Backpacker’s budget – Laos

How expensive Laos is?

Laos locates somewhere mid-range among South East Asian countries in terms of travel expenses. The food and accommodation is more expensive than in Vietnam, for example but it’s still far from unaffordable. The prices are surprisingly uniform throughout the country, apart from the most visited destination – Luang Prabang. The huge advantage of this country is that you’re very unlikely to get cheated here, especially compared to the neighbouring countries.

Laos landscape in Nong Khiaw: winding Nam Ou river among the forest-covered mountains

Our north Laos route

We spent in Laos one month in August/September 2018- at the peak of the monsoon season. As we were traveling from and coming back to northern Vietnam, we decided to visit only the northern part of Laos. Our route was: Muang Khua-Luang Namtha-Muang Sing-Luang Prabang-Nong Khiaw-Muang Ngoi-Phonsavan-Sam Neua-Vieng Xai- Phonsavan-Vinh (Vietnam)

An old temple (wat) in Luang Prabang with characteristic, many-tiered roof

Not counting the visa, our expenses in Laos (per person when travelling as a couple) came down to £11.50 per day. It could have been easily less as we had covered the same long road journey twice due to border closure and my vegan food cost more than eating in the streets would.

Monsoon season in Laos

Monsoon time means very few tourists and low season prices but also a lot of troubles. Travel is slow and many natural beauty attractions become unavailable or not as enjoyable. I wouldn’t recommend this part of the year to visit Laos- perhaps choosing a shoulder season would make more sense.

Traffic stuck on an extremely muddy roads in Laos during the  monsoon season.

Travel cost

Flights

Flights to Laos are simply expensive. There are a couple of connections from Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Singapore to Luang Prabang and additionally from Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City and Vinh to Vientiane but out of all these, just the Kuala Lumpur one is operated by a budget airline (Air Asia).

Alternative journey via Thailand

What would make sense is travelling by land border with Thailand (eg. from Chiang Rai via Chiang Khoi/Huay Xai crossing) or Vietnam (eg. from Dien Bien Phu via Tay Trang crossing or from Vinh via Nam Khan crossing).

If you’re short on time and want to get to Laos from other continent ASAP, take a flight to Bangkok, then find a budget Thai airline connection to Udon Thani and cross the land border in Nong Khai (by bus or train).

Visa to Laos

Lao visa acquired on the land border costs in theory $30/$35 depending on the nationality, however, after adding lots of unavoidable ‘extra fees’, the price increases by $7 at the least.

Lao visa can be extended on per day basis so if you’re planning to stay just a few days over a month it would be easy and cheap to arrange that in a few bigger cities, including Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Phonsavan and Sam Neua.

Transportation within Laos

The transportation in Laos is affordable and a wide network of public buses guarantees you can get almost anywhere. The two main means of transport are the buses/ minivans and boats. Apart from the train connection from Udon Thani in Thailand to Nong Khai, there is no railway in Laos.

Road transport: buses and minivans

The public buses tend to be old overcrowded. A minivan could be anything from a luxurious, brand new AC vehicle to a very overcrowded old van with the luggage strapped on the roof and people squeezed on top of one another. The category of VIP buses exist, too. Personally, I prefer non-AC vehicles since I can open the window, take the photos and breathe the fresh air.

An overcrowded interior of a bus in Laos with seats in the aisle

The buses and minvans tend to have separate stations, where the minivan stops are usually located nearer to the city centre. Like in many places in South East Asia, bus stations are located a few kilometers out of the town which can be annoying and adds up the costs of travelling to the bus station by a shared tuk-tuk.

Keep in mind how are you going to get to and from the bus station before rushing for the public bus. Sometimes it’s even cheaper to choose a more ‘luxurious’ bus or minivan which can be booked directly at the guesthouse and comes with a pick up service.

One consideration worth taking in the monsoon season is choosing minivans rather than full-size buses as those can squeeze through the landslides more easily.

River transport

Travelling by the river by a shared boat costs roughly the same as travel by road on a similar distance but it’s definitely much more exciting and often faster. The only problem is that long-distance routes aren’t regular in the monsoon season. Also, many longer river routes stopped or soon will stop operating due to construction of dams.

Tourists huddling inside a narrow and cramped boat from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi

Accommodation

Laos accommodation prices are incredibly uniform. In most places, we paid for the same standard (en-suite double room, often with a balcony) 60 000 kip (around $6.50-$7).

An interior of a budget guesthouse room in Nong Khiaw, Laos: a double bed, windows with crates and a riverview balcony with a hammock

All the rooms were clean and spacious so there isn’t much to complain about though there are some places in Asia where you can find better value for money. The only exception was Luang Prabang where for the same price you could find only a dark, tiny room with a shared bathroom.

Food

Eating out poses more problems than elsewhere in the region. Laos is still too poor country to develop a habit of eating out among the locals. As a result, truly local eateries can be found only in bigger cities. You might have some luck finding morning or evening stalls selling mostly barbecued meat or khao soi soup.

Lao vegan food: green leaves and sticky rice spread on a banana leaf

Vegans have really tough time in Laos. The only authentic local vegan dishes are greens or bamboo wrapped in the leaf and sold in the morning markets. Apart from that, one has to use more expensive, tourist-geared restaurants.

A typical budget meal would cost around $2-$2.50. A ubiquitous khao soi meat and noodle soup shouldn’t cost more than $1.50. The market food, especially in the more remote locations, is very affordable .

Other essentials

Internet connection in Laos isn’t particularly impressive. The cost of a SIM card with a internet package for a month is 70 000 kip (around $8)

Currency in Laos

Laos currency is much devalued kip. At the time of writing [Feb 2020], $1 was equal to 8800 kip (£1= 11490). It’s the kind of currency you have absolutely no chance of exchanging anywhere else than in Laos so make sure you get rid of it before you leave the country.

Taking into account it’s sometimes hard to find a working ATM in smaller towns in Laos, it’s useful to have some currency with you when you enter the country. In larger cities, like Luang Prabang, Vientiane or Phonsavan, there would be plenty of choices in terms of ATMs. Taking money out of ATMs in Laos comes with a small (reasonable) fee. Dollar has a good exchange rate in Laos.

Prices in northern Laos (off season)

Along Nam Ou river: Muang Khua, Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw

Muang Khua, a sleepy village on the border with Vietnam, is no more than a necessary sleepover place or a starting point for a journey down Nam Ou river. Finding a standard room isn’t an issue but the eating out options are fairly limited.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of Aug/Sep 2018]:
60 000 accommodation (double en-suite river-view room)
20 000 bus to Pak Nam Noi (ethic market)
20 000 meal at a budget restaurant
8 000 sticky rice and greens at the morning market

Muang Ngoi is a tiny village surrounded with karst landscape accessible only by boat. One of the lowest accommodation prices in Laos but the authentic budget dining is hard to come by.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of Aug/Sep 2018]:
50 000 a hut with a bathroom at the riverside
25 000 shared boat Muang Ngoi- Nong Khiaw
20 000 meal at the restaurant

Nong Khiaw is a popular backpackers hang out at the banks of Nam Ou river. Plenty of affordable accommodation but not many affordable dining options. No local market. A bit of a backpackers ghetto. Viewpoints and caves have small entrance fees.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of Aug/Sep 2018]:
60 000 en-suite double room with a balcony and a river view
40 000 public bus Luang Prabang- Nong Khiaw
25 000 a meal at a restaurant
20 000 view point entrance

North- west: Luang Namtha and Muang Sing

Luang Namtha is the main tourist hub in northern Laos yet still quite peaceful. Plenty of choice in terms of cheap accommodation. Luang Namtha has a large day and night market, bicycle rentals and tourist agencies offering some budget hikes to see the tribal people in the mountains.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of Aug/Sep 2018]:
60 000 double en-suite room
25 000 meal at a restaurant
15 000 meal at the night market
10 000 city bicycle rental

Muang Sing is a quieter alternative to Luang Namtha, with more limited choice and slightly more expensive accommodation and dining options.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of Aug/Sep 2018]:
60 000 cheapest, low-quality double-bed room with no view
25 000 bus Luang Namtha- Muang Sing
20 000 bicycle rental
15 000 meal from a street stall

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the most exciting and most popular destination in Laos. In the peak season it gets quite busy so finding an affordable accommodation becomes very difficult. Both accommodation and eating out prices are the worst value for money in Laos. The prices of numerous tourist sights (mostly ancient wats) hover around 10-20 000 kip.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of Aug/Sep 2018]:
130 000 public bus Luang Namtha-Luang Prabang
50 000 cheapest, small room with shared bathroom and no view
40 000 meal at a good restaurant
15 000 national museum entrance
15 000 low-quality buffet meal at the night market
10-20 000 entrance to the wats (temples)
5 000 ferry to the other side of the Mekong

North-east: Phonsavan, Sam Neua, Vieng Xai

Phonsavan is a quite large city with a wide array of budget accommodation and diners, large market, many tourist agencies selling the trips to the Plain of Jars.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of Aug/Sep 2018]:
120 000 organised day trip to the Plain of Jars
100 000 luxury minivan Phonsavan- Luang Prabang
60 000 large en-suite double bed room
20 000 meal at a restaurant
10-15 000 entrance to the jar sites

Sam Neua is a large town serving as nothing more than a stop-over for a trip to Vieng Xai and further to Vietnam. As not many tourists come, everything is cheap.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of Aug/Sep 2018]:
130 000 local minivan Phonsavan- Sam Neua
60 000 double ensuite room in a hotel
15 000 meal at a budget restaurant

Vieng Xai is a small but interesting town near Vietnamese border. Finding cheaper accommodation can take a while. Food is less of a concern. Trip to Vieng Xai cave isn’t great value for money.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of Aug/Sep 2018]:
75 000 bicycle rental+ ticket for a guided trip to the caves
60 000 en-suite cottage
30 000 shared songthaew Vieng Xai- Sam Neua
20 000 meal at a restaurant

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