Our visit in Laos was relatively limited due to the frustratingly long and bumpy bus rides that are necessary to getting around as a budget traveler in this beautiful country. We ended up visiting only four cities and missed out some very exciting and picturesque parts of Laos because we just couldn’t bring ourselves to sit through a rough ten hour bus ride every few days. An extra visa or enough money to upgrade to flying would have allowed us a much more comprehensive visit, but hey, now we have something to look forward to going back for. Though we didn’t get to see it all, we did get a pretty good idea of what it costs to travel in Laos on a budget.
Our 28 day daily average :: $33.26 USD (for two people: one couple) :: 1 USD = 8,500 LAK (Kip)
Laos is the poorest country we’ve visited in this area and it is also, appropriately, the second cheapest. I would have thought it to be cheaper than its southern neighbor Thailand, but the price difference made sense to me when I overheard a Thai woman in a coffee shop explaining to some Europeans that the food is more expensive in Laos because “everything has to be imported from Thailand”. So although eating is more expensive than I thought it would be, the rest of our budget was about what I expected. We achieved our $33 a day budget by keeping our usual habits of looking for well rated budget guesthouses, eating at cheap to mid range restaurants, keeping tourism to the essentials, and trying not to buy too many souvenirs. The one thing that I did differently in this country was indulge in the cheap and surprisingly tasty Beer Lao on a daily basis. At only ten thousand kip for a large bottle, who could blame me?
Savannakhet $21.70 (5 day average) :: Vientiane $31.90 (9 d.a.) :: Vang Vieng $37.43 (7 d.a.) :: Luang Prabang $39.07 (7 d.a.)
:: Budget Breakdown ::
Sleeping :: Avg $11 USD/Double Room :: Much like Vietnam the room rates of Laos vary per city. Although our average double room cost was eleven dollars, we paid anywhere from seven dollars and up to fifteen. Savannakhet and Vang Vieng we’re on the cheaper side and Vientiane and Luang Prabang fell in the higher price range. The rooms were all of about equal quality; pretty good location, a bit old and run down but still clean, and complete with the modern conveniences of a fan and water heater. We found them all through TravelFish.org and chose the cheapest place that had a good rating. Laundry typically ran about 8-10,000 Kip per kilo and was always returned quickly smelling clean and fresh. We were’nt lucky enough to have WIFI in any of our lodgings and we didn’t notice any other place offering the luxury either. The most difficult and frustrating thing about finding a place to sleep in Laos is the fact that most guesthouses don’t speak English very well and are very, very resistant to taking a reservation. They are too scared of you not showing up after booking a room. Just make sure you have a back up plan in case your first choice is full when you arrive. We managed to get a couple places to hold a room for us by calling them with six times in a day and a half to make sure that knew we were coming. But don’t worry, once you arrive, they are quite friendly people.
Eating :: Avg 15-40,000 LAK/Restaurant Meal, 7-15,000 LAK/Cheap Meal :: Eating in Laos is often a surprising treat. We hadn’t heard people speak of the quality of food in the country and we were’nt expecting much when we arrived, but oh how we were impressed time and time again with meals we ate. For seven thousand kip we found delicious sticky-rice-noodle bowls (yes, sticky-noodles) that we’re very simple but divine when they added spring onions and deep-fried shallots/garlic. Quick and tasty meals could also be found at small food holes as we call them (a restaurant in a garage/living room with no name and cheap grub) for ten to fifteen thousand kip for stir-fried noodles, fried rice or simple meat dishes. And of course, having some French influence, you can find baguette sandwiches on the streets with fresh herbs, meat, cheese and pate for around ten thousand kip.
On the other side of the food scale are restaurants offering anything from great Indian food, to fine French cuisine, to surprisingly delicious pizza and burgers, and all the way back to traditional Lao cuisine. The price range here can go from fifteen thousand for an Indian dish with Naan, and all the way up to over one-hundred thousand kip for food we couldn’t afford. For smaller meals we typically ate for about twenty-five thousand kip per person and when we splurged in this category, we spend up to maybe forty thousand kip per meal. Either way we ended up eating, we were typically quite happy with the results.
Drinking :: Avg 4,000 LAK/1.5L Bottled Water, 5-10,000 LAK/Flavored Beverages, 10,000 LAK/Large Beer :: In Laos the price difference between water in a market and water in a restaurant was actually relatively significant. You can find the large bottles in the Market for around four thousand kip, but at the restaurant it may be as much as double. Small bottles in a restaurant typically run about four thousand as well so you may as well splurge on a tasty beverage if you’re thirsty while dining out – which is how I justified so many Beer Lao’s. For anything from milk tea, to soda, to Lao coffee you can usually expect to pay somewhere in the five to ten thousand range depending on where you purchase it. At a street-side beverage vendor you can pay as little as three thousand kip for a mystery flavored drink and you can find fruit stands blending up smoothies for as low as five thousand.
And then there is Beer Lao – my favorite beer in the region. Luckily for me, this tasty brew is sold at a great price throughout the country. (Judging by how often you see the Beer Lao logo, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out the country was named after the beer instead of the other way around). Whether on the street, in a restaurant or a bar, you can find Beer Lao for ten thousand kip. The big bottle. The lowest I found it for was nine thousand and the highest was fifteen, but those were freak occurrences. You can also get the dark brew in a small bottle for eight thousand or the extremely rare Lang Xang (Million Elephants) in a large bottle for thirteen thousand kip (I only saw this at the Lao Lao bar in Luang Prabang), and it’s worth finding.
Unfortunately, because the beer is so cheap and tasty, we didn’t collect a lot of data of other alcoholic drinks, but one bar we went to sold mixed drinks for thirty thousand which were not worth the price. I think wine was typically in the twenty to thirty thousand price range by the glass, but if you make it to the Organic Farm in Vang Vieng (outside edge of town) you can find tasty fruit wine for about eight thousand with flavors like starfruit and Mulberry, mmmm.
Seeing the Sites :: Traveling on a budget doesn’t leave much room for expensive sites or extravagant adventures, but in Laos it would be impossible not to find something worth the expense. This country’s commitment to sustainable tourism is well above any other we’ve visited and when you see the landscape it’s easy to see why. There were many things we didn’t get the chance to do, and therefore we can’t speak about everything, but here are a few things we were fortunate enough to participate in.
Vang Vieng is most famous for its tubing and caves and judging by how many drunk, mostly naked, tubers we saw stumbling about the city, it must be very worth the expense. We opted for Kayaking instead because the main idea of the tubes is to take a slow ride down the water, stopping off at river bars, drinking as much as possible, and flying off the occasional rope swing into the shallow waters – which is great for some, just not for us. We wanted a little exercise and less sunburn so the Kayaking was great. For about $10 USD we went on a half-day kayaking and caving trip that included one cave tour and a few hours of kayaking. We booked the trip through Green Discovery and it was well worth the money. We also rented really nice bikes the next day for 30,000 Kip/each to ride out to some further away caves. The Blue Lagoon cave entry was 10,000 kip/person and we rented a bright flashlight (a must) out front of the cave entrance for another 10,000. I believe this price is pretty standard for caves in the area, of which there are many. Again, other than the sore butts from the bumpy bike ride, very worth the money.
Then in Luang Prabang, I participated in the Tamarind Restaurant’s full-day cooking course. For $25 USD we went on a market tour, cooked five dishes, learned a lot about Lao food, ate our tasty results and went home with recipes for everything. Although this is a little pricey, it was a good class and Tamarind’s proceeds go toward good local causes. Luang Prabang is also a jumping off point for tours to really cool caves filled with Buddha statues, amazing waterfalls, and of course elephant adventures. We didn’t have the time or money for these, but we did hear great things about them all. You can find a lot of travel companies throughout the city with packages for these adventures so shop around to find the right one for you. We had a good experience with Green Discovery and a couple we met who loved their elephant riding told us to visit the orange colored elephant tour company on the main strip because their proceeds go toward elephant conservation.
Extras :: Cell Phone SIM cards are easy enough to find Laos. We went with M Phone and paid 50,000 kip for the card which came with around 25,000 kip worth of credit, I believe. We did need to refill our credit once which was another 25k kip, however, if you don’t spend as much time trying to get reservations at guesthouses as we did, you may not need a credit refill.
Transportation prices were a little unpredictable. Some relatively short bus trips cost us 100k Kip/each, like the bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang which was six and a half hours. Though this was purchased through a tour company (and all the prices seemed about the same), but our return trip to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang was only 85,000 Kip (same distance). So I would recommend doing what we did on our way back to Vientiane from Vang Vieng and just rent a cheap bike for 10k Kip, ride to the bus station, and buy the tickets at the actual price, which in this case was 30,000 kip/person – which is what we paid for the reverse direction in the first place. This trip was about four hours. In other words, buy your tickets at the station, not through a tour company. Our longest bus trip was from Savannakhet to Vientiane, which was around ten and a half hours of hell and made us rethink the rest of our Laos trip. The long trip jiggled our brains a bit, but we’re pretty sure this only cost us 60-70k/person. So really, distance has nothing to do with the price – at least not as far as we could tell.
For a tuk tuk trip, our one piece of advice is be careful of the Mafia-like drivers near the tourist area in Vientiane. When we were headed to the Thai border, they wanted 95,000 kip for the ride to the Friendship Bridge. We laughed, tried to haggle, but ultimately refused, and started walking toward the bus station who reportedly sold tickets for the same journey for a less than $2 USD. After we walked out of the main tourist area, we were able to find someone who was willing to take us for 35,000 kip. HUGE savings. The tuk tuk drivers we used everywhere else in the country were very reasonable and either gave us a good price right away or came down to a good price with little negotiation.
ATM Fees are pretty much universal in the country. Every Cash Machine charges 20k Kip each time and you’re limited to taking out 700,000 per transaction. This can get expensive, but we were just happy that they had as many ATMs as they did, because a few years back they had only a couple in the entire country. They do accept Thai Baht everywhere though, so if you left over money from Thailand, definitely bring it to Laos. But, on the flip side, Lao Kip is useless once you leave the country. Nobody will exchange it, so get rid of it before you leave.
Waxing is much cheaper in Asia and especially in Laos. And, no I didn’t get anything waxed, but I am married and my wife has German blood feeding her hair, so waxing is very beneficial to her smooth leg factor. So, she took advantage of the full leg waxing for 60,000 Kip, which is a BIG discount from what she can remember about spas in the United States.