Southeast Asia is an eternally popular destination with backpackers and tourists alike, and for good reason: it has everything from jungles to beaches. Nestled in the middle of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia is Laos, an underrated yet fascinating country to get lost in. I spent three weeks travelling around it and the history, beauty, culture, countryside along with a relaxed vibe made for a wonderful experience.
These are the reasons why Laos is the perfect travel destination for lovers of adventurous independent travel.
Few crowds outside tourist areas
Once you get away from the main tourist places of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, it’s easy to lose the crowds. This means more space for travelling groups and more time to enjoy attractions all to yourselves! I visited the UNESCO heritage site of the Plain of Jars and only saw a few other visitors in the distance. Even in the capital city, there were significantly less tourists that you’ll find in Bangkok or Hanoi.
It’s better with friends
As Laos isn’t overcrowded with tourists, it makes it a great place to travel with your friends. If everyone in your group can drive a motorbike, then the Thakhek Loop is a brilliant challenge to take on. The loop encompasses central Laos and takes 4 days to drive around. In the middle is a stop at the huge Kong Lor cave, located in the Phu Hin Bun National Park and only accessible by a boat. The boat takes visitors all the way through to the other side, past weird and wonderful rock formations on the way. Even without bikes, there are shared taxis and buses that will take you wherever you want to go.
There is nightlife
While Laos is a quiet and pleasant land, it is still possible to find a party if you’re in the mood. There are hostels that cater for groups, especially in Vang Vieng which has the best nightlife in Laos. Another great place to socialise with other backpackers is the 4,000 islands on the Mekong River in the South. Vientiane and Luang Prabang have bars and clubs but they’re a bit more sedate than the backpacker towns.
There are so many tasty treats to enjoy in Laotian night markets, cafes and restaurants. Some of the most delicious snacks to try include rotis, sticky rice, baguettes, noodle dishes, laap (meat salad), Laotian sausage and a variety of soups. My favourite is the papaya salad but it is so spicy that it should come with a warning! Caffeine lovers rejoice in Laos as there is so much fabulous coffee to try. From drip coffee to blended with banana, you’ll be spoilt for choice. A popular dessert is scrumptious mango sticky rice which can be found all over the country.
It’s so green
Travelling overland in Laos is not only better for the environment, but it gives you the chance to experience miles of emerald-hued countryside. The whole country is green and blissfully undeveloped compared to neighbours Thailand and Vietnam.
Not many people speak English
Outside of tourist hubs, there aren’t too many people who speak English so it really feels like a really authentic experience. I went to Xam Neua to see the Vieng Xai war caves and people were shocked to see foreigners. As we zipped around on our moped, children would wave at us as a novelty in the area. It’s still easy to communicate with people and prevents issues with overtourism if visitors spread themselves around a bit.
The Mekong is incredible
Laos’ Mekong River runs from the top of the country to the bottom and it really is the beating heart of everything. Watching the sun set over the river while silhouetted fishermen finish off their day’s catch is a truly incredible experience. In Vang Vieng and Nong Khiaw, travellers can float down its offshoot rivers in a rubber ring. At the bottom of the country, river dolphins can be seen swimming in it.
It’s so cheap
Honestly, Laos is an absolute bargain and it can be travelled by tourists on the smallest of budgets. Everything from bus travel to accommodation is so reasonably priced, as is food and drink. When there is a group of you to split the bill you can make it even cheaper.
There’s so much countryside
Most of Laos is rural, making it the perfect antidote for anyone living in a country with a lot of cities. Immersing yourself in the countryside living means an opportunity to see a whole other side of life. From the buffaloes grazing in the fields to the farmers harvesting their crops, many people live off the karst-studded landscapes.
Your money makes a difference
A benefit of going off the beaten track is that your money boosts small businesses that operate in rural areas and aids the local economy. Travellers interested in giving back can visit places like the COPE, UXO and the MAG centres to donate to these hard-working NGOs who clear landmines and help victims of explosions.
I think Laos is Southeast Asia’s underrated treasure, and I’ve met many travellers since who’ve said the same. As more and more people start to discover beautiful Laos, it won’t stay as Southeast Asia’s secret for much longer.
Jen Sizeland is a British writer and producer based in Manchester in the UK. She writes for various publications about ethical and eco-friendly living and travel. Her blog is called Land of Size.