If you ask me, Laos is one of the most underrated destinations in Southeast Asia. If you like traveling somewhere pure and under-the-radar, I bet you’ll love your time in Laos!
I’ve explored the country twice now for a combined 6 weeks. Based on these trips, I can suggest a few wonderful itineraries for Laos.
As always, these are just suggestions. What’s amazing about traveling in this part of the world is that you can always improvise. If you have more than one week in Laos, consider keeping your plans a little flexible. You might hear of interesting things from other travelers while you’re there, so it’s nice to have some extra time for unexpected adventures.
That said, these routes should help you get off to a good start!
By the way, don’t miss my guide to traveling Laos, which includes more detail on all the places mentioned here.
Laos itinerary for 1 week
If your time in Laos is limited, then you might want to follow a tried-and-true route that is easy to follow.
The Luang Prabang to Vientiane route is exactly that. It’s been traveled for decades, carved out initially by backpackers in the 1990’s. (Back then, Laos visas were only valid for these places, giving birth to the original Laos tourist trail. Today, you can travel in Laos anywhere.)
You can do this route in about a week, but it’s better to have at least 9 days.
That way you can take the slow boat over the Mekong River from Thailand to Luang Prabang. It does take longer than going by bus, but it’s a fun way of getting introduced to Laos. You get to see life on the Mekong, pass by many jungles, and then arrive in Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO-protected old city notable for its mix of traditional Laotian and French colonial building styles. It’s the biggest tourist destination in Laos; in fact, some even come to Laos just for Luang Prabang. I suggest spending at least 3 days here to allow for plenty of wandering around as well as trips in the area.
The city is slowly getting on the radar of Chinese tour groups, but it’s still a peaceful and delightful place. It’s much quieter than tourist hubs like Chiang Mai in Thailand. (The pandemic put a stop to Chinese tourism for the moment, so here’s your chance to see it without the usual crowds!)
Moving south, Vang Vieng is the hiking and adventure capital of Laos. Nestled among impressive karst mountains, it’s where you can enjoy nature, take excursions in the area, or float down the river in a canoe or tube. You can read about some of the things to do in Vang Vieng. This is another place worth staying for 2 or 3 days at least.
Finally, make your way to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Here, I suggest staying no longer than 1 day.
Why? Well, many travelers in Asia agree it’s not such an exciting city. There are few if any major sights and it just doesn’t have the buzz and vibrant life of other Asian cities like many of the ones in Thailand or Vietnam.
Perhaps you’ll disagree, but chances are that with just one week in Laos, you’ll want to spend most of your time in the countryside. Think of Vientiane as your transit point back to Thailand, or to catch a flight somewhere else.
By the way, this classic route works well as an add-on to a Thailand trip. You can enter from Northern Thailand (e.g. from Chiang Rai) and exit again at Nong Khai, across the river from Laos’ capital of Vientiane, then looping your way back to Bangkok.
Laos itinerary for 2 weeks
This route is an expansion of the classic Laos route, taking in more of the north. If you have the time I highly recommend it, as you’ll be visiting a few less-trodden places and see a different side of Laos.
Many travelers consider the north of Laos the most scenic. It’s the most mountainous region and also has a low population density, so if you enjoy remote places and unspoiled nature then this is a great area to hit up.
Instead of just a quick stopover at the border outpost of Huay Xai, you can stick around here a bit longer in order to visit The Gibbon Experience.
This is simply one of the coolest things you can do in Southeast Asia. It’s a unique eco-tourism project that has constructed over a dozen treehouses high up in the jungle canopy, which is all connected with extremely long ziplines.
There is a quick 1-day Gibbon Experience tour if you’re strapped for time, but I strongly suggest the 3 days and 2 nights tour, as this will let you sleep inside the treehouses. Trust me, this experience is something you won’t ever forget.
From Huay Xai, you can skip the slow boat (there are other boat rides you can do later) and head to Luang Namtha. It’s a relaxed town among the rice fields, known as a base for trekking and hill tribe homestay tours in the nearby Nam Ha national park.
Consider staying a night or two and maybe doing a trek, or renting a moped/scooter and riding it to Muang Sing and back.
Then, head onwards to Nong Khiaw. This might just be my personal favorite place in Laos.
It’s beautifully situated among karst mountain peaks, much like the more famous Vang Vieng but not nearly as touristy. Laze in a hammock, visit the waterfalls, or hike up to one (or all) of Nong Khiaw’s three mountain viewpoints.
From here, take a slow boat from Nong Khiaw down the Nam Ou River to Luang Prabang. This will take about a full day. This boat is not as much on the backpacker trail as the one from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, so you may find it a more authentic experience. If you’re in a hurry, you can also just take the bus.
Laos itinerary for 3 weeks
This itinerary includes everything I’ve just mentioned, with the added bonus of visiting the south of Laos.
The south tip of Laos is in some ways a bit less scenic. It’s less mountainous so it has a bit less of an immediate wow-factor, though take a closer look and you’ll find it’s just as amazing as the north.
The Mekong River becomes really wide here and the landscapes are flatter and covered in rice fields. It’s the agricultural epicenter of Laos, with landscapes more reminiscent of southern Vietnam.
Spending some time in south Laos will add some more variety to your trip. The waterfalls and temples around here are also among my favorites.
Heading to the south is especially fun if you can ride a moped/motorbike. If so, you have two very cool trips to consider. You can go to Thakhek and do the Thakhek motorbike loop, or you can go down all the way to Pakse and do the Bolaven Plateau loop.
The general consensus is that Thakhek is more scenic thanks to more mountainous karst terrain. But the Bolaven Plateau has some more interesting stops along the way, such as impressive waterfalls and interesting ethnic villages. Both loops take at least a few days to complete, so you probably only have time for one of them.
There are also tours that can take you to some of the stops on the Bolaven loop, but it’s most fun if you can do it as a road trip. Curious? You can read all about the Bolaven Plateau loop here.
Go all the way down to the riverine islands of Si Phan Don, where you can reward yourself with some hammock-based chilling and relaxed water-based activities after 3 weeks of intense adventuring.
How to get to Laos
These Laos itineraries are all fine and dandy, but first you’ve got to get to Laos in order to start your trip.
Laos isn’t terribly well-connected internationally with flights. You can’t just, say, fly from London to Laos or anything. Such flights don’t exist as Laos is not a major destination.
But there are a fair number of regional flights going into Luang Prabang and Vientiane, so by taking a connecting flight it’s easy to get there.
Try flying into regional hubs like Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or Hanoi, which have many more international flights to countries all over the world. Then just hop onto a regional flight to Laos.
Alternatively, start and end your trip in Thailand. You can fly to Bangkok, travel onwards overland to Chiang Rai and then take a coach into Laos. End your Laos trip in Vientiane, from where you can easily get a coach or train back to Bangkok.
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