LAOS, FROM NORTH TO SOUTH: LAOS 101 BACKPACKING GUIDE

DSC00838-01

Whenever people ask me what my favorite country is, I always tell them it is Laos. There are many reasons to love this country. Aside from their temples and majestic waterfalls I am also fallen to the country’s food, safety, people, chill atmosphere and slow pace of life which is what Laos is known for. Laos PDR, “Please Don’t Rush” as called by visiting travellers. One thing that attracts me the most in this country are the people. From my personal experience I never experienced any rip off here. Yeah! They might charge a little bit more for the tuktuk fee but take note that tuktuk fare is always negotiable and consider that the country’s diesel is imported from Vietnam and Thailand. Most of their products are imported that is why basic commodities here are more expensive than the neighboring countries. People here are very friendly and welcoming to visitors. I never experienced being mocked and catcalled even when I’m traveling with a white guy as compared to how I battle with people’s stares and curses in other countries. Although English is not widely spoken Laotians are helpful when it comes to directions. They will direct and guide you to your destination and will even give you a free ride.

Laos is a landlocked country and can be traveled by land. You can start your journey from south to north and make your way to Thailand or Vietnam or the other way around and end up in Cambodia. I have been to Laos twice and I must say given a chance I will keep on coming back here. In this blog I will be stating my experiences and observations in different regions, their cost of living, places to go and things to do. Let’s start with my most favorite city in the north, Luang Prabang.

LUANG PRABANG

https://www.instagram.com/p/BP7cxlWB3ii/?taken-by=justgo_abby

The former capital of Laos is home to stunning Kuang Si Waterfalls. I grew my curiosity and desire to visit this place when I saw the pictures online. I was totally in love with this place the moment I set foot on it. From the sunset of Mt. Phousi, dinner by the Mekong River to the enchanted Kuang Si Waterfalls. What more can you ask for? One famous thing to do here aside from visiting Kuang Si waterfalls is the half day elephant bathing and riding activities and village tours offered by tour agencies. Since this place is very famous a lot of tourists and travelers flock here but the number of accommodations is not sufficient to the number of visitors especially in the peak season of Lunar or Chinese New Year. It will be very touristy and your accommodation reservation can be canceled without your knowledge. Your guesthouse or hostel hosts will not feel accountable to it saying Chinese visitors already rent out the whole place and paid 10 times more than the real price. Believe me, I experienced that and ended up walking on the streets on a hot sunny afternoon along with other backpackers from one hostel to another checking if they have vacant bed. I enjoyed that experienced though because I found a $5 shared dorm room which is cheaper than my original hostel.

Disclaimer: I am not a hater of Chinese. Take note that not all travels will go as smooth as planned. This experienced didn’t turn me off as well since I found my favorite waterfalls in the world, Kuang Si Waterfalls.

From here you can ride a 22-hour sleeper’s bus to Hanoi or overnight bus to Northern parts of Vietnam or Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Average Meal Cost: ₭15,000- ₭ 35,000 (₱ 95- ₱ 220)

Tuktuk Fee: ₭30,000- ₭150,000 (₱190- ₱ 950)

Accomodation (Shared Dormitory): ₭40,000- ₭250,000 (₱250- ₱1,600)

Day Tour Activities (no free lunch): ₭50,000- ₭250,000 (₱350- ₱1,600)

 

VANG VIENG

DSC00903-01

I would describe this as the party place of Laos. You can never run out of activities here. From tubing, kayaking, dipping in blue lagoon, zipline, rock climbing, hot air balloon during sunrise or sunset to happy hour parties with free unlimited whiskies. This village 5 hours bus ride south from Luang Prabang is a must visit or stop for travelers backpacking Laos. I suggest you to book your accommodation in Vang Vieng Main Road because it is accessible to banks, stores, restaurants and bars. If you are looking for a night life on a budget head to Sakura Bar at 9-10 pm and Viva Pub at 11 pm for unlimited free drinks and whisky.

Average Meal Cost: ₭10,000- ₭ 25,000 (₱65- ₱160)

Tuktuk Fee: ₭10,000- ₭70,000 (₱65-₱ 450)

Accomodation (Shared Dormitory): ₭50,000- ₭70,000 (₱350- ₱450)

Day Tour Activities (with free lunch): ₭50,000- ₭200,000 (₱350- ₱1,250)

 

Vientiane

https://www.instagram.com/p/BPt8TNShpud/?taken-by=justgo_abby

Three-hour bus ride from Vang Vieng is the capital city of Laos. Vientiane is a chill city with no rush and no traffic. However this city may seem boring since there are not much things to do and places to visit. The main attractions here are limited to Wat Si Saket, Patuxai Monument, That Luang, Lao National Museum and Buddha Park which you can visit for a day or two. During the night you can stroll at the Mekong Riverside Park. It has beautiful sunset, various restaurants, bars and night market. The best way to stroll around the city is to rent a bike since there are no day tour activities here except Buddha Park.

You have plenty of options to go from here. You can take 20-hour overnight bus to Hanoi or Danang, Vietnam, train and buses to Cambodia or Thailand.

Average Meal Cost: ₭10,000- ₭ 30,000 (₱65- ₱160)

Tuktuk Fee: ₭30,000- ₭100,000 (₱190- ₱650)

Accomodation (Shared Dormitory): ₭50,000- 80,000 (₱350- ₱500)

Day Tour Activities (temple entrance fees): ₭5,000- ₭30,000 (₱32- ₱190)

 

PAKSE

DSC03214-01

This is indeed the cheapest city in the country. I heard about this place from my roommate in Vientiane who at that time was planning to stay here for 2 weeks. From what she said, I got curious about this place so I decided to also take a leap and visit it. I was a little disappointed because there’s nothing special or any attraction within the city except for two temples, Wat Luang and Wat Phabad and Tang Feres riverside market at night. However, it is a good location if you are planning to go on a day trip in Bolaven Plateau where Tad Fane, the 120 meter twin waterfalls is located and Vat Phou, a Khmer Hindu ruin in the South of Laos. From this city you can take an overnight bus to Bangkok, Thailand or go down south to Si Phan Don also known as 4,000 Island.

Average Meal Cost: ₭8,000- ₭ 20,000 (₱63- ₱130)

Tuktuk Fee: ₭10,000- ₭20,000 (₱65- ₱130)

Accomodation (Shared Dormitory): ₭40,000- 60,000 (₱250- ₱375)

Day Tour Activities (waterfalls entrance fee): ₭5,000- ₭10,000 (₱32- ₱65)

 

Si Phan Don (4,000 Island)

 

DSC03049-01

My friend and I have a big debate about the worth of this island. For Asian travelers you might not find this place interesting since it has just farm and rivers which we can find at our own backyard at home (I was born and raised in a countryside so I can say it is the same like my place at home) but for Westerns they are amazed with the chill, slow pace atmosphere and countryside vibe of it. This island became popular when the local government of Vang Vieng closed the irresponsible bars and parties along the river that made the river polluted. So, gradually it started to open bars and transferred the party vibe of Vang Vieng here. However, I must warn you with partying because there are instances that the whole island losses its electricity and have complete blackout. It’s very creepy to walk at night from the bar to your bungalow in complete darkness. Attractions here includes Li Phi Waterfalls, tubing and Irrawaddy Dolphin watching offered by tour agencies but the main highlight of this place is lying in a hammock outside your bungalow watching the sunrise or sunset It is the most expensive place especially with food, double the cost of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. There are not many tuktuk in the islands so visitors usually go around the islands with rented bicycle or motorbikes.

From here you can take a boat and 8-hour bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia or overnight bus to Bangkok, Thailand.

Average Meal Cost: ₭20,000- ₭ 45,000 (₱130- ₱285)

Bicycle Rental: ₭10,000 (₱65)

Motorcycle Rental: ₭50,000 (₱350)

Accommodation (Private Bungalow): ₭50,000- ₭ 150,000 (₱350- ₱950)

Day Tour Activities (waterfalls entrance fee): ₭35,000 (₱220)

Tubing and Irrawaddy Dolphin Watching: ₭150,000 (₱950)

TRAVELING HO CHI MINH CITY FOR BEGINNERS UNDER PHP 4,500 BUDGET

DSC02336-01

I remember during my first travel in my life. It was a solo and overseas travel in Bangkok, Thailand. I did a lot of impractical mistakes in traveling. I was alone, amateur and scared so I booked my hotel near the airport which is far from the city center and visitor’s sites. I used overpriced taxis. I didn’t invest in mobile data and rely on people for directions which end up unsuccessful since English is not that widely spoken in Southeast Asia. I didn’t do much of research that resulted to disappointment because I thought that this travel was unproductive. I didn’t see a lot of tourist’s sites and I didn’t learn much about their culture. As time passes I learned more practical ways to enjoy traveling without breaking the bank and would engage me more to the culture of the place I am traveling. Traveling for three years now and lived overseas for six months I learned that there are places that are meant for beginners and places for experienced travellers. Countries which English is widely spoken and have organized mode of transportation can be very convenient to travel however, these countries can also be more expensive to travel. So, when my friend and I did our backpacking in Southeast Asia and we started in Ho Chi Minh, I noticed that this city can also be good option for first time travelers.

Ho Chi Minh city formerly known as Saigon is a city in the south of Vietnam named after their late Prime Minister and National Hero, Gen. Ho Chi Minh. This bustling city doesn’t only offer sky scrapers that lights up the city at night but it is also rich in historical and cultural sites and home of flavorful Vietnamese delicacies. During our stay here I noticed how convenient it is to travel Ho Chi Minh. Although English is not widely spoken here, people are helpful when it comes to directions. Bus routes on the GPS are accurate and updated. So if you are a beginner in traveling who wants to have a mix of traditional and modern city and still have the taste of being a traveller then Ho Chi Minh is for you.

Starting in the airport, which is gladly near the city with a well-organized taxi system. You can approach any of the booths offering taxi to your hotel with a fixed price of VND 210, 000 ($10).  If you have Uber or Grab Taxi app, there’s no problem because they are also just around.

WHERE TO STAY?

DSC02149-01

I suggest you stay in Bui Vien, District 1 where most of the backpackers stay. It is 30 minutes away from the airport by taxi. One advantage of staying here is it is near the visitor’s sites, has lots of cheap restaurants and street food with lively bars and clubs that makes the walking street alive at night. There  are a lot of affordable budget hotel rooms and dormitory rooms plus tour agencies, money changers are everywhere in this area. We also spotted a cellphone shop here that sells sim card and registers your sim for affordable mobile data plan that only cost VND 110,000 (PHP 220) unlike other stores that sell tourist sim card for VND 200,000- 450,000 (PHP 400- 900).

TIP: Get a Mobifone sim card for VND 40,000 (PHP 80) load for VND 70,000 (PHP 140) and register by typing M70 send it to 999. You get 1.6 GB mobile data plan for 1 month.

PLACES TO VISIT:

We started our travel by doing a historic city tour. From our hostel and equipped with a GPS we walked going to Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City Hall, and Independence Palace. We visited them in order since they are next to each other.

NOTRE-DAME CATHEDRAL BASILICA OF SAIGON

DSC02077-01

An iconic landmark of the city located downtown and built by the French colonizers. The orange cathedral is open daily from 5:30 am to 5 pm. However with its undergoing renovation that will last until 2019, visitors are not allowed to enter for safety purposes.

HO CHI MINH CENTRAL POST OFFICE

DSC02069-01

Another French built architecture just beside the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is the Central Post Office. Although it is a functioning office with busy workers stamping and sorting loads of mails, we were still able to stroll around the area and get mesmerized with the architecture. On the left and right wings of the entrance there are stores selling souvenir items, postcards and lacquerware.

HO CHI MINH CITY HALL

DSC02125-01

 

Just few feet away from the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, we found ourselves in Ho Chi Minh City Hall. A sunny cream-and-yellow hue European inspired building built in 1902 to 1908. It was formerly known as Hotel de Ville but when the Communist took over before 1975 it was renamed to its present name. This place is gorgeous by day and stunning at night because of the lights surrounding the building. Unfortunately since it is a government office, it is close to public.

INDEPENDENCE PALACE

DSC02114-01

Originally the home and command center of Government General. In 1954 the Saigon government took over the place and renamed it to its current name. The palace witnessed series of historical events especially with the political life of their previous presidents. It also undergone massive renovations due to its bombing incident in 1962 and an army tank crashed on its gate in 1975. Now, it is functioning as a museum which features combination of Western and Eastern architecture.

Entrance Fee: VND 30, 000 (PHP 60)

WAR REMNANT MUSEUM

DSC02156-01

Before I step in this museum I thought it was just another museum showing the colorful history of Vietnam. However, as I was looking around reading the caption of every picture I came across with, I learned that this place is dedicated to the saddest history of Vietnam, The Vietnam War. Photographs and military equipment are on display in this museum. Documentary videos are played to show what happened during the long bloody war and its result. Outside the museum military tanks, helicopters, aircraft fighters and rocket launchers are well preserved. One thing that I found very heartbreaking is the part of the museum where they showed photos and videos of people especially children who suffered from “Agent Orange”. It is a chemical attack done by the Americans during the war.

Entrance Fee: VND 15,000 (PHP 30)

TURTLE LAKE

DSC02189-01

Although there are no live turtles present in this park people call it Turtle Lake because long time ago there was a turtle statue in this man- made lake. However when a group of people bombed this area the turtle statue was destroyed. At night this park lights up with colorful fountain and street food vendors start to pop. I would say this place is popular among locals enjoying the view of the fountain and gorging with street food after their long day at work or school. It is not touristy because when we were there, I only saw two foreigners beside us trying out some street food.

BINH TAY MARKET

Out front at Binh Tay Market in Ho Chi Minh City
Photo credit: synapticism.com

More local food? Head on to District 5 where Binh Tay Market is located. It is in the heart of China Town where you can find cheap goods. However early this year the French architecture building was under repair for its preservation. The stalls are extended outside the building where visitors can still buy souvenirs and taste unique Vietnamese delicacies.

20170919_094714-01
Trying some Vietnamese coolers.

JADE EMPEROR PAGODA

DSC02329-01

The only temple that we visited in this city. To my observation it is a place where most locals visit to say their prayers. There are not much foreigners visiting this temple. There is no entrance fee and their dress code is not that strict here but I suggest you to dress modestly since you are entering a sacred place.

MEKONG RIVER DAY TOUR

DSC02286-01

The lifeblood of Southeast Asia passing through six countries, from China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The mud-brown river also played a big role in the history of trading and diverse cultures between these countries.

DSC02218-01
Vinh Trang Temple

We booked our day tour via agency near our hotel in District 1. Different agencies may vary in prices from $9-35 per person. We were lucky to get a deal with $11 which includes a day tour with free lunch. The tour starts at 8:30 am hotel pick up then travel for an hour and half going to My Tho, the gateway to Mekong Delta.  We took a glimpse of Vinh Trang Temple then we took a boat going to different villages where we tried their pure honey, ate tropical fruits, paddle boats and ride horses. We also went to this coconut village where we learned the process of extracting coconut oil and how they make different products out of it.

 

EXPENSES: For 4 full day- tour for 1 pax

TRANSPORTATION:

Taxi from airport to hotel: VND 210,000 (Php 440)

Motorbike from Turtle Lake to hotel: VND 50,000 (PHP 100)

Bus from Bui Vien District 1 to Binh Tay Market: VND 5,000 (PHP 10)

Bus from Binh Tay Market to Jade Emperor Pagoda: VND 5,000 (PHP 10)

Bus from Jade Emperor Pagoda to Bui Vien District 1: VND 6,000 (PHP 12)

 

ACCOMMODATION (Giang Hotel): VND 450,000 (PHP 900)

 

FOOD (Vietnamese food sold on the street stalls, eateries and convenient store food): VND 1, 000,000 (PHP 2,000)

 

ENTRANCE FEES:

Independence Palace: VND 30, 000 (PHP 60)

War Remnant Museum: VND 15,000 (PHP 30)

 

MEKONG RIVER DAY TOUR: $11 (PHP 550)

 

TOTAL: PHP 4,112

 

NOTE: plane ticket not included since we returned in the Philippines from Bali, Indonesia but we flew to Ho Chi Minh from Manila via Cebu Pacific for PHP 2599 with no check in baggage.