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Things I wish I knew before visiting Laos

Things I wish I knew before visiting Laos

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When I was telling my friends about my (then) future trip to Southeast Asia, everyone had questions about Bangkok, Phuket, the Angkor Wat, Vietnam’s coastline, and the Malaysian islands. However, no one asked a single thing about Laos. And most travelers that backpack around Southeast Asia often skip poor little Laos and head to its famous neighbors. Even for me, Laos was this small landlocked country surrounded by mystery. However, I’ve done my fair share of traveling around Laos and learned a lot about this amazing country. After that, I decided to write this article to share the things I’ve learned about Laos with the world. Here are some things I wish I knew before visiting Laos.

Laos is not a less developed version of Cambodia

kuang si waterfall

Laos is not as nearly as famous as its neighbors and most people say that there’s not much to do in Laos. That couldn’t be further away from the truth. Laos is an amazing country with arguably the most hospitable people in Southeast Asia. I must say that before I visited this magnificent country I didn’t know a lot about Laos. It was a real mystery country for me. One of my friends described it as a less developed version of Cambodia but I soon saw just how wrong he was…

PDR Laos stands for Please Don’t Rush Laos

Laos Nature

It’s a joke of course. But Lao people don’t like to rush and neither do their public transport vehicles. Buses are normally never on time and neither are the people when you need to meet someone. I got the impression that Laos is a very chilled out country where no one is ever in a hurry and this laid-back attitude is refreshing. Get ready for some lazy afternoons! Also if you have motion sickness, keep in mind that the roads are also in a very bad condition. A journey from Vientiane to Luang Prabang (around 300 km) takes at least 8 hours!

One thing that isn’t late, however, are the flights. Laos’ airports aren’t very busy and, hence, flight delays are a rarity. If you’re wondering which airlines fly to Laos, the list isn’t very long and from my experience, the cheapest flights are operated by Qatar Airways. Use this special offer and save up to 25% on your flights to Laos.

The food is amazing

korean street food tourism

A lot of people know about Thai food, Vietnamese pho dishes, and even Cambodian amok curries. But Lao food is a real mystery. Let me break it to you: Lao food is just as tasty as any of the other three. The most famous dish is marinated meat, called larb which can be served either raw or cooked. Some other famous dishes are the sticky rice and Lao sausage (also delicious). They use a lot of herbs in their cuisine and their food is mostly either sour or spicy. Lao people love their beer too. You can get the national Beer Lao pretty much anywhere for $1.20.

The river is life

Laos mountains

The Mekong River has been both, a giver and taker of life in Laos throughout history and that’s not far from the truth today as well. For instance, when you visit Vientiane, the capital, you won’t find shopping malls or fancy neighborhoods. Instead, you will see that the most happening place in the city is the riverside. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I’ve never seen a modern city that’s still so dependent on a river. While we’re at it, floating at the Mekong is an amazing experience, especially early in the morning when there’s nothing but mist and a couple of boats floating in absolute silence.

Laos is landlocked but has 4,000 islands

Laos islands

I think this makes Laos the only landlocked country in the world to have so many islands. Located deep in the most southern part of Laos you can find a cluster of islets at the Mekong River, known as Si Phan Don, translating to 4,000 islands. And there are a lot of soft sandy beaches on the banks with the most famous islands being Don Khong, Don Det, and Don Khon.

The north and the south are very different

laos road

The main reason for this is that they used to be two different kingdoms battling for power throughout history. However, most travelers prefer the north, and some go even that far to say that there’s nothing to see in the south. Of course, I don’t agree with them. Yes, it’s a very peaceful place, and you can’t expect to find wild parties anywhere in the south but there’s a lot to see there. The landscape is flatter so the roads are a bit better. And it’s not only about the 4,000 islands. Some other must-see places are the ancient city of Wat Phou, the lush forests of the Bolaven Plateau, and my personal favorite, Konglor Cave, arguably the most amazing cave in Southeast Asia.

There’s a strong French influence

vientiane travel guide

Surprise surprise! Lao people can speak French. However, the language isn’t the only French thing you will find here. You’ll find crepes in the breakfast menu and you can see French-style colonial buildings everywhere. But the most surprising part was by far the omnipresence of baguettes. You can find them on the streets, you can find them in the bakeries. They’re everywhere. And so are French people. A large portion from the backpackers visiting Laos is French.

Cheap Air Balloon Alert!

hot air balloon

Vang Vieng is arguably the cheapest hot air balloon place in the whole world. In addition to the myriad of cheap accommodation facilities, you can also get a hot air balloon ride for as low as $78. If you want to thick this (oftentimes pricey) experience off your bucket list, Vang Vieng seems like the cheapest place to do it.

Women aren’t allowed to touch monkslaos monks

This is a part of Lao culture. Monks are respected figures in the Lao society because of their deep spirituality and touching them if you’re a woman is considered disrespectful. This isn’t something I necessarily agree with but it’s the way it is. Touching and showing affection in public is also not their thing and Lao people are quite reserved. When you’re greeting put your hands together and bow instead of shaking hands. Touching a person you don’t know is considered rude in Laos.

Watch your feet

visiting laos

When in Laos, avoid using your feet for anything other than walking. Don’t step over people in the parks or in the temples. That’s considered rude. If you have to move around an area where there are people sitting down, rather crouch instead of stepping over them. Finally, when you’re in a temple, make sure your feet are never pointed towards a Buddha statue.

It’s very useful if you learn these two phrases

Lao people appreciate their language and they will always greet you in Lao rather than English even if they speak English. No, they are not being arrogant they just appreciate their language. Do you know what else they appreciate? Foreigners making the effort to greet them in their language. Try saying Sa Bai Dee instead of ‘hello’ and Khob Chai instead of ‘thank you’ and you’ll see the positive reaction it leaves on people.

Related: Most dangerous places in Southeast Asia

Laos is really dusty

things I wish I knew before visiting Laos

You’ll see a lot of people on the road wearing masks, especially near Vang Vieng. Most roads around here are unpaved so there will be a lot of dust. I suggest you get a face mask like the locals and get used to dry feet when you’re walking around. Since I already mentioned Vang Vieng

It doesn’t want to be a party place anymore

vang vieng

If you did your research you might know about the river tubing craze in Vang Vieng. However, alcohol and tubing don’t really sound like a good idea. Long story short, a few people tragically died at Vang Vieng and after this, the local authorities made some restrictions to bring tranquility back to Vang Vieng. River tubing is still available but there are a lot of other activities you can do here, like kayaking, mountain biking, exploring caves, and rock climbing. During my last visit in September, I only saw a couple of bars that were open. Some people brought their own booze but nothing crazy. Vang Vieng is slowly becoming an eco-touristic place, rather than its past as a party hub.

Be careful with cannabis

Cannabis is tolerated to a certain extent in Laos but it’s not legal. Be careful especially in touristy places like Vang Vieng. There’s this common scam where you buy some cannabis from a local peddler and you’re intercepted by the police at the next corner. Chances are, they are working together and you will either end up in jail or will have to pay around $600 USD for bail. Read about some other common scams in Southeast Asia here.

There’s a Lao New Year

wat si saket

And it’s locally known as Pi Mai or Songkran. It’s celebrated for three days every year from the 13th of April till the 16th of April. In Luang Prabang, the celebrations last for a week. April is one of the hottest months in Laos and the temperature gets up to 40 degrees Celsius but experiencing these celebrations is certainly worthwhile.

Helpful resources for visiting Laos

For the cheapest flights to Laos, Qatar Airways is always a safe option. To save even more, use this Qatar Airways special offer and save up to 25% on your flights to Laos.

For travel insurance for your trip to Laos, I always recommend World Nomads.

To save on all bus, train or ferry rides in Laos, use 12goasia and save up to 15% (for more info check out our review here).

Alternatively, if you want to rent a car in Laos, this offer gets you up to 30% off on all car rentals.

To save on accommodation, use this offer to save up to 20% on all bookings in Laos.

And last but not least, don’t forget to sort out your visa. If you want to get your Laos visa easy and hassle-free without a trip to the embassy, check out Ivisa. I always use their services when I need to obtain a visa before traveling and their service is amazing.

So, there you have it; these were the most important things I wish I knew before visiting Laos.

visiting laos
15 things I wish I knew before VISITING LAOS

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I Love Asia

Thursday 28th of November 2019

What a detailed blog post!

Laos is indeed a wonderful country but it history is rather tragic. Nowadays, it is often underrated by its famous neighbors such as Thailand and Vietnam in terms of travel destination. However, I do love the charm and ancient vibe of the country, especially peaceful and homely atmosphere in Luang Prabang. I will definitely return to Laos and visit Vang Vieng. Btw, keep up with your awesome work!

Passport Symphony

Thursday 28th of November 2019

Thanks a lot. I appreciate your feedback.

Go Ear

Friday 25th of January 2019

I loved my 3 weeks in Laos, in 2012. Awesome place. Thank goodness VV stopped being a party town. It was a gorgeous spot but drunk Western kids half clothed were terrible for the community. I look forward to returning and yep, it is a wee dusty too ? Ryan

Passport Symphony

Saturday 26th of January 2019

Thank you for your comment and for sharing your experience, Ryan. Indeed, some not-so-good things happened in VV in the past. I like it so much more the way it is now

Anjali W

Friday 25th of January 2019

Your pictures from Laos are so fascinating and beautiful. The Mekong river seems so serene. I would totally be spending half of my day on the banks of the lake. I would also be looking forward to trying out river tubing in Vang Vieng whenever my visit Laos. It seems a unique thing to do and enjoy there. The food looks delicious too. I am having Laos on my bucket list now.

Passport Symphony

Saturday 26th of January 2019

Thank you, Anjali- I'm really glad you liked it. I hope you visit Laos someday

Amar Singh

Friday 25th of January 2019

Thanks for sharing this wonderful destination and I agree with you that a lot of us skip and don’t think of this destination when planning south east Asia. I have visited this area my self few times but skipped Laos. The land locked country but a lot of islands give it that beauty of water and land. The food looks interesting and must be in line with the area Thanks for sharing a great post.

Passport Symphony

Saturday 26th of January 2019

Thank you, Amar. I'm really glad to hear that you liked this post. Laos is indeed, an amazing country.

emman damian

Thursday 24th of January 2019

Wow! A lot of good things about Laos. I haven’t been to Laos but I really wanted to go. I want to experience the food, the culture and the way of life. I hope I can come to this wonderful country soon. PS: Yes, I won’t rush Laos! Haha.

Passport Symphony

Saturday 26th of January 2019

Indeed, Emman. I hope you get the chance to visit Laos someday.