This guide is part of a series of country-by-country focused resources for Southeast Asia addressing accommodations and transportation. You’ll find some overlap with the posts for other countries within the region. We’ve separated them by country because that’s what our readers are looking for. Feel free to skim past the parts that don’t suit you or seem redundant. Let us know if you’ve got insider knowledge to add!
Traveling is Southeast Asia is always an adventure. Learning to dance to the rhythm of the chaos is part of the allure. One of the pleasant surprises for travelers within this region is the affordability of getting around.
Within Southeast Asia, Cambodia and Laos are not at the top of the list for ease of travel, but they are definitely destinations that will stretch you and fill your senses. If Thailand is feeling a little too packaged and Vietnam is a bit too touristed, you’ll find the adventure you’re looking for in Cambodia and Laos.
The trick is not to pre-book everything. Resist the urge to organize every aspect of your on the ground journey before you leave home unless you are on the very tightest of schedules. Not only will your flexibility be increased, you’ll save money as well.
Transportation can almost always be arranged last minute. The good news is that there are lots of options, from posh resorts where you’ll be pampered and relax, to home rentals that will allow you to truly “live local.”
Table of Contents
- City Travel
- Hotels Under $150
- Boutique Hotels
- Vacation Rentals
- Unusual Accommodations
- Tourist Offices
Local & International Airlines
Unless you are flying in and out of the capital cities (or Siem Reap) you are not going to find the easy and efficient air travel in these two countries that much of the rest of Southeast Asia is known for.
Sometimes it’s necessary to take roundabout routes to access certain destinations. Laos, for example, can’t be accessed, by air, from outside Asia. Most travelers choose to fly there from Bangkok, Thailand. It is possible to access Laos overland, but it’s not always a quick or comfortable trip.
Think 14+ hour bus rides without AC or proper ventilation, dirt roads which can turn to foot-deep mud, potholes the size of bathtubs, and few, to no, bathroom stops unless you count peeing in the ditch at the side of the road (look out for fire ants). Unless you’re ready for adventure, or desperate to save every penny, I’d highly recommend flying to Laos instead. Of course some of the most spectacular parts of the country, including the 4000 islands in the south, are only accessible the hard way.
Airlines Servicing Cambodia & Laos
- Silk Air
- Thai Airways
- Cathay Pacific
- Vietnam Airlines
- Garuda Indonesia
- Singapore Airlines
- Korean Air
- Lao Airlines
- AirAsia–also flies to and from Australia
- Lao Airlines
- Bangkok Airways
- Cambodia Angkor Air
- NOK Airlines
- Cambodia Bayon Airlines
- Fly Lao Central
- Qatar Airways
- Malaysian Airlines
Finally, here’s a comprehensive list of all Southeast Asian airlines.
Where to Fly In:
Currently there are no direct flights to Laos from outside of Asia. To get here, fly via any Thai airport, Ho Chi Minh City, or Hanoi, Vietnam, Siem Reap, Cambodia, or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Laos’ airports are located in Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
Cambodia has only three airports supporting commercial flights. They are in the three places tourists are most likely to be interested in visiting: the capital, the ruins of Angkor Wat & the beach.
- Phnom Penh
- Siem Reap
Train travel is not a major mode of transportation in either Laos or Cambodia. That said, there are some interesting train trips, mainly geared to tourists or weekend getaways, with one notable exception; the Bamboo Train:
The Bamboo Train: The original bamboo trains, many of which are still part of daily life, helping locals move goods from place to place, are knocked together by locals out of old rail axles and a handmade wooden platform with a pull cord engine to power the whole thing. They can be disassembled quickly to make way for a real train, or a bigger bamboo train. In recent years a popular tourist form has popped up in Battambang. Whether you go for the more touristy version or flag down a local one, this is a guaranteed adventure.
Royal Rail Passenger Service: This is a weekend passenger train service between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. It runs only Saturday and Sunday. The website is under construction but there are helpful links to ticketing information and details.
The Man in Seat 61: Seat 61 is the best source for detailed rail (and in this case bus) information about any country you’re interested in visiting. He breaks down all of the difficult details. This is a highly recommended resource, even if the site feels a bit antiquated.
One Train to Laos: There is exactly one train route into Laos. The travelers at Leave Your Daily Hell breakdown how to do it.
Most travelers in Cambodia and Laos end up taking advantage of the low cost, expanded route options and travel by bus. With the bus, it’s possible to play your trip by ear instead of planning your flights weeks in advance. Bus tickets cost between $5-10 for a 5-6 hour journey, with overnight buses generally costing twice that, depending on the distance.
Booking can happen days in advance, the day before, or even the day of. As with all Southeast Asian transport, there’s no standard bus and it’s difficult to tell what you’ll end up traveling in. In Cambodia and Laos it’s a definite adventure.
Booking bus tickets is usually done on the ground at the bus station. It can be hectic, with multiple companies vying for your attention and dozens of sales representatives trying to sell you their ticket. When you can, it’s best to check prices online, or with other travelers, to avoid paying more than you should. Recently, a travel website called 12GO.Asia has made it much easier to book tickets online and avoid running into a scam at the station.
Before traveling internationally by bus, be sure to check visa requirements for each country you plan to cross into, as you may need to pre-arrange visas for land crossings.
Best tip for traveling by bus in Cambodia & Laos:
Keep your expectations realistic. Traveling by bus can be an adventure, and it’s important that you know how to be flexible with your plans. Buses can arrive late, or take longer on the road than you planned for. Breakdowns are quite common, and speed limits are suggestions. Drivers can be expected to blast loud music videos, or soap operas, through the bus at all hours. If you keep a sense of humour and go with the flow, the buses are an excellent way to get around, but you should expect it to be a culturally broadening experience.
Stray Asia: Bus Southeast Asia in a small guided group with other likeminded adventurers.
12GO.Asia: Our go-to website for booking passage via train, plane, or automobile in Southeast Asia.
Bamba Experience: Hop on hop off independent bus travel servicing most Southeast Asian countries.
Giant Ibis: This company offers sleeping buses between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Giulia, Tortuga’s Production Assistant says: “Giant Ibis is one of the best companies, it’s possible to buy the tickets in advance (by credit card) or on site. In case Giant Ibis buses are fully booked, there are plenty of companies where you can buy tickets near the open market in Phnom Penh.”
Of course there are a few boat tours to be had in Southeast Asia that will include Cambodia and Laos. However, the best boat adventures are those that don’t come neatly packaged. Head down to the river in any one horse town and charter a private boat to take you up or downstream. We hopped off the bus at Pakse and worked our way down the river, by boat, through the 4000 islands one summer, during monsoon and flood stage. It was one of the best adventures we’ve ever had.
Also, it might be fun to know that you can take a boat from Phnomh Penh to Siem Reap instead of the ubiquitous buses. It is about three times as expensive (about $35 as opposed to $10) and it takes about five hours (the bus is faster) but it’s a different kind of adventure.
If you’re interested in the packaged variety of boat tours, here are some options:
Southeast Asia Tours: Top tours in Southeast Asian countries, multiple by boat.
Asian River Cruises: Sail up the Mekong river, explore caves, climb ruins.
Adventure Cambodia: Offers a series of boat trips, including ocean and river, fishing, dolphins and transportation between points.
Tara Boat: “Comfort and luxury on the biggest boat on Tonle Sap River,” this company offers boat cruises on the river near Siem Reap.
Rent Your Own Wheels
In both Cambodia & Laos it’s possible to hire a motorbike, car, or bicycle. Most locals rely on mopeds or motorbikes to get around, so renting one is easy to do.
If you go this route, be sure you read up on the local rules of the road, and don’t assume they’re always followed by locals. Licensing is often not required so safety is a concern. Wear a helmet, and don’t overestimate your motorbiking abilities.
Whether you’re renting a car or a bike, be sure you understand the liability situation in the country you are in, and that you have the experience necessary to cope with the many differences. Especially if you’re in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road from what you’re accustomed. Cambodia & Laos are right hand drive, but Thailand is left hand drive. This gets exciting at the border crossing when one is expected to switch!
You can expect animals (everything from dogs, to water buffalo, to elephants) in the roadways in addition to highly unpredictable human traffic. Unless you are a very alert and adaptable driver, you may want to hire a driver along with your vehicle.
Renting a car is easily done. You can reserve ahead of time through the airport you fly into. Or, you can rent from one of the mom and pop style car hire places that dot the tourist districts of most towns. If you are in a place long enough, it’s also often a possibility to secure a private rental agreement through a local person or a tour company.
Use good judgement and understand that these places are “buyer beware.” They may, or may not, be properly insured, the car maintenance is not guaranteed, and it’s entirely possible that there is no back up for you if something goes wrong. They are, however, by far the most affordable option.
Renting motorbikes is almost dangerously easy. As a result, there are a lot of accidents. Keep that in mind and check several places before renting. Look not only at price, but also vehicle maintenance, terms of agreement, and the quality of the safety equipment that is provided with the bike. (Is there a helmet? No, not that one, a REAL one!)
Places Car Hire: Car rental company found in most central Southeast Asian cities.
What to know before driving Southeast Asia: A useful guide to rules of the road and choosing a vehicle.
Sixt: A top vehicle rental company.
DriveAway: Drive from one location, drop off the vehicle in another.
Scooter/Motorbike Rental: Go for two wheels instead of four. Read the recommendation by Deathracer from Montreal, he gives a great breakdown of how to go over your bike and check the basics for safety and functionality before taking off on it.
City Travel & Haggling
City transportation in this part of the world is extremely diverse. Mopeds speed around en masse, and it’s possible to hop on the back of a local guide’s moped for a tour of the city. Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous – tiny three-wheeled, open-air vehicles that act as cheap taxis and can miraculously always hold “just one more” person. Pickup trucks with seats built into the backs act as local buses in many areas.
The cost of local transport generally depends on the haggling abilities of the traveler. In most cases, you will be asked for fully twice what is fair. Offer a little less than your final price, and work your way up from there. Never immediately offer the price you actually intend to pay.
Understand that there is almost always tiered pricing and you’re very unlikely to pay what locals do. Consider this your luxury tax for being there and remember that paying a buck for what locals are paying .75 for is okay, because the same ride in NYC would cost you twenty five dollars, and the story wouldn’t be nearly as good.
The trick to successful city transport without getting taken for more rides than you’re hoping for, is in upfront negotiation of price and a cheerful attitude. Never get into a cab or tuk tuk without knowing that the driver understands where you and having agreed upon the price. Always have correct change to pay with (because if you don’t… they won’t either!) Finally, don’t be afraid to walk away. If you have a bad feeling about a particular driver, thank him with a smile and keep looking, there will be dozens of other drivers vying for your business.
Luxury & Resorts
If you’re looking for luxury resorts in Cambodia and Laos you’ll find them, although not nearly as many as in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. The coast of Cambodia is famous for beautiful places and spectacular views. There are a number around Siem Reap, in honor of the temples of Angkor Wat. In Laos, you’ll find most of the luxury places in the northern, more touristed portion, of the country.
You’re not going to find too many Marriotts, or Sandals Resorts, in either Laos or Cambodia. The luxury hotel chains most Western travelers usually rely on are in short supply here and are often limited to city centers. If you stay in them, expect to pay the same rates as a luxury hotel chain in Europe, or North America. If you’re looking for something truly luxurious in Southeast Asia, give up the idea of staying in a chain hotel, and go for something more unique.
La Residence Phou Vao, Luang Prabang: Located in Laos and designed in a traditional style, this hotel is famous for its accommodations and spa.
Aman: With luxury hotels in Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines, Aman has luxury resorts in SEA pretty much covered.
Borei Angkor: In the center of Siem Reap this place is quiet, has great connectivity, and decorated in Cambodian silks and handcrafted wood. Richly Cambodian.
Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor: This place is truly luxurious. They’ll even arrange for you to have a private dinner in one of the temples of Angkor if you want. Boasting the country’s largest swimming pool and carefully preserved since 1932, their long history of welcoming travelers is reflected in every detail.
Settha Palace: This little gem in the middle of Vientenne is once again owned by the original family that owned it during it’s hayday and before regime change shuffled everything in Laos. With a history dating to 1932 as a hotel, this place is described in Forbes magazine as being, “…perhaps the most charming of its colonial brethren.”
La Residance Phou Vou: Located in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos, this is a haven of serenity, with a spa, the opportunity to take cooking classes or participate in archery, as well as arrange river cruises, this hotel is a hidden gem of luxury.
Hotels Under $150
In Cambodia, hotel prices under $150 are very easy to find, same goes for Laos. When I was there, I used Agoda to book most of my hotel stays and often had beautiful rooms for less than $30 USD a night. It is also perfectly doable to find a room upon arrival without much prior planning in most places. Plan according to where you’re headed, and when. Tourist season makes prior planning essential, especially if you’re staying in, or near, a tourist hotspot, like Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, or on the coast.
In general, you’ll find Cambodia and Laos to be the most economical countries in Southeast Asia and finding lovely accommodation for extremely affordable prices isn’t difficult.
Tips for saving money on a hotel in SEA:
- Contact the local tourist board before you arrive to check for the best local budget hotels – some may not be listed online.
- Trust that there will be available rooms. Unless you’re traveling in a popular area during tourist season, there WILL be something available. If you’re willing to wing it, you may save on booking fees and find special deals.
- Stay away from Western hotels. Look for locally run businesses, and you’ll find local prices to match.
- Choose accommodation further away from festivals or big events.
- Adjust your expectations. What do you really need from a hotel? You’ll save money by doing without fine dining and a pool.
Keep an eye out for hotel deals on the following sites:
Travelfish: One of the single most useful websites for finding accommodation across Southeast Asia, Travelfish is an independent travel guide that focuses specifically on SEA. Use it to find hotels, restaurants, tours, and top destinations. Great for finding off-the-beaten-path adventures.
Agoda: Plug in your destination and dates here for a comprehensive list of available hotels and the sorts of rooms they have available. The ratings and recommendations feature of this site is specific to various types of travelers, so you’ll find ratings based on business travel, family travel, romantic travel and more. This is super helpful in choosing a hotel that will be a good fit. Agoda is also good for last minute planning, as well as reservations in advance. I’ve been known to sit in the lobby of a hotel, after being quoted one price at the desk, and find a better deal at the same hotel through Agoda, book it online, and check in with a smile.
Expedia: Reliable service when looking for the comfort you’re used to, but won’t always give you the best deal. Check your prices against another booking agent, if getting the lowest price is important to you.
Travelocity: A personal favorite no matter where I’m traveling. Travelocity brings up over 200 hotels in Thailand alone, and is one of the only travel sites to bring up hotel options for Burma and Brunei.
Hotels.com: Hotels has you covered, no matter where you’re going. Similar to Agoda, Hotels is one of the best ways to find budget hotels all over Southeast Asia, in even the most remote locations.
A boutique hotel is any small hotel with under 100 rooms. By that definition, almost every hotel is a “boutique” hotel in Cambodia and Laos. Personally, I believe that a boutique hotel needs to have a certain measure of style and uniqueness before it’s earned its title.
SEA spawns your average cheap hotel by the thousands, but finding a truly unique small hotel here can be a challenge. Unlike in most other destinations around the world, SEA boutique hotels generally cost a good deal more than an average hotel stay, some even bordering on outright luxury prices. If you find the hotel of your dreams, it may be worth it. However, after a bit of digging, I’ve found a few great boutique hotels that won’t break the bank.
Secret Collection: This is a fantastic listing of really special places. Check out the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, in Cambodia.
iescape: The best site out there for finding the perfect boutique hotel, in my opinion. There are some beautiful options in Cambodia and Laos.
Mr & Mrs Smith: A boutique hotel finder built for honeymooning couples, but perfectly usable for the average traveler. Stunning boutique hotels in Cambodia. Pricing on this site is often very high.
Samar Villa and Spa Resort, Siem Reap, Cambodia: Near the ruins of Angkor Wat, this resort is priced at under $100 USD for the off season, which makes it a great deal for a SEA boutique resort.
Luang Say: This is a truly unique combination of river boat cruise (2 days) and a stay at their boutique luxury lodge in Laos. The riverside bungalows offer a spectacular view and come equipped with mosquito nets and fans.
If you plan to stay in one place for a more than a few weeks, a vacation rental may be the way to go.
Not only are vacation rentals far more comfortable and private, they may save you money in the long run. Vacation rentals are my first choice nearly everywhere I travel. Living in a fully furnished home and being able to cook all my own meals is far more sustainable for a stay of a week or more.
Vacation rentals offer a very uniquely immersive travel experience, and are fairly easy to find.
Booking through any of the online agencies is, absolutely, possible; however, booking on the ground is often the better way to go. A bit of bravery and some flexibility are required. Just turn up, book a couple of nights in a hotel where you want to spend more time, and pound the pavement. All of our best home rentals, in SEA and elsewhere have been located through locals on the ground.
How do you do it? Find a local real-estate agency and ask for a referral to a rental agent, or, rent a motorbike and ride around writing down the phone numbers from signs on the gates of rentals. They are out there, by the hundreds, trust me.
Wimdu: One of the most popular vacation rental websites out there, has listings in both countries. Hint: Search by city.
Vacation Rentals: Affiliated with Homeaway and VRBO, provides a comprehensive list of all the rentals in the area you’re searching in.
Airbnb: Possibly the most well-known vacation rental and B&B locator on the web. With thousands of properties in 150+ countries around the world, it’s a go-to for house-hunting.
VRBO and Homeaway: HomeAway is the mastermind of vacation rentals, and owns both VRBO and VacationRentals.com. All homes must pass inspection, so you know you’re getting value.
Roomorama: An easy to use vacation rental booking site that allows you to narrow your search from thousands of homes to the perfect stay for you.
To be honest, camping in Cambodia and Laos is generally not recommended. Camping is not impossible, it’s just more difficult to do than in other places in the world, and may be more trouble than it’s worth, for a few reasons. According to travelers who have tried it, these include:
- High population density
- Wildlife – jungle = insects
- Landmines. No seriously… Cambodia and Laos are infamous for these
- Campground fees are often higher than cheap hotel prices
- Also: gear
TravelPod: Lists 1 campground in Cambodia
Travelled Paths: Lists their top 10 places to sleep out under the stars in Southeast Asia. One is in Cambodia.
Glamping Cambodia: You could, however, do some “glamping” in these huts. The accommodations are very basic. This is a great place from which to do some trekking. This site has a range of listings for both Cambodia and Laos.
Camping in Thailand and Laos: So, there’s this guy on Airbnb, who offers to provide all of the kit you need and take you on camping excursions in Thailand and Laos. Sounds cool. Check him out, if you’re determined to camp and don’t want to carry all of your stuff and figure it out.
Laos and Cambodia have no shortage of unusual accommodations, but most of them you won’t find online. The most unusual accommodations are the ones you tend to stumble across accidentally along the way. Spending a night in the palace of the last king of Laos was a totally unexpected serendipity.
Some things can’t be planned. That said, there are a few unique accommodations that you can check out in advance. Varying in price, some may be the height of luxury, while others are very affordable and simple.
Champasak Palace Hotel, Pakse, Laos: The palace of the last king of Laos. Stay here. Be sure to go all the way up to the roof top terrace overlooking the river and discover the beautiful round room with amazing paintings around the walls and in the dome. Whisper with the ghosts of royalty.
Kingfisher Ecolodge: Offering either bungalows overlooking the river or ecorooms which are more affordable (shared toilets and showers) this place is built with a sensitivity to the natural environment and simplicity. Showers are solar heated. Food is Laotion, and in spite of the “world away” feel there is 4G internet free of charge.
Treehouse Bungalows: Located near Sihoukanville, these bungalows, six meters off the ground, are right on the beach.
Recycled Drain Pipes: Unique luxury cabins made from recycled drain pipes? Yep. This place says it’s “incredibly eco friendly” and “The surrounding nature and preserving the environment are number one priority.” They grow their own vegetables without chemicals, make their own charcoal, and fertilizer.
Robinson Bungalows: A hidden gem on Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia, this place is totally off the grid. Go old school and talk to your traveling partners instead of Instagramming your sweet digs.
Sleeping Trees: Also on Koh Rong Samloem, this place has tents suspended between trees, and bills itself as an eco-resort and a playful place. Come here ready to relax and disconnect.
Rarely, is it necessary to stay at a hostel in either Cambodia or Laos; simply because you can generally find hotels for low prices, and it’s often worth the extra buck not to hear the guy in the next room snoring loudly.
Find a cheap hotel instead and you’ll generally be better off. That said, if you’re a serious hostel fan and want to give it a go, these sites will help you to find what you’re looking for.
HostelWorld: Relied upon by backpackers around the globe, HostelWorld has a decent selection of SEA hostels to check out.
Southeast Asia Backpacker: If you’re hosteling, treat this site like your golden handbook. With information on all the best (and worst) hostels, as well as much of what you need to know to backpack these areas, this site is a must-read.
Agoda: Easily book hostel rooms as well as hotel rooms.
Hostel Bookers: Similar to HostelWorld, works on an international level and showcases a large collection of SEA hostels.
The tourist offices contain friendly people, most of whom speak English, and are a wealth of information on local accommodations, attractions, food, culture, special events and just about anything else you might need. Contact them.
Cambodia and Laos are two of the most adventurous and most economical countries to travel in Southeast Asia.
- Luxury resorts are found on the coast and in tourist destinations
- There are hundreds of hidden gems, look for them
- Consider a vacation rental if you’re staying more than a week or two
- There are virtually no trains in either country
- Buses are the go-to form of public transportation
Have you traveled through Cambodia or Laos? Do you have any resources for accommodation or transportation to add to this guide? Leave us a note in the comments.
Photo Credit: dMz, Pixabay