Backpacking Laos: Top 5 Pros & Cons
For me Laos is like the Wild West of SE Asia. You have this great sense of freedom and adventure but it comes with a certain level of chaos. The natural beauty of Laos is breathtaking indeed and it is so worth going but you need to be prepared for the realities of backpacking in Laos which can be challenging at times.
1) ADVENTURE IS OUT THERE
Once you get outside the city, Loas is an adventure-seekers dreamland. You can go caving, river rafting, zip-lining, cycling, trekking, boating...the list goes on. All of this is back-dropped by some seriously epic scenery. It doesn't matter how far you travel to the north or south there are always some thrills to be had.
Safety during some of these outdoor activities can be a bit lax. There are a lot of people justifiably trying to make a buck from the recent flock of tourist that have descended on their country. This means you are putting your life in the hands of people who may not be trained or equipped to handle the risks involved.
My daughter and I opted for a cave tour through a nearby mountain. After we paid for our tickets, we found our guides were two boys under 10 years old. So this ended up not being just a simple walk through a cave. It involve contorting our bodies through tiny crevasses then climbing up and down steep vertical walls, in the pitch black, with only a dim head lamp and no helmets or safety ropes. After the first couple of near death experiences we turned around and left. The lesson is go with a reputable company and read reviews.
2) BE FLEXIBLE
Laos is not a place that you have to pre-plan every moment of your trip. It's the kind of place where there are enough travellers that you can meet a group of people who have arranged a bus or boat somewhere unexpected and they need a couple more to fill the seats. You may talk to a local who recommends something you want to check out and you completely change your plans that day. I found that being informed but open-minded was the best way to work my way through Laos.
Laos has its own unique brand of chaos and you need to learn to chill and roll with it. Buses may not come on time. Bookings are often forgotten. Transportation can take double the time told to you. Restaurants forget your order. I know this can happen anywhere but in the 3 weeks I spent in Laos this felt like a daily occurrence. Just be mentally prepared for it.
3) SAFETY AND SECURITY
I will say that we never felt threatened or in a dangerous situation the whole time we were in Laos. We did a lot of wandering out of the really touristy areas and there was never a situation where we felt that someone could harm us. The majority of people in Laos are friendly and helpful.
There is a line where chaos crosses into actual ill-intent. I hate writing negative things about the places that I have visited but there are some things I wish I had been aware of before I arrived. I got scammed more times in Laos than any other country I've ever been to. It just meant that I had to let go of my usual trusting nature and really check and double check details. I found none of this in the 4000 Island region in the far south but as soon as we left that area things got real.
For the benefit of future travellers I will provide just a couple of examples. We paid for a comfortable bus and then a couple kilometres out of town all the passengers were literally pushed off the bus and forced into a horrible filthy bus with no seats. Another example is shown on the left. First is the photo used to advertise the accommodation on the online booking site and beside is the reality of what we got. No need to go on and on, just be aware that we found these types of scams to be a common occurrence.
4) NOT A SECRET
For many year Laos seemed like this top secret travel destination. While everyone flocked to the beaches of Thailand, few ventured into the wilds of Laos. This has changed and with it the infrastructure for travellers is also developing. I stayed in some amazing family run guest houses that were probably not operating less than a decade ago and definitely not with online bookings. We usually eat local cuisine but every once in a while we would crave something different. Cafes and restaurants offering an international menu are commonplace and things like free Wi-Fi are readily available.
Laos is definitely now part of the main travel trail of SE Asia and has the reputation of being a real party place. Especially towns like Vang Vieng. There were a few places that just felt over-saturated with wasted tourists who had no respect for the local community. There is nothing wrong with letting go and feeling free, just not at the expense of the local community.
5) INCREASE YOUR BUDGET
I know spending more money does not seem like a pro but in the case of Laos I would budget a bit more for local handicrafts. The level of artistry in this country is incredible, whether it is hand woven textiles, silver work or wooden carvings you will find something lovely to remember your trip.
I especially recommend the night market in Luang Prabang. It will blow your mind. I wished I could have filled a suitcase with all the wonderful handmade goods I came across. Alas I got a few small items for friends and family that I could tuck into the corners of my backpack.
If you have been budget backpacking around neighbouring countries you may be in for a bit of a surprise when you hit Laos. It is not drastic but you will notice that things are definitely a bit more expensive, especially coming from Vietnam or Cambodia. In general I would say plan for about a 30% increase.
So those are my top 5 pros and cons of travelling in Laos. I hope this inspires you to visit and helps prepare you for what you may expect. Although we did have some negative experiences, these did not overshadow all the great moments that made up the majority of our time in Laos.