Cambodia or Laos? You may be wondering if you should include Laos or Cambodia in your trip to South East Asia because they are neighbors, similar in many ways but also have their differences. Here, we will explore everything you need to know to choose which one is the best travel destination in South East Asia.
We will compare them, exploring which country is better than the other in the following topics:
- Tourist attractions;
- Outdoor activities;
- Natural beauty;
- Culture and heritage;
- Food scene;
- The people;
- Travel facilities;
- Travel safety;
- Tourist index;
Though if you are looking for complete travel guides about Laos and Cambodia, we recommend you check this:
- Everything you need to know before traveling to Cambodia
- Everything you need to know before traveling to Laos
Travel Showdown: Cambodia vs Laos
Tourist attractions of Laos and Cambodia
One of the most important things to analyze when choosing where to go is the tourist attractions of the destinations… after all, we all want to see and do the best and most interesting things. Between Cambodia and Laos, Cambodia leads this one, and the reason is simple: the Angkor Wat complex.
When a country has a tourist attraction like Angkor Wat is doomed to win this topic. Angkor is probably our favorite attraction worldwide because of its history, beauty, and size. It’s so interesting and beautiful that you could spend several full days only exploring the complex. We were there for three days and wouldn’t mind going back. 🙂
Cambodia has its tourism centered around Angkor Wat, and almost everyone going to Cambodia has his eyes set on this archeological complex. However, there are quite a few additional places to go, like Phnom Penn, Sihanoukville, the islands (Koh ta Kiev, Koh Rong), and Kompot.
Laos is a very pleasant country to travel to, and despite not having Angkor Wat it also has a big tourist attraction, Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO heritage town with very peculiar architecture, mixing French colonialism with Eastern Asia. It is really worth visiting Luang Prabang for 2 or 3 days.
Though Laos has other exciting places, like Vientiane, the Mekong River, Pakse, and Vang Vieng.
To sum it up, Cambodia has to win this one, and quite clearly, because of Angkor Wat. Besides Angkor Wat, the countries are similarly attractive, with plenty of cool things to do and a distinct culture you can explore, though I would say that Laos is slightly better.
Outdoor activities in Cambodia and Laos
When it comes to outdoor activities, both countries have a lot to offer and are quite good destinations for adventure travelers and outdoors enthusiasts. Between Laos and Cambodia, it’s a very close call, but I think Laos is slightly better as it has a wide variety of things to see and do outdoors. But let’s have a closer look.
Cambodia has plenty of outdoor activities, particularly by the coast and the islands, where you can go snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and many other water-related activities. There’s also the possibility of exploring the major towns of Phnom Penn, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap by bike.
Laos is a destination for outdoors lovers, as most of its attractions are on the outside. In Laos, some of the best things to do are the Kuang Si Falls, close to Luang Prabang, tubing in Vang Vieng, chasing waterfalls in Pakse, the Kong Lor Cave, and the amazing gibbon experience close to Huay Xai.
The natural beauty of Laos vs. Cambodia
In terms of natural beauty, we preferred Laos to Cambodia. There’s something really beautiful about the north and center of Laos, with the mountains, the Karst and limestone cliffs, and obviously the Mekong River.
Cambodia isn’t nearly as mountainous, and it’s more similar to the south of Laos, which isn’t as dramatic and pretty as the north. On the other hand, Cambodia has stunning beaches and islands, but we will talk about it in the next segment.
So, Laos also wins this.
Where are the best beaches?
Well, this is a rather easy one… Laos doesn’t have a coast, and Cambodia has some of the most underrated beaches in the world.
Despite not having a shore, Laos has the Mekong and many other rivers where you can bathe. The Kuang Si Falls and Vang Vieng are great examples, but I’m not sure you can really consider any of those beaches.
Cambodia is the opposite and has some of the best destinations on its islands. We really enjoyed our time in Koh ta Kiev and considered this island a lost paradise for those looking for lesser-known but still wonderful beaches. We were supposed to do a day trip and stayed for three days.
Koh Rong is the most famous island in Cambodia and is a backpacker’s island with plenty of bars, restaurants, and parties. Yet, the island is big, and some of its beaches have been considered among the best in the world.
Culture and Heritage of Laos and Cambodia
We have said this before, but it’s difficult to lose the culture and heritage segment when a country has Angkor Wat.
Yet, Cambodia has more than just Angkor Wat, the whole country is covered with old Khmer buildings, Pagodas, and other historical buildings. Here we need to mention the very recent and the tragic Killing Fields and S21 Prison.
These aren’t for everyone, as it’s a really heavy experience, but it was a very important period of Cambodia’s recent past.
Laos is also interesting regarding heritage, particularly the UNESCO town of Luang Prabang, with its mix of Asian and French cultures. Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane also have plenty of Buddhist traditions, temples, and a culture you can explore. Though, in general, Cambodia wins this one.
The Vibe – Cambodia vs Laos
This is always an interesting but really subjective topic on these comparisons. It depends not only on the destinations but also on how each traveler feels when visiting. For us, Laos had a better vibe, we enjoyed our time there very much. Why?
Laos has an incredibly relaxed atmosphere, with very few mass tourism and modest people. This together creates a very interesting vibe, perfect for slow overland traveling or at least unwinding for a few weeks. It’s just another world from the crazy, stressful, high-intensity day-by-day that most of us live in.
In this aspect, Cambodia is quite a different society, translating into a very different travel experience. Cambodia is much more stressful, particularly in Siem Reap, Phnom Penn, and Sihanoukville. Those are destinations with many people, both locals and tourists. They are very interesting, and if you are looking for a party vibe and always have things to do, then they are good destinations.
We preferred Laos’ laid-back vibe to Cambodia’s agitated day-by-day, so it wins this one.
Resorts – Laos vs Cambodia
I don’t think either country is among the best destinations for those who want to enjoy high-end resorts. Either way, both have a few options to explore…
In Laos, most of the best resorts are in Luang Prabang, which only increases its attractiveness as a tourist destination. Some of the best resorts include Lao Spirit Resort (in Luang Prabang), the River Resort ( in Champasak), Nam Ou Riverside Hotel (also in Luang Prabang).
Cambodia also has a few resorts and high-end hotels. In fact, it’s superior to Laos because it has beach resorts and many more tourists, which created the demand for a wide range of accommodations, including high-end resorts. Two of the best resorts in Cambodia are Song Saa Private Island (right next to Koh Rong) and Phum Baitang Resort (in Siam Reap).
Summing up, Cambodia wins this one clearly, but neither of the countries is a top-tier destination for resort lovers.
Which is more eco-friendly? Laos or Cambodia?
This is something that both countries are pretty bad at… Laos and Cambodia aren’t really concerned about the environment; unfortunately, the amount of trash you’ll see on the ground is impressive.
Cambodia, in particular, is a very dirty country, and expect to see garbage spread all over, particularly on the side of the roads and bigger towns. The town of Siem Reap is horrible, but fortunately, this doesn’t translate to Angkor Archeological Park. Sihanoukville is also full of garbage, particularly the main beach. This was probably the dirtiest beach I have ever seen…
Laos is considerably better than Cambodia, with less visible trash; however, this doesn’t mean it’s an eco-friendly country, as you’ll quickly see lots of plastic and cans being thrown away to the floor or rivers. Consequently, many rivers (and the Mekong in particular) are polluted.
Nevertheless, Laos wins this one.
Shopping – Cambodia vs Laos
In terms of shopping, I believe these countries are similar and also similar to their other neighbors. Both Laos and Cambodia have famous night markets where tourists can buy anything and everything.
Despite being very similar in this regard, we believe that there are more markets and a wider variety of products in Cambodia. This probably happens because Cambodia is more popular and, thus, much more tourists.
Thus, Cambodia wins over Laos, but other countries in the region (Thailand and Malaysia, for example) would be better choices when it comes to shopping and markets.
Nightlife – Laos vs Cambodia
Regarding nightlife, Cambodia is the winner as it has a much livelier nightlife, with more people and more things to do.
Cambodia has many restaurants, bars, and entertainment to keep tourists occupied for a while in the touristy areas. Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penn are the more lively areas of Cambodia. You should be aware that Cambodia is also internationally known for having some sexual tourism, but the worst part is that it sometimes involves youngsters.
Laos, as we said above, is a very relaxed country with a very small nightlife. Apart from Luang Prabang and Vientiane, there are very few options in Laos, and even within these cities, the offers aren’t that extensive when compared to Cambodia and… well, most of the world…
Cambodia obviously wins this one, clearly…
Food scene – where can we eat best? Laos or Cambodia?
When it comes to their cuisine, both the Laotian and the Khmer cuisine aren’t well famous internationally. Yet, they are interesting with some nice flavors, and heavily influenced by Thai food. In fact, both Laos and Cambodia share many dishes with Thailand.
Most of the tourist restaurants and street vendors in both countries will sell very similar things, sometimes with similar names, others with local variations.
One thing that’s very iconic in Laos is the Lao Sandwich, which is a baguette with whatever ingredients you like, which usually includes eggs, avocado, chicken, cheese, vegetables, and a sauce… Apart from these iconic sandwiches, the food in Laos is colorful, vibrant, and packed with herbs and flavor.
In Cambodia, the most memorable thing we ate was the amok, which is made with filleted catfish (or any other protein) and covered in a thick coconut sauce with eggs, fish sauce, and palm sugar and seasoned with a curry paste. It isn’t Spicy, as most of the food in Cambodia isn’t as nearly as spicy as Thailand’s.
We really can’t choose a winner here, so I’m going to give it a tie – a very strong tie. You’ll find delicious and exotic food both in Laos and Cambodia.
The people of Laos and Cambodia
The locals and how we interact with them are one of the most important things for us to really enjoy a destination. This is a topic where Cambodia and Laos differ a lot. While Cambodia is a very fast-paced country, with many things happening all the time, where locals are always busy, Laos is the opposite.
In Cambodia, you should be very aware of scams and people always trying to sell you stuff or forcing you to buy things/services. They are used to tourists, and they know how to interact with them. We should make clear that Cambodians are mostly nice, but it is a very poor country with a developed tourism sector. This means that travelers are one of the major income sources, and they need you to make money.
In Laos, the locals are more laid back, sometimes so laid back that it seems they don’t know how to interact with foreigners. Tourism in Laos is at a very starting point (except for Luang Prabang), making the interaction with locals feel much more real and down to earth.
We have to be honest here, we loved the Laotians and their introverted way, so Laos has to win this topic.
Which has better travel infrastructure
We have said it before, but both Laos and Cambodia are still in their early stages of development, so it’s natural that their travel-related infrastructure is still under development. Though, it’s clear that it’s improving in recent years, and it’s likely to continue improving.
Earlier, we said that Laos is perfect for slow traveling, but the thing is that you don’t really have many other options… Traveling overland in Laos is an experience itself (the slow boat to Luang Prabang is a great example), and if you choose to use public transport (buses in particular), it’s something you won’t forget easily.
Thus, you’ll need time, sometimes a full day, just to reach a destination. You shouldn’t have problems finding guesthouses and cheap accommodations, there are more than enough for travelers, but mid-range and high-end hotels may be a problem outside the biggest destinations.
Cambodia isn’t much better than Laos really, but it is a little more prepared. There is a wider range of accommodations, with many more hostels, guesthouses, and hotels, mostly because there are also more tourists. In terms of traveling around the country, it’s also slow, but the country has fewer mountains, and there are more shuttles, so it makes things easier.
In hindsight, Cambodia wins this one, but I don’t think it has a fully developed tourist sector, it just means that Laos is even less developed.
Travel safety in Cambodia and Laos
In terms of safety, we believe that these countries are at a similar level. We have never felt really unsafe in either of them, though some places aren’t really pleasant to walk around at night.
Cambodia, in particular, sometimes has a stressful atmosphere because of all the people and noise around you. Laos is just laidback and easy-going, but I wouldn’t also suggest roaming at night carefree.
In both countries, you should be aware of food safety and be careful with what you consume. If you are unsure for some reason, don’t. You really don’t want to get food poisoned in Laos or Cambodia. Believe us, we know it!
You should be aware that Cambodia is quite famous for its travel-related scams, particularly using children. These scams aren’t really dangerous, but they might trick you into paying for things that you shouldn’t. In this regard, you should know that the children selling souvenirs might be working for a network and don’t really gain from it. Worse: they should be in school, not begging/selling.
Laos, on the other hand, doesn’t really have those issues, but it’s famous for the bombies. Laos was the most bombed country in history, and many of these bombs are yet to be found and exploded. This sounds very, very dangerous, but it isn’t as bad as it sounds, because the main touristy areas have a much lower risk.
We believe Laos is slightly safer than Cambodia and thus wins this round.
Which is more expensive? Laos or Cambodia
The first thing we should note is that both countries are incredibly cheap, no matter what kind of traveler you are. Moreover, they are among the cheapest countries to travel in the world. So, this shouldn’t really be an issue when choosing between traveling to Laos or Cambodia.
Anyway, in our experience, backpacking as a couple in Laos is slightly more expensive than in Cambodia, in the day-by-day things, like food and accommodation. However, the tourist attractions in Cambodia (read: Angkor Wat) weigh a lot on the budget, making this comparison harder.
Either way, you should be able to spend less than 30 USD per person per day in both countries. In fact, if you are thrifty, you may get closer to 20-25 USD per day.
If we have a look at the prices of traveling in the most touristy towns of both countries, we notice that Siem Reap is slightly more expensive than Luang Prabang and Phnom Penn slightly more expensive than Vientiane.
To sum it up, the differences are very small, and it really depends much more on what kind of traveler you are than the country you choose. When it comes to costs, it’s a tie.
Is Cambodia more touristy than Laos?
Yes! There are many more tourists in Cambodia than in Laos, which is understandable because of the great world wonder of Angkor Wat. So, if you want to visit Angkor, you’ll have to understand that you won’t have the place to yourself and you’ll see huge crowds. Even other destinations in Cambodia have many tourists, but it’s still possible to find hidden gems like Koh ta Kiev, which has few tourists.
Laos is way fewer tourists, and only Luang Prabang is really on the tourist trail. If you prefer to have the destinations almost to yourself, then Laos is your best choice. It’s almost unbelievable that places like Kong Lor have almost no one there…
So, Laos wins this one as it’s less crowded and has fewer tourists.
Laos or Cambodia: Our verdict
Cambodia and Laos are very similar in many aspects, but when we look at them closely, we find some relevant differences.
You should choose Laos if you prefer a rural country with a very relaxed vibe and perfect for slow traveling. It’s also amazingly beautiful with some nice tourist attractions and without many tourists.
You should choose Cambodia if you prefer a more crowded destination with a major tourist attraction Angkor Wat and some of the best beaches in the world. It’s also a nice destination if you are looking for a more vibrant society with lots of things happening in the major cities.
Both countries are wonderful, with beautiful settings, and cheap and overall nice backpackers destinations.
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