Planning to go backpacking in Laos but not sure how money you should budget for your trip? Don Morgan has some answers about the cost of day to day travelling in Laos
Of all the countries I travel in within mainland Southeast Asia, Laos gives people the most money trouble. It has the fewest ATMs and the pokiest banks. I have seen more people here than anywhere else screaming at tellers and scrambling to figure out where to get a cash advance on their credit card. Things are a bit better since the introduction of an ATM in Pakse. But the soundest advice for travel to Laos is to bring Thai baht, US dollars, or travelers’ checks sufficient to last your entire trip. Baht are less useful for purchases the further you stray from Thailand, but banks everywhere will happily exchange them for kip.
The Lao kip is pegged to about 9,000 kip per US dollar, though this rate fluctuates: currently it’s at 8,657 kip to the dollar. It’s too bad they can’t value it at 10,000 to the dollar for the sake of the math. Do you know how to do that trick for the 9-times table on your fingers? If you do, when you’re in Laos, it’ll come in handy.
There are no coins in Laos. Kip comes in denominations starting at 1 kip (which are no longer in use: it takes 90 of them to make one US cent!) on up to 50,000 (which tops out at about 5.75 USD). But since the average Laotian is only earning 1 USD a day, that’s still a lot of money.
Laos Accommodation Prices
Budget-hunters will have a tougher time in the big tourist centers, like Luang Prabang, Van Vieng and Vientiane. Elsewhere, though, in places like Pakse, decent fan rooms with cold-water bath or shared bath can be found for 5 USD down to 3.50 USD in truly remote places. I got a 30,000 kip room in Attapeu, and all I had to do was put up with the fact that the place doubles as a brothel. For A/C, hot water, and a slight bump in quality, look to spend about 6 to 10 USD, which is the base price in the tourist centers. If you must, at all costs, avoid bugs, slightly stained bedding and discreetly crumbling walls, your budget will have to start at 15 USD a night and strut on up to 25 in some locations. Of course, all this goes out the window if you’re visiting Don Dhet where a 1 USD room is possible—albeit, all you get is a wooden shack with a bed, a fan, and a shared bathroom, along with a balcony and hammock on the gorgeous Mekong river as compensation.
Internet Cafe Costs in Laos
Laos is not the most well-wired country, and internet is slightly pricey relative to other countries in the region—starting at 6,000 kip per hour (70 cents) up to 12,000 kip per hour in more remote places. Don Dhet doesn’t even have electricity, but it does have internet, running off of car batteries, at 5 to 7 USD per hour (ouch!). Some towns—like Sekong and Salavan—have no internet at all. If you’re taking a remote trip in Laos, plan on telling your virtual friends you’ll be off visiting reality until further notice.
Laos Trains, Planes And Buses
Laos has no trains, so most people are stuck on the bus. Due to the sparse population, departures are not frequent, so plan a day ahead, as your bus may only depart once a day in the early morning. Regular buses start cheap at about 5,000 kip for every hour on the road, (prices often work out to about 200 kip per kilometer) but you’ll get no A/C, the bus will be packed to the roof, and you may have to ride sitting on a rice sack with a live duck at your feet (yes, that actually happened to me). For about a dollar an hour, VIP air-con buses are more comfortable and civilized. And a lot faster. The Paske/Vientiane regular bus costs 85,000 kip and takes 16 hours. The VIP bus costs 110,000 kip and takes only 10 hours. Weigh the pros and cons and come to your own conclusion. Many routes have no VIP service, or the most convenient departure will be by songthaew, also packed to the roof, and you may have to ride with a kettle of life fish splashing around on your lap (which also happened to me).
Most people enter Laos by land, and one look at airfares will indicate why: Bangkok to Vientiane is currently about 179 to 211 USD. Hanoi to Vientiane, 169 USD. Internal flights are no better. Flying from Pakse to Luang Prabang on Lao Airlines costs 196 USD. (See Kayak for the most up to date prices). Most people simply fly into Bangkok, for which there are always cheap flights (see Kayak), and do the rest by train or bus. If you’re traveling out of Laos by air, be prepared for a 10 USD departure tax. There are international airports in Vientiane and Luang Prabang only.
Laos Food Costs
There are very few ‘Laotian cuisine’ connoisseurs. The food here is similar to Thailand, but less eclectic and with less variety as well. But cheap—a dollar or two will fill your tummy with rice, veggies and a bit of meat. To change things up, I usually seek out a Korean-style barbecue, where you can cook meat and veggies on a grill at the centre of the table, the perfect compliment to a cold beer, and walk away stuffed (and well-lubricated) for about 5 USD per person. Western and international food is only available in the tourist centers, but I found big pizzas going for as little as 3 or 4 USD.
Beer And Cigarettes In Laos
And as for beer, well, the national beer here is Beer Lao, and it’s so damn good you probably won’t want to drink anything else. Budget about 9,000 kip for a big-assed bottle, and multiply according to your anticipated daily consumption. It’s not as cheap as Vietnam’s bia hoi but a whole lot tastier. And, thanks to the time the French spent ‘visiting’ the country, French wines can be found at better restaurants for 10 to 15 USD a bottle. The local moonshine is called lao cao, available in shops and at road-side stalls throughout the country, and half a liter will only set you back 5,000 kip—quality varies though. At it’s best, it’s like a fine vodka. At it’s worst, rubbing alcohol. As with elsewhere in mainland south-east Asia, it’s so cheap to smoke, you can’t afford not to. Local brands start at about 4,000 kip per pack, and more sophisticated brands like Marlboro go for 13- to 16,000, depending on whether they are real or counterfeit.
Day To Day Laos Budget
In general, Laos can be done a bit more cheaply than the countries it borders. An enterprising solo traveler could actually get by on 10 USD a day here, and for a budget couple, about 12 USD. But that would be no fun, so try for 15 USD a day in any case. But there’s a bit of a leap up to the mid-range, if you’re looking to stay at resort-style places at any point during your stay, rooms are more likely to be in the 20 to 40 USD range, so on average, the midrange traveler should plan on a budget of 30 to 40 USD per day. Luxury travelers don’t have that many options in Laos, so if you’re one of those lucky people with 100 or more USD to spend daily, you’ll be hard pressed to find things to spend it on!
ATMs in Laos
The Laos kip is a closed currency, so you won’t be able to get it outside the country, unless you run into someone who forgot to get rid of a wad before they left. So, don’t take any kip with you when you leave, unless it’s as a souvenir, or you’ll find yourself searching for someone headed the other way to sell it to. Look for a currency exchange to buy dollars or baht with your kip if you’re heading to Thailand or Cambodia. If you can find a Laos-Vietnam Development Bank (I know there’s one in Pakse) they will sell you dong for your trip to Vietnam, otherwise get some USD, but get rid of all your baht and kip—they are useless in Vietnam.
Laos has ATMs that accept international cards in Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Pakse. Even then, not all the ATMs you’ll find will accept your card: try to find a BCEL bank which should work for either Visa or MasterCard debit and credit cards. Wikitravel reckons there is an ATM in Luang Prabang – “As of March 2007, there is now an ATM which accepts MasterCard, Maestro available at Banque pour le Commerce Exterieur Laos (BCEL) toward the North end of Sisavangvong Rd a bit after the Night Market stops. For a Visa card, you’re still stuck looking for a bank”.
If you get stranded without cash in Laos, you have a couple of options: some banks will offer credit card advances at 4 to 5% of the total transaction. Otherwise, you’ll need to get someone back home to send money via Western Union. WU is available almost everywhere. If your card doesn’t work in Pakse for any reason, there’s a fallback option: you can cross the Chong Mec/Vang Tao border about 30 km away without checking out of the country and use your card on the Thailand side.
Laos Visa Costs
Visas on arrival are only available at some borders coming from Thailand and Vietnam, but not from Cambodia. A one-month, single-entry visa is now standard and costs about 35 USD, but varies a bit depending on nationality. A small ‘overtime’ fee is charged after 6 PM and on weekends and holidays. Visas can only be extended in Vientiane, at a cost of 2 USD per day. The overstay fine is 10 USD per day, so, don’t overstay! I used to renew my visa by leaving and entering again—in Laos, you’re never far from a border. Thailand works best because it costs nothing to enter, and Cambodia will do in a pinch. Vietnam is unhelpful since there is no visa on arrival, and it’s expensive anyway.
But Laos is not really a vacation spot—it’s a travel destination. Head here for the laid-back pace of life, the abundant natural beauty, and the opportunities for independent adventure and exploration. You can save up what you don’t spend here and blow it all on a few bacchanalian days on Ko Phi Phi.