Laid back and picturesque, Laos will steal your heart
Laos, or the Democratic Republic of Lao to give it its official name, is one of those countries that doesn’t feature on most people’s radar – until they catch a glimpse of it or hear from someone who’s been. Let me tell you, it is one of the most astonishingly gorgeous countries I have visited and one of the friendliest. As a solo female traveller in Laos, I never once had any problems, despite the language barriers, and it became a firm favourite from the moment I arrived.
A landlocked country, you will still find beaches on some of its 4,000 islands, opportunities to float or kayak down one of its powerful rivers in Vang Vieng, chances to explore and meditate in its Buddhist temples, experience monks receiving alms at dawn and marvel at colonial architecture in Luang Prabang and Vientiane as well as opportunities to trek through its steamy jungles in Luang Namtha.
Rugged scenery and friendly people
Laos is a very mountainous country, offering haunting views of the jagged karst mountains at every turn in central and northern regions. In the south you will find 4,000 islands dotted on the Mekong River, offering opportunities for tubing, kayaking or just chilling out – beer is totally optional! French colonial architecture, interspersed with golden stupas and red-roofed temples abound, waiting to be explored.
The views may vary, but the people are the same wherever you go. Friendly but timid, they may have a reputation for not smiling much, but they welcome you with open arms. Laos is one of those countries that you didn’t know much about but ended up falling for and never want to leave.
Getting to Laos
There are two international airports at Luang Prabang and Vientiane (Wattay International Airport). However, if you are travelling to Laos from outside Southeast Asia you will be connecting from one of the other major airports – Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam have plenty of flights.
Lots of travellers will cross one of the overland borders from Thailand, Cambodia, or Vietnam. You can get a 30-day visa on arrival, and the cost will depend on where you’re from – e.g. US$30 for Americans and Brits and US$35 for Australians.
Travelling around Laos
You have a few options for getting around. Tuk-tuks are plentiful and cheap and while there are no taxis, you can find moto taxis in towns and cities. Make sure to negotiate the price before jumping on. You can also hire motorbikes if you’re comfortable riding – just be careful on those curvy mountain roads!
For longer distances, the best option is a minivan – the easy choice for solo travellers looking travel cross Laos. While the distances between cities may not be vast, the winding roads and high mountain range crossings will add to the time it takes. If you suffer from motion sickness, try to sit near the front or by a window (although note that the a/c is usually on). Minivan drivers can be speed demons so I would recommend doing the journey during the daytime if you can. VIP buses are also an option but can be more expensive than in other Southeast Asian countries.
For the solo traveller and backpacker in Laos
It may not be as popular as some of its neighbours yet, but tourism is growing fast! There are plenty of backpackers and solo travellers in Laos, and lots of tourists will visit places like Luang Prabang for a week on holiday. Now is the time to get here and enjoy it while it’s still relatively undiscovered, less crowded and fairly easy to get around.
English may not be widely spoken, but you’re unlikely to have any trouble finding what you need or getting around – it’s understood well enough. There are plenty of affordable hotels, hostels and guesthouses, and food is easy to find and cheap. It’s also pretty easy to meet other solo travellers along the way anywhere in Laos.
Advice for solo females in Laos
You will feel and be safe as a solo female traveller in Laos. Laotians are very respectful people and will rarely bother you. Locals may take an interest in you as a solo woman, particularly women as it is not something they are accustomed to seeing. Don’t be surprised if you get questions about travelling alone, it’s just curiosity. If your gut tells you otherwise, just move on.
Laotians are a modest people and showing too much bare skin is discouraged. Shoulders and knees should always be covered in temples. It’s advisable to carry a sarong or scarf in case you decide to duck into one of the thousands of wats (temples) as you wander past. If you are camping or trekking you may need to wash in a local river, so be sure to bring a bathing suit AND sarong to cover up with.
Laos for the digital nomad
There are plenty of cafes with excellent WiFi connections for remote working. I got quite a lot done a few hours each day, often in different cafes – trying various coffees, sweets and views. You’ll find plenty of places to sit and work in, often alongside other digital nomads, in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.
Best time to visit Laos
Laos has two distinct seasons: wet and dry. The dry season runs between November and March when you’ll get plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures. Note, it can get cold in the mountains and you’ll need an extra layer for cooler evenings.
While April and May are dry, it is incredibly hot and humid – reaching 40 degrees Celsius. The wet season runs from July to October and the humidity stays high as well, an insect’s paradise!
Money in Laos
The local currency is the Lao kip (LAK). You’ll get around LAK 8,500 for US$1 and around LAK 11,000 for GBP1. Check the XE Currency Converter for the latest rates. Like many other Southeast Asian countries, exchange rates are not great for changing money and withdrawing cash on arrival is your best option. Beware of exchange bureaux which may say they don’t charge commission but have unfavourable rates. ATMs are available in the airports and in larger towns.
Cuisine and food in Laos
Laos is famous for its sticky rice. It’s a firm staple and can be eaten with every meal, including breakfast. Although not as famous as that of its better-known neighbours, Lao cuisine is as varied as it is delicious. Street markets can be found in every town, offering tasty treats and full meals – nowhere better to sample truly local food.
If you want to eat like a local, roll a small handful of sticky rice in your hand and dip it into spicy soups or meat- or fish-based dishes, such as laap (minced meat salad) or or lam (stew). Another firm favourite is tam mak hoong (spicy papaya salad). If you’re not a fan of spicy food, use your sticky rice to tone it down a little. Don’t forget to wash it all down with the ubiquitous Beer Lao, one of the best in Southeast Asia!
Around Vientiane you will also find plenty of street stalls selling baguettes. The country’s French colonial past means that there are lots of cafes dotted around towns and cities selling strong, tasty coffee and mouth-watering pastries.
Driving and riding in Laos
It’s fairly easy to hire a motorbike in Laos. Riding a bike is one of the first things locals learn how to do and it’s not uncommon to see kids as young as 11 or 12 taking their younger siblings to/from school on a scooter – it’s the only way to get around in rural areas.
Ideally, you’ll have an international driving permit in order to legally hire a motorbike although you can usually just use your passport. Helmets from rental shops are very basic, so if you’re planning a cross-country trip, it’s worth investing in a decent one.
When it comes to road rules, the usual organised chaos prevails. Keep your wits about you, don’t speed and stick to the local laws to avoid fines. And remember to use your horn to let other drivers and riders know you are planning to overtake.
Things to do and see in Laos
As as solo traveller you will never be bored in Laos – you can be sure of that! One of the best experiences you can have is observing the monks receiving alms in Luang Prabang in the early hours of the morning – perhaps the largest event of its kind taking place every day. For the adventurous, book yourself a trek, hiking through and sleeping in the jungle with a local guide. Tube down the river in Vang Vieng, visit the waterfalls and bear sanctuary or simply watch the world go by in Luang Prabang.
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