Accommodation is usually one of the biggest tickets budget traveller has to pick up day after day so its cost vastly determines daily budget one needs to work with when visiting that particular country. Compared to much of South East Asia, true budget accommodation options are not only limited in Laos, they also end up being more expensive which increases your daily spendings yet you end up staying in rooms of significantly lower standards than in neighboring countries.
On an overall scale, traveling through Laos is far more expensive than traveling through Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand. Not taking into account small, but pricey SE Asian countries of Singapore and Brunei, Malaysia is the only country in the region that’s comparably costly for a traveler on a budget. While budget accommodation in Malaysia is on average 10% to 20% more expensive than in Laos, Malaysia offers additional money savers for money tight travelers with its plentiful camp sites and dormitories.
If prior to visiting Laos you had already gone through Cambodia, Indonesia or Thailand, then you have probably tasted the pleasures of having a decent, clean, bed bugs free room with its own ensuite bathroom with hot shower for up to $5 a night. You may have also enjoyed a spacious room with a king sized bed, air conditioning, fridge, safe, large screen TV and a nice view for up to $10 a night – which would also include daily room service. But after coming to Laos, your $10 will buy you a measly, uncomfortable bed in a tight room without a window that doesn’t even have enough space for you to turn, nevermind to store your backpack, with questionably clean, shared bathroom containing an overused squatting toilet bowl, a broken shower outlet and a slew of mosquitoes all over its mouldy walls.
It’s hard to get used to paying so much more money than you had paid before but get so incomparably less, but that’s the way it is in Laos. I don’t suppose it had always been like that but as the number of tourists visiting the country kept growing, so did the prices for tourism related goods and services but the delivery of quality seems to have gotten stuck.
If you’re like me and started traveling around the world in circa 2009, then you have missed out on the golden age of tourism. Nowadays, no matter how remote and unmentioned a place you get to is, there will be thousands of blog posts about it all over the internet from the travelers who had visited it long before you. And… nowadays, even seemingly poor countries like Laos, after experiencing tourism boom, had adjusted their prices so cost of travelling is out of proportion to the country’s gross domestic product. Too bad this increase did not go hand in hand with increase of quality.
The only place in Laos where reasonably cheap accommodation can still be had is Don Det of Four Thousand Islands, in south Laos, near the border with Cambodia. Bamboo room costs as little as 25,000 Kip (about $3 US – based on 2010 conversion rates) per night and represents the cheapest accommodation in the country.
Once you have left 4,000 Islands, the mainland will welcome you with room prices typically starting at 60,000 Kip (roughly $7.50 US) for which you will get a pretty run down room with small, hard bed, no windows hence strong smell of mould, shared bathroom with cold shower somewhere within the complex and a rattling fan with grate so dirty, you’ll think it’s been used in a car shop since the 60’s.
To get a room $7,50 US equivalent would get you in Cambodia, you would have to shell out 80,000 to 100,000 Kip per night (roughly $10 to $12). I went through many less traveled areas of Laos yet Don Det was the only place where I was able to find a private room (aka not dorm) for an equivalent of $5 or less per night. And that was in off season when guesthouses and hotels were struggling to get bookings. What it would have been like in high season when rooms sell out quickly I dare not imagine. By South East Asian standards, accommodation in Laos is very expensive but lack quality you would get in other countries where rooms usually cost less.