Food & Drink

Laos Has Reopened Its Tranquil Towns to Travelers With No Restrictions

You know you’ve missed lullaby-beautiful Luang Prabang, cafe culture Vientiane, and all the spicy food and welcoming culture in between. Here’s what you need to know to visit now. (Hint: not much!)

Sunset at Song River, Vang Vieng, Laos

Sunset at Song River, Vang Vieng, Laos. Photo by Oatfeelgood/Getty Images Pro/Canva

By Jason Rolan

May 18, 2022

LAOS, THE QUIET HEART of Southeast Asia, keeps a low profile. And for the last two years during the pandemic, it was especially off the radar – until recently surprising the world by declaring its borders reopened again. Anyone who wants to escape on a pleasant stroll through UNESCO-protected Luang Prabang, a rejuvenating trek alongside elephants in the lush jungle, a smooth glide through rugged karst landscapes in the new high-speed train, or simply via a relaxing Beerlao at sunset on the Mekong is now welcome – just bring your vaccination card.

In a great regional reopening, Laos is the final piece in the Southeast Asian puzzle welcome back travel, meaning all international borders and airports are open with e-visas (laoevisa.gov.la) and visas-on-arrival for most nationalities in place, exactly as before. Fully vaccinated travelers can simply show a vaccination card and then roam about the country. Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated travelers over 12 years old can show a rapid ATK test result issued within 48 hours of departure to Laos. 

Tad Sae Waterfall, Laos reopened
Tad Sae Waterfall, Laos. Photo by Mediatrix Nathalia/Getty Images/Canva

As of this writing, travelers may enter overland from any border or fly directly from Hanoi, Seoul, Singapore, or Bangkok to the vibrant capital of Vientiane, while the industry scrambles to ratchet up services to the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, too, in the near future. The government, meanwhile, has created a new health and hygiene certification program for the hospitality sector called LaoSafe.

With that in mind, allow us to summarize all the great things to see, do, eat and drink in newly reopened Laos – some old favorites we’ve been missing, some amazing new experiences we can’t wait to try.

Vientiane, the littlest capital

Tacos at Bacan Cafe Laos reopened
Courtesy of Bacan Cafe

The French colonial influence still hums in the background of Asia’s smallest capital, especially its cafe culture replete with artisanal Lao roasts and delicious pastries. New stars of Vientiane’s robust culinary scene are cosmopolitan French-Asian fusion Metisse, and colorful Chilean Bacan Cafe, featuring the country’s best tacos. For a nightcap, 525 has a full drinks menu and creative tapas in the garden of a heritage home, and Gallery38 serves up posh speakeasy vibes above a nondescript liquor store. Work off the hangover with a breath of fresh air at nearby Nam Pien Yorla Pa, which offers ziplining and canopy walks through a protected forest, as well as modern cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows to enjoy nature in comfort.

Speedier travel

Laos-China Raiway's Business Class Laos reopened
Laos-China Raiway’s Business Class. Courtesy of Laos-China Raiway.

Long travel times by car often irked visitors to Laos. Fast-forward to today and two of Laos’s most ambitious infrastructure projects have sped up travelers’ journeys. The Vientiane-Vang Vieng Expressway allows vehicles to zip through the countryside covering in one hour what a 4-hour journey did previously. This is just the first phase in a grand plan for a highway all the way to the Chinese border.

And then there is the crown jewel of Lao infrastructure: the Laos-China Railway. This electric train clocks speeds of 120 kph as it snakes past pristine countryside, across an amazing 62 kilometers of bridges, and through 198 kilometers of tunnels over a distance of 422 kilometers to the Chinese border. Impressive numbers aside, it’s now the most popular and frequent method of getting to all points northward. Once the Laos-Chinese border is finally reopened, the train ride from Vientiane to Kunming will surely become a highlight in itself. Trains come in comfy 2nd and 1st class seating options, and some even have a plush business class with fully reclining seats, but as the longest journey is just 3.5 hours, you might not need it.

New-look Vang Vieng

Above Laos Ballooning Adventures reopened to travelers
Courtesy of Above Laos Ballooning Adventures

Road and rail are popular routes to Vang Vieng, Laos’ (in)famous outdoor playground. Picture-perfect limestone mountains and a lazy river are a salve for hectic workaday life. Travelers love kayaking and hiking up mountain viewpoints, but for a completely new look at the stunning landscape, see it by hot air balloon with Above Laos Ballooning Adventures, complete with a glass of champagne.

Everyone’s fave, Luang Prabang

Swimming Pool, Sofitel Laung Prabang
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Courtesy of Amantaka; courtesy of Belmond La Residence Phou Vao; courtesy of Sofitel Luang Prabang

Farther north, Luang Prabang, the old royal capital crowned in glittering temples, still drips with charm and atmosphere. Posh options abound: Sofitel Luang Prabang, Belmond La Residence Phou Vao, Amantaka… and of course Rosewood Luang Prabang, celebrity architect Bill Bensley’s fever dream homage to 19th-century exploration. Built around a waterfall, each of the 23 rooms — six of them lavish luxury tents — is a cabinet of curiosities accoutered with an explorer’s ephemera, from historical maps to vintage steam trunks, and botanical sketches.

There’s no better way to complete a stay in Land of a Million Elephants than with a responsible non-riding encounter with one of these magnificent beasts. Mandalao facilitates intimate walks with elephants in their natural habitat near Luang Prabang – one for the memory books.

How to visit Laos now

Beginning in January, Laos sort-of-kind-of reopened, piloting a Green Travel Zone scheme that allowed tourists to enter the country, be tested and quarantined for 48 hours, and then guided on their travels under the auspices of a tour company. The sheer number of bureaucratic hurdles, as well as expensive sporadic flights, caused only 500 tourists to brave the journey. Thankfully, this is all in the past, and visitors can once again relish in the tranquil delights and natural exploration that Laos has to offer. Here’s a handy infographic explaining how Laos has reopened now:

Thanks to simple entry procedures, now is the time to recharge your soul in the stillness, beauty, and warmth of Laos. Now that the sleepy country has reopened, tourist areas murmur and thrive again, so the utter quiet won’t last long.

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