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Wondering whether to visit Cambodia or Laos? When I backpacked around Southeast Asia, I’d done no research on either of these countries, yet they turned out to be two of my favorite destinations in the region.
When it comes to comparing Cambodia vs Laos, both offer different in their own unique ways. In this detailed guide I’ll examine how the two countries compare in terms of beaches, nightlife, food, attractions, natural beauty, people and transportation. Hopefully this will help you make up your mind!
Cambodia vs Laos: General Comparison
The most obvious difference between Cambodia and Laos is that Cambodia has beaches and islands, whereas Laos is landlocked. However, Laos has a stunning, mountainous landscape, with impressive limestone cliffs and the beautiful Mekong River flowing all the way down through the length of the country.
Cambodia vs Laos: Beaches
The easy winner here is Cambodia, since Laos doesn’t have any beaches.
Laos is bordered by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, China and Myanmar, and is completely landlocked. It does, however, have the Mekong River, as well as some really beautiful waterfalls, such as Kuang Si Waterfall and Tat Sae Waterfalls. So if you fancy swimming, there are definitely some opportunities to do that – you just won’t be able to swim in the ocean.
Cambodia is home to some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I was actually really surprised, and would rate them among the best in the world.
Many backpackers and tourists visit the beach town of Sihanoukville, which is located midway up the coast in the southwestern part of Cambodia. From here you can take a boat to the paradise islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, which are home to powdery white sands and turquoise waters that are perfect for snorkeling.
Cambodia vs Laos: Landscape
Cambodia’s landscape is rather flat, so besides the beaches and islands (which are gorgeous!), there’s not much to write home about. Part of the Mekong does run through the central eastern part of Cambodia, and the Tonle Sap lake sits between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Laos, on the other hand, is home to forest-covered mountains and impressive karst landscapes with caverns and limestone pinnacles. Most of the western border of Laos is demarcated by the Mekong River, and many of the major towns and cities sit alongside it. The river has a very relaxing, tranquil vibe, and it’s great for taking boat cruises.
Laos definitely has the more interesting landscape out of the two.
Cambodia vs Laos: Food
While Vietnamese and Thai food are quite well-known across Europe and North America, Cambodian and Lao cuisine tend to fly under the radar.
Cambodia’s food incorporates elements of Indian, Chinese and French cuisine, and includes a lot of salads, soups, curries and stir frys. Fish and seafood feature heavily in Cambodian dishes, due to the county’s abundance of water sources. Rice is a common staple here too, and is usually served as an accompaniment to every meal.
Popular Cambodian dishes include:
- Amok – a coconut fish curry steamed in banana leaves.
- Kuy teav – noodle soup made with rice vermicelli and beef or pork bones.
- Nom banh chok – fermented noodles saturated with a lemongrass gravy and topped with vegetables.
- Lok lak – stir fried beef served with salad.
- Lap khmer – salad made with thinly sliced beef marinated in lime juice.
Laos cuisine is also fairly similar to Cambodian cuisine, although it is slightly spicier and has its own unique dishes. Sticky rice is integral to Lao cuisine and has become an important part of the country’s culture. Laos is known for having the highest sticky rice consumption per-capita in the world and Lao people sometimes refer to themselves as luk khao niaow, which translates as ‘children or descendants of sticky rice’.
Famous Lao dishes include:
- Larb – a must-try salad of minced meat flavored with mint, fresh lime juice, scallions and cilantro. This is the national dish of Laos.
- Tam Mak Hoong – green papaya salad with garlic, tomatoes, chilli, palm sugar, lime juice and fish sauce.
- Lao sausage – a popular appetizer commonly served with sticky rice and vegetables.
- Khao jee – baguette sandwich similar to banh mi.
The food is very similar in both Laos and Cambodia, so it’s hard to pick a clear winner here.
Cambodia vs Laos: Landmarks
You can’t really beat Cambodia for landmarks. The country is home to Angkor Wat – a sprawling temple complex that holds the title of being the largest religious structure in the world. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the gods Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, but was later transformed into a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century.
Angkor Wat is beautiful at both sunrise and sunset, and is well worth visiting if you find yourself in Siem Reap. Cambodia is also home to numerous other temples and palaces, including Bayon Temple, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom and the Royal Palace.
On a more somber note, the country also has several dark tourism sites, such as the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where visitors can learn about the brutal Khmer regime.
Laos also has lots of temples and pagodas, although none compare to the sheer size of Angkor Wat. The most notable landmark in Vientiane is Pha That Luang Vientiane – a historic gold stupa that stands over 44 meters high. Vientiane is also home to the Patuxay Monument, a famous arch and war memorial that looks a bit like the southeast Asian version of the Arc de Triomphe.
A large concentration of temples can be found in the city of Luang Prabang, which was the royal capital of Laos until 1975. The city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is known for its French colonial architecture and laid-back vibe.
Cambodia vs Laos: Nightlife
When it comes to nightlife, Cambodia has much more going on than Laos does. The big cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are quite fast paced and have lots of bars and restaurants to keep you entertained.
Sihanoukville is known for being a bit of a party town, and is home to numerous hostels including The Big Easy and Monkey Republic. You’ll find a decent array of bars and restaurants here, and many of them have Happy Hours. If you want to spend a day out on the water, there are a number of party boats and booze cruises geared towards travelers who want to let loose.
Nightlife in Laos is much more low-key. Yes you’ll still find bars in cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, but the scene is much more mellow. Luang Prabang actually has a curfew of 11.30pm, when bars and businesses must shut down. At this point, the only place left to party is the Luang Prabang bowling alley, which I’ve written about here.
When it comes to nightlife, Cambodia definitely wins this one.
Cambodia vs Laos: Getting There
Most international flights to Cambodia fly into Phnom Penh, while flights to Laos fly into Vientiane. Flights to Vientiane tend to be more expensive than Phnom Penh, and there are fewer flights per day.
If you’re flying to either of these countries from the U.S. or Europe, you’ll usually have a stopover in Singapore, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.
Running a quick search for flights from London in May, a flight to Vientiane costs roughly $1200 (£1000) round-trip, with up to two stopovers. A flight from London to Phnom Penh on the same dates costs roughly $1000 (£830) round-trip, with one stopover.
Flying to Vientiane is more expensive, with more stopovers and a longer flight duration. So Cambodia is the easiest country to get to.
Cambodia vs Laos: Visas
Laos offers an eVisa for citizens of many countries, including the UK and the U.S. Prices vary from country to country, but for United States citizens, the fee is $50. All you have to do is fill out the application online, upload any necessary documentation, and pay the fee. Approval takes up to 3 working days, and then you just need to print out your approval letter and take it with you. Don’t get ripped off by expensive visa companies – you can simply apply through the official visa website here.
Visas on arrival are also available at certain ports of entry, including Luang Prabang Airport, Pakse Airport and Wattay Airport in Vientiane. You can also get visas on arrival at the border crossings from Thailand, Vietnam and China. Only US dollars are accepted as payment and a passport-sized photo is required. The visa allows you to stay in Laos for up to 30 days.
As you can see, both countries have eVisas and are very easy to visit. The Cambodia eVisa is just slightly cheaper for Americans, but both have the same application process and turnaround time.
Cambodia also offers an eVisa, which you can pay for using the official government visa website. The process is pretty similar – just fill out the online form, pay the payment using your credit card, then download the eVisa certificate. The processing time is also 3 business days, but it’s slightly cheaper, costing $30 + $6 processing charge. Like the Laos visa, the Cambodia visa is valid for a stay of up to 30 days.
Tourists from most countries can also get a visa on arrival at airports and border crossings. If you arrive by air, they’ll usually give you the form to complete on the plane. The fee is $30, and must be paid in USD.
Cambodia vs Laos: Transportation
Transportation in Cambodia
I found getting around Cambodia to be really easy. Cambodia has a well-trodden tourist route and there are tourist buses that go between the main destinations like Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. The buses are cheap and comfortable, although the journey time is obviously longer than if you travel by plane. Popular companies include Giant Ibis and Mekong Express.
If you’re traveling between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the quickest way to travel is by air, with a journey time of just one hour. Angkor Air, Bassaka Air, and Cambodia Bayon Airlines all offer direct flights between these two cities. Expect to pay around $130-$140) one-way. You can check prices using Google Flights.
If you’re traveling in a group of 3 people or more, then it might make more sense to hire a private driver through a site like GetYourGuide or Viator. The drivers usually speak good English and will even stop off at various attractions along the way.
There are also boats that go between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap and Battambang. It’s not the most comfortable way to travel, and the boat is slow moving, but it’s a great way to see local life on Tonle Sap Lake.
Once you’re in the big cities, the best way to get around is by tuk-tuk.
Transportation in Laos
There are two domestic carriers in Laos – Lao Airlines (national carrier) and Lao Skyway (budget). If you want to fly between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the flight takes around 40 minutes and costs anywhere from $21 to $152. This is clearly the quickest and easiest way to get between the two cities.
When it comes to using ground transportation within Laos, travel can be slow. Be prepared to spend a full day getting from A to B, or you can take the VIP night bus and save money on one night’s accommodation. Some routes also have shared minivans that will take you from A to B.
For a unique experience, you can also take a boat along the Mekong River, which runs all the way through Laos. However be aware, boat travel on the Mekong is very slow, and the boats aren’t usually air-conditioned.
Within cities, the best way to get around is by renting a bicycle or hopping in a tuk tuk. The UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang is very walkable, and you can see most of the temples and attractions on-foot.
If you want to visit Luang Prabang’s waterfalls, there are plenty of tours you can book through GetYourGuide. Booking a tour means all your transportation is taken care of, and you’ll be able to explore areas that are unreachable by public transportation.
When it comes to transportation in Laos vs Cambodia, I’d say Cambodia wins on this one. The country is generally more popular with tourists, so there’s a bit more of a tourist infrastructure.
So which has the edge? Laos or Cambodia?
If you love beaches, nightlife and fast-paced cities, then go with Cambodia. The islands are absolutely stunning and the country has lots of attractions to keep you occupied. I found Cambodia very easy to travel around and the people were very friendly, so I’d definitely go back in a heartbeat.
If you’re looking for tranquility, and lush, mountain scenery, then book a trip to Laos. Luang Prabang is becoming increasingly popular with luxury travelers, and is home to numerous eco-lodges and 5-star hotels, which are mainly concentrated in Luang Prabang.