Laos vs Cambodia Backpacking: Which is Best for Budget Travel?

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So, it’s come down to Laos vs Cambodia? That’s not a bad decision to have to make. You’ve picked two of the globe’s most intriguing backpacking destinations. Together, they draw in a whopping 10 million visitors each year, many of them shoestring travelers looking to hop hostels and do things on a budget.

There’s no questioning the wonders that lie within each. There’s one mighty showdown of Laos vs Cambodia when it comes to landmarks. We’re talking the likes of Angkor Wat and the UNESCO-tagged temple city of Luang Prabang, which sits atop a hilly perch by the wiggling Mekong River. You’ll also get wild jungles stalked by elephants or swinging with rare gibbons, and a cuisine that’s infused with ginger and lemongrass and five spice.

But Laos and Cambodia have stark differences, too. Despite meeting, border to border, where the Mekong widens in the very heart of Southeast Asia, these two nations offer something different to the budding backpacker. Cue this guide, which looks to weigh up the ins and outs of traveling these two enthralling parts of the planet…

Laos vs Cambodia: Location & geography

beaches in Cambodia
Photo credit: JRF/The Surf Atlas

Cambodia

The Kingdom of Cambodia (as it is officially called) lies on the southeast side of the Indochina Peninsula. It borders Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and both the warm Gulf of Thailand.

Cambodia covers just under 70,000 square miles of land. It’s far less mountainous than Laos, with central plateaus and plains that seem to go on forever in a patchwork of lush rice paddies and gallery forests. There are some striking geographical features, like the huge Tonle Sap Lake (we’ve swum in that on a particularly stunning sunset!) and the wild Cardamom Mountains, which where a refuge for Indochinese tigers as recently as 2007!

The real thing that sends Cambodia into the stratosphere here is the coast. That’s a huge consideration when you come to balance out the Laos vs Cambodia debate, mainly because the beaches are pretty special. You’ve got the softly sloping bays of Sihanoukville and then the idyllic islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem, which have some of the most picture-perfect beaches we’ve seen in the whole of the Thai Gulf!

Laos

Laos is a landlocked country bordered by Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand. It’s often said to be the heart of Southeast Asia, and has a wonderfully wild backcountry that’s scarred by huge karst mountains and blanketed in dense jungles. Landlocked is the keyword: You don’t get ANY coastline in Laos. Forget that sun-soaked vacation to a pristine tropical beach – it’s simply not on the cards.

What Laos offers instead can be tempting. There are monkey-filled woodlands of ancient pedigree up in the Nam Ka National Park, and gorgeous vistas of islands in the Mekong at Si Phan Don, for example. You’ll notice that there’s WAY less development and urbanisation in Laos generally, and it’s often hailed as a glimpse of what Southeast Asia was 10-20 years ago.

The take away: Cambodia has awesome beaches but Laos offers a truly untouched vision of Southeast Asia’s jungles and mountains as they were 20+ years ago.

Laos vs Cambodia: When to visit

mountains in Cambodia
Photo credit: bckfwd/Unsplash

Cambodia

Similarly to Laos, the best period to visit Cambodia is during the high season: November through to March. Those months are almost all dry and cloudless, making them perfect for hitting the islands of the gulf and the beaches of Sihanoukville.

By April, it gets pretty hot in Cambodia, with temperatures rising to about 34 degrees. The monsoon rains come soon after. Most travelers prefer to skip that. But there’s actually something to be said for timing your trip to match with the rains. For one, the backcountry goes green and lush. What’s more, Tonle Sap swells to its largest size, making it the perfect time to visit the iconic floating villages in the heart of the country.

Laos

Laos will is at its most pleasant between October and April, which particular peaks in December and March. During this time, the weather is usually dry and pleasantly warm.

The hottest period of the dry season is April just before the rain begins in May. However, it’s not a bad idea to visit during the rainy season (May to October) if you don’t mind unexpected showers interrupting your outings. It’s all-round cheaper then and there are less people about, but the waterfalls and wildlife are unrivalled.

One thing worth noting: The road network in Laos isn’t what you can describe as fantastic. The monsoon can often shut off key routes, especially in and out of the north and around the sides of the Mekong.

The take away: Cambodia and Laos typically have the same seasonal pattern. The best time to visit both is between November and March.

Laos vs Cambodia: Visas

Palace in Phnom Penh
Photo credit: JRF/The Surf Atlas

Cambodia

Tourists have the opportunity to obtain a visa-on-arrival depending on the country of citizenship. The cost of a visa is $30. It allows for up to 30 days’ travel within Cambodia without the right to exit and reenter.

The last time we flew into Siem Reap airport (back in 2018 now!), getting the visa stamps was a pretty protracted bit of admin. All arrivals are asked to wait in line and handover their passports. After about 20 minutes without our documents we were getting a little worried, but, sure enough, they soon came back with the right stamps and page inserts, so have faith.

Also Read  Is Siem Reap Worth Visiting? More Than Just Angkor Wat?

These days, the simplest way to go about applying for a Cambodian visa is to use the online Cambodian e-Visa service.

Laos

Tourist visas are required to enter Laos. They are available on arrival at specific ports of entry. That said, visas on arrival are restricted to certain countries, so it is important to check if yours is on the list before rocking up to the border.

The visa cost is around £25. To get it, you’ll need two passport-size photos. From our experience, the border folk in Laos are friendly enough, but they’re also infamously picky. You’ll need $35 in US notes that are crisp. And when we say crisp, we mean CRISP – as in literally fresh from the ATM. We saw people turned away because Andrew Jackson had just the slightest crease in his furrowed brow.

The take away: 30-day visas on arrival or pre-clearance eVisas are the norm in both Cambodia and Laos.

Laos vs Cambodia: Transport

Longboat in Luang Prabang
Photo credit:
Hakan Nural/Unsplash

Cambodia

One of the cheapest ways to navigate Cambodia is by tourist bus. They run all over the country, especially on popular routes, like Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, and PP down to Sihanoukville. Giant Ibis served us well when we were doing the main backpacking route through Cambodia in 2017, but a lot of travelers are willing to fork out more for CTT, who don’t go to intermediary stops along the way.

Local travel is about tuk-tuks and taxis. ALWAYS haggle and agree a price before getting in. Drivers are notoriously ruthless in Phnom Penh especially. Also, be ready with USD, because most transportation isn’t done in the local currency.

Laos

Getting from A to B in Laos can be a real chore. An outdated road network and a rugged backcountry that’s scored by tributaries to the Mekong and soaring karst mountain ranges hardly helps matters. Still, that’s the reality and it’s actually part of the fun – we did say that Laos was like Southeast Asia 20 years ago, remember?

If you are traveling at night, double-decker sleeper buses (also known as VIP buses) will undoubtedly make your journey more comfortable. They’re equipped with a blanket, pillow, toilet and air conditioning. Some are better than others, so check online for reviews before you jump in and book.

Backpackers tend to travel at night instead of the morning because it saves the cost of overnight accommodation and the buses are comfortable and relatively affordable.

Laos is also the last place in Southeast Asia where the Mekong River is still a major route through the country. We did the slow boat back in 2013 (a while back now) but it was a true bucket-list experience. They typically start in the bustling port town of Huay Xai on the Thai border and take two or three nights to get to the UNESCO city of Luang Prabang, with a single stop in the remote jungle town of Pak Beng in between. It’s not comfortable but it’s a great way to see this untamed corner of world.

The take away: Cambodia is more your classic Southeast Asian medley of tuk-tuks and VIP buses. Laos has bad infrastructure but that long boat experience is something else entirely!

Laos vs Cambodia: Budget

money
Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash

Cambodia

In Cambodia, a budget of $25-35 per day should be enough for food and accommodation. In fact, that could even leave some change left to spare. However, expect to spend more than this if you visit some of the main attractions that require entry fees. Examples include the forgotten temple of Angkor in Siem Reap ( that now costs $42 for single-day entry, and even more if you want to go in for multiple days to see the lesser-known shrines!).

On the flip side, there are rural towns like Battambang. In those spots, you’ll meet other backpackers and solo travellers who mostly visit sites with a free or very affordable entry fee. It really depends on where you go and where you want to go. Phnom Penh is also pricier than the rest of the country as a whole.

Generally speaking, food and transportation costs in Cambodia are a touch higher than in Laos. We’d estimate that a full week’s trip here would cost around $200-300 USD per person.

Laos

The currency in Laos is the kip (LAK). It’s used almost interchangeable with the USD, at least when it comes to tourists. In fact, you should expect a blatant double economy in Laos. Don’t expect to get things for the same price as the locals. That’s just not how it works.

While ATMs are not scarce in Laos, ensure you have the local currency if you are heading to the rural areas. ATMs in Laos do not dispense over $250 or £190. Furthermore, there’s a withdrawal charge of 3% for every transaction you initiate with a Master or VISA card.

Purchasing items isn’t like it is in the West; you can haggle for almost anything in Laos. The wise thing is to be friendly and polite while you negotiate the prices, but also stick firm to a fair negotiating position. Usually the final selling point is about 2/3 of the marked price.

You can expect to budget around $25-30 per day if you are on a solo trip. This will cover your accommodation, excursions, and food costs.

The take away: Cambodia is just a little more expensive than Laos, but both are cheap, even by Southeast Asian standards.

Laos vs Cambodia: Food

Food in Cambodia
Photo credit: JRF/The Surf Atlas

Cambodia

Food in Cambodia is very affordable, just like what you’ll find in Laos. You can get food for as little as $2 and beer for 50 cents!

Street food in Cambodia comprises mostly noodle and rice dishes, usually accompanied by soy-flavored BBQ meat skewers. The food at tourist hot spots may differ in price – remember that talk of a double economy? We don’t mind too much because there’s now an enticing array of cool cafes and eateries in places like Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. You can just as easily score yourself an avocado toast as a stir fry, so long as you’re willing to pay for it.

We traveled Cambodia as 100% vegetarians in 2017 and it was pretty easy. If you want to eat local then you’ll be on a diet of stir-fry rice and stir-fry noodles. You can also get Khmer-style dishes like coconut curry a la south Thailand. They’re great.

Also Read  Is Cambodia Worth Visiting? 8 Reasons Why You Should Visit

Laos

Food in Laos is not expensive. In fact, $1-2 is the going rate for a plate of street food. It’s more expensive in Vientiane, of course, where international coffee houses and brunch spots are now popping up with brews at $4+ a pop.

The national kitchen is heavily influenced by both Vietnam and Thailand. However, it takes on an earthy, rustic edge, which you’ll see in dishes like kaipen (stir-fried Mekong river weed) and kua pak bong (morning glory water spinach with chili and garlic). Then you get the likes of of khao soi, which is flat noodles in broth cooked in the same way as you’d have in Chiang Rai up in northern Thailand.

French heritage also means that Laos is pretty good at bread – they even have their own version of the breakfast baguette – and there’s red wine in stock in the corner shops, although it does cost.

We ate only veggie in Laos back in 2013 and found it to be the hardest of all the places in Southeast Asia. Things may well have changed, but we remember having to be super vigilant about keeping pork broth and meat cuts out of our dishes. The best way is to dodge street food or literally stand and watch what the chef is doing.

The take away: Neither of these are culinary jewels of Southeast Asia, but both are cheap. That siad, Laos probably just about wins thanks to the lingering French influence.

Laos vs Cambodia: Things to do

Angkor Wat Sights
Photo credit: JRF/Unsplash

Cambodia

Cambodia now takes its place among the true bucket-list destinations of Southeast Asia. And for good reason, too!

There’s no doubt that the mighty temple complexes of Angkor are one of the most amazing things on the globe. They’re so impressive that we saw people going back for more than three days in a row! One day was enough for us, and still left a lasting impression of great architectural and cultural achievements of the Khmer.

Join that together with the fascinating floating villages of Tonle Sap (which you can visit in the same day as Angkor Wat if you like) and you begin to see why the city of Siem Reap – the main gateway to Angkor – is so popular.

Of course, Cambodia has a dark and sobering story to tell. The country still bears the scars of a particularly brutal genocide. That past is at its most striking in the so-called Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, but also at the Khmer Rouge prison known as S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Finally, Cambodia has some wild nightlife to get stuck into. We particularly love the bucket drinking and pub crawls down on the isle of Koh Rong. It’s super chilled and super fun there, and the beaches are simply stunning. Siem Reap also has bar crawls of its own. They’re just some of the reasons why there’s simply no debate when it comes to Laos vs Cambodia on the nightlife front.

Laos

This country is your ticket to the Southeast Asia of yesteryear. A land that’s relatively untouched by the creeping tendrils of globalization, it still comes packed with mist-gathering mountains and jungles filled with 1,000-year-old trees.

The joy of all that is getting authentic enjoyments in a true tropical outback. The likes of the Gibbon Experience (where you’ll zipline with amazing primates) is just one example, but there’s also trekking and tubing in Vang Vieng, and slow boats down the Mekong River.

Since the closure of the Vang Vieng party hub, Laos is now not the best place for party seekers. They’d be better off heading across to Koh Phangan or even south to Cambodia – see above!

Really, this one’s better suited to culture vultures and nature lovers. It’s got the amazing UNESCO city of Luang Prabang, which is far and away the top attraction for us. Head there to get lost under gold-tipped Buddhist temples and wander street bazaars where pickled snake heads lurk in the whisky barrels.

Vientiane, the capital, is also fun, especially if you want to see a living, working Asian city that’s not as overwhelming as, say, Bangkok.

The take away: Laos is for culture buffs and backpackers who like to go off the beaten track. Cambodia has iconic sights and better partying

Laos vs Cambodia Backpacking: Conclusion

Put simply, you can’t go wrong with either Laos or Cambodia when it comes to picking that next backpacking destination. Both give great bang for your buck, offering accommodation and food that costs less than the average in Thailand and Vietnam.

They are countries with great similarities but also many differences. Generally, Laos is about getting a feel for a less-developed, remoter part of Asia. Cambodia offers enthralling historical sites, sobering 20th-century history, and some of the best nightlife this side of Koh Phangan, not to mention the added bonus of beaches!