Most people don't know this, at least I didn't, but Laos was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War which left much of the country along the Vietnam border from north to south extremely dangerous for living and farming. An estimated 270 million cluster bombs were dropped during bombing missions that killed or maimed approximately 50,000 civilians. The risk of accidentally setting of a cluster bomb still exists even today. For me, this was very emotionally impactful because such a lovely country and wonderful people who had nothing to do with the war suffered tremendously and still suffer. Men, women, and children have had limbs blown off that not only leaves them in many cases incapacitated, sometimes dead, but unable to support themselves. You can learn more about this at the COPE Center in Vientiane, which I highly recommend visiting. You can also read this article for more information.
I traveled through Laos with Stray Asia, a hop-on hop-off bus tour which was absolutely fantastic. Luang Prabang is wonderful and then as you continue south, passing the capital of Vientiane, you really get into the gorgeous natural beauty of Laos. I think a lot of people just go to Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and maybe Vang Vieng and skip the entire rest of the country which is a big mistake.
1. Kong Lor
2. Bolaven Plateau
3. Kuang Xi (Si) Waterfall
4. Luang Prabang
5. Buddha Park
A really impressive set of ruins that is similar in style to something you might see in Cambodia or Thailand, but a little bit different. There are rock carvings up in the hills along with a sacred water spout for spiritual cleansing. You can walk around the ruins which is always a plus. Very nice views from the top of the hill. Plan an afternoon. Near Champassak.
Si Phan Don (4000 Islands)
The archipelago is a perfect place to go and relax. Also makes a nice stop if on the way to Cambodia. Very chill set of islands, only a few of which are inhabited. You can swim in the fresh water river and may even be lucky enough to see dolphins. You can also rent a tube and float down the river. The best part getting over to Don Det was the wooden raft that transported our mini bus and group of 20 across the river.
Vientiane is the capital of Laos is is similar to other Southeast Asia cities. There is a large stupa that is quite impressive and the amazing COPE Center which explains some of the history and hardships Laos has faced with particular focus on the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Vang Vieng has a reputation for being a popular backpacker spot to party, drink, and smoke weed. Generally this is true, but there is also amazing nature. Sadly, I think Vang Vieng has been ruined by backpackers and tourists. The popular spots are overcrowded and people basically just go there to get drunk and go tubing down the river. There used to be no restrictions until a few years ago when someone actually died from tubing down the river. Drunk of course. It was the only death from my understanding. So it’s a bit tamer now, but people are still crazy. So, if you’re looking to go party with a bunch of crazy backpackers this is your spot in Laos. Alternatively, if you want to go just to check out the nature, there are caves and even some hiking in the area that are worth checking out, especially if you want to break up the trip between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
The Gibbon Experience (Huay Xai)
There is one interesting thing to do in Huay Xai, the Laos border town in the north with Thailand, which is to experience a couple days through the eyes of a Gibbon. I didn't do this myself, but heard it was a pretty fantastic experience. You hike a couple days through the jungle, do some zip lining, and sleep in a giant treehouse. Usually you will encounter monkeys. It's a bit pricey and fills up, so it is recommended to book in advance.
- Lodging: $281 (hotels, guesthouses)
- Transportation: $27 (driver to Buddha Park)
- Activities: $44
- Food: $255 (estimated $15/day)
- Tours: $566 (Stray Asia)
- Song Kran Water Festival. If you are in Laos around April, the place to be is Luang Prabang. But really anywhere will be fun. Don't go out with anything you don't want to get wet, you and everything with you will get drenched. Bringing a dry back will help. Fun time to visit Laos, or anywhere in Southeast Asia.
- Transportation. Consider slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. You can make arrangements in Huay Xai.
- Vaccinations. Check with your doctor and the CDC website. Figure out which ones you need in advance for those that take time to become effective or require multiple doses.
- Weather. In March/April when I went, was very hot reaching up to 95+°F/35+°C. Be sure to wear a hat, sunscreen, and even long sleeves/pants if you can bear it. Drink plenty of water. Bring a jacket.
- More Info. Travelfish has the best in depth information about Southeast Asia.
Stray Asia (Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus)
When I first started traveling abroad, I joined Trafalgar tours. I very much enjoyed them, but have since graduated to planning myself. While in Bangkok, I serendipitously stumbled across Stray Asia. I was asking about bus tickets in Thailand when I noticed a sign about a hop-on, hop-off bus. There was a map that showed several itineraries around Southeast Asia, identified with places you could "hop off" and catch the next bus in a few days. They promote off the beaten path travel and the opportunity to meet other like minded people. After traveling for a couple months I thought it would be nice to meet some people.
I got my visa at the northern boarder coming fro Thailand. You could probably get it at an embassy, but I wasn't able to. It's pretty easy at the Thai-Lao border and super quick. No one else was even there except the 5 other travelers on my bus! You can pay in U.S. Dollars or Thai Baht. Bring cash, but there is an ATM there as well. I forget if you need a passport photo, but may not be a bad idea to have one on hand in case.
Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Dengue
While not really a problem in the popular tourist destinations, some of the more rural areas in Laos have a risk of malaria. In urban areas there is a risk of Dengue. The best you can do is cover up with long sleeves, long pants, and socks that cover your ankles. Also, be sure to wear bug spray on exposed skin, especially at dawn and dusk. You may want to bring bug spray with you from home or a country with more options like Thailand or Vietnam.