Laos Is Still a Bargain–Even at the Top End

Since I first backpacked around the world in the 90s, a lot of places have gone from shoestring travel hotspots to upscale magazine hotspots. (Hoi An, Ubud, Prague, Budapest…)

When this happens, the hotel and restaurant prices quickly start marching upward. Soon a few five-star hotels open with prices close to the international average and chefs start going all gourmet on us, complete with tiny bits of fusion food stacked up on pretty plates. So I was encouraged to see a story about Vientiane, Laosin this past Sunday’s New York Times. The town hasn’t gone over the top yet.
The NYTimes travel section usually looks at the concept of “budget travel” the way a clerk at Barney’s looks at me when I start fingering their $400 neckties—with only slightly disguised disdain. So when they write about a destination you can expect to find a list of the most expensive indulgences around.

Despite that, the hotels and restaurants in Laos still look refreshingly cheap. Two of their three hotel examples could really be called a bargain, at $55 and $120 per night, the latter for a big suite, a pool, free wi-fi, and $5 airport transfers. Some creep is coming in though: The uppity Settha Palace is $180 per night and Internet access is $16 for five hours. Good thing they get a steady supply of World Bank and NGO execs with an expense account.

But really, for a long time now Vientiane has been a city that needed an upgrade. In contrast to Luang Prabang, lodging was an afterthought. From the very bottom end to the very top, for too many years it was hard to find a good place to stay. Now there are hotels you would actually want to spend more than one night in.

The restaurants were always a different story though, with a steady supply of foreign aid workers keeping demand and standards high for the interesting mix of food influences. Here again, the Times had a hard time spending a lot of kip. Dinner for two was $10 at one spot and $20 at another—for two. The writer managed to spend $60 for two at Le Central, but it’s a French place filled with French people, that serves French wine. And from what I hear, two people can still get a big bowl of noodle soup at a street stall for less than $1.50, so life is still looking good in Laos.

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