Laos is a small Southeast Asian country: just 91,875 square miles in size, roughly the size of the UK or just a bit smaller than Michigan. It’s a land of stunning natural beauty, with stunning waterfalls, spectacular limestone mountains, crystal clear rivers, and beautiful lakes. But though it’s rich in natural heritage, far from being expensive to visit, Laos is one of the cheapest destinations in the world.
There are many reasons for this: Laos is landlocked and has limited natural resources, making development very difficult. Also, with a GDP of only $8,111 per capita (by comparison, the US figure is $63,416), Laos is heavily dependent on the tourist industry for an injection of valuable dollars — a daily budget of $40-50 might sound cheap to a visitor, but in Laos, it’s roughly a third of the minimum wage.
Although Laos is an inexpensive place to visit, it’s not as cheap for tourists as neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam. In this article, we look at the average vacation costs when visiting Laos and suggest a few well-priced hotels that you might want to check out. So, without further ado, here’s our guide to how much it costs to visit Laos.
Is Laos Expensive to Live?
The answer to whether Laos is an expensive place to live is both “yes” and “no.” Compared to countries of the Western World, such as the US and Europe, prices in Laos are seen as cheap. But for Laos nationals, it’s an expensive country. Over the last ten to twenty years, Laos has seen some much-needed economic progress and, although this has raised the standard of living, the cost of living in Laos has risen disproportionately. This is particularly noticeable in the capital city of Vientiane and significant tourist destinations such as Luang Prabang.
Land in Laos is considered part of the national heritage and thus owned by the national community. In practice, this means that houses and apartments are only ever rented, not owned (though a recent change to Laos property law means foreign nationals can now purchase and own condos.) As a result, although some properties on the outskirts of the capital are available for less than $400 per month, they are usually out of reach for native Laotians, whose average salary after tax is $323.
Is Laos Expensive for Food?
A decent meal is comparatively cheap for vacationers and backpackers, especially if you stick to street food. For example, Kaeng som fish soup (see picture above) comes with what seems like a whole fish yet costs less than $3. And the servings are huge! Similarly, try the shakshuka for breakfast: it’s two eggs, onions, tomatoes, garlic, and fresh green chili served with a baguette, butter, and jam, all for about $2. And, of course, there’s always sticky rice: a filling meal for about a dollar.
If you fancy splurging out, you’ll find a few Western food restaurants in the main cities of Laos, featuring French, Italian, and occasionally Indian cuisine. The average cost of meals at sit-down restaurants ranges from $6 to $13 per dish, but in our experience, the quality isn’t really that much better than the street food. However, there’s one exception called Tamarind, set along the bank of the Nam Khan river in Luang Prabang. It serves only authentic Lao food and even publishes its own cookbooks. It also offers a range of cooking classes which are great fun, especially for families and small groups.
Is Laos Expensive for Drink?
Next, we come to the cost of drinking in nightclubs, or rather: we don’t. If you’re looking for a country with EDM-pumping nightspots, then we’re sorry to tell you that Laos isn’t it. The area known as Vang Vieng, between Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane, used to be “Party Central,” but it’s ditched that reputation.
Nowadays, most places are cool, laid-back drinking spots where a 640 ml bottle of the local Beerlao beer (which is actually pretty good!) costs between $1 and $1.25. Almost every bar closes before midnight, although the Moonlight Lounge in the Namphu Fountain area of Vientiane bucks the trend and stays open until 4 am. Expect to pay $4 for a whiskey and upwards of $6 for a decent cocktail.
Oh, and if you’re looking to find a club with the aim of “getting lucky” with a local, then Laos is not the place to look. Believe it or not, the Lao government “prohibits sexual relationships between foreign and Lao nationals.” It is not unknown for Lao authorities to demand entry into hotel rooms if they suspect this regulation is being broken, and the penalty for breaking this law ranges from $500 to $5,000. That being said, there’s no harm in buying a Laotian a drink or two to encourage some lively chat; and at a dollar a beer — where’s the harm?!
The Cheapest and Most Expensive Times to Visit Laos
Firstly, you should know that Laos only has two “official” seasons: the dry season from November to April and the wet season from May to October. There’s also the monsoon season (well, it’s not a proper season, but it’s still known as such) which runs from August to October.
So scheduling your trip to Laos involves a few trade-offs. August and September are the absolute cheapest months to visit Laos, but washed-out roads will prevent you from traveling to some of the more remote areas. That said, the monsoons tail off in October, and the waterways are still swollen from the recent rains, making it an ideal month to take a Mekong riverboat trip. The tourist industry’s “low season” is from April to June, when prices are very affordable.
Accommodation prices are at their mid-range levels during the wet season (May to October). Some parts of Laos are at their best during these months: the Si Phan Don (“4,000 Islands”), for example, are really alive at this time. However, some attractions are a complete wash-out — the Kuang Si Falls at Luang Prabang, for example, are just a muddy mess during the rains.
The most expensive months to visit Laos are from November to March (the tourist industry’s “high season”) when the weather is comfortably warm. July through August is also a really good time to visit Laos, but this is when the country is most crowded, as it’s a particularly popular time for tourists coming in from Europe.
Accommodation Prices in Laos
As we’ve already established, full-time accommodation for Laotians is expensive. However, accommodation is extremely cheap for visitors bringing in dollars (which can’t be said for other expenses, such as travel — more on that later!)
The absolute cheapest places to stay are in backpacker dorms, especially in the low tourist season of April to June. For example, we’ve found a rock-bottom price of just $32 for two people staying for four nights in May at the Vangvieng Rock Backpacker Hostel in the center of Vang Vieng, which is just minutes away from the rice fields of the Nam Song River. It may only be 2-star rated, but all the rooms are clean, have full AC (rather than the fan-cooled systems used in older buildings), and there’s free WiFi.
At the other end of the scale, an Urban Deluxe suite for two at the 4-star Lao Poet Hotel on Vientiane’s exclusive Rue Hengbounnoy will set you back $288 for the same four days in May. Renowned for its iconic rooftop infinity pool — the only one in Laos (see picture above) — Lao Poet’s rooms are inspired by Laos’ jungle and feature tropical wall prints and hand-woven Moroccan rugs. With access to an award-winning spa, an international restaurant, and full concierge service, this is 1930s-style Indochinese luxury done to the max!
Of course, not every visitor to Laos will want to spend £75 per night on a hotel (no matter how luxurious), but we’ve included this to illustrate the massive range of prices available in Laos. The choice, as they say, is yours!
Cost of Travel in Laos: the Great Transport Scandal
The title of this article mentions a scam to avoid, and it’s this: drivers in Laos will try to rip you off. Almost every one of them. Firstly, you need to know that there are no national rail services in Laos. So to travel within Laos, you need to go by road and, apart from hiring your own transportation, there are three options: taxi, bus, or tuk-tuk.
In most places, you won’t find a “proper” taxi — instead there are jumbo tuk-tuks, which are a sort of motorbike/tuk-tuk hybrid, also known as moto-taxis. Proper taxis do operate from the airport, but it’s here that you’ll find the first rip-off. There’s an official airport taxi counter, and you’d expect to find fair prices here. But instead of $2-$3 for a 2-kilometer ride into Vientiane, the price is fixed at $10! That’s an eye-watering $5 per kilometer! Even New York taxis are cheaper.
Bus drivers are also on the take. Experienced budget travelers who’ve been through Southeast Asia are used to the “standard” bus scams, like paying for a luxury bus with AC but being offered an old jalopy instead. Well, in Laos, things are different. Here, it’s customary for bus drivers to stop 2 to 3 kilometers from your final destination, telling you that you need to pay an extra $3 each (or more) for a ticket to the actual bus station. So a trip from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, which should be around $15 to $20, is now suddenly 30% more expensive.
Experienced backpackers might decide to walk rather than pay, but the drivers will even try this scam on families with small children. The area they choose to drop you is basically in the middle of nowhere, with no jumbos or tuk-tuks, so you have no option but to pay. And, of course, they pocket the money, then take you to the bus station on the same bus.
If you’ve traveled to Asian countries before, you’ll probably know that tuk-tuks are usually the cheapest means of transport. But not, it seems, in Laos. Instead, they’ll see that you’re tourists and ask you to pay $15 for a 15-minute ride. Of course, you can try and negotiate, but tuk-tuk drivers in Laos aren’t interested in a fair price; they’ll just wait for the next tourists to come along, who might not be so savvy.
Laos on a Budget: Money Saving tips!
Apart from the usual advice to “stick to the local food,” here are a few extra tips to help reduce your travel budget:
- Book Your Own Activities: Most tourist attractions are near cities, so you don’t need to go with an organized group. Instead, rent your own transport, or agree a round-trip price beforehand with a jumbo tuk-tuk driver (and confirm the price two or three times before you get in the vehicle!) For example, hostels will charge 80,000 LAK (about $80) for an organized trip to the Kuang Si waterfall, whereas a taxi from the center of town will probably make the same journey for around $30. And you’ll get to spend more time at the waterfalls.
- Invest in a reusable water bottle with a filter. They might seem expensive, but they’ll give you drinkable water from any water source anywhere in the world. (And bear in mind that Unicef advises that all water in Laos is potentially contaminated.) We’ve personally always used Grayl bottles, but some of our friends use the LifeStraw Go, which is a bit cheaper.
- Haggle! Although you won’t get much joy from drivers, pretty much every other price can be negotiated down, especially when buying clothes or souvenirs in the market. But don’t overdo it. Get an idea in your head of what you consider is a fair price, and don’t push any lower. Traders will quickly refuse to bargain with you if they feel you’re being disrespectful.