Updated: Nov 11, 2020
In December 2019, I decided to go on a solo trip to Laos. It was the cheapest multi-stop flight on my way to Saigon, and I was excited about visiting a country still relatively under the radar compared to more touristy destinations in Thailand or Vietnam. Traveling alone is scary, especially as a young woman, but I enjoyed the independence and would like to share my experiences and budget as a college student.
Budget: the flight from Boston to Vientiane was definitely the biggest item in my budget, costing me about $900. In Laos, I managed to stick to a daily budget of $60, which covered hotel costs, transportation (including the bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang), food, activities, and miscellaneous costs. In total, I spent approximately $1440 which isn’t bad for 9 days abroad.
Vientiane (4 days): while planning my trip, I’ve read reviews of Vientiane as boring and not worth staying for more than 2 days, as young tourists preferred places like Vang Vieng which has a booming eco-tourism scene. However, I decided to skip Vang Vieng and take my time exploring the Laotian capital; I liked its slow, calm and peaceful beauty.
I stayed at the Vientiane SP Hotel and for $20/night with a private room in a central location and a daily small breakfast, it was overall a great stay. However, being in a central location also meant tuktuk drivers would give you higher prices, so if you’re traveling within 1–2 miles keep in mind a ride shouldn’t cost more than 30,000 Laos kip.
What to see/do/eat in Vientiane: I won’t go into the detailed specifics of each location/activity because I believe it’s better to experience these wonderful places in person, perhaps with a blank slate for a deeper sense of adventure.
Phat That Luang temple and surrounding area (2.5 hours)
MAG UXO Visitor Center (1–3 hours depending on level of engagement). I think this is a must-go, as the secret war on Laos was horrific and to this day Laos remains the most bombed country in the world.
Lunch at Kung’s Cafe Laos: they have delicious mango desserts!
Patuxay Park (1.5 hours including climbing to the top of the monument- Laos’ Arc de Triomphe). Pictured below is the city view from the top of Patuxay.
Dinner at Lao Kitchen: despite being a bit more expensive as it is geared towards tourists, I feel that this was a good introduction to Laotian cuisine. Their selection of lap- paired with a cold beerlao of course- wasdelicious.
Buddha park (3.5 hours): you have to take the local bus to see this park (15,000 kip round trip) and it takes an hour to get there, but the sights were worth the trip.
Vientiane night market (3 hours): this is definitely a must-go. There are so many stalls of food, clothes, souvenirs and books from 7 PM till late, and even if you don’t end up buying anything it would be fun to walk around and take it all in.
Espécial café and bar: this cute little place was walking-distance from my hotel and I found it on my way back from dinner at Lao kitchen. I ended up talking with a waiter for 20 minutes about Laos music and bar scene, and he made me a wicked Bees Knees. There are definitely more touristy/loud bars, but I really loved going to this small café to relax at the end of the day.
Luang Prabang (4 days): I booked the bus ticket to Luang Prabang ahead of the trip through 123goasia for about $30 but you could definitely do it at a local agency in Vientiane as well. I was picked up at my hotel at 6:30 AM, and was on the minibus en route to Luang Prabang by 7:00. There were about 9 other people on the minibus with me, and none of them could speak English so we ended up smiling and nodding. Having southeast Asian parents, I was told I looked like a Laos girl and people were surprised when I told them I wasn’t from Laos. The bus ride was kidney-busting to say the least, but I’m glad I picked the bus route instead of flying to Luang Prabang, as I really enjoyed passing through towns and seeing Laos’ countryside and mountains.
When I got to Luang Prabang in early afternoon, I got to my guesthouse (which I unfortunately forgot the name of) but it was a 2-minute walk from the night market and the owner (who was Swedish!) was incredibly welcoming.
What to do/see/eat in Luang Prabang: Compared to Vientiane, there are definitely more things to do in Luang Prabang, and I thoroughly enjoyed my days here.
Kuangsi Waterfall (4 hours): this is hands down one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. You can arrange a shared minibus with your hotel for about 20,000 kip to get there as it’s a bit further out from Luang Prabang. I hiked here as well, and ended up befriending a fellow solo traveler from Japan and swam with him in the blue Kuangsi water. There is also a bear sanctuary in the area with really cute bears.
Night market (2 hours): I ended up coming here every night for dinner because it was a convenient short walk, and there is no shortage of food options. It’s often crowded but for a good reason; the street food is absolutely incredible. Pictured below are coconut pancakes (5000 kip) which were adorable and delicious.
Mount Phousi hike: this is a super easy hike as there are stairs leading to the top of the hill, but this also means it gets incredibly crowded at sunset. I woke up at 5:30 AM to catch the sunrise when there isn’t a lot of people around and it was 100% worth it.
Kayaking on the Nam Khan River & Pak Ou Cave: there are many eco-tourism agencies around Luang Prabang that run these day tours with various prices, but I personally picked Phone Travel which was 150,000 kip for about 7 hours of adventure (lunch included). It was a small group of 8 people, and I was very sunburned after kayaking all morning. Kayaking was hands down one of my favorite things about the trip; I loved the water and being able to see all the sceneries as we took our time paddling.
Exploring Chomphet district: right across the river is Chomphet, with numerous temples stretched along the Mekong. The ferry should cost 5,000 kip, and you can take an entire morning to hike/explore the towns and its beautiful Buddhist temples.
Catch a free screening of Chang (1.5 hours): every night at the Sanctuary hotel there is a free outdoors screening of Chang (1927), the first movie featuring Laos.
Walk in the morning: Luang Prabang is the most beautiful before sunrise. The town is quiet yet you can see locals who have woken up early to set up shop, and if you’re lucky you can observe the alms-giving tradition with Buddhist monks walking through the streets. I think it is important to be respectful of the procession and do not take photos as many tourists were doing this.
Volunteer at Big Brother Mouse: this is the one thing I regret not being able to do while in Luang Prabang. This is an NGO that publishes children’s books and you can volunteer to come and practice English with local students. I think their work with publishing is incredible, and I would have loved to talk with local kids. If you end up doing this, please let me know how it goes!
In summary, it was definitely scary being self-reliant, but Laotians are incredibly warm and are one of the nicest people I’ve met. As a woman, I was careful wherever I went, but overall I felt safe and did not encounter any dangerous situations. Just exercise common sense, keep an open mind (and schedule!), and you will be amazed by what Laos can offer.