This quiet and thinly populated country is one of the most underrated in Asia. If you’re into wilderness, remote riverside towns, and scenic motorbike loops, then Laos is a gem.
I had some of my favorite travel experiences while backpacking Laos, including motorbiking around the Bolaven Plateau and ziplining over the jungle canopy at the Gibbon Experience. In this guide, I’ll share everything you need to know.
Mind you, Laos is always changing and older travel guides will give you an outdated picture. There are two big things that have changed:
Firstly, Laos is not a party destination. In the early 2010s, Vang Vieng was a notorious party town, but nowadays it’s mostly a nature destination. Laos is actually quite sleepy and most bars close before midnight.
Secondly, it’s become easier to travel. The new Boten–Vientiane railway opened in 2022, making the north much more connected. When I first visited Laos way back in 2013, you had to cross the border by bamboo raft — nowadays there’s a bridge. Laos is sparsely populated and very pure, but thanks to improved infrastructure it’s not too difficult to travel around and follow your own route.
There isn’t much mass tourism (due to a lack of beaches) and the cities are not as buzzing as in Thailand or Vietnam. But Laos is all about exploring its gentle rural villages, enjoying its Buddhist calm and awe-inspiring nature, and sampling its delicious and underrated food.
Some may call that boring, but I call it a true highlight of Asia!
When to visit Laos
It’s best to avoid the wet season in Laos between May and October. The dry dry season is between November and April.
I’ve travelled in Laos in November and in February-March. The landscapes were a bit lusher in November as this month follows the monsoon rains. But there really wasn’t that much difference and Nov-Apr should be all good.
No matter the time of year, keep in mind the mountainous north can get chilly at night. Pack for the tropics but bring a jumper as well.
Laos routes and itineraries
The classic Laos route
Want an easy-to-follow itinerary for Laos? Then simply focus on Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.
This has long been the tried-and-true Laos itinerary if you have limited time (around one week). You’ll hit up some of the highlights and you’ll see the UNESCO World Heritage-recognized city of Luang Prabang.
You can do this route in a week if you keep pace, but it’s better to have at least 10 days. This gives you time for some fun side excursions along the way or to take the 2-day slow boat along the Mekong River to Luang Prabang instead of the faster bus.
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.
This gives you a nice slice of Laos, but if you want to be more original, there are other routes in Laos to consider.
Other arguably better routes
I love the mountainous north of Laos. You can do a great loop starting and ending in Luang Prabang, which includes some smaller towns like Luang Namtha and Nong Khiaw.
These towns are amazing if you’re into things like kayaking, trekking, cycling, or caving. There are national parks with vast unbroken jungles and it’s easy to find guided treks through the jungles or to waterfalls. If you like homestays then there are lots of opportunities for this as well.
Another cool trip is to weave your way through the very south of Laos. It’s home to several friendly cities along the Mekong River, some fantastic riverine island-hopping at Si Phan Don, and the prettiest waterfalls I’ve seen in Laos.
If you have time, you can of course combine all of these into one big (3 to 4 week) Laos route.
North or south Laos?
Laos is quite a long country and travelling it all overland takes time; for example, from the capital in the center to the southern city of Pakse takes about 15 hours by bus.
Depending on your trip, you may be forced to decide between the north or south. 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.
If forced to choose, I would do a trip there first, but some travellers do prefer the south.
As you make your way south, the mountains gradually make way for flat farmlands. 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.
If you have the time, then visiting both the north/center and the south of Laos is definitely not redundant — as both have a very different vibe and different landscapes.
Exploring by scooter/motorbike
It’s easiest to travel around Laos by bus or train. But having your own transport will give you a very different experience.
I loved exploring the countryside by motorbike. It’s easy to rent a motorbike or moped/scooter in many places and it often costs very little. (I remember renting one for about $7 a day.) You can do a lot of local sightseeing independently in this way (then get on a bus to your next hub).
If you can’t drive a moped yourself, try to make friends with someone who can and hop on the back! There’s nothing like driving past lush green rice fields and pastoral villages backed by karst hills. You’ll get to see a different side of Laos for sure.
Besides local sightseeing, a motorbike/moped will also let you do multi-day road trips within Laos:
- The Bolaven Loop (or Pakse Loop) in the south is one of the best known. I wrote about the experience and highlights here. It takes 2 days for the “small loop” and 3 to 4 days for the big loop.
- The Thakek Loop starting in the central Laos city of Thakek is another popular ride, taking 3 to 5 days.
- The Northeast Loop is not as established but goes through some amazingly scenic areas, starting in Luang Prabang. The route is nicely described here.
I also did a lovely day trip by motorbike from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing that I can highly recommend. It goes right through Nam Ha National Park and ends with lots of rice fields and rural scenes.
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 — and while it shouldn’t be overhyped, it’s still highly worth including in your trip. Situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it earned UNESCO World Heritage status thanks to its well-preserved architecture that blends traditional Laos and French colonial styles.
In the two times that I’ve been, Luang Prabang has struck me as a strange, 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 some of the restaurants and hotels appeal in part to a more upscale clientele. Some tourists also visit Luang Prabang as an Asian city trip (flying in and out) and won’t really be seen elsewhere in Laos.
This can make Luang Prabang feel a tad artificial at times, even though underneath it all it’s still totally Laos. Take the night market for instance, which gives you a great chance to try out the typical street food. If you’re a backpacker, you also don’t need to be put off by Luang Prabang’s reputation for higher-end accommodation, as you can still find plenty of cheap food and $5-a-night hostels.
Luang Prabang is very touristy, but 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 will welcome you no matter your budget.
Do expect some of the sights around Luang Prabang to be pretty rammed in high season (like December and January). 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 all just jungle and scattered rural villages around here.
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. If you don’t have your own transportation, you can visit several waterfalls and caves on a day trip.
“What’s the big deal with Luang Prabang?”
Some love Luang Prabang, some are a tad 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 well-preserved colonial architectural styles.
To set expectations: it’s a surprisingly small place (feeling more like a small town) and you won’t see imperial grandeur or mind-blowing sights. Luang Prabang’s appeal is mostly in its cute wooden Lao houses and former colonial mansions, and the riverside location makes it a lovely spot to unwind.
Charming town surrounded by stunning limestone mountains
Just a three-hour drive from the developed tourism 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 its rustic charms are just my cup of tea — and maybe yours as well. The scenery is somewhat comparable to the better known Vang Vieng, but I think Nong Khiaw is prettier and has a more of a low-key vibe. 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. Don’t also miss hiking up to one of the three epic viewing points looking down on the town — or why not hike to all three.
The tiny village of Muang Ngoi Neua is in a stunning location one hour by boat north of Nong Khiaw, and is well worth a stay. There’s not much to do there but to swing in a hammock by the river, but it’s a lovely spot to get away from it all.
Luang Namtha & Nam Ha Nat’l Park
Pristine rainforests and hill tribe villages
The town of Luang Namtha itself is maybe not the most scenic in Laos, but it’s a fairly pleasant town with a night market and a Buddhist temple or two. (And I much enjoyed staying in a guesthouse off the main road and among the rice fields, pictured below.)
But the town is not 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 seem to have a bit of a mixed reputation, as some villages get exploited or overrun with tourists. In Luang Namtha, it seems 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, in order to support responsible community tourism.
Muang Sing province
A sleepy region near the Chinese border
This small village is just a stone’s throw from China’s Yunnan province. It’s probably not a place that many will visit, being in a northern corner of Laos that most would consider a dead-end. But this is exactly what makes it very appealing if you want to get a different taste of Laos, away from the typical tourist sights.
Going to Muang Sing is especially worth it if you go by motorbike from Luang Namtha. At a leisurely pace, it will take just half a day, but the drive is incredibly scenic, passing through a section of Nam Ha National Park as well as several waterfalls on the way.
The town of Muang Sing is situated in the middle of a valley with rice fields stretching out to distant mountain ranges. There is very little tourist infrastructure, but there’s just enough to get by. You’ll find several guesthouses, a museum, a bicycle rental, and a government-run trekking agency that can take you out to some of the ethnic villages around the province. It’s a great little place to go if you’re into off-the-beaten-track exploration.
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 as mist still shrouds the lower parts of the forest.
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 genuinely helps to protect the forests and provides sustainable livelihoods to many of the villages.
While you can find plenty of ziplining experiences around the world, I can’t think of many that let you actually sleep inside tree huts and be so at one with the forest. When I had a shower on the bathroom deck with panoramic sunset views of the canopy and tropical birds zipping past, I felt this was nearly worth the price of admission alone. 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 best reached from the provincial capital of Phonsavan. Jar Site 1 is the most impressive one, though there are over 100 jar sites.
The area around Phonsavan was also much affected by the US during the Vietnam War, suffering from heavy bombardment and conflicts instigated by the CIA. Local museums can tell you about the war and the issues with unexploded ordnance that still persist today.
Unfortunately, Phonsavan is annoyingly far away from other key sights. It takes a whole day to get to from Luang Prabang, for example. This makes it probably only worth it if you’re already on the way to somewhere else, for example to Viang Xai or onwards to Vietnam, as it will help break up the journey.
Laos’ reborn adventure tourism hotspot
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 way back in 2012. Still, so many years later, the old reputation lingers, and some people still avoid it based on bad information.
There is still nightlife in Vang Vieng. It’s one of the few places where bars stay open after 11pm, ignoring the strict curfew that’s normally imposed throughout the country. You can also still go down the river in a tractor tube, and stop by a handful of bars along the way, but this is a much more laidback affair than the crazy riverside raves and wild full moon parties that existed here in the past.
A little north of Vang Vieng, you can go on kayaking and cave tubing trips in the Tham Xang and Tham Nam caves.
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 Vang Vieng 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 it’s a great base for exploring the nature around it.
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’ in the original Lao) 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 maybe worth a look.
The Buddha Park also 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.
To be honest though, Vientiane is alright if you’re just passing through, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. I got stuck in Vientiane for several days while awaiting my Vietnam visa and got a little bored. 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. While the city isn’t that interesting itself, it has a small backpacker district with some guesthouses where you can stay the night and plan your excursions into the surrounding area.
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 aren’t always scenic the whole way — some of them just pass through flat farmland — but the stops along the way are amazing and completely worth the drive.
The waterfalls of Tad Tayicsua and Tad Fane are especially impressive, and it’s lovely to stay the night in the little town of Tad Lo. (For more tips, you can read my post about exploring the Bolaven Plateau.)
The Bolaven Plateau is best explored by motorbike. The Belgian/Lao managed Miss Noy Motorbike in Pakse provides excellent info and daily briefings on these two loops — and motorbikes for rent, of course. If you can’t drive a scooter, 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.
Khmer temples off the beaten track
The ancient religious complex of Wat Phou makes for a great stop in southern Laos. Unlike many of the Khmer temples in Cambodia, Wat Phu is less visited and much more tranquil.
Okay, it might be no Angkor Wat, but the two temple buildings from the 11th century are still very nicely intact. You can climb the hills to explore another hilltop sanctuary, and to get some beautiful views of the temples and landscapes below. When I visited, there were only a few handfuls of tourists, and otherwise there were just Laotians coming here to pray or to have a picnic. Wat Phu can be best reached from Pakse (about 45 min).
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. It’s definitely one of the hotspots if you’re backpacking Laos; particularly Don Det attracts a backpacking crowd, but the other islands have more of a mix of visitors, including independent travelers staying in guesthouses or homestays.
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Getting into Laos
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 might want to fly into you can also fly into northern Thailand or Vietnam and head into Laos overland from there.
There is a tiny airport at the border town of Huay Xai but it’s getting upgraded this year so it’s closed. Otherwise you may find regional flights going to this convenient starting point for your Laos itinerary.
Arriving by bus
Approaching from northern Thailand, you can start your Laos trip in Huay Xai in Bokeo Province. Truthfully this is a pretty unremarkable border town, so it can be skipped if you have no other travel plans in this region. (Huay Xai is where you want to be for the Gibbon Experience though and you can travel onwards from there.)
Approaching from the south, you can cross the border from Thailand to the capital of Vientiane. Another common route is to travel between Siem Reap or Kratie in Cambodia to the 1000 Islands in the south tip of Laos.
The boat from Thailand
A popular trip with backpackers 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. You’ll sleep the night in a riverside village called Pakbeng and this accommodation is included.
I entered Laos both with the slowboat and via the overland bus route. Check out my comparison between the slow boat and bus if you’re trying to decide!
Most nationalities get a 30-day visa on arrival at the border. The cost depends on your nationality but ranges from $20 to $40. Travelers from Nordic countries can travel visa-free for up to 15 days.
Getting around in Laos
Laos is still one of the least developed countries in the region. The roads in Laos aren’t always exactly amazing. Some remote roads require much awareness of potholes and stray goats to navigate. Sometimes it’s truly ancient and slow buses that can complicate matters.
But infrastructure is slowly improving. If you’re at least reasonably patient then traveling around Laos really isn’t that arduous. As of 2022, a single-track railway line now links China to Thailand via Laos. It offers a speedy and convenient way to travel across northern Laos.
It’s easiest to book buses and trains through 12Go Asia.
Accommodation in Laos
There is a lot of cheap accommodation in Laos. If you’re backpacking Laos and like to stay in hostels, then Hostelworld is of course the site to check.
Even when I travelled on a budget, I didn’t find it necessary to stay in hostel dorms very often. Outside of pretty much just Luang Prabang, places to stay are just very cheap in Laos. It’s possible to get a basic bungalow or a private room in a guesthouse for under $10 a night.
Travel costs in Laos
During my most recent trip, 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.
I think $20 to $30 a day is a reasonable backpacker’s budget for Laos.
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