Having just returned from travelling almost the entire length of Laos, (well, almost, I cheated and stopped at Luang Prabang) here are some top tips for staying sane on your travel adventures in South East Asia's sleepiest country.
Ok, let's start with the practical: money. Pretty crucial to your travels, so make sure you read your guidebooks carefully and take note when you read that the Kip is a controlled currency and therefore technically impossible to exchange outside of the country - make sure you come armed with those crisp, brand newUS dollars ready to change up. And I do mean new; more than one bank I came across went through my stash with a fine tooth comb and rejected any notes with even a miniscule rip on the top - which can be quite a problem at the time if it is your last $100 note.
Make sure you change them at the bank, not the guesthouses, if you are changing a large amount as the bank has much more sensible rates in general. If coming from Cambodia, take note that prices in Laos are quoted in Kip, not dollars. Although dollars are readily accepted, you often get a much less favourable exchange rate and if you are paying for bus tickets, rooms or day trips, it can make quite a difference when travelling on a budget.
Choosing where to stay
As with anywhere you go, check out accommodation before deciding where to stay. Sounds obvious, but many towns such as Vang Viang have some excellent options five minutes out the town centre, such as the Thavisouk bungalows for only 70,000 Kip, (around US$8,) overlooking the Nam Song River and right next to the Bamboo bridge leading to the caves.
Also, accommodation in Vientiane is famously overpriced, and unless you want to pay well over the odds, it is either worth booking ahead if you see a cheap place you like in the guidebook and are short on time, or parking a travelling companion in a bakery with a baguette and taking ten minutes to scout out a few options and compare prices.
Make sure you check out long distance bus prices and level of service, and tuk tuk prices too. Book through a guesthouse for the relatively new overnight sleeper bus between Vientiane and Pakse - I heard reports that you can pay up to 50,000 kip (US$6/7 dpending on the exchange rate) more than if you bought the same ticket at the bus station.
Although the sleeper bus was pretty good value and a great way to save time, if you stop in the middle of the night it might be worth checking out what is going on. The bus load of passengers before us stopped in the night and had some of their bags moved up into the main seating area of the bus. They didn't think to question why until morning, when it turned out they driver had hit, (and killed,) a cow in the middle of the night, paid the farmer for it, and loaded the carcass under the bus into the luggage compartment next to most of the bags, and they only realised when many of the bags come off soaked in blood in the morning.
We knew we had the same bus as we even had the dents and smashed up head lights to prove it. Notwithstanding random animal fatalities, not all buses are created equal in Laos, and 'VIP' can mean anything from a bus with four wheels, (one bus that we took didn't even bother to turn on the air con) to one that provides drinks, snacks, lunch, and has a toilet on board, all for the same price.
Take your time
Lastly, have patience. I can't stress the importance of patience enough, as I am not naturally a patient person and I wanted to rip my hair out on more than one occasion. I have travelled around several Asian countries as well as living here, and I am pleased to report that the ever-present issue of loss of face is very much alive and well in Laos, and has even taken on a whole new mutation seemingly specific to Laos.
If you ask a 'tricky' question, (i.e. a question that the person does not know answer to or if the person doesn't have adequate English ability to answer you) quite often, the person will simply walk away or look wildly around you, desperately avoiding eye contact in the apparent hope that you will disappear in a puff of smoke.
Let me finish by saying I had a fabulous trip in Laos, and it has some of the most stunning scenery and tourist attractions that South East Asia has to offer. But unless you want end up out of pocket or, worse still, out of your mind with frustration, it might be worth remembering these tips!