Solo Travel in Laos
As a woman alone in Laos it is really safe to travel solo and an ideal Asian country for independent travellers. With a Buddhist culture, the people are kind and hospitable and can be shy. The country is well connected by buses – the only downfall are the long journeys but you’re likely to meet others on the buses.
About Lao People's Democratic Republic
It may not be as popular as its neighbours Thailand or Cambodia but this land-locked country in South East Asia is rich in Asian culture and shouldn’t be overlooked. Still a developing country, solo travel in Laos for a laid back vibe, UNESCO World Heritage and plenty to see and do.
There appears to be a “tourist loop” when visiting Laos of three main areas: Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Some may miss Vientiane when visiting for a second time, some may miss Vang Vieng for its backpacker image, but no one will miss out on the French bread to be scoffed in the chic Luang Prabang.
Vientiane is the ultra cosmopolitan capital and largest city of Laos, with its tree shaded streets hiding an abundance of cafes, restaurants and bars. It is where the Mekong lazily ripples past in a brown creamy haze like the cream of a good coffee, of which there are plenty to be had in this laid back ambient environment. It is little wonder that Vientiane was the haven for many a spy during the Cold War years, with its French influences and steamy tropical heat inducing an almost sleepy utopia.
The city appears to be disguised as a small town of bicycle riding coolie hatted locals, badgering tuk tuk drivers, aromatic roadside food carts, ice cream vendors riding their carts playing music and night markets on the banks of the river where the tourists and locals flock together. Golden frescoed temple after temple proudly adorn the streets, whilst motor scooters buzz around in a hectic frenzy. The major sites in the town being the Golden Stupa, “Phra That Luang” and the Victory Monument, “Patuxai” with its elaborately adorned roof. Sunset cocktails for tourists is a must do overlooking the Mekong River, and one of the best vantage points is the ‘Spirit House’, where you can watch pop-up restaurants appear each evening on the esplanade.
Sitting on the Nam Song (Song River), Vang Vieng is renowned as a backpackers' and extreme sport hunters' haunt. A mere four-hour bus ride from Vientiane, its limestone karst rock hill formations create a landscape that is breathtaking in its beauty. Known for its river tubing, kayaking, trekking and rock climbing, the backpacker market has held this town firmly in its grasp for years.
It is only recently that the appearance of upmarket boutique accommodation is attracting a different tourist, and the abundance of hostels and “bed bug” homes are declining in number. The edgy ramshackle bars where you can buy a “bucket” of alcohol with numerous straws for mass enjoyment, still dominate the town's nightlife, but the addition of a cute coffee place named “Caff Man”, represents the change that is imminent.
The streets, quite empty during the day, become a throbbing space once the sun goes down, when street side stalls appear everywhere, selling the most delectable nutella or banana pancakes. The beauty of this area in its tapestry of greens from dense jungle to the rice paddies, the amazing blue water hole and the awesome power of the Kaeng Nyui Waterfall where you can swim and picnic on local delicacies like barbecued bat, are now being appreciated in their own right. The best way to experience this natural world is to take a hot air balloon ride and failing this, if you are not comfortable renting your own motorbike, rent a driver for the motorbike as well.
Get out into the countryside and watch the kids playing or fishing, the farmers tending their crops and aged wooden teak houses on stilts slip by. Finish your day swinging in a hammock on the banks of the river watching the passing flotilla of people in the rapids, as you sip a cocktail cocooned in your own peaceful haven.
From Vang Vieng it is another scenic four-hour bus ride to Luang Prabang, going past numerous hillside towns that cling precariously to the cliff face with roadside stalls selling whatever produce the area is known for. Row upon row of thatched open shelters sell only pumpkins in one town, in another they all sell pineapples, then there are some with only bananas and corn.
Thatched houses sit right on the roadside curb as the bus twists and turns, up mountains and down, through virgin dense jungle areas. The bus negotiates tortuous potholed roads meandering past vibrant lime green rice paddies with rustic bamboo fences; cattle, dogs and chooks wondering the roads as misty mountains loom around.
Luang Prabang is a gastronomist’s dream with its many bars, restaurants and cafes of differing cuisines such as Laos, Thai, French, Indian and Italian. It is the town of monks and markets; each morning the saffron clad monks play follow the leader through the streets collecting their food for the day. Whilst in the local fresh produce market, the hill tribes descend to sell their bountiful fresh fruit, vegetables, butchered meat, freshly caught river fish and eels.
It is a riot of colour, bustling with cultural delights and booming Laos voices. These markets are an age-old tradition; they began as a convenience for the King and the Queen, so that they could do their morning food shopping close to their residence.
Sitting at the confluence of both the Mekong River and the Nam Khan, where boats ply the river in a daily parade, Luang Prabang is rich in culture and history. The main attractions in the area are the beautiful waterfalls, Kuang Si Falls and Tat Sae Waterfalls, with the Pak Ou Caves coming a close second. Wats or temples line numerous town streets adorned with intricate artworks and as always, shimmering gold elaborate details.
Laos does not use coins in its currency, so be prepared to be an instant millionaire with the wad of notes you will have to carry. It is where the locals ride around in the rain holding umbrellas, and motorbikes get parked inside the home. Birds hang in bamboo cages of random trees and monks in saffron robes do manual labor repairing their temples. It is a land of subsistence survival for many inhabitants and stark raw natural beauty.
Remember the saying “barefoot and fancy free”? When traveling in Laos, leave your shoes at the door. Just remember to put the right pair back on when leaving.
Getting Around Laos
There are a few ways to get around Laos. There are flights from Vientiane to Luang Prabang with Lao Airlines but they can be expensive. so opt for road travel if you are on a budget. Inter city connections throughout Laos are available by local bus, VIP Buses, Mini-vans and even pick up trucks. The buses may not stop so be prepared to hold on for the toilet. Taxis and tuk tuks are normally found at any bus or train station. You can hire a motorcycle but just be aware of the other drivers on roads without the best infrastructure. Cycling is also an option too.
From the Airport
From Vientiane a taxi costs $5 for the 10 minute drive into the city. You can always ask your hotel to arrange transportation for you such as a tuk tuk or taxi but this will cost more than organising your own.
How long do I need in Laos?
One week equals one town, whereas in two weeks, you can do the three most popular ones with ease. There is a bit of a tourist loop going from Vientiane to Vang Vieng and on to Luang Prabang, or the other way around. Many people leave out Vang Vieng as it is more of an adventure sports playground area, but it does have the most stunning scenery.
Laos Adventures & Tours
If you are looking for some company on all or part of your trip, both G Adventures and Intrepid Travel are responsible tour companies and have group tours in Laos from 10 days to 41 days (including Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia) with prices starting at £649. I have personally used G Adventures and recommend them as a solo female friendly company.
Community-based Tourism in Central Laos with Phou Khao Khouay
For a day out of the ordinary on a motorbike in Vang Vieng, ask for Hoi or email him at [email protected]
For a day out of the ordinary on a motorbike in Luang Prabang, ask for Net.
Kamu Lodge in Luang Prabang offers an opportunity to see first-hand the rural life in Laos.
Travelling overland from Laos
Ensure that you carry spare passport photographs at all times and beware of touts “helping” you in exchange for your transport custom once you cross over. If you wait until you are over the other side, normally you can negotiate a much lower price than what the touts are asking of you.
Laos to Cambodia
There is only one crossing from Laos to Cambodia. Take a ferry and bus ticket to the Four Thousand Islands to Stung Treng which goes through Don Khon. From Don Khon it’s approx $18. You can then get a bus from there to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Kratie.
To Vietnam -There are so many border crossings into Vietnam. From Vientiane there is a bus to Hanoi and also a VIP bus from Savannakhet. The most popular crossing is Nam Phao to Cau Treo where you catch a bus to the border. Other crossings are: Xieng Khuang to Nam Can, Phong Sa Ly to Tay Trang, Donsavanh to Lao Bao.
Laos to Thailand
There are several border crossings to Thailand with the most popular from Vientiane to Nong Khai (the crossing is 20 km from Vientaine) and Huay Xai to Chiang Khong which has includes a five minute boat ride. Other crossings are: Chong Mek / Vang Tao, Tha Khaek / Nakhon Phanom, Savannakhet / Mukdahan, Thai Li / Nam Hueng, Vientiane / Ban Mo, Paksan / Bueng Kan.
Laos to China
If you’re heading onto China, cross on the border north of Luang Nam Tha at Boten to Mengla in China.
* N.b. It’s not possible for foreigners to cross the border into Myanmar.
Where can I go from here?
Vietnam – 1 hour 20 minutes
￼Thailand – 1 hour 15 minutes
Malaysia (KUL) – 3 hours
- Can I drink the water? No, buy bottled water.
- Is tipping expected? As in all undeveloped countries, tipping is appreciated due to low wages.
- Fixed price or barter? Fixed prices in shops, but barter your heart out in the markets.
- Any ATMs? It seems to be the land of ATMs in the tourist areas of Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.
- Which side of the road do they drive? Right-hand side.
- Good for vegetarians? You can find vegetarian stir fries and vegetarian options in the capital but it’s not as easy as other Asian countries.
- Any seven wonders of the world? No
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Capital – Vientiane
Population – 6.7 million
Language spoken – Laos (French is a recognised language)
Flying Time to Laos – 17 hrs from UK (not direct)
Did you know? Laos is tagged as the world's most bombed country because during the Vietnam War, over two billion tons of bombs were dropped in the country.
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Mind Body & Soul
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Spa Treatments At Amansara
Makphet Restaurant in Vientiane is a training restaurant for Lao disadvantaged youth (former street kids) a member of “Friends International” and “Tree Alliance” (Global group).
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is more rural in character than any other country in South-East Asia. Social isolation is a particular problem for upland ethnic peoples. Read more…