The insider advice on this page is from two of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Southeast Asia: Andrea Ross of Journeys Within.
During the ten years she lived in Cambodia, Andrea founded Journeys Within (as well as the nonprofit Journeys Within Our Community, which operates education and poverty relief initiatives in the region). Though now living stateside, the network that she and colleague April have developed in Southeast Asia keeps them up-to-date on the newest can’t-miss accommodations, restaurants, and experiences, and their close relationships with the region’s hotels ensure that clients get the best rates and the best care. Andrea specializes in family travel, while April is the beach and island expert—and a master at crafting affordable yet extravagant honeymoons. Both women are committed to philanthropic travel, weaving volunteer work into many itineraries.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your buck hotel
The Mekong Riverview Hotel in Luang Prabang because you can’t beat the location. Luang Prabang is built on a peninsula carved out by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and the Riverview sits right at the tip of that peninsula, on the main drag of town but in the quieter, UNESCO World Heritage-cited old quarter (the night market is just a five-minute walk away). Since the least expensive rooms (called “Deluxe Riverview”) have balconies, you needn’t upgrade to a suite. Our travelers get early check-in and late check-out, and for those interested we can set up a meeting with the owner, who has done a lot of restoration work around Luang Prabang.
La Folie Lodge, south of Pakse in the Champassak province. Its location could add a day to your itinerary, though. It is the only hotel on the island of Don Daeng, which is in the Mekong River and across from the ancient temple of Wat Phou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each cabin has its own balcony overlooking the Mekong, which is great for taking in the sunset. Families should book those closer to the pool, honeymooners those at the other end of the property, with a better view of the river. The hotel offers guests free bicycle rentals, allowing you to explore the island of Don Daeng on your own, which is easy to do as there are no cars and a few paths that take you from one side to the other.
Restaurants the locals love
In Luang Prabang: Ban Khili Khao Piek Noodles. Khao piek is a Lao noodle soup that has been perfected in Luang Prabang, and this shop offers the best in town. Only the one soup is available and you can get it with pork, chicken, or vegetarian. It’s a small shop with only a few tables, so go before the lunch rush at 11:30 a.m. or after 1 p.m.
In Vientiane: Pak Pa Sak. This eatery and bar is packed every night with people grabbing a bite and a couple of Beerlao lagers. It’s not far from the town center, located on the corner of Sithane Road and Quai Fa Ngum, and offers views of the Mekong, live music, and cheap eats and drinks.
Dish to try
Lao food is famous for complex flavors presented with incredibly fresh local ingredients. The dishes seem endless and are all made with a lot of preparation and love. A couple of my favorites include:
The Luang Prabang sausage sold by Mrs. Noy at the local market beside the Amantaka Hotel during lunchtime. You can have a delicious meal of sticky rice, sausage, and jeow (dipping sauce for your rice, made from eggplant, tomato, or pepper) for $2. If you miss Mrs. Noy at lunch, you can pick a close second at one of the stalls near the night market.
Mok paa, which is steamed fish in banana leaf. The fish, herbs, garlic, and peppers are all pounded together and packed into the leaf, which is then steamed over an open fire. The dish is refreshing and highly fragrant. It’s popular throughout the country, but Vientiane is especially famous for its mok paa.
Meal worth the splurge
Anything at the Belmond La Residence Phou Vao. This hotel, located on top of a mountain, overlooks Luang Prabang and Phousi Mountain temple, which is lit up in spectacular fashion every evening. There are lanterns hanging throughout the trees surrounding the open-air restaurant, which provides top-notch service and international cuisine you can’t find anywhere else in town.
What to See and Do
Most overrated place
Vientiane. Laos is known for its laid-back atmosphere, deep-rooted culture, and natural beauty, all of which are lost in Vientiane.
Unless you love jostling with large crowds pushing to get a shot of the setting sun, skip the sunset at Phousi Mountain. While everyone visiting Laos should make the trek up these 328 stairs, it doesn’t need to be at sunset. If you are already up for morning alms giving, go before or after for the sunrise. It’s quieter, cooler, and offers the same 360-degree views. And there are plenty of other less-crowded spots to catch the sunset along the Mekong River, such as at the beautiful Wat Phon Phao.
Houaphan Province, which claims to be the birthplace of modern Laos, is steeped in history from the Indochina War (Vietnam War), as it shares borders with northern Vietnam. Don’t miss the Vieng Xai network of more than 100 eerily picturesque caves, built into limestone cliffs, that were used by fighters to hide from the U.S. bombing campaigns. The area is also known for producing highly intricate and sought-after textiles.
Rent a motorbike or a bicycle in any of the cities. Not only will you get to move freely around the sights, but you’ll also be able to easily travel to the outskirts of town on your own schedule, without worrying about finding a ride back home. Depending on the shop, you can pay anywhere from $3 to $15 a day for the rental.
Local Lao cuisine is a cheap adventure all by itself. You can easily go to a market in any town and order a couple of traditional dishes for about $1 each. The dishes will be much more authentic than what you would get in a restaurant in the main parts of town—and one-fourth of the price.
How to spend a lazy Sunday
Take a leisurely bike ride around Luang Prabang, stopping for drinks or snacks along the riverside and having a massage. Sunday is a great day to ride a bicycle because there are not as many cars in town, as locals will either be home resting or have driven outside of town for the day. This gives you more open road.
During the full moon in October, when the weather is cooler but the crowds of peak season (November through February) haven’t yet descended on laid-back Luang Prabang. The night of October’s full moon is considered the end of Buddhist Lent, and the following day is one of the most beautiful festivals in Laos—Ock Phan Sa, when Luang Prabang’s old town (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is lit by candles and handmade lanterns.
June can be great, even though it falls during the rainy season. The occasional rains are not as bad as in July and August, and they bring relief from the summer heat. There is no more beautiful time in Laos, with the juxtaposition of bright green mountains against an electric blue sky and billowing white clouds. Plus, June brings hotel and touring deals.
March, when the farmers in northern Laos prepare the rice fields for the coming rainy season by slashing and burning the fields, so the air is filled with smoke and ash, making it difficult to breathe, and the heat feels even more oppressive than usual.
Packing the wrong clothing. Laos is one of the more traditional, conservative countries in Southeast Asia; what you wear on the beaches of Thailand or the streets of Hanoi is not suitable for Luang Prabang. Forego sleeveless shirts, shorts, and any revealing clothing, and always wear shoes when walking around town.
Not knowing the acceptable rate for a tuk tuk ride. Tuk tuk drivers are known to quote double (sometimes triple) their standard rates to see if they can get away with it, particularly in the nation’s capital of Vientiane. Always bargain, and ask your hotel’s front desk staff or your guide for average rates.
Be careful of shops labeling Buddha images and figurines as antiques. Ask your tour firm for legitimate shops for authentic antiques; if a piece comes with a certificate, that means it’s authentic and that you are allowed to take it out of the country.
Handmade Lao silk and cotton textiles—anything from a cotton scarf to a mosaic wall hanging. Each weaver has their own style, based on the ethnic group they belong to and the region they are from. These textiles are highly sought after throughout Southeast Asia, since many neighboring countries have replaced handmade textiles with factory-made versions. Unfortunately, many of the factory-made textiles are being passed off as hand-made in night markets in popular tourist destinations. If you are in a weaving village, look for weaving looms outside of the homes and try to purchase directly from the artisans themselves to help promote this disappearing handicraft. The best place in the country to purchase textiles is the province of Houaphan (see Hidden gem, left), credited as the birthplace of Lao textile weaving. This region is known for producing 100% all-natural dyed silk and highly intricate pieces.
The TripAdvisor app is very accurate when it comes to finding the best restaurants in the major towns of Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
When flying Lao Airlines, ask for a seat in the back so that you are one of the first off the plane (passengers exit just from the rear). Only a couple of immigration officers work the station for Visas On Arrival, so getting there first will cut down your wait time considerably.
At local restaurants you are not expected to tip, but at restaurants that cater to travelers, you should tip at least 10%.
Trusted medicines and feminine hygiene products. While it is very easy to get many medications at pharmacies in Laos, they may not be the one you rely on for allergies, colds, headaches, etc. The same goes for feminine hygiene products in Laos; there are products available, but they likely won’t be the ones you know and trust.