This one looks jaded on paper when you compare it to the two tourism magnet countries that surround it. The lack of popularity can be a boon or a bane – there is not as much infrastructure but there aren’t the crowds either. The planning part was easy. There are 3 major cities. Vientiane is the capital with amazing food and numerous ornate but small temples to appreciate. Vang Vieng is a small town known for a tubing river, dangerous adventure sports, an overcrowded blue lagoon, and a hippy culture. Luang Prabang is a city from your dreams, a quintessential French town with 2 riverfronts and some amazing natural beauty around it.
The planning process was easy, with a visa on arrival. There are several good hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang at reasonable prices that make it even simpler. The cities themselves are so different from each other that they don’t even feel like one country. Unfortunately most of Laos outside of these cities and some neighboring areas is not accessible because of unexploded ammunition from the Vietnam war days. While the infrastructure in the cities is quite okay, transportation is a little messed up.
Local transportation within cities is dominated by the Tuk Tuks, which are shabby tempos with seating that replaces the cargo area. The ride is terrible and they are usually overcharging – so haggle well. There are taxis but you will need your hotel to call them and for all the comfort they offer they aren’t that much more expensive. Transport between the cities is more tricky. Vientiane and Luang Prabang have airports and a flight may be better than the 10-hour drive. There are shared vans that are quite cheap but take a long time because they drive slowly on the bumpy roads. Private cars are more expensive but much faster and far more comfortable. The better shock absorbers allow them to go much faster. When I visited in 2019, the roads were in desperate need of repair. Vientiane to Vang Vieng road was badly broken at places, making the drive bumpy and painful. The stretch further to Luang Prabang was much better and even very scenic as it crossed a mountain. Local roads are not always paved, especially in the hills – it is advisable to pick the vehicle based on the quality of shock absorbers.
Food is quite interesting and I think better understood using a small story. I ordered a Singapore chicken with clear soup from a roadside vendor in Vientiane. A grasshopper was floating on the soup I was served. I spent some time wondering if that was an accident or garnish. It turned out to be former, but the fact that I was thinking tells you something about the variety of the cuisine. Vientiane offered some delicious food, both in our hotel and on the streets. Local fare included fish and pork in delicious spices typically served with rice. Vang Vieng was more tourist centred and food was good but not great. There were typical touristy places with huge menus and little finesse. Luang Prabang was blow your mind good… absolutely fantastic European cuisine in small eclectic cafes and restaurants with live performances.
People generally are quite helpful but language can be a small issue outside the hospitality industry. Most shopping will involve some serious negotiations. There is not much true local art. Some of it is sold as antiques which are obnoxiously expensive but there are some simple local paintings and other small utility things that can make for interesting memories. Being a dominantly Buddhist country, you will find various forms and images of Buddha – some of them can be really pretty.
The Lao is a closed currency, which means it’s only exchangeable in Laos. It is best to arrive with US dollars and exchange it in local banks. Cards are accepted in hotels only and some smaller ones will add a surcharge. A lot of places will directly accept dollars but 100 buck notes need to be in pristine condition.
We stayed 3 nights in Vientiane, 1 in Vang Vieng, and closed off with Luang Prabang with flights into Vientiane and out of Luang Prabang. In hindsight, I would have done 2 nights in Vientiane, 1 in Vang Vieng, and 4 in Luang Prabang.