If you ask me, Laos is one of the most underrated destinations in Southeast Asia. If you like traveling somewhere that’s still pure and under-the-radar, I bet you’ll love your time in Laos.
I’ve traveled in Laos twice now for a combined 6 weeks. Based on these trips, I can suggest three 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, creating 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 to get into Laos that’s popular with the backpacker crowd. You get to see life on the Mekong, pass by 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 main tourist destination; 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 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, for instance.
Moving on, Vang Vieng is the hiking and adventure capital of Laos, nestled among impressive karst mountains. Here you can enjoy some amazing nature and go on excursions in the area. You can read about some of the things to do in Vang Vieng. This is another place worth staying 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 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 elsewhere. Consider 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 more off-the-beaten-path places.
Many travelers also consider the north of Laos the most scenic, as it’s the most mountainous region with a low population density. It’s great for experiencing the natural beauty of Laos.
Instead of just a quick stopover at the border outpost of Huay Xai, you can stick around here 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, all connected with very long ziplines.
There is a quick 1-day Gibbon Experience tour, but I highly recommend the 3 days and 2 nights tour, as this will let you sleep inside the treehouses. Trust me, it’s something you won’t ever forget.
From Huay Xai, you can skip the slow boat (there are other boat rides) and head to Luang Namtha. It’s a chilled-out town among the rice fields, known as a base for treks and hill tribe homestay tours in the nearby Nam Ha national park.
Consider staying a night or two, doing a trek, or renting a scooter and riding it to Muang Sing and back.
Then, head onwards to Nong Khiaw. This might be my personal favorite place in Laos. It’s a town 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 it can make for a more authentic experience. If you’re in a hurry, you can of course also 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 as it’s much less mountainous. The Mekong River becomes really wide here and the landscapes are flatter and covered in rice fields. It’s basically the agricultural epicenter of Laos, with landscapes more reminiscent of southern Vietnam.
Spending some time in south Laos will add some variety to your trip and it’s highly worthwhile and different from the north. The waterfalls and temples around here are among my favorites.
Heading to the south is especially fun if you can ride a scooter/motorbike. Because 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, with more mountainous karst terrain. But the Bolaven Plateau has some more interesting stops along the way, such as epic waterfalls and some interesting ethnic villages. Both loops take at least a few days to complete, so you probably only have time for one of them.
Go all the way 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
Laos isn’t terribly well-connected internationally with flights, though there are a fair number of regional flights going into Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
Try flying into regional hubs like Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or Hanoi, which have many more international flights, and then finding a connecting flight to Laos.
Alternatively, start and end in Thailand. You can fly to Bangkok, travel onwards to Chiang Rai, and then take a coach into Laos. From Vientiane, you can easily get a coach or train back to Bangkok.