Introduction

The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it and the Lao listen to it grow”

This saying, popularised by the French during their colonial rule of ‘Indochine’ (Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia) summarizes the differences between the three countries. Life in Laos is relaxed, there’s no pressure, time slows down and you should too…

We arrived after three months in the hustle & bustle of Vietnam, and instantly loved laid back Laos. Filled with incredible untouched jungle, tiny villages and amazing fresh produce, we quickly realised why a lot of people recommended Laos to us with such vigor. 

We cycled Laos in November ‘19 and the temperatures were simply perfect. The mornings and nights were cool (we even needed our sleeping bags at night!), making the early morning hill climbs really nice and cool. This, mixed with the roads that were almost always smooth made cycling in this chilled out country really, really enjoyable. 

Note: At this point, it’s important to mention that our route through Laos only took us as far south Luang Prabang, as we wanted to spend Christmas in Thailand. However, the two routes that we’ve documented are really great, especially if you’re entering Laos from either Dien Bien Phu or Huay Xai.

More info on this and much more below…

Our Route

As mentioned above, we stuck to the north of Laos and took two main routes in, with a 10 day stop-over in the incredible Luang Prabang.

We crossed into Laos from Vietnam (Dien Bien Phu boarder), and started our route down to Luang Prabang from the small town of Pak Nam Noy. The mountain pass (Ban Song Cha) was the highlight of this section and one we’d definitely recommend. Once we made it to Luang Prabang, we took some time off the bike with our incredible Warmshowers hosts, and decided to take a slow boat for the day to Pak Beng. From there we cycled up to Muang Xai, heading West and through Nam Ha National Park and onward to Huay Xai where we crossed into Thailand.

Below, you’ll see our full route, which looks like a wobbly trident. To open the map full-screen in a new browser tab, click on the ⛶ symbol in the top right corner of the map.

You can see all our route recommendations at the end of this handbook

Essential Information

Below, you’ll find tabbed sections that have all the golden nuggets of information we think you’ll need.

To open & close the tabs, simply click the + icon

Budget & Money Matters

76,300 LAK per person per day

Our daily spend in Laos was 76,300 LAK pppd (8.60 USD / 12.46AUD / 6.61GBP). This includes all food & drink, accommodation, entry fees, short-distance transport.

Change it up

Laotian Kip (LAK) is the currency of Laos. Below you’ll find the typical exchange rates for major currencies (as of December 2019)

  • 1 USD = 8,861.27 LAK
  • 1 EUR = 9,817.62 LAK
  • 1 GBP = 11,521.88 LAK
  • 1 AUD = 6,116.03 LAK

Cash is king

95% of transactions in Laos happen with cash. Some hotels, shops & restaurants will take card, but only in the bigger cities.

What about ATMs?

ATM’s are temperamental & infrequent outside of the major cities. We made the mistake of entering with very little LAK and do not recommend it. Make sure you have enough cash for at least your 2-4 days riding as the ATMs in the small towns don’t always work. They all charge a withdrawal fee and these charges range from 20,000 – 50,000 LAK. 

The best ATM we found was BCEL, it’s the most available & only charges 20k.

*Top Tip* — withdraw larger lump sums from atm’s rather than paying multiple fees.

Typical Costs

Some typical costs from November 2019:

  • Motel/Guesthouse – 50,000-200,000 kip
  • Noodle soup (“fer”) – 15,000 – 30,000 kip
  • Bunch on Bananas – 5,000 – 10,000 kip
  • Western style food – 40,000 – 150,000 kip
  • Coffee – 10,000 – 15,000 kip 
  • Italian style coffee – 15,000 – 25,000 kip
  • Fruit shake – 15,000 – 20,000 kip
  • Litre of drinking water – 5,000 – 10,000 kip
  • Hiring a motorbike for a day – 60,000 – 80,000 kip 

Note on costs: We don’t really drink alcohol so can’t offer much advice on this. Although Bec did have a glass of amazing French wine in Luang Prabang, that cost 40,000 kip. BeerLao (actually owned by Carlsberg) tends to be a lot cheaper and can be purchased literally anywhere.

Accommodation options

Bring your tent!

Laos is a really great place to wild camp.  Due to the lack of populated areas, we camped most nights when we were not in the cities. Although there were many wild camping spots to choose from, we almost always found a pagoda, hut, shelter, or a lovely local who let us put our tent up. 

Quality & prices vary – a lot

On the nights we chose to get a small room, they ranged from 50,000 – 200,000 kip, and the cleanliness of the room was potluck, so we did this very rarely. 

Our advice is go check out the room before booking online. Or, just camp cos’ it’s awesome!

Warmshowers?

Warmshowers and couchsurfing hosts are few and far between with only a handful scattered throughout Laos. We were fortunate enough to stay with the most incredible couple in Luang Prabang, but they host sporadically. So we’d recommend connecting with people/hosts well in advance.

Top tips for saving money & not getting ripped off

Cook your own food if you can!

Due to importation charges from neighboring China, Vietnam & Thailand, the cost of “some” food items can be quite high (in comparison to say Vietnam, where we had just left). However, there’s so much tasty, locally grown produce in Laos, that if you have a stove & cooking gear, we definitely recommend you take full advantage. Every 20-30km, you’ll cycle past lovely, little roadside stalls with fresh fruit and vegetables directly from the surrounding farms – so we chose to work with what we found each day!

 

Everyone loves a story!

We found that telling people about our story was a really useful tool to gain discounts on accommodation, or to ask to camp in their restaurants/spaces. Of course this won’t work every time and isn’t for everyone (not everyone is as extroverted as us), but mostly, people let us stay because we were upfront about why we were there and we asked for their help… 

 

Learn the phrases you use daily! Especially numbers..

A great tip for general travel, but learning enough of the local language, we feel is essential. This is particularly important at markets as they tend to try and charge you more if you don’t know how to communicate. We’re not talking about becoming fluent, but we found that basic numbers will really go a long way in helping you save precious cash.

Food & Water

As we mentioned above, we cooked almost 80% of our time in Laos, using all the fresh produce from the surrounding villages. 

Our breakfast in the morning usually consisted of oats (as we find it’s amazing cycling fuel for us), and local fruits to change up the style each morning. Some days we did fresh apple & brown sugar, other days we did coconut milk and mango. We mixed this up as much as possible and really enjoyed coming up with creative ways to make breakfast delicious. 

Note: Porridge oats aren’t easily found, but we found a supermarket in Luang Prabang called D&T that sold all the things we needed. 

For lunches & dinner we managed to find really amazing Thai curry pastes, so used these with coconut milk, amazing baby aubergines and delicious varieties of pumpkins that are cheap and filling. There’s also a lot of fresh greens that we made a variety of stir-fry options with and almost every road side stall had delicious toasted peanuts we sprinkled on top. 

In the times we decided to stop at restaurants we usually had staples like Fer (noodle soup), fried rice, larb and papaya salad. 

 

Top Laos dishes & produce we tried :

  • Larb – The unofficial national dish

Larb is a type of Lao meat salad that is regarded as the “unofficial” national dish of Laos. As we’re vegetarians we tried a version without meat, but it was pretty tasty, and very spicy!

  • Papaya Salad – Spicy & fresh

Green papaya salad is a spicy salad made from shredded unripe papaya. Originating from ethnic Lao people, it is also eaten throughout Southeast Asia. There is just something about the taste of this spicy, sweet, and sour salad, but be warned, it is usually served quite fishy! So we always asked for it without fish or fish sauce. 

  • Fer – Similar to Vietnamese Pho, but different

The most famous dish in the whole of Laos and one you’ll find absolutely everywhere. Pronounced ‘Fur’ this scrumptious noodle dish is eaten at anytime of the day, but mostly for breakfast. It generally comes served with a clear, wonderful broth over flat rice noodles and flavorings of herbs. Optional garnish of sliced red chilies, fresh lime, bean sprouts, holy basil and cilantro. 

  • Fries – You know you will too

Okay we know this is a weird one to put in here, but the people here really know how to make fresh, chunky delicious fries! We stopped for afternoon cycling breaks and ordered a plate, which were usually hand cut, salty and crispy!

Top tips for Vegetarians:

Laos is an easy country to navigate as a vegetarian. As we cooked a lot, we ended up buying fresh vegetables at the local markets (they’re everywhere) and making our own food. Staples in Laos were pumpkin red/green curry with packet coconut milk which was cheap & delicious. We also made use of all the fresh morning glory, herbs and cabbage in stir fry noodles & rice dishes. 

Sometimes, in super remote areas you might find it difficult to find strict vegetarian food, so it’s useful to know a few staples that every restaurant *should* have regardless of where you are, ‘cos let’s face it… going to bed hungry isn’t great! 

  • Vegetable – Phak
  • Fried rice with vegetables – Khao pad phak
  • Fried noodle with vegertables – Mi pad phak
  • I don’t eat meat – Bo Sa Sin

Drinking water

While the tap water is not drinkable in Laos, we didn’t buy a single bottle of water in 3 months. 

  • Fill-up at restaurants from their bottled water supply after eating meals.
  • Stop at petrol stations and check to see if they have the big jugs of water. The water is clean and they will often allow you to fill-up your water bottles if you ask nicely.
  • Alternatively use a portable water filter. We use the Sawyer Mini and it’s RAD!

Sim cards & data

Data… all the data

There’s one main provider in Laos – Unitel. We used one sim to share, which cost 60,000 kip for 5gb. Make sure you ask for the sim with just data, as it costs more for data if you have a calling and data sim. 

Language & Phrases

Similar to Thai, but far enough away to boggle

Coming from Cambodia where we had no chance of deciphering Khmer script, we were excited to learn Vietnamese. Due to both the Portuguese missionaries in the 17th century and  French colonialism in the 19th century, Vietnamese follows Latin script. This makes it (comparatively) much easier to read and learn.

NOTE: anything in (brackets) is my phonetic understanding of the word.

Everyday essentials

  • Hello – Sabadee (sab-ba-dee)
  • Goodbye – La Gwon (La Gwone)
  • My name is – Shu con koi men (shoe con koi men)
  • How are you? – Choww Sa Body Boar (Chiao Sa Body Bore)
  • Thank you – Kop Chai (khop chaii)
  • Excuse me – Kho a phai (koh a pie)
  • No problem – Bo me ban ha
  • Yes – Jaww (Jao)
  • No – Baw (Baur)

Safety & Sanitary

  • Can you help me? – Suay khoy dai boh
  • I’m lost – Khoy lohng taang
  • Toilet – Hawng Nam
  • Where is the toilet? – Hawng nâm yuu sǎi?
  • Hospital – Ong Mo

Basic Numbers

  • One = Neung
  • Two = Song
  • Three = Sam
  • Four = see
  • Five = ha
  • Six = hok
  • Seven = jed
  • Eight = pad
  • Nine = kao
  • Ten = sib
  • Eleven = sib et
  • Twelve = sib song
  • Thirteen = sib sam
  • Fourteen = sib see
  • One hundred = neung hoi
  • Two hundred = Song hoi
  • *Insert number + (hoi) for higher hundreads

Buying & Ordering 

  • How much does this cost? – La-ka tao dai?
  • The bill please? – Chèk bin, kalounaa
  • Delicious – Saep lai lai
  • Not spicy/I don’t like spice – Bo saï man phèt
  • How much does this cost? – Laka tao dai?
  • That’s expensive! – Phaeng lai lai
  • I can’t afford it – Khoi seu baw dai
  • Can you lower the price? – Lout lake daï bo?

Food & Drink Items

  • Beer – Bia – (Be-ah)
  • Water – Noa
  • Ice – Kon
  • Hot Water – Noa Hon 
  • Coffee – Cafe
  • Fruit Shake – San Mak Mai

Vegetarian Essentials

  • I don’t eat meat – khon boy kinsin (koi boy kin shin)
  • No meat – Bo Sa Sin (Boh Sah Shin)