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How to explore Laos on a budget—from magical Luang Prabang, the curious Plain of Jars & tubing hot-spot Vang Vieng

If you're travelling the world on a budget, overland travel rather than taking costly flights, is usually the best option. From my three months in Southeast Asia, I pretty much always travelled by train, bus and occasionally boat, which was the case when traveling from Thailand. I took buses from Chaing Mai to Chaig Rai before stopping the night in Chiang Khong and crossing the Mekong River into Laos. It was here that I picked up my visa and passport stamps, before heading to the pier for the ‘slow boat’ that winds all the way down the khaki-coloured Mekong River into the heart of Laos, eventually ending in Luang Prabang two days later. The journey is slow but is so much cheaper than flying and means you get to experience real-life along the river, which for me, when not restricted by time, is what travelling is really about.

golden buddha head against old wall in laos
Buddha statue in Luang Prabang

Whether you're travelling into Laos from Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, China or Myanmar, travel by land or water is undoubtedly better, especially when you’re on a budget. It's also kinder on the planet than flying, but I realise that if you’re not on a long backpacking trip you will have to fly to Laos to start your adventure. In this case, Luang Prabang is the best airport to fly into, to make the most of your time in the country.

Luang Prabang 

Luang Prabang is one of my favourite towns in Laos. Full of shimmering Buddhist temples, delicious food and French colonial architecture it deserves a good three days of your trip, at least. I stayed at Villa Kingkham Riverside, a simple but clean guesthouse with AC that cost $20 (£17) a night, with breakfast. The best and cheapest way to explore the town is by bicycle, I spent a day visiting the many Buddhist temples known as Wats and exploring the beautiful countryside surrounding the town for around $2 (£1.50) a day. Guesthouses and shops will happily rent you a bike on the spot.

orange robed monks sitting outside gold temple in laos
Young monks sit outside one of Luang Prabang's ornate wats

One of the best meals I had in Luang Prabang was by the river in a restaurant called Tamarind. Specialising in Laos cuisine, I tried two ‘taster plates’, one included sticky rice accompanied by ‘jeows’ or dips of smoky aubergine and spicy, sweet-chilli paste, while the other had dried buffalo meat that resembled beef jerky, both were amazing. The plates also came with sheets of dried river algae (known as kaipen) from the Mekong. The algae is mixed with herbs and spices, before being pressed, dried and scattered with sesame seeds, then fried. Both plates with a Jujube (a red date type fruit) and coconut drink (that was also delicious), cost well under $12 £10. 

Each evening, stalls are set up along the wide streets of Sisavangvong Road as part of the night market. Selling everything from hand-stitched books, reclaimed jewellery and silk to tasty, yet cheap street food; don’t miss the fresh spring rolls.


Stopping off point for visiting the mysterious Plain of Jars, the cheapest way to get to Phonsavan is by taking a local bus from Luang Prabang through lush, leafy countryside, up and down mountains and past long, curly-horned water buffalos. The countryside isn't too dissimilar to Vietnam's Sapa and the journey takes around eight and a half hours—you can simply turn up at the bus station on the day of travel, buying your ticket just before the bus leaves. 

two horned water buffalo in green field in laos asia
Passing water buffalo on the way to Phonsavan

The Plain of Jars (much like the sites of ancient taulas in Menorca) is an incredible place, a series of eerie sites strewn with varying sizes of stone, and jar-shaped containers. There are thousands of jars spread throughout the landscape with the biggest measuring around three meters and weighing a tonne. Over 2000 years old, these mostly limestone jars would have been carved by hand and incredibly, to this day, no one is clear on the purpose of them. Many theories have been presented around the usage, some say they were to hold rainwater or rice wine, while others have speculated about them being tombs for holding human remains. 

the plain of jars laos in forest
One of the sites of The Plain of Jars

Even more eerie is the fact that 80 million unexploded cluster bombs are dotted throughout the jar sites and across the countryside in this area of Laos. Dropped by the US Air Force during the ‘Secret War’, less than 50 years ago, these unexploded bombs have had a lasting impact on the country. As well as making research into the Plain of Jars almost impossible, people are unable to make money by farming their land here and hundreds of people, including many children are killed or injured every year when hidden bombs suddenly explode. As part of a tour of the Plain of Jars, you can visit the UXO Centre, run by the British organisation MAG (Mines Advisory Group). The centre is really informative and interesting with short documentaries and factual information, enabling visitors to learn more about the sad legacy of the unexploded bombs in Laos. 

large stone jar in field in phonsavan laos surrounded by grass
The purpose of the jars is still unknown, to this day

For my time in Phonsavan, I stayed at the White Orchid Guest House, which is basic but spotless and only $8 (£7) a night including breakfast. I also booked a guided tour of the Plain of Jars through the hotel, costing $5 (£4), it included a tour of two jar sites, a look at the old city and a weaving village, plus time in the UXO centre.

Vang Vieng

From Phonsavan, I took another local bus to the pretty riverside town of Vang Vieng, hyped up as the place to go for tubing. Tubing involves floating down a river in a blown-up tractor tyre inner tube. The bus I took, took a little over five hours and again cost a couple of dollars. I set up base in the Grand View Guesthouse, a place that’s a little shabby and at $23 (£19) a night, not as good value as other places I stayed in Laos, but proved fine for a few nights. Today Vang Vieng is not the party town it once was. When I visited, the hedonistic tubing experience was in full swing and proved the main reason for visiting this once-sleepy town. Back then there were ‘death slides’ made from bathroom tiles, huge swings that catapulted daredevils into the depths of the river, free shots of unknown alcohol dispensed from glass bottles containing preserved cobras and endless stories of ‘pink-eye’, an infection picked up from the dirty river water. 

lydia swinscoe floating down mekong river in an inner tube near vang vieng
Tubing in Vang Vieng

Tubing is still possible today and a few bars along the river remain, long lassos of rope are still flung into the waters, pulling in passersby with the promise of free shots, but gone are the death trap slides and swings, which can only be a good thing. Floating down the river for hours in the afternoon light is a beautiful experience and one I’m glad I did. It’s also relatively cheap to hire a tube in town, around $6 (£5), plus a deposit that’s returned if you make it back before 6pm (you probably won’t!), the cost also includes the Tuk-Tuk ride that takes you along the banks of the river to the starting point. 

There’s so much to see and do in Laos and amazingly, it’s all possible on a fairly tight budget, but remember to leave a tip where possible—what seems like small change can make a huge difference.

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