with car services at the entrance to the airport. Haggling for the price of fare is expected.
Train Travel in Laos
There really isn’t any kind of rail network in Laos, as compared to neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. Technically, there is one station outside of Vientiane (Thanaleng) – but it basically just acts as a connection to the Thailand rail network across the bridge.
Thanaleng Railway Station
Also known as Dongphosy Station, is the new international rail terminal located in Dongphosy village, Hadxayfong district in Vientiane Prefecture. It’s a good 20 km outside of the city, so you will need to arrange for transportation. If you are arriving, there will be plenty of mini vans and tuk-tuks there. Beware, they pack people into those mini vans!
Basically, this station connects Laos with Thailand’s rail line – just across the river border. The train goes right across the “Friendship bridge” that connects the countries, and you do have to change trains.
(if you are arriving from Thailand, this is where you will pay and get your visa for Laos – but you will get stamped OUT of Thailand before leaving Thailand on the train over the Friendship Bridge)
Technically, this station does provide connections between Vientiane and the capital cities of Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia as well as several other destinations in southeast Asia.
Getting Around Laos and the Towns
Once in Laos, the traveler has many options when it comes to navigating through the country’s sight-seeing ventures. Each mode of local transportation has its own unique pros and cons. You will just have to choose the best fit for you and your traveling party. The most popular options include:
This remains one of the best modes of transportation around much of Laos. In the cities vehicles clog the roadways and in the country many of the routes are unpaved. Walking seems to be the best choice for local transportation. It is also the most cost effective.
Bicycle and Motorbike options are available and are enjoyable modes of transportation. But keep in mind that locals don’t adhere to bicycle rules of safety. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Bicycles and motorbikes can be rented at many guesthouses and tour companies. Rental options include: cruising bicycles with baskets attached, mountain bikes, motorbikes, and off road bikes. When renting a motorbike, it is common practice to require a passport as deposit. You can find biking tours in Luang Namtha, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang.
This traditional mode of transportation is popular in nearly every town and city. Tuk-Tuks are common motorbike driven carriages that can hold between two to eight or more passengers. Rates are set by the individual driver and lower rates can be negotiated. But beware of hefty prices for most tuk-tuk rides.
There are numerous international border crossings by car in Laos, but the most popular is possibly the Friendship Bridge outside of Vientiane. However, most tourists don’t drive into Laos – they typically take public transportation. But if you are up for an adventure, car rentals are available or you can hire a car and a driver if you don’t want to hassle with driving yourself.
Vientiane has many modern rental car companies where you can rent an SUV or truck which is perfect transportation options for many of the off road adventures found in Laos. Driving is on the right side of the road. The downsides to renting a car are the heavy traffic and lack of parking in the main cities and townships. The benefits of this mode of transportation is that you can bypass a lot of the headaches of tuk-tuk rates and bus schedules. You can go your own pace and on your own schedule.
Laos is riddled with smaller airports that cater to domestic flights. When traveling from northern to southern Laos roads can get difficult to travel. Many travelers and commuters opt to travel by plane. This is a more expensive way to travel within the country but is also one of the quickest.
Buses Around Laos
There are many kinds of buses available in Laos, it all depends on your time and budget. Local buses are not recommended for long distances, since they don’t have a/c, are super slow…and break down often!!! But if you are on a strict budget, they are a cheap option if you are willing to navigate the local bus stations.
There are also minivans and VIP bus services available from all major tourist cities in Laos. Minivans tend to be more expensive and can go faster, but they do cram people in there with their luggage. The VIP buses are large and more spacious, but they may take longer than a minivan.
Tickets for minibuses and VIP buses can be purchased at most guest houses, hotels, and travel agencies all over Laos. It’s really quite easy to book them. Often if you book with your guest house or at an agency, they will arrange to have you picked up from your accommodation and taken to meet the bus. We found booking buses to be most convneient from our hotel, but you can also go direct to one of the bus stations in town and inquire about tickets.
It is important to note here that buses in and out of the country are cleaner and more comfortable than the inner-city buses. They are also an easy and inexpensive mode of transportation, however, travel to some destinations can take days.
Vientiane Bus Stations
The three bus stations in Vientiane offer plenty of inner-city bus lines to transport tourists from destination to destination.
Central Station: Green and white air-conditioned buses run from this station all throughout the city of Vientiane and into: Kasi, Savannakhet, Pakse, Attapeu, and Thak Haek.
Northern Bus Station: This is the main hub for buses heading toward Luang Prabang and all northern destinations. Buses and large minivans make regular departures daily for: Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, Bokeo, Sayaboury, Pak Lai, Xieng Khouang, Phongsali, Sam Neua and Vang Vieng. Air-con buses provide comfort and the VIP buses have extra personal space on board as well as perks such as bottled waters and snacks. Most travelers prefer the air-conditioned sleeper buses for transportation between destinations.
Southern Bus Station: Bus lines from here depart for: Attapeu, Pakse, Salavan, Savannakhet, Sekong, and Thak Haek. Minibuses also depart for Vang Vieng from this station.
Northern Bus Station
Also known as the Luang Prabang Station, is located approximately 8 km from the city center. This station provides buses into southern China via Kunming and Mengla. It also provides buses to and from Thailand via Bangkok, Nakhon Ratchasima, and Khon Kaen.
Southern Bus Station
This site is located on Kaysone Phomvihane Avenue in Dong Dok, approximately 8km from the city center. It is the main departure point for all destinations in southern Laos as well as international bus lines in and out of Vietnam via: Vinh, Hanoi, Hue, Danang, Ho Chi Minh City, Quang Nam, and Quang Binh. Bus lines also depart from here to Cambodia arriving in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. VIP buses also run to Bangkok.
Get Around Laos by Boat
Since the Mekong river is long and flows along much of Laos’ west and southwest border, there are some options to take a boat as your transportation.
By far the most popular boat journey is between Luang Prabang and Huay Xay (along the border with Thailand to the northwest). This is a multi-day journey, and it’s an iconic ride for many travelers in the region. The “Slow Boat” is an inexpensive no-frills way to enjoy this journey. Usually this slow boat in Laos takes 2 days.
For those with a bigger budget, there are also some luxury boat cruises available up and down the Mekong river. Trips may last a few days depending on the direction and the itinerary. They are more expensive, but offer a unique and relaxing way to see the country as well as great service, amenities, and dining on board.
** Note: There is also a speed boat option between Luang Prabang and Huay Xay. We do NOT recommend this journey based on many reviews and warnings from people due to safety! Plus, it is a bone-rattling and loud journey that may leave you deaf, bruised…or worse.
Safety & General Tips for Tourists in Laos
Language: The languages spoken in Laos are French, Lao, Hmong, and Khmu. However, in the main tourist areas you will likely find enough people who speak basic or broken English who can help you. But beware that if you are venturing out into the countryside on your own, you may have trouble communicating. Be patient, kind, and always learn a few basic phrases to help you along.
Tuk-Tuk Scams: Many travelers have had problems with pushy tuk-tuk drivers who overcharge on their fares. This is especially true in Laos’ main touristy areas. You can get a better price by being a tough negotiator (be demanding and willing to walk away); however, there are some trips that are sort of a monopoly with a set price among all the drivers.
Travel Agencies: If you want to save some time and stress of negotiating prices and navigating your way with the locals, then you may be interested in using one of the local travel agencies. They will be higher priced, but it will save you a headache and even bypass some of the local scams.
Sleeper Buses: When traveling by sleeper bus be aware that sleeper bunks are made for two. If you are a solo traveler that means you will be sharing your bunk with a stranger! (yes, you read that right) They also do not discriminate between the sexes. So you can go with a buddy or simply book two passages to have the bunk to yourself. Lastly, some of the trips are incredibly winding (example: Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang) so I’m not sure how much sleep you would get being thrown around the curves all night!
Documents: Guard your documents well! You will need them throughout your stay as trains and other modes of transportation will check them. Keep them on your person and do not leave them in your lodging facilities.
Nickel-and-Diming: When traveling in Laos, be prepared to pay for just about everything. From toilets, entrance fees, camera fees, bridge fees, trail fees, cave fees, etc. Tourism is a money-maker and it seems everyone wants a piece of the pie. The frustrating part is that it’s hard to know what is legitimate — for example, a woman when visiting a wat in Luang Prabang, a woman tried to charge us when we wanted to walk through an opening into the courtyard of an adjoining wat. There was no signage, and we didn’t really believe her. In the end, we walked outside and entered through a different entrance for free. Who knows if we were supposed to pay. Other times, we paid because we wanted to go (whether it was crossing a bridge on a trail or to a cave) because the locals had it blocked off in a way that made it look as though payment was required. So it’s up to your judgement – just be prepared with lots of small bank notes.
Beware of “Local Guides”: In some places you will be exploring on your own and locals will approach you to offer help. They may also offer to guide you through a place, like a wat or cave. It seems like they are just trying to be helpful, then at the end they will ask for payment. Just keep this in mind if someone is overly friendly and offers to go above and beyond to guide you around. It’s up to you if you value their help and want to pay them – but sometimes they may even tell you that a “guide” is required — such as some caves near Vang Vieng.
Laos has a tropical monsoon climate with a rainy season that runs from May through October when the weather is hot and humid. November through February stays cool and dry then the weather heats up in March and April with a dry heat.
Major Festivals/ Events in Laos
This country is filled with things to do giving plenty of choice when it comes to activities scheduled throughout the year. It seems there is a festival each month in Laos. Just a few highlighted here include:
- Tet & the Chinese New Year festival is celebrated in Pakse and Savannakhet by the large Vietnamese and Chinese communities residing there. Businesses close their doors for a few days and the merriment begins!
- Boun Khoun Khao is a harvest festival celebrated in various villages throughout the month of March.
- Boun Pi Mai means “New Year” and the Largest Laos New Year festival takes place in Huang Prabang each year between April 13th -15th. Festivities last for days and include a trade fair and the Miss Lao New Year Contest.
- Boun Bang Fai or “Rocket Festival”, takes place in various villages throughout the country mostly during the month of May. Home-made rockets are fired into the sky asking for rain while festivities commence. This is a sight to behold – so be sure to check out our stories and videos of our time at the Rocket Festival in Vang Vieng, Laos! We were lucky to see this festival during our visit – and WOW! Check out our complete post about the Rocket Festival in Vang Vieng, Laos!
- Bun Nam is a water festival held in October in the riverside towns of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet. Smaller towns will hold theirs in December. This fun festival centers around highly competitive boat races.
- Boun Pha That Luang is known as the country’s largest fair and is held each year in mid-November in the Vientiane Capital. This festival coincides with the new moon and lasts the whole week ending with a spectacular fireworks display!
Popular Places to Visit in Laos
Laos is filled with fascinating cities and towns. Each holds its own unique place in the world when it comes to sightseeing ventures and activities. All cannot possibly be mentioned here so a few fan favorites were chosen:
Situated along the Mekong River, this city is the relaxed capital of Laos. The city offers a great mix of restaurants, open air café, and wonderful hotel accommodations. Laden with gorgeous French architecture this city offers something for everyone as it combines stunning day trips among its beautiful Buddhist temples to the exciting night life when the sun goes down. Visit the Lao National Museum with its stunning exhibits and the morning market with its eclectic blend of textiles and arts and crafts. Next explore Vientiane’s ancient buildings and monuments then lunch on the nations’ signature dish Tam Mak-Hung which is a spicy green papaya salad. Get pampered at Lao Herbal Steam Sauna and Massage or enjoy an afternoon at energetic Mekong Riverside Park where different entertainments enlighten the day.
For more information, read our full post about our experience in Vientiane, Laos.
As the former capital of Laos, this town is steeped in ancient tradition yet marvels also with its modern ecological conservation. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage City, chosen by the United Nations to help preserve the natural and cultural sites of Laos. Visit Haw Kham, the former Royal Palace, which is now a national museum. Zip-line next to the stepped Tad Sae Waterfalls then explore the huge naturally tiered waterfalls of Kuang Si Falls. Ride an elephant at Elephant Village Sanctuary and Resort and Nam Ou Elephant Farm. They are two conservations care centers that love and care for the country’s beloved elephants.
This is the largest and most populated province in Laos and resides in the middle of the country. There are many interesting tourist sites in the city including: A Dinosaur Museum, the Hor Tai Pitok Ancient Library, a historic battlefield, the gorgeous Tad Salaen Waterfall and Don Daeng Turtle Lake. Most of these attractions are around the city of Savannakhet interspersed with beautiful French Colonial architecture and serine countryside.
This is one of the largest towns in Laos and offers a plethora of activities for the tourist! Many French colonial styled structures still stand in this city and are a delight to the senses. In addition to the Buddhist temples, Daoheuang Market is a fascinating place to visit with its fun atmosphere! There are plenty of things for everyone from piles of fresh, inexpensive produce to funky souvenir finds. This marketplace is a fun visit for anyone and the perfect place to spend the day.
With its superior surrounding vistas a trip to this town proves worth the taking. Experience the pristine landscapes and mysterious mountain peaks. At the bottom of the mountains reside caves begging to be explored. Swim in the Blue Lagoon with its sapphire waters then hunt for golden crabs in the cave of Tham Phu Kham. Go tubing in the water cave of Tham Nam or enjoy kayaking or tubing down the Nam Song river. This is also a haven to rock-climbing enthusiasts!
The Bolaven Plateau resides in this province and is popular for many reasons. It is located in an ancient volcano that erupted thousands of years ago and now boasts the most fertile land of southern Laos allowing many things to be grown there. Coffee plantations riddle the landscape providing daily tours. Open markets abound with fresh produce and coffee for sale. Five different waterfall sites provide majestic natural beauty at its finest. Trek through the countryside and enjoy the sun and the coffee scented air. This is a must see should you be down the southern way.
Laos is a great vacation destination for the travel enthusiast in us all. This truly is a remarkable place with a beauty that can never be duplicated or diminished. It is a mysterious land that offers everything a heart could ever desire and an experience that will never be forgotten.
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