They call Laos the land of 1,000 elephants, though one could argue it’s more like the land of a 1,000 cows.
Coming from Thailand, they told us Laos was different. And, it is. Not in a bad way, just not as progressive as Thailand (which is completely ok with us, as we don’t mind a quieter pace).
ONES DESTINATION IS NEVER A PLACE, BUT A NEW WAY OF SEEING THINGS. -HENRY MILLER
The first thing we noticed is the infrastructure is just not there. Train lines do not exist. Busy roads are still undergoing initial paving efforts, and established roads are not always well maintained, leaving a number of unexpected potholes. But put all that aside and you have a wonderful country!
And wonderful it is, albeit the long trips to get from point A to B if you decide to take in this country in two weeks.
Obtaining a visa is relatively straightforward. Most nationalities can get a visa on arrival coming by land at a number of border crossings, as well as via international airports. Some countries do not need a visa.
Entry fees vary by country and USD$ is required. If arriving late, on a weekend, or on a National Holiday, an extra $1 is required to cover overtime rates.
Be sure to check out http://www.laos-guide-999.com/visa-on-arrival.html#visafee to determine:
Specific country fees
Countries not eligible for a visa on arrival
Being a landlocked county, the weather is more predictable in Laos than in other parts of Southeast Asia. It has two main seasons, though can really be visited any time of year.
Dry Season: October – April (November – March is high season)
Wet Season: May – September
Check out overviews of the places we visited:
Laos sandwiches are amazing and easy on the wallet. Larb is a tasty, traditional Laos dish, and sticky rice is served with the majority of local foods. In the Luang Prabang region, they love serving Mekong fish and river weed (don’t be it off by the name, it’s essentially seaweed covered in sea same seeds served with a variety of dipping sauces – yummy!)
Beerlao is the local beer, whose parent company is a 50/50 joint venture between the Laos Government and Denmark’s Carlsberg Brewery. Namkhong beer is also popular, and the name translates to “Mekong River.” Laos people also enjoy their rice wine whiskey, distilled in local villages all over the country. Some of it is as strong as 50% alcohol content!
We budgeted for $53.38 USD/day (for 2 people). Actual was $53.63/day x 13 days = $697 total.
Accommodation – $82
Beverages – $29
Food – $192
Transport – $192 *
Entertainment – $171
Miscellaneous – $29 **
*excludes overnight bus from Chiang Mai,Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos (in lieu of an international flight) & bus from 4,000 Islands, Laos to Strung Tren, Cambodia (in lieu of an international flight)
**includes laundry & ATM fees
We found it much more challenging to stay within our daily allowance due to the amount of overland travelling we did. If you have 2 weeks or less in Laos, we’d suggest sticking to either the North or South, versus trying to cover all ground. Check out Travelfish’s guide on determining which region is right for you.
If you’re chasing the laid-back island life, the 4000 Islands are for you. There are three main islands setup for visitors – Don Khong and the sister islands, Don Det & Don Khon.
HOW BEAUTIFUL IT IS TO DO NOTHING, AND THEN REST AFTERWARDS -SPANISH PROVERB
On the way down, we stopped in Pakse for a couple nights.
We originally wanted to bypass this town, in search of a more laid back Champasak. But, as there were no direct routes from Thakhek, we decided to check out the capital city of the Champasak region instead. Being a capital city, Pakse was the expansive area we anticipated. It is a good base point for those keen to explore the nearby Bolaven Plateau (unfortunately, it didn’t fit in our schedule this time).
Instead, we headed about 50km out of town to check out Vat Phou. Pre-dating Angkor Wat, it was an important part of the Khmer history. These ruins made for an interesting 1/2 day visit. We found the best part were the huge stairs up the mountain and the view back across the countryside. There is also a small info centre / museum with many artifcts from days gone by which shouldn’t be missed either.
We also treated ourselves to a lovely ‘date night.’ We got dressed in our finest threads (which these days doubles as our travel gear 😉 and headed to La Panorama, a funky French inspired restaurant on the rooftop of the Paske Hotel. We indulged in a steak & veggies meal that only set us back a mere 75,000 kip (Less than $10 USD) each, and provided a taste of home – well worth it!
STAY: Lan Kham Hotel – 60,000 kip ($7.50 USD) gets you a comfortable nights sleep in a private fan room with Western toilet – note, wifi is only available in the lobby unless you pay another 100,000 kip for a deluxe room
PLAY: Vat Phou – 5,000 kip parking fee & 50,000 kip ($6 USD) entry fee/person
EAT: Jasmine Restaurant – yummy Indian at a ridiculously inexpensive price; La Panorama
Upon arriving at the town of Nakasang we took the opportunity to take a slight detour to visit the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, Khone Phapheng. This was not a high waterfall, but what it lacked in height it made up for in sheer size and power. There are multiple viewing platforms which take in different areas and provide great photo opportunities. Unfortunately due to the size of this waterfall there is no swimming, so although it was a spectacular site, it was a relatively short visit (about 30 minutes).
We took a small boat along the Mekong to Don Khon and could instantly tell that we had made the right choice heading to the 4,000 Islands for a visit. Don Khon is a relatively small island, though we were content in our little area with good eateries, a place to relax and insights into how the locals live on the river.
The next couple of days on the island, we hired a bicycle and explored Don Khon. We discovered local waterfalls, a swimming beach (although it’s not really a beach & didn’t provide good swimming – we still got wet, haha), two temples and some delicious food. We jumped in the water whenever, wherever we could as it was a cool and refreshing break from the blazing hot sun!
After cruising around in the mornings, we’d take a rest and curl up in our hammocks with a good book. It was just the relaxation we were after! The second night there was a large storm which moved in and the power was cut as the rain fell on our tin roof providing a relaxing hum, whilst the night sky and river were lit up by lightening strikes.
STAY: Somphamit Guesthouse (50,000 kip – $6 USD) gets you a private ensuite facing the Mekong with a hammock on your veranda & in-room wifi, however on our visit the wifi was not reliable
PLAY: Khone Phapheng Waterfall (55,000 kip/person – $7 USD); Ride around on bicycle or motorbike, exploring the island
EAT: The Garden (directly across from Somphamit Guesthouse) – beautiful breakfast! Fasai Restraunt is a one stop shop for delicious food, reasonable wifi & bus tickets to your next destination
Unfortunately we knew we wouldn’t have enough time to complete both the Konglor Cave (Thakhek) and Bolaven Plateau Loop this trip in Laos, so we had to pick one. We decided on the Konglor Cave loop.
Having completed our first motorcycle ride in Thailand (Mae Hong Son Loop), we were keen to get back on the road again.
NOT ALL THOSE WHO WANDER ARE LOST. -JRR TOLKIEN
Organise your bike through Wang Wang in Thakhek for a professional service, an array of bikes, and a place to store your bags. We opted for the Honda 125cc Click for 100,000 Kip per day, for a 450 km trip, you’ll definitely want a reliable bike!
100 kms. Amazing limestone cliffs surrounded us as we meandered through the winding mountains.
It felt like we were at an open range zoo. Seriously, it was more than just your ol’ ‘why’d the chicken cross the road?’ Cows slowly crossed the road and dogs made the mad dash from one side to another. We had to stop at a goat crossing (we now personally understand Dariece & Nick’s Goats on the Road blog) and a solitary pig decided to mosey on across too. Our motorbike horn didn’t seem to cause them any alarm, though we did notice when the semi-trucks flying past would lay on their horns, the animals put on the gas.
There are a number of sites to take in on this leg of the loop, however we decided to skip a few and only take in the Tham Nang Aen Cave. At 20,000 per person it was not the cheapest option (compared to other free caves) though it was a good site in its own right. The cave was lit up with colourful lights which took away the authenticity but offered a different experience. If you are on a budget you can safely skip this cave if you will visit Konglor.
Sabaidee Guesthouse is a great spot to rest on your first night, located just off the main road. The staff are very friendly and the bungalows are comfortable and rustic. The location is private and set amongst the local community.
There is a communal fire pit where weary travellers can share their war stories, dry their clothes (one group were drenched by a storm) and cheers over a couple quiet beers.
STAY: Sabaidee Guesthouse (50,000 kip/private bungalow)
PLAY: Tham Nang Aen Cave (20,000 kip/person)
EAT: It didn’t have a name, but the restaurant across from Sabaidee served beautiful food with a view to go with it; Sabaidee Restaurant (onsite at the guesthouse) also served up a mean treat – specialising in fresh baked goods & a nightly BBQ
On the first leg of the trip, there are multiple caves – determine if you really want to visit them all
Use the map from the motorbike shop as a rough guide only – the distances weren’t always accurate
200 kms. The whole day was legendary! We headed off early to beat the heat and avoid the late afternoon storms that struck the day before. We breezed through the town of Laksao before covering another 35 kms to reach the sign for the Natural Cool Spring.
We traversed 3kms down a bumpy, muddy road that finally gave way to a beautiful area, home to the Cool Spring. Amazed by the crystal blue colour, it wasn’t long before we jumped in. It was freezing, but so refreshing after a couple days on the bike! We were joined by two local girls who relished in the experience, and swam through the water like little fish. They were also outdoing each other by climbing and jumping from the highest points they could manage.
Back on the bike, we continued another hour to check in at our guesthouse. We dropped off our bag, had lunch and were off again…
It was time for the main attraction – Konglor Cave. It was breathtaking at first site! We met our guide who led us across the bridge and over the rocks, settling into the cave in a long tail boat. After a short while, we stopped and walked through a 1 km path in the cave, in awe of the mere scale of it all.
Stalactites and stalactmites surrounded us, while the roof seemed miles away. Riding for 7.5km (about 40 minutes) underground in darkness (except for our headlamps) was nothing short of incredible! There are times where the cave opens up and you are in awe of the sheer size and other times where you need to ditch the boat to walk through ankle deep water or help pull it over some small rapids.
The Konglor Cave makes all other caves we’ve visited to date seem dismal in comparison (even the World Heritage listed, Underground River, in the Philippines).
STAY: Xokxaikham Guesthouse (60,000 kip/private room)
PLAY: Cool Spring (10,000 kip/motorbike), Waterfall (10,000 kip/person) & the main attraction – Konglor Cave (129,000 kip/couple including parking, entry & boat ride)
EAT: Can’t beat the food at the guesthouse – convenient, affordable & tasty!
Start early! To ensure you have enough time to take in sites along the way and see the Konglor Cave in the same day
Commit to the Cool Spring – the road is a bit dicey, but just take it slow as it’s definitely worth it!
Be careful on the roads as there are sporadic potholes everywhere
Thongs are suitable for the Konglor cave as your feet will get wet
150 kms. Sorry to say, but the return trip is primarily on a highway route, so there is honestly not a lot to see. Highways are better developed than the local roads but potholes are still prevalent. If you make an early start, you may even want to catch a bus heading out of town the same day.
STAY: Whilst we didn’t stay overnight following the loop (as we boarded the bus heading South straight away), we did spend a night in Thakhek before the loop. Desperate times call for desperate measures and after our 7-hour trip from Phonsavan turned into an extra 10 hours, leaving us arriving at 11pm, we were happy to sleep anywhere. We can now recommend you don’t sleep at the guesthouses opposite the bus station. Instead, arrive early, and setup camp at either Khammouane Inter Guesthouse or Tha Khek Lodge.
PLAY: Catch a bus and head South to Pakse (or wherever else floats your boat) but Thakhek is more of a town to base yourself at for the loop versus a destination spot
EAT: Inthira Hotel (in town) has beautiful eats
Ensure you allow yourself ample time to get your bike returned on time. You’ll likely be given a grace period, but failing that, you’ll be out of pocket another days worth
You are given a lock for your bike and it makes sense to use it. Wang Wang have had a couple instances where customers’ bikes were stolen on the loop
In case we didn’t emphasise it enough – the roads are crazy – please be careful!
War is a terrible thing! Who would have thought that the Vietnam War would still be affecting the people of Laos over 40 years later.
During the Secret War, the US was determined to shut down the Ho Chi Min trail. As it ran through Laos, they dropped tonnes of cluster bombs on the area. Each cluster bomb contained 600+ bombies (tennis ball sized bombs), which would explode after 2,000 rotations in the air. Unfortunately many of the bombies didn’t detonate with estimates indicating up to 200 of the 600 bombies remained active on impact. This left parts of Laos littered with UXO’s (unexploded ordinances) and set the path for the atrocities of war to continue.
New UXO’s are accidentally detonated every year in parts of Laos, such as the Phonsavan region. From people working the rice fields in their backyards, to children playing in the pastures, deaths or dismemberments are still caused to this day. Taking in this information and seeing the devastation caused first hand was a sobering experience and makes you thankful for the everyday things we take for granted back home.
WITHOUT NEW EXPERIENCES, SOMETHING INSIDE OF US SLEEPS. THE SLEEPER MUST AWAKEN. – FRANK HERBERT
It is an ongoing effort to clear areas of UXO’s. Volunteers, MAG (Mines Advisory Group), Laos locals and NGO’s all pitch in to make it a safer and happier Laos. The guys at QLA (Quality of Life Association) are doing a great job to help support the people affected by the UXO’s with money used to cover hospital and rehabilitation fees as well as providing skills for injured farmers so they can provide for their families moving forward.
The Plain of Jars (sites 1, 2 & 3) which were thought to be created around 2,500 years ago were declared a World Heritage site following UXO cleanup efforts in these areas. Some of the jars are broken and many are missing the lids which were caused by bandit raids over the years, though they are still intriguing and fascinating.
The Plain of Jars tells a great story. There are over 90 known sites where mysterious, large stone jars, lids and discs can be found. Historians have acknowledged these jars were likely used as part of the burial process. It is thought that people were put in the jars to decompose, before being taken out for burial or cremation.
Other school of thoughts are that they were used purely for cremations, and a wildly imaginative notion is that giants used them as cups. Whatever their purpose, they are a site to be seen!
STAY: White Orchid – 60,000 kip gets you what you need – location is great, within walking distance to the bus station & local eateries
PLAY: QLA & MAG Information Centers (free – donations appreciated) both located on the Main Street in Phonsavan; Plain of Jars (15,000 kip/person at site 1 – 10,000 kip/person at sites 2 and 3); Blind Masseuse (50,000 kip/hour)
EAT: Streetside Lao baguettes; the eatery directly opposite the bus station is delicious!