Welcome to our Laos Travel Guide for Nomads!
It’s not very often that crossing a border feels like entering a wormhole and arriving 200 years back in time, but the northern border crossing from Thailand into Laos feels exactly like that!
Laos is a small country often overlooked by the hordes of backpackers who descend on Southeast Asia every year looking for adventure. Yet ironically, Laos is about the biggest adventure of the lot.
Running between Thailand and Vietnam with the mighty Mekong river as its main feature, as well as some pretty little islands in the south, Laos is not to be missed in Southeast Asia.
Yet it gets only a tiny fraction of the visitors Thailand gets. Let’s hope it stays that way because I personally love Laos just the way it is and its one of the few places left in the world that hasn’t been ravaged (yet) by the excesses of mass tourism.
Laos – A Snapshot Guide
Imagine a land where a powerful river runs right down the centre, with untouched and unspoiled banks on either side, home to coconut trees, rice paddies, peaceful farmers, and at the right time of year, bare red earth glistens in the sun.
This is a land where things move slowly, verrrryyyyy slowly, and where the loudest sound you’re likely to hear is a chicken squawking before it has its head removed or a gong from the nearest Buddhist temple letting monks know it’s time for meditation.
This is also a land where people live simply and on very little. Still under the grip of an officially communist government, and still suffering the aftereffects of the relentless bombing it endured during the Vietnam war, which you will soon learn after arriving was not contained to Vietnam at all, the people of this land shrug, smile and make do. Yet they’re always happy and are ready to welcome you to see their amazing country.
Welcome to Laos – officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. This is a land where time has stood still but is ever so slowly beginning to speed up. It’s a place where traditional markets far outnumber air-conditioned malls, where kids play in the river with bamboo toys instead of X-Boxes, and where you’re far more likely to see an elephant with a single backpacker on top than a coach full of tourists with cameras.
Yes, Laos is changing as the world learns about her and she opens her doors to outsiders. Investment is pouring in and high rises are beginning to pop up all over Vientiane, her gentle, laid back capital which still wears the hallmarks of French colonialism.
You’d better catch Laos before it changes for good because one thing my Nomadic years have taught me is that you can never set foot in the same river twice, and the Laos I love will not be that way for long.
This is one of the most unique places I have ever been, and I hope it remains that way for as long as it can.
4 Things You Must Do in Laos
There are two popular ways to enter Laos. One is from Bankok, the capital city of Thailand by bus to the capital of Vientiane, and the other is the Northern border with Thailand by minibus, and then down the river by long boat.
If you have the time, I highly recommend the latter. It’s simply majestic.
Here are my recommendations for the absolute best things to do in Laos:
1. Take the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
Entering from the north, the slow boat to Luang Prabang, one of Laos’ most beautiful ‘cities’ and a UNESCO World Heritage site in its own right, leaves at the crack of dawn and takes almost 2 full days to complete.
You’ll drift down the Mekong by a motor powered long boat, stay overnight in a tiny little riverside enclave with a few guesthouses and a couple of restaurants, before making your way onward the next morning to Luang Prabang. This overnight stop is far from an inconvenience, it’s very peaceful and the stars there are something to behold.
This river trip was one of the highlights of my time in Laos. Far too many nomads these days are in a hurry as if they need to check things off a list. I prefer to take my time and enjoy getting to know a country the slow way. There’s so much stunning scenery to be seen on this boat ride that I rate it unmissable.
2. Explore Luang Prabang
This is where you’ll arrive at the end of your boat ride. Luang Prabang is something that has to be seen to be understood. It’s beautiful and let’s just say UNESCO don’t go around designating entire cities as world heritage sites without good reason.
Luang Prabang is a sleepy, quiet place right on the side of the Mekong. It’s a place where whitewashed cafes and restaurants with French shutters call out to you to come in and have a mango shake or freshly brewed coffee.
It’s also full of timeless Buddhist temples. There are temples on every street and with gold leaf, marble, and red slate being part of most temples, they symbolize the heart of Laos and her culture.
Luang Prabang is worth at least two days for tourists on the move. If you’re a nomad with time to spare, it’s the perfect place to shack up and write a little, rest a little and regain your centre.
3. River Tube in Vang Vieng
Sometimes when you visit a country you see something truly unique which you have never seen anywhere else on your travels. This is always a delight, and this is exactly what Vang Vieng is.
As already mentioned, Laos’ main feature is the Mekong river. You can hire a rubber ring in Vang Vieng and float down it, but it’s far from a peaceful and undisturbed glide down a stretch of river – Vang Vieng is party central!
As you float you’ll notice locals on the riverbank offering you long bamboo sticks. You can grab on and they’ll pull you in, typically to a bar, cafe or combination of the two.
Every place is made of bamboo and each one in different. Some have house music pumping out club speakers while hardcore party goers take shots, while others play Bob Marley while those have stopped get well and truly stoned via smoking, eating special pizzas, or taking magic mushroom shakes.
Several of these have zip lines and swings you can launch off and drop down into the river below. Always exercise caution here and listen to the locals as there have been several deaths and serious injuries on the river in recent times.
Vang Vieng itself is also somewhat of a party town. Full of cafes and bars serving ice cold beer and a lot more, Vang Vieng is the place to do pretty much whatever you want.
I had to get out of there rapidly. Much like Vegas, Vang Vieng was a two-day town for me!
Note: While drugs are widely available in Laos, the official line is anything from several years hard time to death by firing squad for possession. Dabble at your own risk.
4. Si Phan Don aka 4000 Islands
There are plenty of archipelago’s in the oceans of the world, but Si Phan Don is an archipelago in a river!
The 4000 islands as they are known on the travel circuit are quaint, laid back islands nestled in southern Laos in the Mekong river. They offer an experience of total and utter relaxation and mind-boggling beauty.
The best word to describe them is ‘charming’. You’ll go for a day or two, totally lose track of time, and emerge a week or two later racing for the border before your visa expires.
The islands are a community all on their own, and I was surprised to meet several digital nomads actually living there and doing visa runs out to Thailand as often as they had to.
Don’t plan on doing much in the 4000 islands other than chilling out and perhaps reading a good book.
This, for me, was one of the highlights of my time in Laos. I’ve seen a lot of islands in my life, but nothing quite like these!
Laos is a spectacular, fascinating country with a rich culture and a unique way of life. It’s truly a back-in-time experience, but it won’t stay that way for long.
Of all the countries I have been to, Laos remains one of my absolute favourites. I always feel that I didn’t spend enough time there, even though I made two trips there several years apart.
If you’re a nomad who happens to be in South East Asia, do not miss Laos. You’ll never know if you don’t go, and while I’d love to steer as many people away from it so it stays the way it is forever, I also recognize that you can’t stop progress and since tourism is how many people survive in Laos, I have to be fair and say – GO WHILE IT’S STILL SO AMAZING!
Enjoy Laos. I know I did and I hope I get the chance to do so again.