Upon descending the Pinkuylluna Mountain, I met a middle-aged American couple who asked me if where I came out of was the entrance to the hill with the ruins. I ended up having an interesting conversation with them right there on the narrow, cobblestone covered street of the old Inca part of Ollantaytambo.
At one point they mentioned they had dined at Apu Veronica Restaurant located across the bridge heading out of town, and recommended the restaurant to me for some of the best food in town. So I made a point of heading out there and satiating my digestive system after the uphill climb.
Apu Veronica is, exactly as the Americans told me, across the bridge heading toward the fortress. It is located on the second floor of a building, but is well marked to make it easy to find.
I walked up and seated myself in the smallish restaurant currently catering to just a couple of people eating there. However despite being noticed by the staff, I was totally ignored for the longest time.
I proceeded to walk up to the counter and grabbed a menu out of there myself, thinking this would get the message across and a waiter would come to ask what I wished to order. That never happened.
The menu suggested heavily overpriced dishes, but whereas one of the dining patrons was a local, I knew they also had locally priced options. I found those on an individual sheet on the counter.
Called “Daily Menu“, this option offered a selection of a few pre-made dishes for 15 Soles which included a small plate of soup and a glass of Chicha Morada (traditional Peruvian non-alcoholic, sugar sweetened beverage of deep purple color made from dried dark corn). Compared to the dishes listed in the menu, which sell for upward of 70 Soles (over $21 US) per plate, these three course meals are hell of a better deal, but as a foreigner, you’re not supposed to know about them. That’s if anyone bothers to serve you in the first place.
Having figured out what I wanted, and having demonstrated to the staff that I’m indeed present in the restaurant and ready to place an order, I expected a waiter to finally show up after some 15 minutes of ignoring me in the restaurant with hardly any people to keep them busy. It never happened, so I stood myself up, walked up to the counter again, and called up a waiter to place an order there.
I ordered fried trout, but asked if instead of standard rice as an accompaniment, I could get a portion of fresh salad made from whatever veggies they had in the kitchen. The waiter said it shouldn’t be a problem, so I went to sit myself down at my table again.
As per the speed of previously demonstrated service, it took forever to finally bring me my order, but nevertheless, I got the trout exactly as I asked for. Compared to what I got in nearby Puno for half the price, this was a miserable portion of fish, but I was in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, so I took it as it was.
I went to Apu Vernica after descending the Pinkuylluna Mountain so I did feel like unwinding after the heart pumping uphill trek, which is probably the only reason why I stuck around. The terrible service with no reason to justify the insanely long waiting times was otherwise inexcusable. The food however, I have to admit, was tasty and the cook prepared it for me the way I wanted, so I feel like my review is at the draw as far as recommending or not recommending the restaurant.
Furthermore, unless you get sucked into ordering one of the hard core overpriced options from the foreigners’ menu, the value for money in Apu Veronica is decent. The food was safe and didn’t make me ill, so I’ll leave it at just that – Apu Veronica is probably a decent choice for dining in Ollantaytambo, but not if you don’t have whole day to wait for service, or are really hungry.
The Port of Puno, located on the Lake Titicaca, is a safe and clean area full of shops selling handicrafts, and restaurants serving fish from the lake.
I popped into one to try local trout. I enjoyed fresh and pollution free trout in Papallacta, Ecuador, where it cost $6 US, so I wanted to compare how Peruvian trout compared to the Ecuadorian in both quality and price.
What I liked the most about the restaurants at Puno Port, was that aside from common trucha frita (fried trout), they also offered trucha al vapor (steamed trout). With the nutrients preserved better in steaming as opposed to deep frying, the trout “al vapor” is much healthier and tastier. Certainly a point for Peru.
I also liked that at Puno Port, I could choose from a vast array of accompaniments, including french fries, baked potatoes, steamed root vegetables, veggie salad, cooked corn, etc. In Ecuador’s Papallacta, trout came with accompaniments too, but they were always set to fries and a bit of salad, with no option to chose what I’d like. However, in Ecuador, unlike in Peru, the trout also came with a bit of a soup and a beverage. This part was a draw.
The Puno trout was beyond compare larger than what you get in Papallacta, and the overall portion of food on the plate was larger too. I’m a big guy and this was my first meal of the day after walking around the city for a few hours, but I could not actually eat all of what I had in front of me (I left steamed potatoes on the plate). This was definitely a point for Peru, as portions in Ecuador were much smaller.
Waters of Late Titicaca are however murky and full of waste from virtually every house in Puno and all other communities on its shores. Many parts around the lake stink like sewage, so trout from Titicaca is certainly filthier than that of Papallacta, where water is crystal clear with nothing around to severely pollute it. A strong point for Ecuador.
Lastly, the price for the plate of trout in Puno was 16 Soles, which was about $4.84 US at the time of my visit, making the dish in Peru a slightly better deal than in Ecuador. Needless to say, whereas that option existed, when I returned to have trout in the same restaurant again the following day, that time around I only ordered half the fish, which came at half the cost of 8 Soles (about $2,42 US). At that cost, I got about the portion of trout in Ecuador, making Puno a hell of a better deal overall.
While I enjoyed trout in both Papallacta and Puno, and would not hesitate recommending both for anyone visiting either place, I think despite all, I give this one to Peru, as the value for money is simply greater there. And that’s despite the fact that Peru is overall more expensive than Ecuador. It comes to show that good deal can be had even in pricey locations.
The purity of the fish in Ecuador, however can’t be beat. Unfortunately, the purity won’t mean a whole lot if the fish is deep fried in high transfat vegetable oil in the end.
It was 9:30am when I finally arrived in Miraflores and got off the Quick Llama van to look for accommodation on foot. It was far different from Ecuador, or basically any country I have ever looked for a place to stay in before.
First of all, finding any kind of accommodation that’s not a higher class hotel is extremely difficult because none are very well marked. But what made it all worse was that every hostel in Miraflores charged so much for their rooms, you’d think you’re in Singapore, not Peru.
After 3 hours walking up and down Miraflores on foot with my backpack on on the sweaty back, I concluded that Lima has one of the most expensive accommodations in the world. Certainly so when looking at what you get for what you pay.
Had I not been tired as all hell after a 32 hours long journey across multiple time zones, I would have packed up and left. Eventually, sheer tiredness got the best of me and I caved in and booked a bed in a 6 bed dorm for 40 Soles (about $12 US) in Pool Paradise.
Whereas in neighboring Ecuador I got beautiful private rooms with private bathroom and smart TV for $10, a bed in a busy dorm, which was located right on the ground floor and right next to the reception, so there was talking, banging and other noise 24/7, and there was no internet in rooms so I had to sit in the lobby to get on line, this seemed like one truly shitty deal. And that was the cheapest dorm I could find, as well as the cheapest anyone in the tourist information center knows about.
The room was dark, gloomy and smelly, with the only window facing a wall right outside of it. But the scariest thing was the young Filipina who was in the room when I checked in, who told me that she was just moved from another dorm room after herself and everyone else who stayed there woke up with bed bug bites all over their bodies.
The whole check in process to Pool Paradise was over the top. They asked me to fill up their registration form which was on a tablet, and which asked way too many personal questions which went over and beyond whatever a hotel may need in order to provide guests with accommodation.
To get a private room in Miraflores, you’d be looking at a cost of 160 Soles or more (about $50 US) – the type of money for which you could get a room in a decent hotel in western Europe.
Overall, right on my first day I found Peru to be very expensive with little to justify to high cost of services. I knew right away that I’m only staying in Miraflores because I’m too tired to look for a bus terminal and take a trip to another town. I knew I was only gonna stay in Lima for this one night, and the following day I would move somewhere else, but if somewhere else it’s as expensive as in Lima, I would then just quickly visit the places I was interested in visiting and move to another country all together.
Ecuador’s new law permits foreigners to only enter the country once a year if stayed for the full 3 months, and whereas I was there since the late September of previous year, I would not be able to reenter until late September again. Bolivia remains a strong option. But like it or not, for the time being, I remain in Peru.
During my three day visit to Don Det, I stayed at Sunset View Bungalow. I always check a few available accommodation options to compare what I’d be getting for my money and when it came to Don Det, Sunset View Bungalow seemed like the best of both world.
When you are on an island that’s not all that big, there is a limited number of things that you can do. But when it comes to night time activities, this number is further reduced significantly. The main reason why I opted for Sunset View Bungalow over everything else on Don Det was the atmosphere at the outdoor restaurant that’s within the ground.
Several cool looking people were chilling with a Beer Lao at the table, a guitar in their hands and trance music on the stereo. On top of that, an unmissable sign of good mood was in the air as skilfully rolled joints were being passed around.
Sunset View Bungalow Price
As I was told by the French fellow who was in charge of showing new comers the premises, a bungalow at the Sunset View cost 30,000 Lao Kip (about $3,60 US) per night. There were bungalows and guesthouse rooms for as little as 25,000 Kip per night on Don Det, but none of these appeared to have had the atmosphere of Sunset View Bungalow. Even though slightly above average priced, Sunset View Bungalow was the hangout spot so that’s where I decided to stay.
Cheap Accommodation in Laos?
In a rundown of my experiences in Laos, I mentioned that Laos is a surprisingly expensive country to travel through. Yet the very first accommodation I scored cost less than $5 per night so how is that expensive, right? While I do admit 30,000 Kip per night for a private place is not expensive by any stretch of imagination, one needs to put things into a perspective and compare it to the type of accommodation this amount of money would land you in similar countries.
The bungalow I got was about a foot on each side larger than the bed inside. There was not enough space to even turn around, never mind safely storing a backpack. Aside from a wooden bunk bed with a simulated mattress and a pillow, there was only a stained mosquito net with holes in it hanging over it.
Truly partisan style bathroom and a shower were outside to be shared by dozens of others. Bungalows also had a porch with hammock but given the size of that porch, one had to tiptoe around to not fall off on the way inside. Small opening on one of the walls served as a window which when opened, offered the room slightly larger appearance.
Sunset View Bungalow was a backpacker’s paradise. Nothing much to complain about because it was truly cheap, however when compared to what I was getting in Cambodia for $3, this was still slightly pricey and a clear introduction to how expensive Laos is going to be.
More Luxurious Accommodation at Sunset View Bungalow
Aside from the 30,000 Kip bungalows described above, Sunset View also offered slightly more comfortable huts for 50,000 Kip per night (about $6 US). These were a bit more spacious, had more spacious verandas with hammocks for two people and an en suite bathroom. I’ve never tried one of those, I was just shown and opted for a less expensive, true backpacker accommodation.
Sunsets at Sunset View Bungalow
If you catch a cloudless day while on Don Det and are into all that romantic stuff, then you’re gonna like the view of sunsets from Sunset View Bungalow. Located on the north-west corner of Don Det, Sunset View Bungalow offers spectacular sunset views though most of the bungalows don’t face that way. You can enjoy the view from the restaurant, though.
The downside is that because of tin roofs, it gets pretty hot inside a bungalow in the afternoon. East side of the island peak where all the guesthouses are faces the same issue in the early morning hours when rising sun turns the rooms into a steaming sauna.
What I Liked Sunset View Bungalow
After personally checking out most other places offering accommodation on Don Det I maintain that Sunset View Bungalow is the best option. There are not many places in Laos where you can stay a night for less than $5 so if you make it on Don Det, enjoy the one place where it’s possible. You’ll get what you pay for, but at least what you pay is not much. Laos is otherwise surprisingly expensive (compared to most other countries in South East Asia) and even though Sunset View Bungalow seem to be the opposite, when compared what you’d get for this type of money in comparable countries, it’s definitely not cheap.
Hanging out and chilling with other backpackers is the best part of Sunset View Bungalow and as such, is unrivalled anywhere on Don Det, or entire 4,000 Islands for that matter. I would wholeheartedly recommend every backpacker coming to Don Det to check this place out.
Don Det is a small island and everything is concentrated in the same area. While staying at Sunset View Bungalow, you’re never too far away from anything, however that could be said about any other accommodation on the island. Other places just seem a bit too formal so if leisurely talk with other travelers, former strangers but now friends is not alien to you, then Sunset View Bungalow is the place to be. Grab a bottle of cold BeerLao and have yourself good time while on Don Det.
What I Didn’t Like About Sunset View Bungalow
I can’t say there was anything I really didn’t like about Sunset View Bungalow. It’s a cheap (for Laos) place with great atmosphere, fun management, cold beer and that stuff I shouldn’t talk openly about. Shared bathroom and shower are a bit grotty and lower priced bungalows are a bit squishy, but Sunset View Bungalow is not about fancy accommodation. It’s about having a good time and enjoying yourself with all your worries left behind. If it’s upscale accommodation you seek, check out Don Khong or Don Khon islands instead.
There are a few other things that could be brought up in the “didn’t like” section, but they are not specific to Sunset View Bungalow, but rather apply to whole island (or whole area). While there is little motorized traffic on any of the 4,000 islands, making them reasonably quiet, fisherman boats make way more noise than any motorcycle and start running around like there’s no tomorrow before sun dawn. Most accommodations on Don Det consist of wooden rooms that are as far from being sound proof as they get. Those few non air tight wooden planks that serve as walls will let all of the noise from the outside right in so if you stayed out drinking beer with other backpackers till 2am and get awakened at 5am by loud fishing boats the noise of which never seems to fade into distance, you won’t be too amazed. That would take place no matter where on Don Det you decide to stay.
Also, being an isolated island (not so isolated anymore, but still), many things on Don Det are expensive because they have to be brought in from the mainland, but the most expensive thing of all is internet. At the time of my visit, there were three internet cafes on Don Det, each charging an unholy 400 Kip per minute. Translated into English, this is a $3 for an hour on line. I have been on far more isolated islands since, I have been in the middle of the jungle, but have yet to come to a place where internet would be this expensive. You best update that page before coming over and leave next update until you have gotten elsewhere or prepare to shell out some heavy bucks for the privilege of surfing the net. As if Laos as a country was not expensive enough, Don Det takes it to a whole new level. Compared to much of mainland, beer is also expensive here (11,000 Kip for a bottle of BeerLao compared to 8,000 for the same in Pakse), however budget restaurants offer food for prices comparable to the rest of Laos.
One more time – expensive internet and loud boats buzzing around since early morning are the reality of an entire 4,000 Island area. That’s something you would be exposed to whether you decide to stay at Sunset View Bungalow or somewhere else. Don Det is a wonderful place full of friendly people and should not be missed out by any traveller passing through the area. Kick back a few BeerLao and enjoy the real laid back lifestyle, whether at Sunset View Bungalow or somewhere else on Don Det.
Don Det Island has gained its popularity through laid back way of life it offers. Even though this has hardly changed and one can still appreciate a full day of idling in a hammock with nothing else to do, the face of Don Det is not what it was a few years ago. With virtually every house along the northern peak of the island transformed into a guesthouse, a restaurant or some other establishment catering to the needs of tourists, and with the smell of weed rising from many a tucked back spots along the coast, Don Det has become a major magnet for backpackers who flock in large numbers to indulge in the finest a nomadic lifestyle has to offer.
I believe Don Det island should not be missed out on. Once you hop on a bicycle you have rented and take a ride around, away from the busy quarter where all other foreigners hang out and enjoy themselves with a bottle of BeerLao in one hand and a lit up joint in another, you will get the glimpse of the timelessness Four Thousand Islands are really about. Being constantly nourished by the waters of the Mekong, the greenery throughout the island is lush which is clearly appreciated by bountiful Water Buffalos who look far beyond well fed.
The Only Railway in Laos
The French built bridge connects Don Det with nearby Don Khon offering an easy possibility for a bicycle rider to explore two islands in one go (you’ll be asked to pay 20,000 Kip – about $2,50 US at the Don Khon side of the bridge). The bridge was originally built to be a part of the railway across the two islands the purpose of which was to bypass the rapids and waterfalls in the Mekong. The rapids were the main reason why the ambitions of the French colonists to use the Mekong as a highway to China was failing.
The railway was built, but the ambition to connect with China by the means of the Mekong River eventually failed and the use of the railway was discontinued after WWII. The road which once housed the railways track is very rocky and seems to have no end. You can find it on both Don Det and Don Khon and you’ll know you’re on it if your bicycle (if you’re riding) or your feet (if you’re hiking) start getting a beating from the sharp rocks that cover the surface of it. There is nothing to see along either of the roads so if you get down to exploring the islands and your path leads you to a rocky road, I suggest you turn around and take an alternative route. You’ll be glad you did.
Don Det, The Backpacker’s Paradise
Don Det is a backpacker’s heaven and it’s a sound riddance to enjoy it to the fullest. Lodging prices on Don Det are the most affordable in Laos (even though you will be getting what you are paying for, making for an overall not that great a deal) and food, despite the need to bring many ingredients from the mainland by boat is reasonably priced (in Lao terms). Internet is slow and super, super expensive so if you need to update that page, do it before coming on Don Det or put it off until you have come back on mainland.
Money Exchange Rates on Don Det
While official US Dollar to Lao Kip exchange rate was at 8,200 Kip for a dollar in Lao mainland, you could get 8,000 Kip for a dollar on Don Det which is not all that bad. There are no banks, ATM machines or money exchangers on Don Det, but many guesthouses or shops will buy your foreign currency for Lao Kip. The rate will be slightly disadvantaged, but not by much. I actually expected much worse exchange rates given that it’s a desolate island which requires a boat transport to get on, but losing 200 Kip to a dollar is not that bad (it’s good for 30 seconds of internet on Don Det, though). If you exchange $20 US, you will only be short of 4,000 Kip, which is about $.50 – definitely nothing to be concerned about.
Tubing on Don Det
If you are into drunken fun during the day, you should not miss out on tubing on Don Det (tube rental costs 5,000 Kip – about 60 US cents). Vang Vieng may be the tubing capital of Laos, but it’s also more overcrowded than Si Phan Det and that can take some of the adrenaline away. Although it’s quite fun to always bump into somebody else’s tube.
Don Det was my first stop in Laos and while it is not a showcase of local culture, religion or society, it is a great place to kick back and enjoy yourself. The rice paddies, lush jungle, fat water buffaloes and friendly, smiling locals make for a fantastic environment while endless options to hang out and chill with other backpackers allow for much needed boost to one’s spirit and energy.
Laos is notorious for its laid back lifestyle, but there is no place where a traveler can savor this renowned laid-backness better than Si Phan Don. In the language of Lao people, Si Phan Don means 4,000 Islands (Four Thousand Islands) and there is a very good reason for the name. This 50 kilometre long stretch of the Mekong River in southern Laos, just north of the Cambodian border spreads to create the river’s widest point where in rainy season it reaches the width of 14 kilometres. During the dry season, however, when the 4350 kilometres long Mekong recedes, thousands of islets get revealed giving the area its name of Four Thousand Islands.
While smaller islets of Si Phan Don disappear with each monsoon season, several of the larger islands are permanently above the Mekong’s surface with a few of them inhabited year round. The inhabitants of Si Phan Don are the river people – the families of boatmen and fishermen who learned how to be vastly self sustainable by utilizing the small landmass provided by the island and the abundant wildlife of the river.
When talking about islands, most people visualize turquoise waters of a sea with waves crushing against the rocky coast while bikini clad hotties straddle down the sandy beach and kids snorkel in the clear water. Four Thousand Islands is nothing like that, yet the area keeps attracting thousands upon thousands of visitors every year. So if it’s not sandy beaches and the thrill of throwing oneself against rolling waves that makes people want to come to Si Phan Don, then what is it? It’s the tranquil, laid back lifestyle I had mentioned before everything else. And this is also what attracted me to Si Phan Don.
As a permanent traveler, it’s always nice to come somewhere where I can kick back and recharge before I hit the road again. And… Si Phan Don delivered. The life on Four Thousand Islands is as slow paced as they say and people as friendly as they get. You rent a bicycle and they don’t even give you a lock or ask for a passport as collateral because nothing of larger size can be moved out of the island without someone noticing.
Tourism on Four Thousand Islands
Si Phan Don is changing. It is still one of the most laid back places a traveler can visit, but mass tourism is taking its inevitable toll. Boats now peddle (figuratively, not literally) between the islands and the mainland more often than they used to because islands can no longer provide enough food to feed all those tourists who head that way every day. Electricity is becoming more common and so is the internet (albeit… the latter is still extremely pricey).
Tourism has also inadvertedly changed the lives of the villagers on Si Phan Don who have transformed their lifestyles to focus on reaping the benefits of this lucrative industry. Former fishermen now run guesthouses and restaurants the per capita density of which is staggering. Number of boats standing by to transport foreigners between the islands and the mainland keeps growing while number of boats still fishing – actually, I have no stats for that so I can’t say for sure. Oops 🙂
Which Island to Stay On?
Since Si Phan Don literally translates into Four Thousand Islands, it is expected that Don means Island in Lao. Three of the larger islands with tourist facilities are Don Khong, Don Det and Don Khon. All three are equally tranquil, offering an escape from hustle and bustle but each caters to different crowd.
I ended up staying on Don Det, which is a party island catering to younger crowd with backpacker style accommodation. Since Don Khon is connected to Don Det by a bridge, it is possible to easily explore it while still staying in a lower grade, but cheaper guesthouse on Don Det. There are two waterfalls on Don Khon and they are the primary reason why you want to explore that island. One of the waterfalls is said to be the largest waterfall in SE Asia as far as the volume of water is involved (in rainy season, I guess).
Don Khon would be a good option if you desire better quality accommodation (and are fine paying adequate price for it) but want to be able to socialize with other travelers. Since you don’t need to jump on a boat to get on or back from Don Det, socializing is just a short bike ride away, yet you get to sleep in a decent room, far away from the crowds of Don Det.
Don Khong is the largest of the Si Phan Don islands but since it has nothing other than the same tranquility you can find on Don Khon to offer, I have never paid it a visit. With its higher quality lodging, Don Khong primarily attracts families and travelers who are not on a budget. It’s a good place if you want to chill and do a big load of nothing on top of it. It wouldn’t be a good place if you get easily bored.
Don Det of the Four Thousand Islands was the first and the last place in Laos where it was possible to be on the cheap (except from the internet, which is some of the most expsnive in the world). After I had left Si Phan Don, things got pretty pricey (by South East Asian standards). I never would have thought that traveling through Laos was gonna be more expensive than traveling through Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia or China. For a backpacker, any way you spin it, Four Thousand Islands is a good place to hang out on for a while.
As a traveler on a budget, you typically stick with essentials and only spend money on necessities. Unless you feel like indulging yourself, your daily expenses revolve around paying for accommodation, transportation, food, drinking water and sometimes… motorcycle or bicycle rental. As it turns out, when visiting Laos, the cost associated with these essentials spirals up to a level that’s vastly disproportionate to the country’s GDP and is higher than in neighboring countries, even though Laos is considered to be one of the lesser developed nations in the regions.
Renting a motorcycle or a bicycle for a day often ends up being the most economical solution even though rentals are not particularly cheap. However since the sites you want to visit could be at some distance from the nearest town offering accommodation, or they could be spread out over a larger area so covering it on foot is impossible, then a motorcycle or bicycle rental not only ends up being cheaper than taking a taxi, it also gives you more freedom. You can stop when you feel like stopping without having additional charges imposed upon yourself, you can take a detour when you feel like taking a detour and you don’t have to listen to anyone who whines that they want more money because you took such a long time while you were at the site. Plus there is the good feeling with slight adrenaline rush you experience while riding.
Renting a motorcycle or a bicycle is definitely a good way to go sometimes, but as with everything else in Laos, rentals are much more expensive here than in neighboring countries. Let’s take a look at the costs:
Cost of Bicycle Rentals in Laos
The only place where a bicycle could be rented for a reasonable price was Don Det of 4,000 Islands. Old beater without shocks and gears could be rented for 10,000 Kip (roughly $1,20 US), a decent (well, I mean decent by SE Asian standards) mountain bike with gears would cost you 25,000 – 30,000 Kip ($3 – $3,65 US).
Outside of Don Det, back on the mainland of Laos, it was either difficult (nigh impossible) to find a place that would have bicycles for rent, of the cost would be so high I had to drop the idea of considering it. Gone were the days when I could have a decent bike for $2 or a Chinese beater for $1 like it was in Cambodia. Here in Laos, there were places that asked for as much as 50,000 Kip (about $6 US) for a rental starting in the morning and ending in the evening of the same day.
Cost of Motorcycle Rentals in Laos
It got even more ridiculous with motorcycle rentals. 100,000 Kip (more than $12 US) was a normal asking price. Some places, such as Pakse in the south had 100cc scooters for as low as 80,000 Kip (almost $10 US) per day and even though it was possible to negotiate a discount and get it for 70,000 Kip (three of us came to rent a motorcycle each, so we were able to beat the price down a bit), it was still expensive by SE Asian standards.
You can rent a motorcycle for $4 or $5 per day in Cambodia. It ends up being roughly the same in Thailand (160 Baht for a 100cc and 200 Baht for a 125cc bike, which is $5 or $6.25 US respectively) but the same thing in Laos ends up costing twice as much. However I must retract my “the same thing” statement as rental motorcycles available in Cambodia and Thailand are made by recognizable brands (such as Suzuki, Yamaha or Honda) whereas most motorcycle rentals in Laos are brands you have never heard of, such as Kolao which is what I got in Phonsavan.
An important thing to take into an account when renting a motorcycle in Laos is that you will pay a per day price (which is high to begin with) but you will not get a motorcycle for a day. You will get it for half a day. That means that you pick it up during the day, but you must return it in the evening (usually at 7pm). That’s about 12 hours of rental, if you can get up early!
Furthermore, if you take into account that you can rent a car for $10 for 24 hours in Canada, than paying the same amount for a no name motorcycle for 12 hours in Laos is outrageous. Nevermind the fact that your car rental in Canada would come with guarantees, insurance and customer support of an international corporation and a car would be no more than one year old. In Laos – you get no guarantees, you only get insurance only if you’re lucky and pay extra for it and there will be no customer support should anything go afish. The motorcycle will be quite worn out, quite a few years old and quite possibly a challenge to keep safely on the road.
As everything else a tourist needs, motorcycle and bicycle rentals are also very expensive in Laos. I expected exact opposite when visiting this country, but by South East Asian standards, Laos truly is an expensive country to visit. Thank God you could get BeerLao for cheap. That’s the only thing that makes up for otherwise overpriced everything else.
Tap water in Laos is not potable (not safe for drinking). I would not drink tap water anywhere in South East Asia but as a long term traveler who really doesn’t need to get sick while on the road, I also brush my teeth and gurgle them clean with bottled water. Unfortunately when it comes to the cost of safe for drinking bottled water, as is the case of virtually everything else a traveler needs, the cost of staying hydrated is also far more expensive in Laos than in neighboring countries.
But that’s not all – as if being unreasonably expensive wasn’t bad enough, most bottled water available in Laos is not mineral water from quality underground source. It is mostly treated tap water, run through some filters – perhaps exposed to the UV radiation or ozone to kill potential bacteria – but to what extent it is being done and how reliably is the filtering process supervised is anybody’s guess. In an economy where food and beverage regulation are lax, it’s easy to cut corners, especially if there are quite decent profits looking to be made. Yet despite being of such low quality and questionable purity, bottled water costs more in Laos than quality mineral water from a coveted sources in Thailand or Cambodia.
Tiger Head appeared to be the one bottled water quality and purity of which didn’t seem to be as questionable, but a bottle of Tiger Head was even more expensive than already overpriced treated tap water. Careful though as lesser quality Lion Head bottled water is also sold in Laos but it’s not the same as Tiger Head. Lion Head simply utilizes the game of words to make itself easily confused with its superior competitor.
Tiger Head water is bottled by the same company that brews Beer Lao and as such, bears the same tiger head (yellow silhouette of the big cat’s head) logo as you would find on their beer. I found Tiger Head to be the best tasting and purest drinking water available in Laos, but while you can find it for as little as 5,000 Kip (roughly $.60 US) in Vientiane and Pakse, be prepared to shell out 6,000 (roughly $.75 US) or more for it in Luang Prabang and other areas.
For comparison purposes, 1.5 litre bottle of Water O – quality mineral water treated by using Japanese water purification technology can be bought for 2,000 Riel in Cambodia (about $.50 US) and two 1.5 litre bottles of Minere – the finest quality mineral water available in South East Asia can be had for 22 Baht (roughly $.68 US) at Thailand’s Family Mart stores. One bottle of Minere costs 15 Baht (about $.45 US) in Seven Eleven.
There is also a wide availability of water kiosks all over the countries like Malaysia or Thailand. These purified water dispensers can be found on the streets of every town and for mere 1 Baht (in Thailand) or 10 Sen (in Malaysia) – equivalent to $.03 US – you can have your 1.5 litre bottle refilled with treated and purified, safe for drinking water. Since owners of these water kiosks can choose how much water he/she wants to dispense per which coin, some of the kiosks would need as much as 2 or 3 baht (or 20 to 30 Sen in case of Malaysia) to fill up your 1.5 litre water bottle, but this is the most economical and most environment friendly way to stay hydrated in South East Asia.
Unfortunately, I have never seen a water kiosk in Laos so having to spend lots of money for bottled water was the only way to survive. The cost of a single bottle of water doesn’t seem that high, but since Laos is in a tropical climate, excessive sweating is normal and that increases your body’s demand for water. At the end of the trip, the cost of staying reasonably hydrated in Laos added up to quite a chunk of money. And dont even start me on the cost of energy boosting coconut water in Laos…
As a traveller, dining in Laos is also not as cheap as in other SE Asian countries. When it comes to food, Laos adopted that crappy discriminating practise widely popularized throughout Cambodia. Just as it is in Cambodia, Laos eateries believe that it is perfectly justifiable to overcharge (rip off) foreigners so getting food for the price a local would pay is rare.
Restaurants in popular tourist areas have menus in both Lao and English, but don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s bilingual. This is just an illusion created to make you believe that you are getting a local deal, but the prices on the menu only apply to foreigners. A local would come, look at the menu, smile at it, put it aside and ask in a language you cannot understand how much it was going to be for him which will never end up being the same as what you as a foreigner would have to pay.
Out of this part of South East Asia, Thailand is the best country when it comes to the availability of locally priced food available to foreigners. Prices in Thailand are often clearly marked and visibly posted, even if you go to the most non touristy market in an area where you will have been the only foreigner in ages. Yet the price posted will apply globally – this is how much this particular item costs and everyone, regardless of their color of skin will pay this amount. There is no such thing as different price for different people. Sadly, that’s not how it works in Laos. As a tourist, aside from finding transportation and accommodation vastly overpriced compared to other countries in SE Asia, I also found lack of inexpensive foods available to foreigners financially exhausting.
Bowl of fried rice with squid and shrimp can be had for $1 in Cambodia. That same amount will buy you steamed rice with nice dose of (really spicy, mind you) chicken stew in Thailand and in Vietnam, you could also almost throw a beer in it with food but forget about getting a decent portion for an equivalent of $1 in Laos.
Pakse in southern Laos was the only place where white bread sandwich with friend egg and veggies could be had for 8,000 Kip (roughly $1) but be prepared to shell out more everywhere else.
Overall, even for a skilled budget traveller capable of finding the means to travel, sleep and eat on the cheap, Laos happens to be an expensive trip. As a foreigner, the cost of food will be out of proportion to what locals pay but that’s a sad reality of many places in the region.
One thing in Laos frequently used by travellers that’s far more expensive than anywhere else in South East Asia is transportation. You’ll be able to cover twice the distance for half the money in other SE Asian countries, including seemingly more expensive Malaysia, than in Laos. The cost of transportation was what was killing my wallet the most while I was in Laos. Songthaew (back of a truck) is a less expensive option, but it is significantly less reliable, much slower and incomparably less comfortable to a point that unless you carry a really tiny backpack and don’t mind sitting squashed with your knees tucked tightly under your chin while dozens of chickens peep hung off of the carrier bar next to your head for upwards of 8 hours, then this little saving is not that great of an option.
Since Laos has been on a map of individual travellers for a few years now, decent transportation options comparable to those found in the more developed neighbours are nowadays widely available, however they are significantly more expensive than what you would pay for when covering the same distance or traveling for the same length of time in other SE Asian countries.
While cost of transportation in Laos is high as it is, unless you buy your inter city ticket directly from the provider (aka from the booth of the company running the bus), you will also end up paying the tour agency fee which will bump the already high total cost even higher up. Most travel agencies will sell the ticket with 30% – 50% markup which is brutal.
For example an air-conditioned (albeit squishy, with no leg room) overnight bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang costs 115,000 Kip (about $14 US based on 2010 exchange rates) when purchased directly from the bus company but if you buy the same thing from a tour operator in Vientiane, you end up shelling out 150,000 Kip (about $18,50 US) or more. Though the latter will also include tuk-tuk transport from your guesthouse to the bus station, tuk-tuks can be easily individually arranged and should cost no more than 10,000 Kip. In this case the tour agency charges extra 30% on top of the ticket price.
Luang Prabang is about 390 km from Vientiane and the journey by bus takes about 8 hours to complete (includes a few stops along the way). For comparison purposes, Cambodian Siem Reap is 544 km from Sihanoukville. Overnight bus trip with lots of leg room takes about 10,5 hours to complete (with a few stops) and costs $16 (September 2009), inclusive of a tuk tuk pickup from your guesthouse to the bus station. Similarly, Thai island of Phuket is about 840 km from Bangkok. To cover the distance, the overnight bus takes 12 hours to complete with only one stop along the way, however even though it’s more than twice the distance compared to the Vientiane to Luang Prabang bus trip, the cost is only 495 Baht (roughly $15,50 US) and you get to travel in a much more comfortable, modern bus than in Laos.
The cost of transportation in Laos took me by surprise. No matter how you spin it, covering the same distance or travelling for the same amount of time will usually end up costing you much more than it would in any of the neighboring countries. And you definitely won’t be getting what you’re paying for as buses serving Laos are older, louder, dirtier, and offer less comfort and leg room.