Laos may be landlocked, but that doesn’t cramp the style of adventure travel in Laos. Mystical mountain ranges pocketed with hidden caves, lush forests, and gushing waterfalls make it a veritable treasure trove for adventure travelers. Surrounded by rowdier tourism giants like Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is a breath of fresh air harkening back to quieter times, away from the crowds and bustle. Untouched landscapes, a unique mixture of Oriental and French colonial architecture, and a laid-back feel make this undiscovered country on the banks of the Mekong River an ideal place for adventure travel programs.
Laos has been hailed the best-kept secret in Southeast Asia (oops, guess the cat’s out of the bag now!). From the northern tribes along the border with China to the southern coffee plantations, adventure travelers in Laos will find sleepy villages, exotic cuisine, and inspiring landscapes beaconing.
Just across the river from Thailand, UNESCO World Heritage city Luang Prabang blends traditional Lao culture with glittering temples and Indochinese influences.Though Luang Prabang has seen considerable investments in recent years, it maintains a sleepy charm showcasing Laos’ cultural and spiritual sides. From here you can hop a ferry to Thailand or venture toward the tribal villages and lesser-known national parks of Laos’ northern region.
Four hours south of Luang Prabang sits quaint Vang Vieng, a departure point for some of Laos’ best trekking, and a gem in its own right. With a small, but dedicated, nightlife scene and an even more dedicated influx of outdoor adventure enthusiasts, Vang Vieng is a hot spot for adrenaline junkies. (Motor)biking through the rice plantations, local schoolyards, and jutting rock formations offer a feel for rural Laotian life. Vang Vieng’s surroundings are best seen from a hot air balloon, from which the peak of Phou Bia, Laos’ tallest mountain, might even make an appearance.
The pearl of adventure travel in Laos is The 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don). Dotting the Mekong just north of the Cambodian border, time seems to stand still here. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do! Get your adrenaline pumping with a tube ride or take a break from lounging in your beach-side hammock to take a dip in the river. While you splash around, watch out for the world’s last remaining Irrawaddy dolphins, which locals believe have incarnated human souls. The area is also ideal for kayaking, sunset BBQs, and leisurely bike rides through local villages. There are three main island destinations: Don Khong, Don Det, and Don Khon. Be aware that there are no ATMs on the islands, so you’ll want to come with enough kip to cover your trip.
Pakse, meaning “mouth of the river” in Lao, served as the capital of the Champasak Kingdom until it was unified with the rest of Laos in 1946. In the heart of Laos’ coffee country, you’ll find plenty of Arabica elixir to energize adventures. Take a short daytrip into the mountains to pluck coffee beans fresh from the branch and meander through lush rice fields. Just don’t stray too far off the road, as the countryside is still littered with undetonated cluster bombs and mines left behind during the Vietnam War.
Adventure Tours in Laos
Laos’ stunning landscapes are an outdoor adventurer’s dream. Whether you elect to plan your own experience or go with an established adventure travel program, you’ll have a wide range of options: from cultural programs in urban Vientiane to rural homestays.
While in Laos, adventure travelers won’t want to miss a trek through the jungle, a quintessential expedition for backpacking and hiking enthusiasts. Along the way, you’ll no doubt discover the innumerable caves and waterfalls strewn throughout Laos’ extensive network of trails and country roads. For the environmentally-conscious, eco-tours provide similar trips into the great outdoors with additional consideration for preserving ecosystems and minimizing negative impacts on the local environment. Mountain biking and river kayaking are likewise great ways to get off-road and see the Lao wilderness from a new perspective.
Most adventure travel programs in Laos also offer a community service component, which is a great way to give back to the friendly communities that will welcome you to this beautiful country. Common volunteer projects include teaching English to local children, leading extra-curricular activities in urban schools, and helping out at animal sanctuaries.
November to January is the best time to visit Laos, when the earth is still lush from October rains and most of the country is warm and dry. Rainy season (from May to October) puts a damper on outdoor activities and brings out the bugs. Malaria and dengue are risks in Laos, especially during the rainy season, so don’t forget to pack that super strength bug spray!
Costs & Affordability
No money? Boh pen yang (no problem). Adventure travel in Laos won’t break the bank. Minimal daily expenses will ensure there’s always plenty to splurge on that next blood-pumping adventure.
A decent meal goes for around $2, and budget accommodation ranges from $3-15 per night for a double room (split with a buddy for double savings!). Described as the Dom Perignon of Asian beers, Beer Lao is famous for being equal parts teuk (cheap) and delicious. As far as comfort and taste goes for the price, Laos is definitely a great deal.
If you’re planning savvy, the best way to save on adventure travel is to coordinate your own trip and book a la carte adventures with local providers to suit your interests. However, going with a travel program promises additional protections, a built-in group of travel buddies, and a lot less travel planning legwork. There are volunteer programs as affordable as $10 per day, but they don’t usually include travel to and from Laos. In contrast, most adventure programs cover at least transportation and accommodation costs in country, and more comprehensive study programs also provide meals, language courses, and a range of outdoor and cultural activities that dazzle the senses.
Accommodation & Visas
Even the most adventurous travelers need a place to rest their head after a day full of adventures! Though less plentiful than in its more touristy neighbors, Laos has hostels and hotels to suit every budget: from French villas to sleeping bags on rooftops.
Most adventure travel programs in Laos provide apartment or dorm accommodation, and many also include a homestay component. Lao homestays generally offer fewer amenities and less independence than student housing, so you may find yourself sharing a room with a host sibling or having to bring your own toilet paper, but these challenges pale in comparison to the benefits of experiencing Lao hospitality and family life.
Western passport holders can get a 30-day tourist visa upon arrival in Laos for a fee, with the possibility to extend for an additional 60 days at the Department of Immigration in Vientiane. If you’re planning to adventure more long-term, you can apply for a student visa through the Lao Embassy in your home country or plan to hop over the border every three months to reset your visa.
Benefits & Challenges
Being off the beaten path means that transportation to and around Laos can be sparse and uncomfortable. On the bright side, the poor quality Lao roads turns even mundane bus rides into bumpy off-roading experiences: bring it on, adventure seekers! And with the epic landscapes awaiting when you arrive, you’ll forget the motion sickness and barring Lao pop before you know it. Bus rides are a great opportunity to bond with locals and watch the country go by, so sit back and enjoy the ride.
What’s that extra crunch in your meal? Lao cuisine is an adventure in itself. Laotians are famous for eating everything that hops, crawls, flies, or swims. For some, all the exotic food is a delightful playground for the palate. For others with dietary restrictions or less adventurous cravings, this can be challenging, especially in rural areas where menu options are sparser.
Adventure travel programs in Laos will challenge you to slow down and soak it all in. Laotians’ laid-back attitude and the limited motor traffic in the country have earned it the motto “Laos: Please Don't Rush.” So get out there, take your time, and sok dee (good luck)!