How I Went Backpacking in Laos for 5 Days with Only PHP 15K+ on Hand

Laos or Lao People's Democratic Republic is a small country in Southeast Asia. Although often overshadowed by its bordering countries Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, it now has a rising popularity among tourists for its rich natural resources and backpacker-friendly environment.

It may be unheard of to me some Filipinos, since at the moment, there's no direct flight from the Philippines to Laos. Nevertheless, it's country with a potential to attract Filipino adventure-goers. Aside from being visa-fee to Philippine passport holders, Laos is very safe especially to solo female travelers like me. It's also a haven for backpackers as everything is cheap and budget friendly.

I spent 5 days and 4 nights in Laos where I was able to cover two cities, Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Here's a rundown of what I did and the recommended places:

Day 1: Vientiane
Going around Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is very easy. For one, the street signs are very reliable and Lao people are also very friendly. Although some of them can't speak English, they always try their best to give directions. As general tip, Lan Xang Avenue serves as a good reference point in the city center. It's where most tourist attractions are at.

Patuxai Monument
This Europe-feel Patuxai Monument is a memorial for all the heroes of war during the French colonial period. Its architecture is notable as it resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Entrance fee: 3,000 kip (PHP 18) if you want to climb the monument to get a 360-degree view of the city.

Presidential Palace
At the other end of Lan Xang Avenue is the Presidential Palace, which holds all important ceremonies and events of the government. Although not open to public, the exterior is a sure standout. It's a good stop for taking photos.

Entrance fee: Free

Sisaket Temple
The Wat Si Saket or Sisaket Temple is one of the oldest temples in Vientiane. It's distinctly known for the striking and yellowish color of the pillars. Several bronze and stone Buddhas can be seen around. Most locals go here in the morning to pray.

Entrance fee: 5,000 kip (PHP 30)

Day 2: Vientiane

Pha That Luang

Seeing Pha That Luang was the highlight of my short trip to Vientiane. Also known as the Great Sacred Stupa, it's the main religious monument in the capital. Buddhists believe that it contains relics (a breastbone) of Buddha. Pha That Luang is also a national symbol of Laos. In fact, an image of it is depicted in their banknotes.

Entrance fee: 5,000 kip (PHP 30)

Mekong River
What's good about Vientiane is that despite being a city, the riverside provides a relaxing suburb feel. If you've been around Southeast Asia, you probably heard of Mekong River already, a long river that flows through the Indochina peninsula. The side of Mekong River in Vientiane is a perfect spot to catch the sunset or staying until nighttime at the riverside bars and restaurants.

Entrance fee: Free

Chao Anouvong Park
Next to Mekong River is this small park featuring a huge bronze statue of Chao Anouvong, Laos’ last king from the Lan Xang Kingdom. A short stop here is nice for taking photos and marveling at the size of the statue.

Entrance fee: Free

Day 3: Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is a province in Laos located north of the capital. It's a UNESCO Heritage Site for its rich cultural heritage. On the third day, I traveled to Luang Prabang by taking a VIP sleeper bus that left Vientiane at 8:30PM and arrived on the next day. Although it was a long 11-hour ride, I just slept the entire time. It was a safe and comfortable ride.

Mount Phousi

In the middle of downtown Luang Prabang is a 150-meter hill that they call as Mount Phousi seated between two rivers, the Mekong River and Khan River. Going up may require a 20-30-minute leg work for the 335 steps but the view from the top is breathtaking. It is a good place to catch the sunrise or sunset.

Entrance fee: 20,000 kip (PHP 122)

Luang Prabang Night Market
Starting at 6:00PM, the stretch of Sisavangvong Road gets closed for the Luang Prabang night market. Vendors slowly pull out and spread their different products that are mostly for souvenirs. Similar to night markets in Asia, it is street smart to haggle for the price. Cheap and delicious local food are also in the night market. (The Lao baguette is a must-try!)

Entrance fee: Free
* Prices of items at the night market vary. Make sure to bargain. Fridge magnets, for example, usually start at 30,000 kip (PHP183) but I was able to bring the price down to 15,000 kip (PHP 91).

Day 4: Luang Prabang

Kuang Si Falls
As said, a trip to Luang Prabang won’t be complete without seeing the natural gem Kuang Si Falls, a huge 150-meter waterfall with 3 tiers of strong and rapid water. Looking at it is like a painting that came to life, which is truly a gift from nature. A 30-minute trek to the top can let visitors swim in the mini pools located at the peak (Tip: Two trails are available. The easier trail is at the left when facing the waterfalls)

Kuang Si Falls is far from downtown Luang Prabang, so a cheap way to get there is by joining a half day group tour that's usually composed of 12-15 participants. This tour is convenient since an air-conditioned van fetches you from your accommodation. The rate usually starts at 50,000 kip (PHP 305). Another way is to get a group of 6 travelers and negotiate a two-way ride with a tuktuk driver.

Entrance fee: 20,000 kip (PHP 122)

Day 5: Luang Prabang

Old Quarter

The Old Quarter is a long street of ancestral buildings preserved through the years. Looking at this street is like traveling back in time. It's a cool place to meet backpackers as most of the restaurants, bars, and guest houses are in the area.

Entrance fee: Free

As mentioned, there's no direct flight from the Philippines to Laos yet. With that, I booked 2 flights: Manila to Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane. On the way back, instead of returning to Vientiane, I departed in Luang Prabang to save time and money.

I managed to spend only PHP15,000+ for this Laos trip including air fare, airport taxes, accommodations, food, transportation, and other basics. Overall, I can say that Laos is cheap especially the food. Here's a breakdown of the expenses:

Expense Details
PHP 1620
Philippine Airport Tax
PHP 700
Manila to Kuala Lumpur flight (promo fare)
PHP 2990
Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane flight (promo fare)
PHP 3300
Luang Prabang to Kuala Lumpur flight (promo fare)
PHP 1125
Kuala Lumpur to Manila flight (promo fare)
207,000 kip (PHP 1258)
Transportation in Vientiane for 2 days
105,000 kip (PHP 638)
Accommodation in Vientiane for 1 day
13,000 kip (PHP 79)
Entrance fees to attractions in Vientiane
100,500 kip (PHP 611)
Food expenses in Vientiane for 2 days
150,000 kip (PHP 912)
VIP sleeper bus to Vientiane
60,000 kip (PHP 365)
Transportation in Luang Prabang for 3 days
163,645 kip (PHP 995)
Accommodation in Luang Prabang for 3 days
50,000 kip (PHP 304)
Kuang Si Falls half day tour
40,000 kip (PHP 243)
Entrance fees to attractions in Luang Prabang
189,000 kip (PHP 1152)
Food expenses in Luang Prabang for 3 days
65,000 kip (PHP 395)

TOTAL: PHP 16,687

When in India: Fatehpur Sikri

People heading to Taj Mahal usually pass by Fatehpur Sikri, a small town 20-30 minutes away from Agra downtown in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Aside from proximity, what’s truly inviting is the well-preserved Mughal architecture in this town where most landmarks are covered in red sandstone, and in fact was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Jodha Bai’s Palace
This palace was named after Jodha Bai, the third wife of King Akbar of the Mughal empire. It primarily served as harem, a domestic space reserved for the wives and concubines of the king. The architecture has huge Hindu influence that’s mostly seen in the carvings of elephants, lotus flowers, and other significant symbols in Hinduism.

The complex is divided into several areas. A few of its notable structures include:
Diwan-i-Aam - Upon entering the palace, this is probably the first area to be seen. The Diwan-i-Aam was the hall of public audience where many significant public events in Fatehpur Sikri were held. People usually stand around this area while the royalties were seated at the pillared sections.

Panch Mahal - This 5-storey building served as view deck of queens who were not allowed to be seen in public. Back in the day, it used the have jail-like screens to cover these women. The 176 pillars served as divisions to equally provide space among the many wives and concubines of the king. Panch Mahal was also called as as “Badgir,” which means wind-catching tower.

Diwan-i-Khas - This is also called the Hall of Private Audiences that served as receiving area limited to several people only. It has more detailed design reserved to impress the king's important guests.
Inside is a huge central pillar with 36 beautifully carved brackets.

Jama Masjid Mosque in Fatehpur Sikri
Built in 1571 by King Akbar, it was one of the earliest structures built in Fatehpur Sikri.
It’s a work of art for the intricate floral arabesque and other geometrical carvings on the walls. It primarily serves as a place of worship and teaching for the Muslims.

This mosque resembles the Jama Masjid Mosquein New Delhi. But aside from this mosque, there are other notable areas in the complex including:

Buland Darwaza
This beautiful structure is actually the gate that leads to the courtyard of the mosque. It’s a standout for its 42 steps at 50 meters high.

It’s also called the “Gate of Magnificence” that was built after Fatehpur Sikri won in a civil war with Gujarat, a state in western India.
The dome-shaped structure on top is called chhatris (which means canopy or umbrella) that is an important element in Indian architecture.

Tomb of Salim Christi
This mausoleum is a tribute by King Akbar to Salim Christi who foretold the birth of his son. He lived a noble life who soon was declared a saint of Sufism, a mystical form of belief in Islam.
People visiting this place usually make a wish who tie a thread on the marble screens of the main tomb, serving as reminder to Salim Christi of their wishes.
Entrance fee: 500 INR (8 USD)
* This includes access to both Jodha Bai’s Palace and Jama Masjid Mosque.
Hours: 8:00AM to 6:00PM

When in India: New Delhi

My backpacking in India started in the city of New Delhi, the nation’s bustling capital. With New Delhi holding the biggest population across the country, I knew the streets would be busy and noisy, yet the curiosity in me brought me up to its smallest alleys. Here are some notable places I visited in New Delhi:

1. Jama Masjid Mosque
Islam is a leading religion in India next to Hinduism, thus mosques can be seen throughout the country. The Jama Masjid Mosque in New Delhi is considered as one of the largest mosques in India built in 1600s by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the same person who created the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

Also read: When in India: My Number One Tip to Enjoy Taj Mahal in Agra

This mosque is made up of marble and sandstone, which gives the dominant reddish color. The exterior and interior architecture of the Jama Masjid Mosque is truly a work of art.
Entrance fee: INR 300 (5 USD) for foreigners
Hours: 7AM to 12PM and 1:30PM to 6:30PM
Note: Women must observe proper attire. The knees and shoulders must not be exposed. Vestiture may be borrowed at the entrance.

2. India Gate
With similar looks to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the India Gate is a scenic stone structure standing 42 meters in the heart of New Delhi. It serves as a memorial to the Indian soldiers who fought for the British Army during World War I. Engraved to this gate are over 13,000 names of both Indian and British soldiers.

Around the area is a vast open space and lawn area where people usually go on a picnic. It’s best to go here in the afternoon, and possibly stay until nighttime to catch nearby display of lights at the fountain.

Entrance fee: Free
Hours: No closing time

3. Red Fort Delhi
A historical landmark and a World Heritage Site named by UNESCO, the Red Fort is a complex that primarily served as defense camp back in the day. It was also where the past emperors of the Mughal dynasty used to reside.

Aside from its historical significance, the Red Fort is an important venue for India's Independence Day celebrated every August 15 where the Indian flag is being raised to commemorate their freedom from Great Britain. In 1947, the flag was raised for the first time at the Lahori Gate of Red Fort.

Entrance fee: INR 550 (8 USD) for foreigners
Hours: 6AM to 5:30PM

4. Raj Ghat
Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps the most popular leader in India. He's definitely a force to be reckoned with who was behind the peaceful movement that led to India’s independence from the British. With this, the Raj Ghat was built as a memorial to him.
A huge black marble is found at the center, which is the exact spot where Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation was performed. However, his ashes aren’t there anymore since, as said, the ashes were distributed to family members and a few were scattered in the Arabian Sea. 

Entrance fee: Free
Hours: 6:30AM to 6:00PM
Note: There’s a need to remove footwear upon entrance.

5. Parliament House
The Parliament House is an impression of strong British influence, which adds variety to tourist destinations in New Delhi. A notable area in the complex is the dome-shaped Central Hall where the Indian constitution was historically drafted. Other buildings are meant for offices of the Parliament Committee that are still being used today.

There’s also a museum inside that opens from 11AM-5PM. It’s closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Entrance fee: 10 INR (0.20 USD) for adults and free for children
Hours: 11AM-5PM for the museum

When in India: My Number One Tip to Enjoy Taj Mahal in Agra

Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built with love by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to lay down his most beloved departed wife Mumtaz Mahal, thus making it a symbol of true love. The architecture is known for its perfect symmetry covered in white marble and ivory. Its construction started in 1643 that took years and Indian rupees to finish.

Taj Mahal is a renowned landmark not only in India but in the world. With UNESCO World Heritage Site and Seven Wonders of the World next to its name, seeing it is truly a dream come true. Nevertheless, it would be good to plan the visit there, since it’s expected to be as crowded as one can ever think of. So with thousands of tourists and locals at the sight, how to beat the crowd when visiting Taj Mahal?

My answer: COME EARLY.  Here’s why. 

Less Crowd in the Morning
While most monuments in India are open from 9:00AM to 4:30PM, Taj Mahal’s open hours is an exception. It actually opens at sunrise (as early as 6:00AM) and closes at sunset (as late as 6:00PM).
Being early is a good way to avoid the crowd at Taj Mahal because not all tourists may know that it’s already opened and it’s also a fact that majority aren’t early risers. Moreover, most group tours (like a bulk of Chinese tourists with yelling tour guides carrying flags!) usually start flocking at Taj Mahal 9:00AM onward.
With my experience, I left the hotel at 5:30AM and easily reached the north of Taj Mahal in 10 minutes. At that time, there wasn't much vehicle on the road and parking lot yet including the huge tour buses.

Note: Taxis, buses, and private cars are only allowed up to a certain drop-off point. From there, either walking or riding an auto rickshaw (INR 10 each) is needed to reach the north gate.
Tip: If you’ll stay in a hotel with inclusive breakfast, visit Taj Mahal first and then return to the hotel to eat breakfast. Hotel breakfast buffets in Agra usually run up to 10:00AM anyway. Also, if you’ll avail of an Agra tour, you may request Taj Mahal as the first stop, go back to the hotel for breakfast, and then do the rest of the tour afterward.

Shorter Queue
Taj Mahal has an increasing attraction of 7-8 million tourists per year. With this number, it’s most likely given to fall in line in this tourist attraction. From queues at the entrance booth to the entrance gate, visitors also fall in line to enter the mausoleum. So if you really want to spend more time exploring Taj Mahal than falling in line, then better come early. Also, lines are worst on weekends, so if possible, try going on a midweek (like Wednesday).

The mausoleum is the highlight and centerpiece of the 17-hectare Taj Mahal complex. It's where Mumtaz Mahal's body was buried, and later Shah Jahan's body too. Visitors are allowed to enter and pass through it, but usually gets congested because it's a narrow and dark path.

Note: Taking photos inside the mausoleum is not allowed.

Better in Pictures
It’s not everyday to have a beautiful sight like Taj Mahal, so taking pictures of it serves as good remembrance. Having too many photobombers, however, somehow makes the photos of Taj Mahal less Instagram-worthy.
Tip: People usually start taking photos at the hand rail after passing through the north gate, thinking that it’s the best spot to capture Taj Mahal. Skip this spot, move forward, and go near the pond instead. This gives a better angle and the water complements a nicer photo.
Also, as a photography savvy, Taj Mahal in the morning creates more drama in pictures. The natural light from the sun rays makes a picture-perfect finish.

More Relaxed Time to Explore
If you have limited time in Agra, starting early is the best way to get the most out of it. You are also most likely to avoid the heat of the sun at noontime. Note that Agra is a humid city, which can rise up to 40°C during hot and dry season (March to May).  
(Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah)
After allotting 2-3 hours exploring Taj Mahal, you can check out other historical and architectural landmarks in Agra including Agra Fort, Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah (also known as the “Baby Taj Mahal”), Akbar’s Tomb, and others. Agra is a relaxing place to visit with most of the tourist attractions sitting next to Yamuna River.

Taj Mahal
Location: Uttar Pradesh, Agra District, India
Entrance fee: INR 1,000 (USD 15) for foreigners
 *Children 15 and below have free admission
Open hours: Sunrise to sunset (closed on Fridays)

Check out the rest of my India series:
When in India: Amber Fort, Jaipur
Viajera Vlog: India

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