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Despite its least-developed status and low GDP, travelling to Laos is not as cheap as much of the rest of Indochina. There aren’t a lot of consumer goods produced in Laos and exports can be costly. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the more time you have, the less expensive it is to travel through Lao PDR. Follow these tips to travel to Laos on a budget.
Let’s face it, you’ve got to eat. But you don’t have to shell out so much eating at fancy French restaurants and steakhouses. Eating local food on the street or buying food from the market can cost less than $5.00 per day. While health codes are basically non-existent, look for the cleanest stall you can find and eat food that’s hot and prepared in front of you, and not sitting out under the sun, to minimise risk of illness. Don’t be afraid to haggle a little bit, especially if you’re buying more than one item.
Tuk tuk and taxi fares add up. Walk when you can – early mornings and after the sun goes down are best. When you’re in a city, rent a bicycle. Most places charge between $1 and $2 per day. While many of the roads are unpaved and bumpy, riding on two wheels is still a great way to see a lot at Laos’ own slow pace.
If you’re going a long distance, local buses are cheaper than VIP busses. Night buses can be luxurious or hellacious but will save you a night of accommodations. Booking from the bus station directly will always save you money versus booking through your guesthouse or a tour company. If you are very patient, hitchhiking in Laos is possible, usually on the back of a pick-up truck or delivery vehicle.
Accommodations can be an expensive part of travelling. Look at hostels and guest houses for cheap rooms, but don’t expect the least expensive option to be posted online. The best way to find an inexpensive room is to ask around town once you arrive. If you are a solo male travelling, you can try your luck at a monastery. Monks take in male travellers in exchange for some community service or English lessons. Homestays are another option. Check out sites like CouchSurfing, where over 40,000 hosts in Laos open their homes to travellers, or HelpX to trade customer service, English teaching, or manual labor for cheap or free accommodations.
Flying throughout Laos isn’t as cheap as in other parts of Southeast Asia. While there are regional budget airlines that fly around the country, all domestic flights operate under Lao Airlines on limited timetables. Pick a region to explore and dive in. Once you’ve been in a place for a few days, locals will recognise you and will probably invite you to eat and drink with them, hang out at their favourite spots and maybe even attend a ceremony or wedding with them. Enjoy the slow-paced Lao culture where you can maximise enjoyment without breaking the bank.
It’s difficult not to max out your budget when you’re in the middle of the bustling capital city of Vientiane or amid the opulence of former Royal Capital of Luang Prabang. Minimise your time in these wallet-draining cities (or skip them altogether) and spend time in smaller towns and villages instead, where the scenery is just as nice, if not better. Will you miss out on eating fancy French cuisine and swapping stories with other foreigners? Maybe. But we promise you won’t regret it. Instead of the Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang route, try Champasak, Pakse and Thakek in the south or Luang Namtha, Phongsali and Sam Neua in the north.
Prices for accommodation, attractions, and transportation increase dramatically during the high season from November to February. If you’re willing to put up with a bit of rain in the afternoons, travelling around July to October will save you a ton of money, and the lack of crowds can make attractions more enjoyable. Bring a sturdy poncho and shoes that can traipse through puddles and you’ll be golden. While prices are also low in the hot season from March to June, carefully consider your tolerance for the blazing sun and heat. If you can handle it, Pi Mai, or Lao New Year, in April is a lovely, water fight-filled celebration.
One of the best features of Laos is its unparalleled natural beauty. While the most popular temples, waterfalls and caves do have entry prices, there are literally hundreds of others that are free or require such a nominal fee that they’re within any traveller’s budget. Check out the architecture of the temples, chat with the novices then get out into nature. Lao families love to bring a picnic to a nearby waterfall to hang out, eat and swim. You can bike, hike, swim and take in the glorious Lao sunsets without spending a dime.