Laos is a truly gorgeous country. From the party haven of Vang Vieng to the little-explored jungles of Luang Nam Tha and the remote mountains in the north, Backpacking Laos offers something different for everyone and Laos remains one of my favorite countries in Asia.

This is a land of crawling broadband and pot-holed roads. Every time there is a thunderclap, the electricity goes out, so you better forget about that fruit shake you just ordered!

This country requires time; everything seems to slow down here, and people are not in a hurry to get anywhere. Dawdle down cobblestone streets as you pass crowds of orange-robed monks seeking alms outside brightly gilded Buddhist temples.

There is little pressure from hawkers or touts, and locals and backpackers alike wear a dreamy expression as they watch the countryside slip gently past from the seat of a bus or the deck of one of the Mekong’s legendary barges. Laos is one of South East Asia’s last tourism frontiers, take your time; this is a country worth exploring.

The backpacker scene

The Laos backpacker scene is small and diverse. You’ll find retirees touring by bicycle, young guys on Honda Wins from Vietnam and stoners looking to veg out on Happy Shakes. With a rich cultural heritage and a lot of heartache as the world’s most bombed country per capita, Laos can feel like a blast from the past with few global chains, no fast food and lots of unpaved roads.

Laos has been open to backpackers since the late 1990s but the development of tourism infrastructure has been slow, meaning getting around the country can be an adventure or a royal pain in the neck depending on how you look at it. The incredibly welcoming people, fantastic landscapes, and lack of crowds make Laos the final frontier of the Southeast Asia backpacking circuit.

Planning your backpacking route in Laos

Don’t over-plan

The best-laid plans often go astray, and there is nowhere that is more true than in Laos. Come to Laos with a rough idea of what you want to see and do but resist the urge to stick to you plan too closely. Consider waiting until you’re in the country to book any tours or accommodations, they’re easy to find for the same day or the next day once you arrive. They will also be much cheaper if you negotiate in person rather than booking online. Don’t rush through a place because you need to see it all.

See the north and the south

The standard backpacker route through Laos includes Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. These towns are beautiful and offer excellent Western-style accommodations and restaurants, and are absolutely worth seeing. But so are some of the equally charming but less visited southern towns of Thakek, Pakse and Champasak. See the caves, waterfalls, and islands in the south and really absorb how the terrain changes. Daily flights and overnight buses make traveling within Laos possible, if not entirely easy.

Give back

Laos is one of the Least Developed Countries in the world. While you might not feel like you’re made of money, the mere fact you made it to Laos proves you have means. Donate to temples, spend some time reading or playing games with local children and consider swapping inexpensive accommodations in exchange for a bit of work. It’s impossible to spend an entire holiday in Laos and not see how 80% of the population live. Get out into the provinces. Big Brother Mouse in Vientiane and Luang Prabang offer programs to read to and practice English with the local youth.

Suggested itineraries

Below I have outlined three separate travel itineraries for the north, south, and central part of Laos. Each of these itineraries can be easily added on to one another or combined with a backpacking trip to Thailand or Vietnam.

If you have a month, you can easily combine parts of all three itineraries, and tackle both the north and south regions of Laos. Doing so will mean you get to experience very different scenery.

If you only have 2 weeks or less, I suggest focusing on one region of Laos. Travel distances and longer and slower than they look on the map.

#1 - Backpacking Laos 10-Day Itinerary: The Classic Route

If you have 10 days to explore Laos, you may just want to focus on the classic highlights. This itinerary works well as an add-on to Thailand. You can enter and exit from Nong Khai in Eastern Thailand.

Better yet, you can even catch a slow boat ride all the way from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. If you’re already in Laos, you can also catch one from Houayxai to Luang Prabang. Either way, plan out where to stay in Luang Prabang, and explore the city for a couple of days.

Next is the famous Vang Vieng, known for its parties and the launching spot for water adventures, like kayaking, caving, and tubing. End your trip in the capital, Vientiane.

#2 - Backpacking Laos 3-Week Itinerary: Mountains and Rainforests

This itinerary starts near the Vietnam border, and it’s the perfect route for avid hikers and adventure enthusiasts. While you could do it in less than 3 weeks, this is the most remote area of Laos, where transportation is slow. Moreover, you can easily spend several days hiking in the hills.

Tip: You can reverse this itinerary and tack it on to the first itinerary if you have 4 or more weeks in Laos!

Begin your journey at the Vieng Xai monuments if you are coming from Vietnam. Next, make your way to Nong Khiaw. Surrounded by karst mountains,  this is an excellent base for trekking, kayaking, and cycling. Afterward, head up the river a bit to Muang Ngoi.

Next, we get very remote. Make your way to the Nam Ou and take a scenic boat ride along the slow running river while admiring the lush, impenetrable jungle. From Nam Ou, you can head back down to Phongsali, a charming, high-altitude town. You can also arrange a trek to local hill-tribe villages.

If you haven’t trekked enough, make your way to Nam Ha for hiking trips in Nam Ha NBCA. You can arrange guided excursions in Luang Namtha.

From here you have the option to continue on to Luang Prabang and the first itinerary.

#3 - Backpacking Laos 2-Week Itinerary: The South and Waterfalls

2 Weeks is the perfect amount of time to enjoy the south of Laos. If you have 3 or more weeks to backpack Laos, feel free to combine this route with the Laos 2 Week Itinerary (#1).

This itinerary works best if you are coming from Thailand. Start in Savannakhet, the south’s colonial gem. Head to the Tad Lo, a great stop for backpackers thanks to the Tad Lo falls and swimming holes. Next, you can head to Pakse, which is the natural base for trips around the Bolaven Plateau and nearby sleepy villages, though there isn’t much to see in the actual town. If you don’t plan to visit the nearby Bolaven Plateau, move on.

Once you’re sick of beautiful waterfalls and coffee plantations, head to yet another beautiful waterfall: Tad Fan and Tad Yuang. Continue south to Champasak on the west bank of the Mekong River. You are now near the Wat Phou, a beautiful ruin that gives Angkor Wat a run for its money.

The final stop is Si Phan Don, where the Mekong splits into a web of islands and invites tourists to kick back and enjoy the scenery on an island on a landlocked country. Who would have thought?

Places to visit

Now that we’ve covered three awesome Laos itineraries, below I’ll cover the destinations and what you can do around each place.

Backpacking Luang Prabang

Many travellers arrive into Luang Prabang by slow boat from Thailand. It’s a great place to begin your Laos backpacking trip. There are heaps of cool hostels in Luang Prabang and lots of other adventurous travelers to join forces with.

Make sure to wander around the streets and explore the old town, a historical preservation zone declared by UNESCO. The strict building code, drawn up by UNESCO, keeps it from becoming another modern architectural nightmare without turning it into a museum.

Spend half a day taking a walking tour of the town to find hidden treasures or get a massage after your long journey.

A perfect day in Luang Prabang consists of: grabbing a cup of coffee at Saffron Café, checking out the monk offerings in the morning, the Royal Museum by day, catching the sunset on the mountaintop and finishing the day at the night market.

Other cool things to do in Luang Prabang:

  • Climb Mount Phousi before the sun comes up, take some coffee and wait for an incredible sunrise over the Ancient Kingdom… there is not much of a better way to start your day!
  • Wat Xieng Thong is a temple not to be scored off on your backpacking Laos adventure. If you don’t see any temple in Laos or Asia for that matter, check this one out. Otherwise known as the Golden City Monastery built in 1560 by King Setthathilat this temple is a complete work of art. Even if you don’t go inside, wandering the temple grounds early in the morning before the rush of tourists is awesome.
  • Luang Nam Tha, often a starting point for those Backpacking Laos and hoping to enter into the Northern Hilltribes. Although the town itself offers no more than a rural village with a few guesthouses, those seeking off the beaten track adventures will make it here. As well as hiking into the Northern Hilltribes, mountain biking is popular among backpackers travelling Laos. You’ll often get a map of the area and neighbouring towns when you hire a bike, so go off and explore!
  • Utopia Yoga classes for 40,000 kips.
  • Tamarind Restaurant offers Laos cooking classes.

Backpacking Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng is the main backpacker playground in Laos; this is the place where you can smoke a joint and eat banana pancakes all day. For the journey to be worth it – and to enjoy all those banana pancakes – stay at least four days here.

The four-hour journey from Vientiane to Vang Vieng travel by bus will take you through some awesome scenery. I can guarantee you will end up backtracking at least once unless you start in Luang Prabang.

Many backpackers used to head to Vang Vieng for its legendary drunk tubing, but it’s nowhere near the same scale anymore. After far too many stupid drunks and fatal accidents, many riverside bars have shut down. It’s still a good time, just much more chilled out! However, you’ll still come across the drunk and mushroom happy floaters; use your own judgement to stay safe – drownings happen pretty much every year.

Top Tip:  Don’t take your phone, passport and wallet on the river; literally everything you take with you will get soaked. And keep a hold of your tube or you will lose the ridiculously high deposit.

Don’t fancy floating down the river with a beer and want something more adventurous? Kayaking is awesome in Vang Vieng; explore the river, head into the limestone caves and the rugged krusts. It is a great day trip and relatively laidback! There are plenty of companies to choose from in Vientiane so haggle for the price and enjoy!

If you’re short on money and need to make a quick buck, finding work in Vang Vieng is easy! Work the bars; you are likely to get food, unlimited booze and perhaps five dollars a day. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me! Check out Real Backpackers Hostel in Vang Vieng, it is freaking cool hostel! You’ll meet heaps of backpackers up for a good time here.

Backpacking Vientiane

For a capital city, Vientiane is incredibly quiet and is more like a collection of small villages than a bustling city. The small town feel offers a nice chilled out pace of life; wander Vientiane’s vibrant neighborhoods and explore some of the beautiful, grand monuments and temples.

Thanks to an increase in tourism there are some wicked places to stay and in the last few years, even a shopping mall has popped up. I stayed at Sailomyen Hostel and it was a good place to meet other backpackers to go for a beer with.

When in Vientiane check out the cities oldest temple, Wat Sisaket. Constructed by the King in the early 1800’s the monastery was a site for ceremonies for lords and nobles to swear loyalty to the King. This temple is also an incredible work of art, and the murals and Buddha carvings are beautiful. You’ll easily spend a few hours wandering around here.

Also, check out Buddha Park, which as the name suggests, is a park with Buddha statues.

I wouldn’t spend more than two days in Laos Capital, Vientiane. It’s a great place to base yourself, and maybe meet some fellow backpackers at one of Vientiane’s awesome hostels, before catching a bus to explore the rest of the beautiful country or relax after finishing your Laos trip!

Backpacking Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw is a rustic town on the bank of the Ou River in Laos, squeezed in-between some of the most fantastic limestone mountains north of Vang Vieng. It is unlikely you will bump into many more backpackers while here. I certainly didn’t!

Nong Khiaw attracts those looking for some rural, raw adventure in the form of caves. The Pha Tok Caves are set high in a limestone cliff accessed via steep concrete steps. You’ll have to pay a small amount to enter the caves and you should take a headtorch.

You don’t need a guide to explore these caves. They are big and beautiful, but easily navigated. The caves themselves were once used to house villagers and Pathet Lao fighters during the Second Indochina war… Pretty freaking cool!

Stay at the rustic Nam Ou River Lodge to prepare for your trek! As for the best places to eat? check out Mekara Restaurant and Chennai Restaurant.

You can rent bikes to ride around town, or a mountain bike to visit nearby villages.

Backpacking Muang Ngoi

About an hour by boat (25,000K) from Nong Khiaw is this beautiful, sleepy village. I definitely recommend staying at Nicksa’s Place Bungalows (50,oooK) for 2 people.

The main thing to do in Muang Noi is to immerse in the local culture, kick back and relax Laos style. When you’re not chilling out, there are many caves you can explore (this is Laos, afterall), like Phanai Cave and Muang Ngoi viewpoint.

Backpacking Tad Lo Village

Want some rest and relaxation or to recoup before heading out to backpack Laos some more? Tad Lo offers a slower pace of life. There is such a chilled vibe with some awesome hikes surrounding the village. If you find yourself here, hang out for a couple of days and definitely head to the Tad Lo Waterfall.

Made up of three waterfalls, Tad Hang is the first set of falls you see upon arrival. It is the smallest and gentlest of the three, providing the best opportunity for taking a dip and enjoy a beer.

Top Tip: Be warned—and this applies to all the falls—a dam is released every day around 16:00 causing the water to sharply rise. You need to be well clear of the water before then.

Backpacking Champasak

Champasak is incredible, and almost totally off the tourist trail. You’ll struggle to bump into another backpacker here! The town of Champasak is historic and charming, lined with decaying colonial buildings, which were once home to the royals. Sit side by side with wood-shuttered Chinese shophouses and traditional wooden homes.

You can tell the locals are proud of the history and beautiful old buildings by the way many of the modern homes mimic the style. The only difference is they are painted in bright cheerful colours.
Spend the best part of the day exploring this island and the ancient buildings before chilling out in Vongpaseud Guest House.

If you have found yourself in Champasak it is likely you are looking for Wat Muang Kang (or Wat Phuthavanaram): Champasak’s oldest running temple. It sits on the banks of the Mekong and is home to many Monks in the area. This is not a major tourist area, it’s so surreal to wander through a working temple with no other tourists. Incredibly refreshing and I would get here before the crowds do come!

Backpacking Tham Kong Lor Cave

If you visit one place in Laos, make it this incredible Tham Kong Lo Cave. I first heard about this place on the backpacker grapevine when sharing a beer with a motorcyclist exploring Laos. He told me of a massive cave hidden in a valley of limestone Karsts and guarded by a village of friendly locals.

Without a motorbike, my journey to this place took a whole day and involved seven different vehicles. Nobody seemed to understand where I was trying to go. And then I made it…

Now, Tham Kong Lo Cave is a lot easier to get to since Lonely Planet covered it, and regular buses started running from Vientiane to Ban Kong Lo, the village near the cave.

Spend the night with the locals in a homestay, enjoying some local delicacies and swapping stories. Wake up early and hire a boatman to take you through the seven kilometre flooded cave. It is incredible and if you can avoid high tourist season it is quiet. I would spend maybe two days here as besides the cave there is also some wonderful day hikes to do nearby.

For those backpacking Laos and craving adventure and culture, this is definitely one of the places to do it.

Backpacking the Four Thousand Islands

Si Phan Don, better known as the Four Thousand Islands, is found in the South, just above the border of Cambodia. But Laos is landlocked, how can there be islands? Well, the Islands have formed thanks to the complex river system of the Mekong River.

Take a boat tour on the river and visit the villages and inhabitants on the islands and experience traditional Laos culture. Thanks to the isolation the river brings these villages, they are relatively untouched by modern influence. Learn the culture and how involved these communities are with ecological awareness and conservation; if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll spot the rare freshwater Dolphin!

A visit to the 4000 islands is not complete without stopping at Asia’s highest waterfall – the Khon Phapheng and Somphamit Waterfalls – otherwise known as Li Phi Falls. They are breathtaking.

Once you’ve had enough of swimming and staring at the falls, head to the island of Don Khon you’ll find the ghostly remains of an incomplete railroad. China abandoned the build once the discovery of the falls was made in the nineteenth century; it created a bit of a natural barrier. The Four Thousand Islands would definitely not be the same if the Chinese had continued with the railway…

To get to the Four Thousand Islands, head towards Pakse. Base yourself in the small island of Don Khong. Chill out on this island and explore a beautiful collection of quaint villages and ancient temples. There are heaps of accommodation options around.

The Gibbon Experience

If you want to get back in touch with nature, you can’t leave here without trying the Gibbon Experience. I sadly couldn’t afford it. But from what I’ve heard – and enviously looked at – it’s freaking awesome and I’m definitely trying it out on my next visit!

Essentially, they built some of the world’s highest tree houses so you can experience flying through the forest canopies and waking up surrounded by gibbons.

The project raises awareness for forest conservation and made the Nam Kan National Park possible. Hundreds of people make a living from this project.

Things to see and do

1. Explore the Vieng Xai Cave City

Located close to Sam Nua (near the Vietnamese border), Vieng Xai Cave City served as living quarters for Laotian soldiers during the 1960s. You can see the living quarters as they were — the Kaysone Phomvihane Cave even has a working air-circulation pump. Guided tours are found at the Vieng Xai Caves Visitor Centre. Admission is 60,000 LAK ($6.90 USD). The bus there is 20,000 LAK ($0.25 USD) while a tuk-tuk (no matter how many people) is 150,000 LAK ($0.75 USD).

2. Trek to the Kuang Si Falls

This huge waterfall near Luang Prabang is breathtaking. Turquoise waters flow over rock ledges into dramatic pools perfect for swimming. The picture at the top of the page? Kuang Si! Definitely do not miss this place. Be sure to find the secret pool for a swim too! (My blog post has info on how to find it.) Admission is 20,000 LAK ($2.50 USD), and a tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang will cost 30,000-40,000 LAK ($3.50-4.60 USD).

3. See the Great Stupa (Pha That Luang)

The Great Stupa in Vientiane is a 148-foot gold-covered stupa (a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) and is considered the greatest monument in the country. Its exterior looks like a fortress with high walls, but the inside has many Buddhist, flower, and animal imagery throughout. You can admire the stupa from outside for free (which is what most people do). If you want to enter, admission is 10,000 LAK ($1.15 USD).

4. Head to Vientiane

The capital and largest city in Laos is full of important national monuments and temples, like the Great Stupa and the Sisaket Temple. While there, be sure to check out Buddha Park, a sculpture garden full of giant Buddha statues. It’s the most cosmopolitan city in the country, and you’ll find an up and coming foodie scene here.

5. See the waterfalls at the Bolaven Plateau

Located in Southern Laos close to the city of Pakse, the Bolaven Plateau is part of a crater that formed from an ancient volcano. Trek around the area and explore several of the waterfalls. The Bolaven Loop cuts through the entire crater and takes you close to all the falls. Each waterfall has its own entrance fee (usually between 5,000-10,000 LAK/$0.60-1.15 USD) as well as a parking fee for your bike (3,000-5,000 LAK/$0.35-0.60 USD).

6. Visit the Elephant Conservation Center

Located in Sainyabuli, the ECC was launched in 2011 by a team of elephant specialists working towards protecting the elephant population in Laos. It’s the best way to see elephants in a responsible way that doesn’t harm them. Prices start at 1,822,680 LAK ($210 USD) for a two-day visit while a seven-day volunteering session costs around 3,905,740 LAK ($450 USD).

7. Slow boat on the Mekong

Drift down the Mekong River on a long, narrow boat with comfortable seating, home-cooked meals, and a unique view of the countryside. You can find a ride typically from the border at Huay-Xai that will drop you off in Luang Prabang. Slow boats take two to three days. Prices will vary depending on the quality of your tour company, but an average tour will cost you around 1,000,000 LAK ($115 USD).

8. Phou Hin Poun Conservation Area

Mountains, a limestone forest, rivers full of rapids, and caves await you in the protected Phou Hin Poun area of Laos. The entire area is filled with unique species of flora and fauna, including macaques, tigers, and gibbons. (Yes, tigers.) A two-day guided trek will cost around 1,000,000 LAK ($115 USD) with everything included.

9. Get outdoors in Nong Khiaw (Muang Ngoi)

Life in this quaint village on the Nam Ou River is slow and peaceful, but Nong Kiew is a popular draw for outdoor lovers. The towering limestone cliffs are ideal for experienced climbers, and there are many hiking trails leading to nearby waterfalls and caves. To get there, you can take a bus from Luang Prabang to Pak Mong and then a tuk-tuk the rest of the way.

10. Chat with a monk

On the first Sunday of every month, monks gather at the Sangha College in Vientiane to chat with tourists. You’re able to ask them about their practice and daily life, and in return, they’ll practice their English.

Laos Backpacking Costs

Typical costs

Accommodation

Accommodation in Laos is cheap. Dorm rooms are around 45,,000-80,000 LAK ($5-9 USD) per night, although hostels in Vientiane start at slightly higher prices around 52,075 LAK ($6 USD) per night. A private room in a hostel with air-con will cost between 115,000-175,000 LAK ($13-20 USD).

Almost every hostel offers free wifi and most also include free breakfast. It’s very rare for a hostel to have a kitchen, so don’t count on cooking your meals.

Budget hotels and guesthouses are widely available, usually starting around 110,000 LAK ($13 USD) for a twin or double room. If you’re looking to splurge on a four-star hotel with a pool, expect to pay at least 400,000 LAK ($46 USD) per night.

Airbnb is also available, with shared spaces starting at 80,000 LAK ($9 USD). A private room starts from around 130,190 LAK ($15 USD). An entire home or apartment goes for as little as 350,000 LAK ($40 USD), although prices are generally closer to 781,150 LAK ($50 USD).

Food

Since the country is landlocked, food is more expensive than in Thailand, but it’s still easy to eat cheap in Laos. Street food is usually around 15,000-20,000 LAK ($1.75-2.30 USD) per meal, like grilled meats, fresh fruits, and bowls of noodle soup. Traditional food at Lao restaurants, like laap (minced meat salad) and sticky rice should cost between 25,963- 43,272 LAK ($3-5 USD).

Western food will usually cost closer to 30,000 LAK ($3.45 USD) for fast food like pizza or burgers. If you’re looking for a meal at a restaurant, you will pay closer to 100,000 LAK ($11 USD) for food with drinks. Even with a balance of western meals and local dishes, you’ll be hard press to spend more than 120,000 LAK ($14 USD) per day.

If you have access to a kitchen, buy your own groceries. A week of groceries should cost between 216,362 -250,000 LAK ($25-30 USD).

Money in Laos

Lao Kip; sounds like you’re going to take a nap in the middle of the day but, no, this is the national currency of Laos. And wow, do you get a Bang for your buck!

At the time we wrote this blog, the exchange rate $1 = $9,250

To put this into perspective, one beer in Laos is around nine thousand Laos Kip. That’s a lot of beer!

Exchanging your money in Laos is best done in the Airport of Luang Prabang or Vientiane, or of course, the cities themselves. US dollars are easily exchanged and welcomed. ATMs in Laos are found more frequently now in the major cities and tourist areas, but many of these charge pretty insane withdrawal fees so it’s advisable to avoid small ATM transactions and get out a bunch of cash at once – just make sure you take a travel money belt to hide it well.

You will find it pretty impossible to get to an ATM in the countryside and the small pop up shops on the side of the road will not accept your card.

Suggested budget

On a backpacker budget in Laos, you will spend about 303,780 LAK ($35 USD) per day. This budget will cover a hostel dorm, eating mostly street food, having a few drinks per night, taking public transit, and doing about one paid activity (or a couple cheap temples) per day.

A mid-range budget of about 564,162 LAK ($65 USD) per day will get you a private two-star hotel room or a private hostel dorm, taxis, fancier restaurants and Western food, and more activities per day. On this budget, you’ll be able to do whatever you want within reason. If you’re a budget traveler, you won’t want for anything.

A luxury budget from 1,657,770 LAK ($191 USD) per day will get you anything you want. Four-star hotels with swimming pools, fancy food, cocktails, tours – the sky is the limit if you’re spending this much money per day!

Use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.

Type Accommodation Food Transportation Attraction Average Cost
Backpacker $5 $10 $10 $10 $35
Mid-Range $15 $15 $15 $20 $65
Luxury $46 $20 $25 $50 $141

 

Money saving tips

Laos is very cheap, so you’ll be hard-pressed to save tons of money if you are already traveling on a budget, eating local cuisines, not drinking a ton, and staying in hostels. That said, here are some ways to save money in Laos:

  • Buy from the local markets – Buying your own food is infinitely cheaper than going to restaurants (not that they are even that expensive, however). If you’re on a budget, though, stick to the local markets. Fresh food will be the cheapest there.
  • Stick to local transportation – Taxis and tuk-tuks may be convenient, but they will slowly ruin your budget. Stick to public transportation if you need to get around. If you do need to take a tuk-tuk or taxi, ask your hotel/hostel staff what you should expect to pay. This will make sure you don’t get ripped off!
  • Avoid western food – Western food is always more expensive than local cuisine. While the prices aren’t that high, it will slowly add up throughout your trip. And anyway did you come to Laos to have a terrible burger? No. Eat the local food!
  • Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will come particularly in handy in Southeast Asia since you can’t drink the tap water. Save money and thousands of plastic bottles and get a bottle that can purify the tap water for you.

Volunteering in Laos

Looking to volunteer in Laos? You aren't the first person to do this! There are many travelers out there who have done what you're dreaming of, and better yet, who are doing it right now!

Long term travel is awesome. Giving back is awesome too. For backpackers looking to travel long term on a budget in Laos whilst making a real impact on local communities, look no further than Worldpackers.

Backpackers can spend long periods of time volunteering in amazing places without spending any money. Meaningful life and travel experiences are rooted in stepping out of your comfort zone and into the world of a purposeful project.

Worldpackers opens the doors for work exchange opportunities in hostels, homestays, NGOs, and eco-projects around the world — including in Laos.

Backpackers’ accommodation in Laos

The increasing number of backpackers travelling to Laos means hostels are beginning to pop up all over the place. Standards of hostels in the tourist areas such as Luang Prabang and Vientiane are improving and there are some cool places to stay where you can meet other backpackers in Laos.

Out in the boondocks, change comes more slowly (and it’s mostly local guesthouses that are available), but finding accommodation is much simpler; you’ll basically have two options and they will be within walking distance of each other!

Hosting travelers through Couchsurfing and Airbnb are slowly beginning to catch on in Laos, but they are not really reliable once away from the main tourist areas.

I highly recommend taking a mosquito net for Laos, although the situation is improving, very few of the best value (cheap!) rooms have mosquito webbing over the windows and many of the walls are constructed with bamboo that leaves plenty of space for critters to crawl through!

Finding a cheap place to stay in Laos is pretty easy:

  • Hostel Accommodation: At only around five dollars for a night in a dorm, or ten dollars for a double room. Hostels are super cheap options in the city and often close to good bars, sites and street food!
  • Hotel Accommodation: For not much more than the price of a hostel you can upgrade to a private room in a guesthouse. Or if you fancy treating yourself, backpacker style, basic hotels are all over the place in the tourist areas.
Location Hostel Why we like it?!
Luang Prabang Downtown Backpackers Hostel Clean and comfortable; central location. Wonderful staff.
Vang Vieng Real Backpackers Hostel Social party atmosphere; pool table; clean beds.
Vientiane Dream Home Hostel 1 Decent party hostel in Vientiane.
Nong Khiaw Nam Ou River Lodge Beautiful View and location.

Getting in & around

Arriving in Laos

Many of you, like me, will begin your backpacking Laos adventure by crossing the border after backpacking in Vietnam, Thailand or Cambodia. Hopping the border overland is easy, quick, and visas can usually be arranged on arrival.

I have entered Laos from both Vietnam and Thailand. For a Southeast Asian country, Laos is relatively well organized on the border and I’ve picked up visas on arrival a total of three times now without any problems.

The most cost-effective way to cross the border is usually by local bus but you can also catch tourist buses, which are more comfortable and have better connections – e.g. Bangkok to Vang Vieng. If you have hitched a ride to the border, you can simply walk across and arrange onwards transport on the other side.

If you are planning on flying to Laos, it is likely you will land in Luang Prabang, Vientiane, or Pakse. The likes of Air Asia and Thai Smiles are your cheapest option to fly into Laos from within Asia. If you are travelling to Laos on an international flight, you can get great deals with Vietnam Airlines via Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi, Etihad via Abu Dhabi, and Bangkok to Vientiane or Luang Prabang.

Here is how to get the cheapest flight to Laos

Entry Requirements for Laos

Laos – like its neighbours – is easily accessible for the majority of nationalities. Most of us will be able to get our visas on arrival, whether that is by land, boat or plane, the process is the same. On arrival, typically, you will receive 30 days to travel and explore Laos which is usually long enough to get a taste of Laos.

The visa on arrival costs roughly $35 so make sure to have cash on you!

If you are entering by land make sure to have at least two passport sized photos with you, proof of some kind of onward travel (even if it’s a flight home from another country), and $35 cash.

ALternatively, Laos has now initiated an eVisa system for more than 180 countries worldwide. If you’d like to get set ub before you arrive, or are unable to obtain a visa  on arrival, you can apply for an evisa for Laos online.

If you’re planning to stay longer than thirty days in Laos, you can extend your visa easily at the consulate in Vientiane. It only costs an additional $2 a day, nothing compared to the ten dollars a day you’ll be charged if you illegally overstay your visa…!

Getting around Laos

Getting around Laos can be a challenge. The roads are poor, and you’ll likely have to navigate several mountain passes to get anywhere. Nothing is ever on time, and even short trips can turn into endless journeys.

City Transportation – Local public transportation starts around 2,000 LAK ($0.25 USD) and goes up from there based on distance. Taxis and tuk-tuks (small shared taxis with no meter) will require a bit of haggling and cost more than local transportation. If you have a destination in mind, ask the staff at your hostel how much you should expect to pay.

Flying – I don’t recommend flying unless you are super pressed for time. Domestic flights are costly, and there are frequent cancellations. Even booking far in advance, a flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang will cost you 867,940 LAK ($100+ USD) for a 50-minute flight. But if you must, these are Laos’ airlines:

Bus – Buses are the most common way to get between cities. Ticket prices vary between 80,000-130,000 LAK ($9-15 USD) for a five to six-hour ride. Local buses are pretty uncomfortable, and many don’t have air conditioning, but they’ll get you from point A to point B around the country. In busier towns, you’ll be able to purchase your ticket from just about any tour operator. This will include transit from your hotel/hostel to the station. Otherwise, you can show up at the city’s bus station. A trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang or Pakse shouldn’t cost more than 100,000 LAK ($11.50 USD).

There are also plenty of air-conditioned “VIP” buses. For example, a trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is just 130,190 LAK ($15 USD). Overnight buses cost 150,000-200,000 LAK ($17-23 USD) depending on the distance. You can usually buy tickets for these buses from your hostel/hotel. You can use 12go.asia to compare prices.

If you’re looking to head into a neighboring country, a bus from Vientiane to Hanoi will cost around 330,000 LAK ($38 USD). There is also a direct route between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai starting from 415,416 LAK ($48 USD), but keep in mind the ride is at least 20 hours. A bus from Vientiane to Bangkok takes about 15 hours and costs about 389,452 LAK ($45 USD).

Boat – One of the most popular ways to see Laos is via a slow boat between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang on the Mekong River. The journey takes two days, and the trip costs from about 250,000 LAK ($30 USD) per person. For a higher-end guided experience, you’ll pay more like 1,000,000 LAK ($115 USD).

For short trips (like Luang Prabang to the Pak Ou Caves), you can hire a river taxi from about 86,795 LAK ($10 USD) per hour.

Here is how to get around in Laos

Hitchhiking in Laos

Hitchhiking in Laos is relatively easy and a viable way to save money.

The main highway, Route 13, stretches from Luang Prabang to the Cambodian border and is a popular hitchhikers route. Make sure you hit up the highway during daylight hours. No one will see you in the night and drivers can be mental once the sun goes down!

Away from the main highway stretch, expect short lifts as cars and tourist buses become less frequent. Traveling by hitchhiking is a great and popular way to get around when backpacking in Laos. The local people are friendly and many backpackers in Laos hitch so you shouldn’t run into to much surprise from drivers.

Must-Try Experiences in Laos

Meet the People in Laos

You’d think with the history the Lao people have suffered (Laos was extensively bombed during the Vietnam War by American forces), they would be a little iffy towards outsiders. Think again. People of Laos are without a doubt, some of the most friendly I have ever met.

Throughout your travels, it is likely Lao people will invite you to join them for a meal or to celebrate a birth or marriage. This is a massive privilege, and you should definitely go! It’s polite to join and to accept at least one drink. The best thing about this though is it gives you the opportunity to meet the locals, live and interact with them.

Lao people are extremely curious about you your stories. Just remember though, that Laos is a Buddhist country and so it’s important to dress and behave in a way that is respectful. On that note, feet are considered to be dirty so don’t step on/over people or touch people with your feet. Also, it’s considered rude to touch someone on the head, especially monks; old or young.

What to Eat in Laos?

I love Asian food and Laos does not disappoint. It is said that Laos has some of the most unique food in Asia, and they also eat more sticky rice than anywhere else in the world! Crazy, but with good reason; it’s freaking delicious!

With some of the best street food in the world, kerbside stands and hole-in-the-wall restaurants are filled with the local delicacies, but what to choose? Well Amigos let me share some of my favourite foods in Laos.

  • Khao Niaw (Sticky Rice): If you manage to travel through Laos without trying sticky rice. Just wow. This can be served with your savoury meal or sweet with fruit and ice cream! Roll it into balls with your fingers and enjoy!
  • Tam Mak Houng (Spicy Green Papaya Salad): It is so refreshing after a hot and humid day to tuck into this fresh, spicy and sweet salad. Made using five fresh ingredients, which are mixed with hot chilli, sour lime, salt, fish sauce and sugar. Honestly, so freaking good!
  • Ping Kai (Grilled Chicken): Basically the best BBQ chicken or Sunday Roast in the world – sorry mum! They take a whole chicken, marinate it in black pepper, garlic, coriander root, fish sauce and salt and is then cook on hot coals. Yum!
  • Larb (Laap, Larp or Lahb): A must try when in Laos! Laap is made with chicken, beef, duck, fish, pork or mushrooms; flavoured with lime juice, fish sauce, and fresh herbs. It’ll be served with the staple, sticky rice and sometimes raw veggies. I ate SO much of this while backpacking Laos!
  • French Inspired Food: Yep, beautifully stuffed baguettes in the middle of Asia. Well, it’s not a surprise as Laos was colonised by the French for sixty years. Something rubbed off. These delicious sandwiches are popular in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Stuffed with pork pate, assorted greens and jeowbong (chilli paste), is sold everywhere as a quick snack.

Festivals in Laos

  • Boun Pi Mai: Pi Mai translates to “new year.” Laos’ New Year is celebrated in April. The entire country grinds to a halt for the festivities in all-out water fights, which makes one of the best time to visit Laos.
  • Haw Khao Padap Din: Held in September, this is a holiday where Lao families respect their dead kin and cremate their loved ones. On a lighter note, the holiday is also celebrated with boat races on the Nam Khan River.
  • Khao Pansa: Held in August, this holiday marks the beginning of the Buddhist equivalent of Lent – a time of fasting and contemplation for monks.
  • Awk Pansa: Held in October, this holiday marks the end of Khao Pansa. Monks are presented with gifts from townsfolk. That evening, people release banana-leaf boats with candles and flowers on top, a ceremony known as Lai Hua Fai (similar to Loy Krathong in Thailand).
  • Boun That Luang: For a full week (in November or October), the temple in Vientiane comes alive with fairs, contests, fireworks, and music.

Trekking in Laos

If you want to get off-the-grid and go trekking in Laos, I recommend making the long journey to the the northern town of Phongsali. Though tough to reach, it’s equally rewarding for trekkers. While there isn’t much to do in the actual town, there are plenty of opportunities to visit remote hill tribes through the Provincial Tourism Office.

The treks are between one and five days long.

You will most likely be the only backpacker for miles, so this is a great adventure for any travellers with some time, looking to get away from the other backpackers.

As for places to stay, you can book something when you get to town. This area doesn’t have a huge online presence.

Useful Travel Phrases for Laos

If you are backpacking Laos, chances are you are going to get off the beaten path a bit. This means you’re going to come across locals who do not speak very much English. It’s always good to learn a new language for travel; learning some Laotian travel phrases will help you connect with the local culture!

  • Hello – Sabaidee
  • Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening – Sabaidee Ton sao / Sabaidee Ton Suoi / Sabaidee Ton Leng
  • How are you? – Sábaidee baw?
  • Goodbye! – La khãwn
  • Yes – Jao / Doi
  • No – Baw
  • How much does this cost? – Laka tao dai?
  • Please – Khâluna 
  • No plastic bag – bomi thong yang
  • Thank you – Khãwp Ja?i
  • Sorry/excuse me – Khãw thôht
  • Where is the restroom? – Hàwng nâm yuu s?i?
  • I need a doctor – Khoy tong kan Maw
  • I’m lost – Khoy lohng taang
  • Can you help me? – Suay khoy dai boh

When to go backpacking Laos

October to April is the best time to visit Laos. This is when the country’s weather is consistently warm and dry. (Keep in mind the mountainous areas experience much cooler temperatures year-round compared to the other parts of Laos.) It is also the high season, so you can expect bigger crowds and inflated prices.

Elsewhere, April and May tend to be the hottest months, with temperatures as high as 104°F (40°C). The humidity can be extremely uncomfortable during this time too.

The rainy season is from late May to October. It is still a pleasant time to visit. The rainfall each day never lasts long, the waterfalls flow heavier, and the wildlife becomes more active. Not to mention, there are fewer tourists around.

Here is the complete guide for exactly when and where to go in Laos

How to stay safe

Laos is an incredibly safe and honest country. Lao people rarely if ever commit violent crimes against foreigners. In terms of petty theft, you are much more likely to be robbed by a fellow traveler than a local. Lao merchants are honest and will help you count your change and won’t up-charge you too much.

Lao drivers, on the other hand, are prone to drunk driving and driving without a proper license or training, so do take care on the road and as a pedestrian. Outside the main cities, the largest threat is Unexploded Ordinance (UXO), so if you’re in the countryside, stick to well-worn paths or hire a guide. Only 0.6% of the bombs left from US involvement in the Lao civil war and Vietnam War have been removed.

Solo women travelers should be mindful of how they dress. While Laos is very welcoming overall, it is also very conservative so covering shoulders, knees, and the chest at all times will greatly minimize any harassment. Police in Laos aren’t always honest, helpful or English speaking so do seriously consider whether or not you want them involved if there is an issue.

Lao people are very appearance-conscious and tend to judge others, especially foreigners, by how they dress. Lao people dress conservatively, and if you want to be respected, you should too. This means no short shorts, tank tops, showing of cleavage or beards. Lao people are suspicious of bearded men and tend to think they are dirty and criminally minded. It’s hot, yes, but cover up, carry an umbrella for shade and don’t wander around town in your bathing suit.

Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll in Laos

Believe it or not, Laos was home to one of the wildest party areas in South East Asia a few years ago. Thanks to Alcohol being readily available throughout Laos it’s easy to have a shindig. The local beer is awesome by the way and so cheap!

It was only a matter of time before Laos hopped on the party scene. Party place Vang Vieng was home to the infamous tubing, bar hopping and drunk zip lines over the Nam Song River. Back in 2011, this place was jumping and completely wild! So wild that unfortunately, a number of people died.

Since then, the situation in Vang Vieng is much more controlled and relatively, sensible? Bar crawling, tubing and zip lining are still available, but it’s a bit more chilled now.

Travel Insurance for Laos

A wise man once said that if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t really afford to travel – so do consider backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Traveling without insurance would be risky. I highly recommend World Nomads.

I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They are easy to use, offer the widest coverage, and are affordable. Also, this is the only company I know of that lets you buy travel insurance after leaving on a trip.

If there is one insurance company I trust, it is World Nomads. Getting an estimate from World Nomads is simple - just click HERE, fill out the necessary info, and you are on your way!

Get more information about safety and precaution in Laos

Gear & packing list

If you’re heading to Laos, knowing what to pack and the kind of backpack to get can be a little daunting. In this section, I’ll give you my suggestion for the best travel backpack and tips on what to pack.  

Packing list for Laos

Clothes

  • 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 6 T-shirts
  • 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
  • 1 pair of flip-flops
  • 1 pair of sneakers
  • 8 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
  • 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
  • 1 toothbrush
  • 1 tube of toothpaste
  • 1 razor
  • 1 package of dental floss
  • 1 small bottle of shampoo
  • 1 small bottle of shower gel
  • 1 towel
  • Deodorant

Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)

  • Band-Aids
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Antibacterial cream
  • Earplugs
  • Tylenol
  • Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)

Miscellaneous

  • A key or combination lock (safety first)
  • Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
  • Plastic bags (great for laundry)
  • Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
  • LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier.)

Female Travel Packing List

Below is the list of what a woman needs as an addition to the basics above:

  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 sarong
  • 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry quickly)
  • 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
  • 2-3 long-sleeve tops
  • 2-3 T-shirts
  • 3-4 spaghetti tops
  • 1 light cardigan

Toiletries

  • 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
  • 1 hairbrush
  • Makeup you use
  • Hair bands & hair clips
  • Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)

Here is the full guide for Laos packing list

A Brief History of Laos

Around the 1880s, Laos started to become a part of the French empire in Southeast Asia.

In 1945, the Japanese forced Laos to declare independence under a new government, but it didn’t last long as the French quickly took control again.

Then in 1950, the Pro-Communist Prince Souphanouvong formed an organisation that became known as Paphet Lao (Land of the Lao). Meanwhile, the French were losing control of Southeast Asia and Laos became independent.

Laos in the 1950s was a divided country. Most of Laos was ruled by Royalist governments – supported by the USA – while other parts were ruled by the Pro-Communist Paphet Lao assisted by their allies the Viet Minh.

From 1964 to 1973 the USA bombed Paphet Lao territory but failed to defeat them. In 1975 South Vietnam and Cambodia fell to the Communists. The Royalists fled from Laos allowing a full Communist regime to be introduced. However, in 1988 the government of Laos introduced market reforms. As a result the economy of Laos began to grow rapidly.

Suggested reading

Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, by Brett Dakin

This is Brett Dakin’s insightful book about living in Laos as a foreigner. Most of it focuses on the characters that Brett meets along the way, like his boss, an intimidating and wealthy general who scares everyone he meets. Then there’s an elderly prince who longs for the time of French colonialism, and the American pilot who left home to fight and then never went back. You’ll learn about the new generation of Laos people who have more money than they can handle, and a communist way of life that is quickly fading. It’s an excellent read.

The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill

This is not something I had typically read, but the Dr. Siri mystery series is legendary. This first book is set in Laos in 1978, when 72-year-old Dr. Siri Paiboun has been made the national coroner of the new socialist Laos. His lab is anything but boring, and when the wife of an important politician comes through his morgue, Siri suspects she has been murdered. Siri and his team fight their way through obstacles like corrupt government officials, spies, and even shamans to find the truth. This makes good reading for a long bus ride!

The Ravens: The True Story of A Secret War In Laos, by Christopher Robbins

The Vietnam War in Laos did not officially exist…or at least both Vietnam and the USA denied they had troops there. But in reality, thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers invaded the country during this time — and the Americans fought against them from the air. The Ravens were the names given to top-secret volunteer Laotian pilots who flew through heavy groundfire to identify targets, working alongside the hill tribesmen above the Plain of Jars to protect their land. This is a riveting collection of survivor stories, based on extensive interviews.

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos, by Natacha Du Pont De Bie

Laos isn’t typically considered a food destination when compared with other destinations in Southeast Asia, but Natacha Du Pont De Bie’s foodie book is here to convince you otherwise. The author will trek for hours (or even days) to search for a good meal, and this light-hearted book is the result of her adventures and the people she has met along the way. You’ll read stories about everything from drinking raw turkey blood with herbs in a tribal village to chowing down on heaps of fried crickets. It might even convince you to get adventurous!

Some final thoughts

Being a Responsible Backpacker in Laos

Reduce your plastic footprint: Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill or in the ocean. Instead, pack a tough travel water bottle.

Go and watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix – it’ll change how you view the plastic problem in the world; you need to understand what we are up against. If you think it doesn’t matter, it is not you to travel.
Don’t pick up single use plastic bags, you’re a backpacker – take your daypack if you need to go to the shop or run errands.

Bear in mind, that many animal products in countries you travel through will not be ethically farmed and won’t be of the highest quality. I’m a carnivore but when I’m on the road, I only eat chicken. Mass-farming of cows etc leads to the rainforest being cut down – which is obviously a huge problem.

Recently, my gear-venture, Active Roots has started to sell water bottles. For every Active Roots water bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an awesome initiative aimed at educating people on the risk of single use plastic and helping to clean up our oceans. Help save the planet, whether you take an Active Roots bottle or not – TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for your plastic footprint, don’t be a dick.

Be Good to Laos

Writing your name in black marker on temples, chugging your beer while shirtless, swearing loudly and visiting unethical animal attractions? You Sir are a twat. Luckily, most backpackers don’t fall into this category but when you’re out and about and have had a few too many drinks, it can be easy to embarrass yourself.

It is easy to get carried away in South East Asia; everything is so damn cheap and so much fun. I am in no way the perfect traveler; I have been the drunken idiot on the street.

By no means am I telling you not to drink, smoke and party; just do not get so drunk you turn into an imbecile your mum would be ashamed of. If you can’t handle drinking buckets, then stick to beer.

If you want to see elephants, then go and see them but do your research first. Look up ethical animal sanctuaries such as The Elephant Jungle Village in Luang Prabang, who treat and care for animals properly. Don’t ride elephants.

If you’re not into seeing the temples, no worries but don’t be disrespectful, inappropriate or deface them – certainly, do not try to wander in shirtless.

Wear a helmet when you hop on a motorbike in Asia. Despite being an experienced driver, I’ve had a total of three crashes in South East Asia over the last ten years. On the one occasion, I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I split my head open and had to go to the hospital. It was an expensive mistake. The local people are sick of scraping foreigners off the road and, trust me, you don’t look cool for not wearing a helmet.

Humans are humans; treat people you meet along the way with the same respect you would show your friends and family back home. You are not superior to anyone, including the girls/guys walking the streets.

It is Time to Go Backpacking in Laos

So, there you have it amigos: despite a turbulent past, Laos is on the incline and things are getting better for the Laotian people. They have endured hardships, but they welcome foreigners with open arms.

Laos has a lot of tourism potential and so many beautiful parts of their country to share. I hope this Laos travel guide has supplied you with everything you need to know to hit the road and begin backpacking Laos.

So, get out there already!

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Hello, my name’s Jordan and I’m obsessed with travelling overland. Seeing how cultures change while travelling slowly captivates me; and doing so in an eco-friendly way, preserving the cultures and landscapes that so many travellers yearn to explore, has given me my travelling purpose.

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places to visit in Laos
Luang Prabang
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The ancient capital of Lane Xang Kingdom

Vang Vieng
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Vientiane
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The ancient capital of Lane Xang Kingdom

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Phonsavan
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Nong Khiaw
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The combination of fun and educational activities

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Explore every corners of the destination on two wheels

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Unique experience combined with top-notch services

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Explore the least visited destinations and unknown experience on foot

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The combination of some must-see experience and the cruise tour along the mighty rivers

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Reveal off-the-beatentrack routes, least explored destinations, and unknown tribe groups

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A land of staggering natural beauty and cultural complexities, of dynamic megacities and hill-tribe villages, Vietnam is both exotic and compelling.
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Friendly and food-obsessed, hedonistic and historic, cultured and curious, Thailand tempts visitors with a smile as golden as the country's glittering temples and tropical beaches.
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