Overall score (Dan) = A
Overall score (Jocelyn) = A
Total days = 8 nights, 9 days
Total cost = $740
Cost per day = $82/day
Flight costs = Took flight from Hanoi to Vientiane ($175/each)
Cities visited: Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Pakbeng, Huay Xai
As our time begins to dwindle on our Round the World trip, we’ve discussed countries we might need to skip since we’ve spent longer than planned in other countries such as Vietnam. Laos was first on the list because we figured we’d seen it all with the other SE Asia countries. However, we still went, and we were blown away by its pure, unadultured beauty.
Laos isn’t nearly as developed other countries in SE Asia, and I would only recommend certain parts of it for travelers who aren’t feeling adventurous. We flew into Vientiane, the capital of Laos, took a minibus to Vang Vieng, another minibus to Luang Prabang, and then a two day “slow boat” on the Mekong River to the border town and finally arrived to Thailand. Vientiane and Luang Prabang were good sized cities and fairly touristy, but the smaller towns in between got pretty rough. For us, Luang Prabang stood out as one of our favorite cities of any country, but getting in and out wasn’t easy since we didn’t fly.
How far does your money go in Laos?
The prices in Laos were pretty similar to the rest of SE Asia, but the quality of what you received wasn’t usually as high. Hotel rooms could be found for $30-$35 each, and if you find the fairly priced local restaurants, you can find great food for $3-$5 US per person. 1 US Dollar equals 7,800 Laotian Kip.
I’ll include the full spending details on the bottom of the post; here are our per day spending highlights:
Excursion = $26 / day
Lodging = $21 / day
Food = $15 / day
Transportation = $11 / day
Total hotel points used = none
The Good –
Laos is home to some of the most natural beauty in all of SE Asia. As you head north from the southern city of Vientiane, you encounter the beautiful limestone karsts of Vang Vieng. From there, your continued northward journey will take you through the beautiful mountains of Laos which are home to many small hill tribes whose huts can be seen dotting the landscape.
Many people will stop their journey in the beautiful French influenced town of Luang Prabang, but the adventurous can take a slow boat on the Mekong River all of the way west through Laos where the river becomes the Laos/Thailand border. You’ll read more about the arduous journey later, but it did allow us to see hill tribe cultures who have lived off the Mekong for centuries as they bathed in the river and caught fish.
The people in Laos were very nice. We didn’t get the feeling we were getting taken like we sometimes got in Vietnam, and the smiles felt genuine unlike in other countries. In Vang Vieng, we put to use our newly learned Laos word “Sabaydee” which means “Hello” in Laos. When we said it to locals, their etched in stone faces instantly turned to a smile as they returned their Sabaydee enthusiastically.
We also experienced one of our best excursions yet while in Laos. Ever since we talked to a traveler we met in Malaysia about her elephant experiences across SE Asia – with her favorite being in Laos – we decided Laos would be the place we’d check it off our bucket list. We loved it much for the same reason she did; the elephants were treated well and the only corrective measure the “Mahout” elephant trainers would take on the elephants was to swat them with a little stick. Riding the elephants was fun, but nothing was as magical as riding them into the river and scrubbing them as they played in the water.
There’s a reason Laos has so much natural beauty – it is quite undeveloped and one of the poorest countries in SE Asia. For a long time, it’s mostly been a “backpacker” country with other tourists only visiting Luang Prabang and maybe Vientiane before heading out. With this lack of regular tourism, their infrastructure isn’t nearly as developed and their hotels aren’t up to the same standards! For the same price and even more than what we spent in Vietnam and Cambodia, the quality of our stays was much lower and often left us wanting more, or worse, ready to leave!
The worst came during our one night stop overs between river cruise destinations. Both legs of the cruise took between 9-10 hours and dropped us off in places we normally wouldn’t selected. The first night in Pakbeng wasn’t too bad as we took advice of fellow travelers we met early and stayed in the “bamboo bungalows” up from the river. They had a gorgeous view and were one of the most expensive places at $15/night.
We didn’t have any good recommendations in the next town, Huay Xai, for the obvious reason that there weren’t many nice places to stay! The guest house we read about on Tripadvisor didn’t have electricity due to it being out on the block, so we marched down the street and found another place for roughly $10/night. Believe it or not, we actually felt a little ripped off after we stayed there! The room was pretty nasty and it smelled like something recently died in the wall. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.
One thing we’ve learned as we’ve traveled the last couple of months is that we’re not real “backpackers”. We’re reminded again and again as we see young westerners wearing nasty tank tops, cheap flip flops, and covered in bug bites and scratches. They’ve also been able to dictate how locals treat tourists and which businesses are successful.
Vang Vieng is the perfect example of this. Once a sleepy village that was nothing more than a stopover between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, it was quickly transformed into a backpacker party town where popular activities included tubing down the river in the afternoon followed by vegging out for hours at the bars while watching Friends and Family Guy. With this came much disrespect to the locals and their conservative lives, a rampant drug culture, and many backpacker deaths as they party too hard on the river and dive into rocks.
Although some of this sounded fun to us (a few years ago), we were happy to see the town had been cleaned up since last August when the government of Laos came in and shut down many of the bars on the river that fueled the backpackers with cheap beer and Lao whiskey. In fact, we went tubing down the river at 11am and had the whole thing to ourselves! A few bars have opened back up, but they weren’t even open when we floated the river before noon.
Another dark side of Laos is the results from the “US Secret War” that was waged upon Laos during the same time period as the Vietnam War. The country is now the most “bombed country per capita” thanks to the 280 million tons of bombs the US dropped on the country. The main reason was to fight the communist powers in Laos which was the same excuse used in Vietnam. Their are leftover and unexploded bombs (UXO) all over the country which kill dozens of people each year. In fact, one of the elephants we rode stepped on a UXO years ago and blew off part of her foot. It’s just another challenge the people of Laos face – as if they didn’t have enough already.
In conclusion, we were happy we decided to visit Laos on our journey. It’s full of natural beauty, but it also reminded us how lucky we are to live in a place like the US that gives us so many opportunities. Jocelyn summed it up perfectly when she spoke of the young hill tribe girl who rode with us on the slow boat for a few stops. She said it was so sad because the little girl could have incredible potential in life, but she’ll probably never have a chance to exercise it because she won’t receive the education or opportunities. That is the reality for many in Laos.