Out of all of the countries I have been to, I have to say Laos is definitely the most underrated.
Arriving to Laos was the most simple, hassle-free experience. I always buy my visas online, as I usually arrive in the evenings and want to get to my accommodation as quickly and safely as possible. The airport was clean, safe, and being smart and getting an E-visa ahead of time, took me about two minutes to get out and get a taxi. What I liked about the taxis here is that there wasn’t anyone outside trying to offer you one at an outrageous price. There was a neat and orderly taxi stand inside where you got your standard rate taxi for about $7USD.
My first stop was Vientiane, which I have to say is about 40% untapped Anthropologie spread. In my secret fantasy job, I get to travel the world and scout places for Anthropologie spreads. Hey, it’s weird, but it gives me joy.
If you didn’t know this about me, I have a little special place in my heart for what I like to call “underdog cities”. These are cities that have a lot to offer but that everyone kind of forgets about (It’s okay, Seoul. I’m on your side.), cities people just don’t even think of (Rochester, NY–you have spirit), or cities that people just don’t find it convenient to travel to (Taipai– you will always be my favorite).
Vientiane was a lot nicer than what I had expected it to be, which is why I feel its such an underdog. I guess I went in expecting it to be super rugged and always having to watch my back. Not so. Yes, there is a definite lack of infrastructure, such as if you get seriously injured you have to get medivacuated to Thailand. It’s also quite dirty in the sense that there’s a lot of dilapidated buildings so there’s lots of dust, dirt, and rubble about. However, for as much as they may be lacking in some areas in terms of good buildings, it’s a sheer rose growing through concrete. There definitely is French architectural influence, and when you come across it, it is absolutely adorable. Think fairy lights, little bistros (a seriously impressive range of food for being such a small underdog city), boutique hotels, and instagramable seating outdoors.
I can say with great confidence that I felt safe at all times. I would say it might even be as safe or safer than Malaysia (referring to Borneo and Langkawi). It’s unfortunate to say, but SE Asia can be stereotyped as being rather scammy at times. Other than Manila 2015, I never once ever worried for my physical safety (health standards not included). Being in Laos, nobody wanted anything from me. I felt that I could freely roam the streets (even around 9pm walking back to my hotel) and no one was going to take anything or harass me to buy something. Is there a “tourist tax”? Of course, but I didn’t feel like I had to constantly haggle to get a decent price on an experience. Laotians are truly kind and loving, just going about their life and doing their own thing. I think the only reason more people don’t visit is because Vietnam and Thailand are more known.
There were a couple of other things that completely shocked me. For a developing country, there were a lot of cars in the city, and they were nice ones too. I’m talking about new Ford Pick up trucks. I was curious if they were government kickbacks, and it’s a Communist country and there was Communist propaganda everywhere. Most SE Asian countries are covered in motorbikes, and while there were definitely motorbikes and tuktuks, there were a fair share of cars. Did I mention that even though the roads were lacking at parts that everyone drove super nicely and peacefully? I delighted in seeing all the blinkers being used at intersections.
Where to Stay
A little phrase I would often repeat in my head throughout the trip is You’re not in Thailand anymore. With that said, it isn’t an “anything goes” kind of place, unless you’re really opting for grunge. For me, personally, I can grunge it out, but if my health is at stake, it’s worth shelling out a little extra. This is easy enough because when it’s so hot outside, a pool is simply a must. Another bonus is that many accommodations come with a complimentary breakfast, often much better than a sad continental offered in many American chain hotels.
I made a terrible mistake on my first accommodation. To be fair, I think it is partially Booking.com’s fault for false advertising and displaying a “Great Value” tag on the property. Also, it didn’t mention that the pool included is actually the pool for the neighboring hotel (as well as a lot of the usable wifi). Comments on the site said the pool was very dirty as was the breakfast area, but I can’t attest to this as I was there one night (too long) and bolted first thing in the morning.
I stayed at the New iHouse Hotel, and boy oh boy it was a scam. My first room had a musty, small bathroom, no locker or place to store my valuables. A few minutes upon sitting on my bed, I discovered some exciting bedbug companions. I go down to the front desk to explain what happened and I show them pictures, and lucky for me, I was taken to another, slightly better room. It was still hostel style but there was just one set of bunk beds. It seemed a little nicer, too. I was thankful for the upgrade. But..holy moly! This room was a bed bug parade! It was hard to sleep killing them all with a tissue…and see their blood get on my pillow. There were so many that I got a video of them going about.
So…I went down to the reception desk for the second time with my video ready. I was going to sit at the table and sleep there because I was able to make sure all my possessions were bed bug free, but they insisted I get upgraded again to the “deluxe room”. To be fair, the “deluxe room” did not have bed bugs, but the bed was broken and the tiny bathroom was covered in mold. I contacted the site and explained to management that I wouldn’t be staying there any more than the obligatory night and I would like a refund. Given the multiple pieces of evidence I had and the fact I contacted Booking.com, I was able to get most of a refund. I lost about $10USD for the night (just cut your losses), and decided I would spend the next few days of my rejuvenating Christmas trip in sheer (affordable) luxury. And so I did.
Time for Round Two. The night I was in the glorified roach motel, I was a bit desperate to find something good (with a pool) and in a good area. I also didn’t want to pay some outrageous price like $200USD a night. Enter the Vientiane Garden Villa Hotel.
For roughly $35 USD a night, I stayed in a lovely place in convenient area. I had a queen sized bed, air conditioning, a nice breakfast buffet, an additional made-to-order breakfast (free!), and a great seat near the pool in the afternoon. The pictures were accurate, and I had a great experience overall. If I were to stay there again, or recommend it to someone, I would tell them to get a room away from the street, as it can be noisy at night. Also, while there were pharmacies around the small city for minor issues, bring your own small first aid kit as the front desk lacked even basic bandages.
What To Do
Vientiane got hot very early on in the day, so after your free breakfast, do as much sightseeing as you can. Because it’s so small, you can easily get around by foot and see a lot of touristy monuments/temples in a few hours and on the cheap. I was able to get a decent SIM card at the airport for about $5USD, and Google Maps was great at finding free places for me to walk to as I was wandering about and exploring.
When I wasn’t exploring on foot, I would get to the massage parlors close to opening time (around 10am). This way, I wouldn’t be covered in sweat. There were an abundance of massage parlors that were chic, clean, and affordable. My average massage was about $15 for 90 minutes (including tip).
Down by the river, there is a night market with many stalls. While I personally suggest saving your money for the night market in Luang Prabang, this one still had a lot to offer and was great to walk through when it was a little cooler out.
I personally loved that I didn’t need a tuktuk or have to bother with any sort of transportation while I was in Vientiane. After a few hours of reading and relaxing by the poolside, I would shower and walk about all the cute boutiquey streets and night market. I loved how I was able to wander freely in the evenings. I felt very safe, and no one bothered me. I have to say, though, other than the occasional glass of wine with dinner, I didn’t go to any bars. From what I saw, though, the bars were more relaxed, and there weren’t too many of them.
Where to Eat
Isn’t this always the best part? I had read up a little that food in Laos had some Vietnamese and Thai influence. Before this trip, I never had Lao cuisine before, and I was excited to try. One of my favorite things about Vientiane were all the nice eateries. There is definitely a lot of French influence, and a lot of the streets look so romantic at night with their little lights. Here are some of my favorite places to get a bite in Vientiane.
Living in Korea, Indian food is few and far between, As a result, it is quite pricey. There were a boatload of Indian restaurants, and they were all very affordable. Here is a picture of one on the same street at the hotel I stayed at. I believe this platter was about $3.
Also, on the same street is a delicious pizza/ Italian restaurant called PDR (Pizza da Roby). Like all the other restaurants I frequented in Vientiane, I loved how I was able to get homemade, delicious (and authentic) foods from other cultures at a price that would be unimaginable in Korea.
Finally, I 150% recommend that you check out That Dam Noodle. The guy there is absolutely incredible, the food is amazing, the portions are large, and the prices are super cheap (expect to pay around $3). Fair warning: It is a little bit hidden so keep an eye out. Also, make sure to get there in the morning, as it closes early in the day.
I am not big on desserts, but Sweet Moo was great. It was the perfect place to get something cool in almost 90 degree weather. It was not the cheapest, but it felt nice to splurge on what I consider to be a rare treat.
After a few days in Vientiane, I spent the rest of my trip (or most of the rest of it…haha) in Luang Prabang. Well, what I thought was supposed to be Luang Prabang. I swear that the tickets were for Luang Prabang when I purchased them, but apparently I know nothing.
Here’s a story to top all other stories:
I went to the airport in Vientiane all ready to board my flight to Luang Prabang. I get on my flight, and I think nothing of it. I arrive in what I think is Luang Prabang. I get a tuktuk, and show him the address of the hostel I booked. He drives me to a main strip and points across the street. Fair enough.
Because where he pointed seemed like a general direction (and my Google Maps was a bit odd), I kept poking around different storefronts. It was touristy, but it wasn’t what I expected (or read about) Luang Prabang to be. Shop after shop, no one really spoke English. How does no one recognize the photos of my apparently popular hostel? I finally stumble into a tour center and explain my confusion. (Drumroll please for the most embarrassing moment of all times…) The super sweet tour guide (who also spoke great English) kindly explained to me that my hostel was, in fact, about 7 hours away. How could that be?!
I explained that I had just arrived to Luang Prabang so there’s no way it could be that far away. Needless to say, I was very, very wrong. Apparently, I had flown to Luang Namtha, and I had absolutely no clue. What must have happened is that when I booked my tickets, I accidentally clicked Luang Namtha instead of Luang Prabang. You know, because both of them start with Luang. I sincerely hope that somewhere on planet Earth, another human being made this mistake too.
My embarrassing mistake caused me to lose some money, but I was able to easily solve the problem and get to Luang Prabang. The super sweet tour guide booked me a bus ticket that would depart in 20 minutes.
And so I went on this 10 hour bus ride, with lots of bumps and zigzags uphill and downhill. Did I mention all the bus stops? I didn’t arrive to Luang Prabang until midnight. It was a little nerve wracking, as I don’t know any Lao or Chinese. I was lucky there was a nice Chinese girl in the bed across from me. I was able to somewhat communicate with gestures and a picture on my map that I needed the bus to stop in Luang Prabang somewhere near my hotel.
When I arrived a little after midnight, it was pitch black and I got off the random bus stop alone. There were six men. I’m incredibly blessed that Laos is a safe country, and they were just next to me to help me get on a tuktuk close to my destination. I paid a fair enough price for it, and was taken to my destination.
Looking back on it, I didn’t like the physical bus ride, but I appreciate how I was able to see so much of Laos that isn’t touristy. It was very rewarding to listen to traditional music and watch everyday life through the window.
This place is an absolute gem. Unlike Vientiane, where I call it a 40% untapped Anthropologie spread, this place is 100% legitimate Anthology spread, complete with all the boutiques that sell the same things the store does.
Luang Prabang has so much to see and do that I really regret not spending more time here. I would come back in a heartbeat because I feel that, while I did do a good amount of things, there is so much more I could have experienced. This place is truly spectacular. It was the perfect place to be a solo female traveler. I could see this being super fun with friends AND really romantic with a partner.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Sunrise Riverside Pool Hostel. I was really happy with my choice to stay here, as the reviews were super accurate. I feel that I definitely got my money’s worth, as the free breakfast was delicious and filling, and the location was perfect. Just like with Vientiane, staying where I did helped me get everywhere I wanted to by foot, saving me the hassle of negotiating for a tuktuk. I also really like pools, and this place had a nice one with a covering. I didn’t end up using the pool as the weather was a little bit cooler than I planned for, but it was nice to have it there just in case. Also, the pool looked perfectly clean to me. This hostel had a really great vibe, was very clean, and I really liked how informative and friendly the staff were.
What to Do
Typical Touristy Temples
I feel that it is obligatory to do the typical temples. You can see many while leisurely strolling around the city (as it is quite small) in a few hours. While I had my shoulders and elbows covered with a loose cardigan, I did not have my knees covered. Lucky for me, I was able to rent a cheap wrap skirt and just tie it around me to enter. This was a perfect way for me to walk off my food baby from the complimentary breakfast at my hostel.
Invest in a Day Trip
I am not the best kayaker, but I really enjoy it. I knew kayaking on the Mekong was a priority for me on this trip. I went to one of the main touristy streets and I found a tour center and booked a trip. I used White Elephant Adventures, and I will gladly recommend them to anyone. I had so much fun that I really wish I had more time and money to have been able to book one of their overnight trips.
At $52USD, this day trip was the single most expensive thing I did for the duration of the trip. However, I feel that I received a once in a lifetime experience and that it was worth every single penny. The cost included transportation, food, kayaking, and multiple tourist stops along the way. There was a group of six of us, and we had a super cool Hmong tour guide. He was helpful, hilarious, and it was invaluable to be able to learn about his culture and ask him questions. It was particularly interesting to learn how things have changed for Hmong people with the influx of tourism and Chinese business practices. Apparently, I arrived during their New Years’ celebrations, and I heard many interesting stories of their customs and games to celebrate the New Year.
The water was very shallow, so it was easy for our boat to tip over towards the beginning of our trip. Not to worry, though, our guide was super experienced and helpful with making sure we (and our valuables) were safe. I also liked how we had a dry bag with our phones and other important things for peace of mind. We were able to swim, but the water was a little bit cold. However, it wasn’t so cold that it felt horrible if your boat tipped over. In addition to kayaking a little over 18km, we stopped at the Pak Ou Caves and the Whiskey Village.
I’m glad the caves were part of an entire day trip. Yes, they were cool, but I would have regretted traveling such a far distance just to see them. The whiskey village was also quite small, but I definitely liked that more.
Yes, we definitely did get to have a variety of free whiskey samples at the whiskey village. However, I didn’t want to go *too* overboard, being as I still had hours of kayaking left. This pit stop alone was small, but definitely worth it. In the middle gif, you can see them actually making the whiskey that ends up on the shelves (left). It’s pretty cheap, and they even come in small bottles that you can put in your carryon. I wanted to buy some, but I didn’t want to risk bringing it in the kayak. I was lucky that they also sold it at the night market and I bought a small bottle there (more on that later). Also, they had a variety of shops, especially when it came to woven fabrics, scarves, etc. The gif on the right was cool because you actually get to watch it being made.
On my last full day, I arranged a spot in a van through my hostel to visit Kuang Si Falls. The transportation came to about $4 total, and I brought a little extra for lunch. You’re given a couple hours to explore/shop/eat before heading back, so you still have plenty of time to do other activities in the same day. There’s also a bear conservation center, which was cute to see. While the falls were absolutely gorgeous (and there are spots for you to swim), the water was super cold and I didn’t make it past my toes…haha.
Other than the kayaking day trip, I would say my favorite thing about Luang Prabang was the night market. I was absolutely impressed with how well it was done, and I would totally go back to Luang Prabang just to stuff my face some more.
Getting to the night market was about a ten minute walk from my hostel, and it was super safe to get there, walk about, and get home. I felt that while it was touristy, it was wholesome and no one bothers anyone. I had a fun time haggling, and I felt that I got some cute things at a price which benefitted both me and the seller. My favorite things are the wrap skirts, and I bought a small bottle of whiskey that was made at the whiskey village I went to.
Oh my gosh, the food portion is paradise, and most of it is very clean. This is what sold me, as a lot of market food in SE Asia can be…questionable. Yes, there were some things I probably wouldn’t rush to try, but it still looked great. Also, there was an entire little eatery set up where most of the things had avocado in it (aka paradise).
Admittedly, I definitely did binge on some of the touristy foods like more pad thai and banh mis…but I also was able to have a variety of Lao style soups and rice, too. If there’s one thing you should get, it’s the coconut pancakes.
My personal advice would be to eat a big breakfast at the hostel, maybe a little something during the day if you need it, and save your calories for the food at the night market. The food was filling, relatively healthy, and cheap. I’m still really sad I had to leave!
Twice I woke up early to see almsgiving, when the monks wake up early and locals and tourists can give them food. It’s free to watch, it was about a ten minute walk to get to, and I think this is a cool cultural experience to see with your own eyes. In case you are wondering why the gif isn’t good quality, it’s because you aren’t supposed to directly take pictures or videos of them. In other words, I was doing my best to be discreet, respectful, and sit far away as I’m female.
There are two bridges you can walk across to get to the other side. The Bamboo bridge is more scenic and fun, but you have to pay around 7,000 kip, which I think is about $1USD (and you can go as many times for 24 hours). I also tried the free bridge…and it didn’t feel so safe. Nothing happened to me, but I figured it wasn’t worth taking my chances on a second time. The bridge is only around for 6 months of the year, and it’s cool to see the other side, as it’s less touristy and you can get more of a “real feel” of Laos.
After doing so many touristy things, there were times I just wanted to relax while not just staying at my hostel. Pretty close to where the bamboo bridge is, you can get a seat and watch the peaceful river and see a beautiful sunset. You can be there for hours and just have a small coffee. This was a great way to unwind, read a book, and still be in a beautiful environment.
As the night market was on the same long street as a lot of restaurants, shops, and massage parlors, I would end some nights with a nice massage. There were a variety of other beauty things I could have gotten done as well, such as a manicure or pedicure, but I had so many knots from stress that I wanted to just focus on eliminating them. While Vientiane had some cute parlors, the places in Luang Prabang were super nice and chic. I also realized it was cheaper, as I only paid about $9 (including tip).
Where to Eat
There were so, so, so many places to eat with all sorts of food from all over the world. While we have tons of places in Seoul, foreign restaurants can definitely come at a price. On the other hand, foreign food in Laos was about half the price it would be in Seoul, so I had to pace myself. I made it a point to also go out of my way and eat a fair share of Laotian food.
I tried this restaurant based on a Lonely Planet suggestion. I got the Kua Muk Kheua Sai Moo. Taste wise, I was impressed. It was a really nice interior as well. I almost didn’t write about this, though, as I really loathed the service. The wait staff were, honestly, rather disrespectful, which is why there probably weren’t many people. I’d say: proceed with caution. It could very well have changed since there. The dishes are definitely more than what you would get at the night market, but I think it’s worth it. They also offer cooking classes, which is something I wish I had the time there to do.
I hope you have as much fun as I did!
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