If you’re familiar with the Thai language then you’re in luck. The language in Laos is about 70% the same as Thai, and you can get by speaking mostly Thai. There are a few major differences however, especially in the most common phrases.
Essential Language Tips:
1. In Laos they do not say ‘Kha’ or ‘Khup’ at the end of each sentence.
2. ‘Hello’ is ‘Sabaidee’ instead of ‘Sawatdee’ in Thai
3. ‘Thank You’ is ‘Cup Jai’ instead of ‘Khup khun’ in Thai
4. The word placed at the end of sentences asking a question, or used in saying ‘No’ is ‘Baw’. In Thailand this is ‘mai’, so for example in Thailand you would say ‘Mai Khao Jai’ for ‘I don’t understand’, but in Laos you would say ‘Baw Khao Jai’
5. Instead of ‘Tou rai’ in Thailand for ‘How much?’, you will say ‘Tou dai?’
6. The word to ask ‘where?’ is ‘Yoo sai’ (instead of yoo tee nai? in Thai). To ask ‘Where is the toilet?’ you will say “Hawng nam yoo sai?’
Laos requires a visa like most other countries in South East Asia (except Thailand). If you’re crossing by land then you can purchase your visa at a border crossing (roughly $35 in 2016), but if you’re flying into either Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse or Savannakhet, then it’s also very convenient to purchase a visa on arrival at the airport. Your passport MUST have 6 months remaining before expiring. You will also need passport sized (2″ by 2″) photos, so make sure these are prepared ahead of time.
Don Khone and Don Det – 4,000 Islands Laos
We crossed the border into Laos from Cambodia at the Dom Kralor crossing. It took about 2 hours to get to the border from Kratie, Cambodia where we were visiting to see the rare river dolphins. The border crossing here was rather easy. We took a bus from Kratie which stopped for us at the border. We waited for everything to be processed in about 30 minutes, then walked across the border and picked up the bus again which took us to the bus station at 4,000 islands, Laos.
When you arrive at the bus station, you have to walk down the road towards the right for about 5 minutes until you reach the water. Here you can buy your long boat tickets for the 4,000 Islands. You can go to Don Det, Don Khone, or Don Khong, We decided to get off at the more famous Don Det, and take a look around.
Arriving into Laos during a slower time at the end of June, Don Det wasn’t the hopping party scene its known to be (during high season there are many people). There were a handful of lazy travelers, mostly watching movies at one of the local restaurants drinking smoothies and eating. We didn’t intend on staying on this island, we were looking for the quieter experience on Don Khone (although this seemed pretty quiet). We asked a long tail boat driver to take us to the other island. It was cheap and a pretty quick ride.
The driver dropped us off at Don Khone right in front of the ‘Pa Kha Guetshouse’. I had already researched where I wanted to stay, but due to the muddy roads and lack of knowledge about which direction to go, we settled for taking a look at Pa Kha Guesthouse. The cost was a remarkable $6 per night, with a decent bed and mosquito net, and decent bathroom with hot water. The porch stretched in front of all the rooms, with hammocks to waste away the day. The family running Pa Kha were kind people. The owner spoke good English and also Thai. They ran a restaurant with decent priced food, and it was all incredible. Highly recommend the chocolate pancakes, coffee smoothies, coconut smoothies, and basically about anything they have on the dinner menu.
We stayed here 4 nights. We rented bikes up the street for a $1 a day and rode around the small island. We visited the waterfalls and rapids, which cost a little to get into but were beautiful. It poured rain a lot of the days we were there, and we almost got struck by lighting sitting under a gazebo that was next to a sheet of metal. Riding around the island gives you a great feel of how the Lao people live.
You can ride your bike across the bridge that takes you into the small popular stretch of Don Det. If you are staying on Don Khone you do NOT have to pay to cross the bridge, but you do if your staying on Don Det. The ride takes about a half hour or so, but its worth it. Don Det has an Indian restaurant which is super cheap and pretty good. Don’t forget to hit up one of the mini marts for $1 bottles of ‘Lion’ whisky. Seriously, $1. As usual in Laos and Indonesia, be careful you don’t buy any cheap well drinks that contain methanol. Make sure you know what you’re buying.
You can buy your sleeper bus tickets at any of the guesthouses to continue your way to your next destination. We bought overnight tickets to Vientiane for $20 from the Pa Kha Guesthouse, which was a little more than some of the others, but we trusted the owner would put us on a decent bus and he did. The longtailed boat picked us up in front of the guesthouse again, took us to the bus station, where we were put on a cramped mini bus for the trip to Pakse, about a 4 hour ride. Our friends stayed the night here, to see the famous waterfalls and other attractions, but we continued on. If I were to visit Lao again, I would make the stop in Pakse.
We had to wait about 5 hours or so in Pakse, so we left our stuff on our overnight bus at the bus station (make sure you don’t leave your valuables). We found a cute coffee shop just down the street where we passed the time drinking some beers and watching a movie on our laptop. The coffee shop didn’t seem to mind having us there for a few hours.
The overnight bus to Vientiane was surprisingly comfortable, with completely laid-out beds. Water and fried rice dinner were included.
When we arrived in Vientiane the next morning, we wanted to find a bus to Vang Vieng (yes getting from 4,000 Islands to Vang Vieng takes over 24 hours. We realized that most people had just purchased tickets straight through from their guesthouse in 4,000 islands. We did not do that so unfortunately we had to take an expensive tuk tuk ride to another bus station, where we bought tickets and had to wait again for the bus to Vang Vieng. The ride was about 6 hours. There isn’t a real bus station in Vang Vieng, it sort of drops you off on the side of the road. We forgot to ask the guesthouse to send a tuk tuk for us, so we were left waiting. Finally we flagged down a new tuk tuk to take us to the ‘Organic Farm’ where we planned to stay and volunteer for a few days. The organic farm is a little ways out of town, so if your looking to party 24/7, don’t stay there. There may be a few organic farms, but the main one you want is ‘Vang Vieng Organic Farm’. It might also be known as ‘Mr. T’s Organic Farm’.
Here we payed $12 a night and stayed in a decent bedroom (fan only). There are cheaper options and more expensive options which include your own clay house. At the farm you can wake up around 7:30am to help volunteer on the farm by feeding the animals, learning how to make goat cheese, mulberry tea, and performing any other chores they need help with. If you work on the farm the owner will give you a free mulberry milkshake with your breakfast.
Food at the farm is a little more expensive for Laos, but its all home grown and organic. Meals were hit or miss, depending on who was cooking. I had the most delicious curry there, and the worst. Mulberry products were always a way to go. Tea, shakes, and pancakes were my favorite.
The Organic Farm is located directly next to where they drop you off to start the famous ‘Vang Vieng Tubing’. So if you stay in the town you have to take a ride out there to get dropped off, but then you tube down the river and end up back into the town. If your staying at the farm you have to go into the town to pick up your tubes, follow the van back to the farm to drop off the tubes, then tube down the river and get a ride back to the farm. The only advantage of staying at the farm for this is we pre-gamed in the restaurant area before tubing down!
The tubing is exactly how it sounds. Get drunk, ride a tube, stop at the bars that are left (at time we went in 2013 only 5 bars were remaining, compared to the hundreds that were there previously), but honestly that’s all you need. We didn’t start tubing until about 2:00pm, and you have to return the tubes by 6:00pm ON THE NOSE, or you don’t get your tubing deposit back. If we were smarter we would have started tubing earlier. We stopped at 2 main bars, and a small shack that a local man had set up. Once we left the ‘Last Bar‘, it took a good hour or so to tube back into town, so leave yourself plenty of time and a beer for the road. You must put clothes on over your bathing suit when you get back into town. The Laos people don’t think highly of your nakedness, and you won’t get your tube deposit back! Be respectful of the culture.
There are a lot of fun restaurants in town, I won’t list them all because they were all decent. We enjoyed the larger ones with a view of the river and mountains. Most of them play re-runs of Friends episodes. There are a lot of decent bars at night with good drink prices.
One of the best things to do in Vang Vieng is rent a motorcycle and drive around. You must go see the ‘Blue Lagoons’, both the small family owned one where you will probably be the only ones there, and the larger one which is quite the party scene. The views driving around are breathtaking. There are a lot of caves nearby, and other tubing through cave options that we didn’t go to.
Shopping is a must in Vang Vieng. Stock up on your CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP Ray Ban sunglasses. I payed $2 for a pair, where Bangkok gets $5 at the cheapest. Cheap tubing tanks are a must, so you can be like all the other cool people showing off that you tubed in Vang Vieng!
Most people ride the overnight bus to Luang Prabang from here, but I actually recommend losing a day of your trip and taking the daytime bus. It’s not the most comfortable bus, and there is not a bathroom, but I can not even explain the breathtaking views that you will miss taking the night bus. I was left in awe, almost in tears even, at its beauty.
Of course as usual in Laos, our bus broke down and we were stuck on the side of the road waiting for an hour or so. The road to Luang Prabang is terrifying, and you almost think your life is about to end. But you get used to this type of feeling travelling the mountains of northern Laos and Vietnam by bus, and you begin to accept the tight feeling in your chest.
We made it of course, and got dropped off at the bus station in Luang Prabang much later than anticipated. We got a tuk tuk to drop us off in town. We never let tuk tuk drivers take us to hotels, they are always the worst ones, but when we got dropped off we did let a local motorcycle taxi man to show us his guesthouse, which was a little walk up from the main road, and I am sad to say that I cannot remember it’s name. Luang Prabang is filled with affordable guesthouses though, so your bound to be satisfied with your choice. I always use Tripadvisor for recommendations.
Highlights of Luang Prabang include the night market of course, which is one of the best I have seen, and you can really get the prices down. Riding around the small city by motorbike is a must, and you must visit the UXO Museum which shows you the impact of the Vietnam War on Laos. It’s truly a sad experience but definitely an eye opener.
There weren’t any over the top amazing restuarants that we visited. We did the cheap ones on the main stretch, we did the nice ones over looking the river, we did the expensive “Tamarind” restaurant, which served real Laos style food (sticky rice and many small tapas meals) which was excellent but very overpriced. Then of course there is the Joma Bakery which never disappoints. Coffees, sandwhiches, salads, etc.
Every morning we woke up and went to the main street to visit one of the many fruit smoothie stands. Great way to start the day.
One day we did gave alms to the Monks, which is a famous thing to do in Luang Prabang. Tip? You have to wake up at 5am, and it’s a huge tourist trap. If you really want to do it, I recommend buying the food you want to give the night before. When you get there, they will try to make you pay ridiculous amounts of money to sit down and give them food. It is kind of sad, the Monks facial expressions are as though they feel like animals in a zoo.
We took the motorbike out to the famous ‘Kuang Si Waterfalls‘ and blue lagoons which was INCREDIBLE for the day. The drive there was breathtaking as well. You can also visit the Sun Bear Sanctuary, located directly at the park. Bring your bathing suit! The blue lagoons were cold in June.
Watching the sunset from the top of Mount Phousi is a must. If you’re looking to capture phenomenal photographs, this is the place, but you must arrive early to snag a good spot. Dress appropriately, it’s still a temple and you need to be conservative. It will be packed with annoying tourists who are not dressed correctly. The view is beautiful from all sides. Spend an hour or so taking it all in.
After 5 days in Luang Prabang, we took the overnight bus back down to Vientiane. It’s scary. Imagine sitting in the very front bed on the top of the bus watching as the bus driver takes dangerous corners with no visibility because of the fog. Don’t worry, they do this every day. We made it out alive again.
I have been to Vientiane a few times, but I’m not particularly fond it of. I know a lot of people find spectacular spots in the city to explore, but I always find it quite boring. Maybe because I am usually there for a visa run. There is a decent night market, day markets, bars and restaurants, and some out of town things like Buddha Park and Elephant riding, but nothing overly exciting.
I did not get a change to visit the Plain of Jars, or trek with local people in the North, but we ran out of time with the 3+ weeks we had in Laos. Try to manage time to fit those in.
With the time allowed we had 4 days in 4,000 islands, 5 days in Vang Vieng, 6 days in Luang Prabang, 3 overnight travels, and 2 daytime travels.