Laos is a quiet and thinly populated country, best appreciated for its small-scale rural places and true wilderness. It’s one of my personal highlights of Southeast Asia, and it’s especially easy to recommend now that improving infrastructure makes it more accessible.
It’s absolutely one of my favourite countries in the region, and I’ll share with you here some honest tips on how to get the most out of your trip!
By the way, if you came to Laos to party then you have been sadly misinformed. This is an utterly sedate country and nothing at all like the more touristy parts of Thailand. Forget what you may have heard about Laos being only a party destination for backpackers; that was only true back in the early 2010s. That’s not to say that you can’t still party in Laos if you want to — especially in Vang Vieng — but as a travel destination, it’s not defined by this at all.
Also, keep in mind — and this is just to set your expectations — that you won’t find the sort of chaotic and buzzing cities that exist in Thailand or Vietnam. There’s nothing quite like Bangkok or Hanoi in Laos. Even the capital of Laos is small and probably not so stimulating to you if you’re all about urban exploration.
But that’s also what’s so wonderful about this country. Laos is all about exploring its gentle rural villages, enjoying its Buddhist calm and awe-inspiring nature, and sampling its delicious and underrated food.
Mass tourism hasn’t quite gotten its grubby hands on Laos, which seems a lot more focused on eco- and community-based tourism for now. That makes it a destination truly made for explorers, with some of the region’s best opportunities for trekking and other outdoor activities.
Laos routes and itineraries
The classic Laos route
Want an easy-to-follow itinerary for Laos? Well, there’s one route that’s been travelled for decades — though keep in mind it’s far from the only option, and if you limit yourself to this route you’ll definitely miss out on some cool stuff. Then again, it’s also a tried-and-route route that will give you a great slice of Laos.
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 mentioned as part of a standard itinerary.
(Way back in the 90ies visas were only valid for these places, so this created a well-worn travel trail, but nowadays you’re free to travel anywhere.)
In a pinch, you could maybe do this route in a week. But it’s better to have at least 10 days, so you can take it easy and enjoy some fun side-excursions along the way. Having a few more days also gives you the possibility of taking the 2-day slow boat along the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.
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.
It’s not a bad route, but you shouldn’t feel obligated to follow it! Vang Vieng is great but it’s also very much on the tourist trail, and I think the modern capital of Vientiane is not nearly as interesting as traditional rural Laos.
To get the best of Laos, you could also consider making a different route of your own.
Other arguably better routes
I think some of the humble highlights of Laos are in the thinly populated and mountainous north. You can do more or less a loop around the north that includes (or starts and ends with) the UNESCO listed city of Luang Prabang. Some old travel guides still warn of bad roads and long travel times in these parts, but the infrastructure is improving and I think travelling around here really isn’t that difficult most of the time.
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. There are many national parks around here with vast unbroken jungles and you’ll find lots of guided treks on offer. Nong Khiaw is probably my favorite place that I’ve been in Laos.
Another great option to see more of Laos 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. This region also has some of the prettiest waterfalls I’ve seen in the country.
Wherever you decide to go, one of the best ways to experience Laos is to explore the countryside by motorbike. In the north, I did an amazing day-trip from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing. In the south, I looped around the Bolaven Plateau in several days. Other travelers speak very highly of the 3 to 5-day Thakek loop in central Laos.
Trust me: you haven’t really experienced this country until you’ve driven around on a scooter past lush green rice fields and pastoral villages backed by karst hills. It’s a little slice of authentic Southeast Asia that can sometimes be harder to find in Laos’ more developed neighbors.
I’ve highlighted some of the key places of interest in Laos below — enough to keep you busy for many weeks if you have the time.
North or south Laos?
Laos is a lanky country and travelling overland between the north and south can take some time. For example, travelling from the capital Vientiane to the southern city of Pakse takes about 15 hours by bus. Travelling the whole length of the country north to south would take at least 40 hours. (There are a few domestic flights with propeller planes, but they don’t go every day.)
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.
As you make your way 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 you might know from 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/centre 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 a cool idea to go to the north first, due to its mountain scenery, rainforests, and the chance to see the (very touristy but very nice) Luang Prabang.
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.
“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 (the center feels more like a small town) 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 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
I’m including Muang Sing here knowing full well that hardly anyone will visit it. This small village is just a stone’s throw from China’s Yunnan province, in a northern corner of Laos that most would consider a dead-end. But this is exactly what makes it very appealing to anyone wanting to get a different taste of Laos, away from the usual 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 in 2012. Still, many years later, the old reputation lingers, and some people still avoid it based on bad information (which is a real shame).
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.
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 (check the weather reports though – I was unlucky to go on a very cloudy morning). 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 ignore some of the outdated things you may have read. It has much more to offer than just parties.
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.
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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 with a single desk. Nowadays, there are bridges and proper border facilities, and crossing into Laos has become a breeze.
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. 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.
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 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 is one place where accommodation can be more expensive and where there are both budget and luxury options. Here I suggest booking ahead to get the best accommodation. Below are a few suggestions.
Places to stay in Luang Prabang
Vongprachan Backpackers Hostel
Close to the night market and Phousi Mountain
Sa Sa Lao
A homestay-like quiet space with bamboo houses. Dorms & private rooms. Very typically Laos
Mid-budget option with pool, clean spacious rooms. Good for couples
Travel costs in Laos
So there’s this weird meme going around that Laos is 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 just as inexpensive as northern Thailand or Vietnam (or at least very close).
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 don’t know about you, but to me, that seems like excellent value. I think $20 to $30 a day is a reasonable backpacker’s budget for Laos, and any cost differences with neighboring countries are minimal.