First published in 2013 — re-visited & completely updated in 2018.
Laos is a quiet and thinly populated country, best appreciated for its small-scale rural attractions and its true wilderness. I think it’s one of the real highlights of Southeast Asia, and it’s especially easy to recommend now that improving infrastructure makes it more accessible.
If you came to Laos to party then you have been sadly misinformed. This is a thoroughly sedate country and nothing at all like Thailand. You also won’t find the sort of chaotic and buzzing cities on the scale that you’ll find in its neighboring countries.
But that’s just what’s so wonderful about Laos. It’s all about the gentle exploration of its rural villages, enjoying its Buddhist calm and awe-inspiring nature, and sampling its phenomenal (and underrated) food. Mass tourism hasn’t gotten its grubby hands on Laos, which seems far more interested in community-based and eco-tourism anyway. This is a destination truly made for explorers, with some of the region’s best opportunities for trekking and other outdoor activities.
In this Laos backpacking guide:
Planning your trip to Laos
The classic Laos route
Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane have long been the most popular places to visit in Laos. Tourism first developed here and so you often see these places recommended as part of a standard itinerary. (You’ll find more info on each of these places further down the page.)
In a pinch, you could maybe do this route in a week. But it’s better to have at least 10 to 14 days as you can take it easy and enjoy some fun side-excursions. It also gives you the possibility of taking the 2-day slow boat along the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.
This classic route works well as an add-on to Thailand. You can enter from Northern Thailand and exit again at Nong Khai in Eastern Thailand.
It’s not a bad route, but you shouldn’t feel obligated to follow it! Vang Vieng is a nice place but it’s also quite touristy, and I think the modern capital of Vientiane is not nearly as interesting as traditional rural Laos. To get the best of Laos, you might want to plan a different route all of your own.
Other arguably better routes
I think some of the quiet highlights of Laos are actually in the thinly populated and mountainous north. You can do more or less a loop that includes (or starts with) Luang Prabang. I’ve seen some travel guides warn of bad roads and long travel times in these parts, but the infrastructure is improving and traveling around here isn’t that difficult. Don’t be put off!
Luang Namtha and Nong Khiaw, described later, are two great bases from which to explore the wonderful nature in northern Laos. You’ll love these places if you’re into things like kayaking, trekking, cycling, or caving.
Another great option is to weave your way through the very south of Laos, where you’ll find several friendly cities along the Mekong River and some fantastic riverine island-hopping at Si Phan Don.
But one of the best ways to experience Laos is to explore the countryside by motorbike. I did an amazing day-trip from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing and looped around the Bolaven Plateau in several days [post coming soon]. Other travelers speak very highly of the 3 to 5-day Thakek loop in central Laos.
I’ve highlighted some of the key places of interest in Laos below.
North or south Laos?
Laos is a lanky country and traveling overland between the north and south can take some time. For example, the capital Vientiane to the southern city of Pakse takes about 15 hours by bus.
That’s why if you have only one or two weeks to spare, it might be nice to just focus on one region. I could tell you that all parts of Laos are equally beautiful but — sshhh — I think the north is especially worthwhile! It’s an ethnically diverse region with some amazing mountain scenery.
Traveling from north to south, the mountains gradually make way for flat farmlands. In the southernmost regions you’ll see more rice fields and farmers wearing conical hats, much like in Vietnam. The Mekong River swells in size, stretching far and wide when it gets to Pakse.
The south has plenty of worthwhile attractions like the temples of Wat Phu, the riverine archipelago of Si Phan Don, and the Bolaven Plateau with its waterfalls and traditional villages. If you have the time, visiting both the north/center and the south of Laos is definitely not redundant — as both have a very different vibe and different landscapes! But if you’re forced to make a choice, I think it’s nice to go to the north first, as the mountain scenery and rainforests are quite spectacular there.
Getting into Laos
It was not so long ago that Laos had no road connections to its neighbors at all. Back in 2012, I still had to take a small boat across the Mekong and stamp my passport at a dinky immigration hut. Nowadays, there are bridges and proper border facilities.
Arriving by bus
Approaching from northern Thailand, you can start your Laos trip in Huay Xai in Bokeo Province. But truthfully this is a pretty unremarkable border town, so it can be skipped if you have no other travel plans in this region. Some international buses go directly from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang.
Another key access point with Thailand is at the border near the capital of Vientiane. And in the very south of Laos, many travelers arrive by bus from Siem Reap or Kratie in Cambodia.
The boat from Thailand
A popular trip with younger backpackers (and some older independent travelers) is the infamous slow boat, which travels along the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. The boat takes two days and gives you a relaxed introduction to Laos. I have more info on how to decide between the slow boat or bus.
Laos isn’t that well-connected by air, though there are some flights to Luang Prabang and Vientiane from regional hubs like Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or Hanoi. Lao Airlines has infrequent domestic flights to other places around Laos. Instead of flying directly to Laos, you can also fly into Chiang Rai in Thailand or Hanoi in Vietnam and head into Laos overland from there.
Getting around in Laos
Laos remains one of the least developed countries in the region. It’s true: the roads in Laos aren’t always exactly amazing. Some remote roads require much awareness of potholes and stray goats to navigate. On other routes, it’s not so much the roads but the truly ancient and slow buses that can complicate matters.
But infrastructure is gradually improving. If you’re at least reasonably patient then traveling around Laos really isn’t that arduous. Ignore guides that say traveling by river is still the way to go; most rivers have been dammed at this point and buses are the main mode of transportation now.
China is investing heavily in Laos. A new single-track railway line will eventually link China to Thailand via Laos, though this railway isn’t scheduled to come online until 2022. When finished, it will surely be a speedy and convenient way to travel across northern Laos.
Accommodation in Laos
Cheap accommodation is easy to come by in Laos. Most places have basic bungalows or rooms in guesthouses for under $10 a night. A bed in a hostel dorm easily costs just half that amount.
Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the two places where accommodation can be more expensive and where there are both budget and luxury options. In these two places I suggest booking ahead to get the best accommodation. Below are a few suggestions.
Top places to visit in Laos
Atmospheric city and UNESCO world heritage site
The small city of Luang Prabang is the tourism crown jewel of Laos. Situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it earned UNESCO World Heritage status thanks to its well-preserved architecture blending traditional Laos and French colonial styles.
Luang Prabang a weird, contradictory place. It’s probably the only place in Laos that might get featured in The New York Times or in in-flight magazines, given how it appeals in part to a more upscale clientele. Luang Prabang can seem a little artificial at times, yet underneath it all it’s still totally Laos. Backpackers can feel right at home with plenty of $5/night hostels and cheap food at the local markets.
While Luang Prabang is very touristy, I think it’s quite tastefully so. It’s easy to love this town for its cute cafes with fairy lights, traditional teak wood buildings, and small golden-roofed temples. And despite the presence of numerous luxury boutique hotels and some fancy restaurants with French names, the town does not feel pretentious at all.
Do expect some of the sights around Luang Prabang to be pretty rammed in high season. Climbing Mount Phousi, a temple-topped hill right in the middle of town, will give you some wonderful sunset panoramas, but you’ll be constantly jockeying for space. The multi-tiered Kuang Si Waterfalls with their shimmering azure pools are phenomenal, but it’s best to go here in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the mid-day rush.
If you’re looking for a little slice of wild Laos, it’s not far away. Just take the 2-minute ferry across the Mekong from the docks in downtown. It’s also worth taking a boat up the river north to Pak Ou, where you can visit caves and Buddhist temples. The excellent site Travelfish has a great suggested motorbike loop covering many great highlights around Pak Ou.
“What’s the big deal with Luang Prabang?”
I’ve met many travelers who loved Luang Prabang, but also a few who were a bit underwhelmed. Maybe it’s because the UNESCO label is so often associated (in many traveler’s minds) with epic sights like Angkor Wat or the Great Barrier Reef, whereas Luang Prabang is notable simply for its colonial architectural styles. It’s a surprisingly small place and if you’re expecting imperial grandeur or mind-blowing sights, you’re definitely off the mark. Luang Prabang’s appeal is mostly in its cute wooden Lao houses and former colonial mansions, and the riverside location makes it a nice spot to unwind.
A charming town surrounded by stunning limestone mountains
Just a three-hour drive from the tourist hubbub of Luang Prabang you’ll find Nong Khiaw, a quiet town surrounded by knobbly karst mountain peaks.
Nong Khiaw isn’t as famous as other places in Laos, but that’s probably just a matter of time. The scenery is roughly comparable to the better known Vang Vieng, but I think Nong Khiaw is prettier and has a more of a low-key charm. It’s a tranquil place with just some riverside bungalows, some nice restaurants, and a local bar or two. It’s easily one of my most favorite spots in Laos.
Kayaking, trekking, caving, and waterfall excursions are some of the top things to do here. There are also three mountain viewing points that are well worth the climb.
There are also some gorgeous smaller villages around Nong Khiaw, but those are probably best discovered by yourself…
Luang Namtha & Nam Ha Nat’l Park
Pristine rainforests and hill tribe villages
Luang Namtha itself is fine. It’s a fairly pleasant town with a night market and a Buddhist temple or two. But… that’s not really what you’re here for. You see, Luang Namtha is right next to the Nam Ha National Park, which makes it a perfect base for exploring Laos’ beautiful nature.
Some of the jungle treks offered here include visits to (or homestays in) indigenous hill tribe villages. In Vietnam and Thailand, such hill tribe treks have a bit of a mixed reputation, as some villages get exploited or overrun with tourists. In Luang Namtha they have tried to manage things more sustainably, with no more than two visits allowed per village per week and a maximum group size of 8. Do check if your trekking agency has a good reputation for benefiting the local communities.
By the way, a fantastic day-trip is to rent a motorbike in Luang Namtha and drive the scenic road to Muang Sing.
Gibbon Experience in Nam Kan Nat’l Park
Live in the forest canopy for a couple of days
The Gibbon Experience is a long-running ecotourism project based inside Nam Kan National Park. It invites you to sleep in the world’s highest tree huts and zipline across jungled valleys using a combined 15 kilometers (!) of cables. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear the beautiful song of gibbons in the morning.
It’s a bit costly if you’re on a backpacker budget — a 3-day package costs about $300 — but it’s also an exhilarating and unique experience. Not only that, but it’s totally a feel-good project, as the Gibbon Experience helps to protect the forests and provides sustainable livelihoods to many of the villages. You can read more about the Gibbon Experience in my report.
Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars
A mysterious archaeological site
Little is known about the ancient civilization that created the thousands of stone jars strewn across the Xiangkhoang Plateau, but it makes for an interesting site to explore. The megalithic archaeological landscape can be easily reached from the provincial capital of Phonsavan. Jar Site 1 is the most impressive one.
Laos’ reborn adventure tourism hotspot
Wow — I guess it can take forever for the reputation of a place to turn around. Every description of Vang Vieng still has to start by saying with what it once was, not what it is today. So here goes: Vang Vieng was once known for its totally out-of-control parties, but then it cleaned up its act in 2012. Still, many years later, the old reputation lingers.
There is still nightlife in Vang Vieng. There’s an Ozzie Bar and an Irish Bar. A few other bars still play episodes of Friends or Family Guy on a loop, trying to lure baked backpackers like moths to a flame. But… these are relics from another era, and the crazy riverside raves and wild full moon parties are long gone.
Today, Vang Vieng functions mainly as a base for outdoor activities like kayaking, ziplining, and caving. You can even go hot air ballooning at sunrise, which gives you spectacular views of the surrounding karst formations. Other attractions around town include a small recreational swimming hole called the Blue Lagoon, and the Tham Phu Kham Cave.
Vang Vieng is pretty touristy — and I think Nong Khiaw has more charm — but don’t be totally put off by some of the outdated things you may have read. It’s a worthwhile stop.
A key transit hub (but not much else…)
When I first visited Laos I was warned not to expect too much of Vientiane, and my expectations were suitably met. The Lao capital (pronounced ‘Viangchan’) simply doesn’t have the bustle of other Asian capitals like Hanoi or Bangkok. It also only has a handful of mildly interesting sights. The Golden Stupa (or Pha That Luang temple), the national symbol of Laos, is worth a look.
The Buddha Park makes for a decent day-trip from Vientiane. This sculpture park in a meadow by the Mekong River contains hundreds of contemporary Hindu and Buddhist statues.
Vientiane is alright if you’re just passing through, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. As with any city, you can certainly find interesting things hidden within it, but I think other places in Laos are a little easier to sink your teeth into.
Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau
Coffee farms, homestays, and spectacular waterfalls
The city of Pakse is a perfect launching pad for exploring the southern region of Laos. A small district with guesthouses and restaurants sprung up in Pakse, along with numerous motorbike rental shops — making it very easy to explore the region independently.
The nearby Bolaven Plateau is a flat elevated region (at 1000 to 1300m) known for its many coffee farms, stunning waterfalls, and traditional villages. You can drive around here in a small loop (minimum 2 days) or a big loop (minimum 3 days). The roads can be a bit straight and dull, but the stops along the way are fantastic and completely worth the drive. The waterfalls of Tad Tayicsua and Tad Fane are especially impressive.
The Belgian/Lao managed Miss Noy Motorbike in Pakse provides excellent info and daily briefings on these two loops. If you can’t drive, then you could take a public bus up to Tad Lo and see some waterfalls and coffee farms there, though ideally you should have your own transportation to see the best of Bolaven.
[More details on the Bolaven loop in a forthcoming blog post!]
The 4000 Islands
Relaxing rural river islands
In southern Laos the mighty Mekong River splits into many smaller tendrils when it hits the riverine archipelago called the 4000 Islands (or Si Phan Don).
I’m not sure if it’s exactly 4000 of them, but the region is certainly filled with countless beautiful river islands. It’s a tranquil and rural area that’s perfect for finding a hammock and just watching the world go by. The Mekong sunsets are incredible! Other activities around these parts include bicycling, dolphin watching, and kayaking.
You can read more tips in my guide to Si Phan Don, which covers mostly the islands of Don Det and Don Khon. (I’m still working on the 3998 other islands…)
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Travel costs in Laos
Okay, there’s this weird meme going around that Laos is somehow relatively expensive. People keep repeating this, but I think that really makes no sense if you look at the numbers!
It’s been pointed out by some bloggers that Laos is heavily reliant on imports, so drinks or meals can be a bit pricier than in its neighboring countries. Maybe that’s true, but Laos is still super cheap overall. I’d say it’s actually just as inexpensive as northern Thailand or Vietnam (or at least very close).
During my most recent trip in 2018 I spent an average of $24 a day.
This figure does not include my 3-day Gibbon Experience, but it does include all other accommodation, tours, food, and transport in Laos. I stayed in private rooms in bungalows (without A/C), wasn’t picky about what I ordered, and also bought a few souvenirs. So I ask the internet: how is this considered expensive? I’d say that $20 to $30 a day is actually a reasonable backpacker’s budget for Laos, and the cost differences with neighboring countries are pretty minimal.