The landlocked country of Laos is a fascinating one for its mixture of communism, religion and natural beauty. This Laos Itinerary gives you a 3 week route that will encompass many different sides of Laos.
The country of Laos is home to over 7 million people. Often overlooked in favour of it’s neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, it in fact has many attractions of it’s own. This Laos Itinerary is designed to showcase many different sides of the country and takes you through several different areas. It includes trekking, partying, temples, historical ruins, and much more! Above all it is designed to help travellers plan a trip through the country and know what to expect.
The route this Laos Itinerary follows:
- Slow Boat from Huay Xai (stops at Pak Beng)
- Luang Prabang
- Muang Ngoi Neua (via Nong Kiaw)
- Vang Vieng
- Konglor Cave
- Champasak (via Savannakhet/Pakse)
- 4000 Islands
The method to travel between the stops on this Loas Itinerary is either mini van or bus. I’ve given some information in italics where appropriate. Generally tickets for these are either bought through your accommodation/travel agent or just by turning up at the bus station.
When travelling within towns and cities in Laos a common method is by tuk tuk. These small vehicles are common across Southeast Asia. Always negotiate a price with the driver. They will always try to overcharge you, so don’t be afraid to barter them down, it’s expected. As Laos is a popular place for backpackers it’s advisable to ‘team up’ to get the best rates too. When you arrive in a new town there will often be able people heading the same way as you, and it’s easier to get cheaper tuk tuks ‘per head’ then on your own.
It’s worth noting that Laos is commonly visited as part of a trip to the wider region with many people entering or departing via Thailand or Cambodia.
Therefore this Laos Itinerary can also be done in reverse! At current it’s based on entering Laos through Northern Thailand via the slow boat. You can in fact also take the slow boat the opposite way round and use it to travel to the Thai border. You can also start the trip at the 4000 islands if you have entered via Cambodia.
If your heading to Vietnam next then there are land crossing points as well as flights. I will cover all of this in further detail at the end of this Laos Itinerary.
Even if your just visiting Laos on this trip you will need to probably pass through one of it’s neighbouring countries to reach the country. Or at least another nearby Asian nation.
There are no flights from outside Asia to the country. Notable places that you can fly here from include Bangkok, Hanoi, Seoul, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. If your coming from outside Asia I would advise that rather than fly into Laos (via another stop) you actually fly to Thailand. Chiang Mai in the North has an international airport with regular connections to Bangkok. From here you can then head to the border to cross for the first stop on this Laos Itinerary.
A note on the time it will take to complete this Laos Itinerary
This Laos Itinerary should take around 3 weeks to complete. I have given suggested time for each stop as I felt appropriate. However you can add and take out activities as appropriate. Which of course will effect how long it takes to complete. The key to this Laos Itinerary is flexibility and it is focused on ensuring you enjoy your time, not get too tired out. It also factors in the fact that journeys in Laos can take many hours and the public transport in unreliable. I have personally been on one bus ride in Laos where the the bus broke down twice (requiring a bus change each time). It also took around 20 hours to complete despite begin advertised as 12.
I have also included the fact that many people backpacking the Southeast Asia region use Vientiane to get their Vietnamese visa. Travelling from Laos to Vietnam is a popular route for those that have started a backpacking trip in Thailand. For instance it enables them to then travel around North Vietnam then down to South Vietnam before heading to Cambodia.
This Laos Itinerary begins by crossing from Thailand via the Chiang Kong border point. As discussed in my North Thailand Itinerary the town of Chiang Kong is a good place to stay the night and stock up before entering Laos. If you need a hostel I recommend Funky Box. Its basic and cheap, but it’s set up to meet other travellers making the same journey easily.
Cross over the Thai-Lao friendship bridge via the Thai immigration centre to leave Thailand. Then pass through Lao immigration to enter the country at Huay Xai. Make sure to withdraw some Lao Kip from the ATM’s here. You will definitely need it for the slow boat and the stop it makes on the way. Therefore it’s worth getting out a large amount to cover what you will need.
When buying your visa on arrival it’s best to pay in US Dollars rather than Thai Baht. Therefore it’s worth taking some out before you travel, or getting some in Thailand. Additionally it’s likely you will get charged an ‘overtime’ fee by the Laos border official. This happens to pretty much everyone, it can be frustrating but it’s just something you have to accept.
The Slow Boat
2 days/1 night
Leaving from Huay Xai the slow boat is a great well to travel through Laos towards Luang Prabang. It travels along the Mekong which is an incredibly important river in Southeast Asia. It runs from China down through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Spending the 2 days travelling along it is a great way to start this Laos Itinerary. You can admire the scenery and enjoy the ride with your fellow passengers.
The boat will stop for the night in Pak Beng. Here you will need to find a bed for the night. This small town is set up for backpackers and has many guesthouses available. In the morning board your boat again. You will arrive in Luang Prabang in the afternoon, where you will need to catch a tuk tuk into the town area.
2 to 3 nights
Highlights of Luang Prabang
- Night Market
- Kuang Si Falls
The hub of Northern Laos, Luang Prabang has a laid back relaxed feel to it. The French colonial influence mixes with Buddhist temples and Laotian tradition. In 1995 the city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why. The city is nice to walk around and admire by yourself without the need for any guide or tour group. The centre is easy to navigate and there are loads of guesthouses, cafes and restaurants around.
During dry season the locals build a bamboo bridge across the river that you can use to cross to the quite suburbs on the other side.
Wat Xieng Thong is one of the best temples to see in the city. This Buddhist monastery is actually one of the oldest in Laos, having escaped destruction during the countries turbulent past where throughout many other temples have been damaged or destroyed. Mount Phou Si is another temple worth checking out. Heading to the top gives you great views over the city and the Mekong river.
In the evenings be sure to check out the cities night market. It’s huge and one of the most famous in the region. Look out for the Vegetarian buffet found down one of the side streets. Its cheap and you can get a lot for your money. If your looking for a backpacker haunt then Utopia Bar is usually packed during the evenings. Its a good place to meet other backpackers and hang out.
One of the biggest attractions for anyone visiting Laos is the Kuang Si Falls. Found about 29 kilometres south of the city, they can easily be reached by tuk tuk.
Muang Ngoi Neua
3 nights (with potentially 1 night in Nong Khiaw)
Around 4 hours by mini van to the north of Luang Prabang you find the village of Nong Khiaw. This town is has some excellent views and a laid back feel. It’s situated around the Nam Ou with the mountains as a backdrop. Travelling along the river by boat you can reach Muang Ngoi Neua. This small village is an excellent trekking base. You can book a local guide who will take you to a remote mountain village where you can stay the night before returning the next day.
Doing a trek is a great way to explore the local nature and meet some of the people who live in the mountains. It can be a very rewarding experience to stay a night in village with local people and get a brief insight into their way of life.
Negotiate a price for the boat journey to Muang Ngoi Neua when you reach Nong Khiaw. If it’s too late in the day you may need to stay the night in Nong Khiaw and take the boat in the morning. Sort out your return journey in Muang Ngoi Neau itself either the night before or day or your departure. When in Nong Khiaw you can board a mini bus heading to Luand Prabang.
You will then require one more night in Luang Prabang
In the morning you will catch a mini van to the next stop on this Laos itinerary. You can book it through you hostel/guesthouse or a local travel agent. Or head to the bus station and sort it out there.
Highlights of Vang Vieng
- The Blue Lagoon
Vang Vieng is well known as being one of the main party centres of Southeast Asia, but it’s also a great place to relax and enjoy the scenery. Its also well known for it’s ‘Friends’ bars. Yes the TV show, many cafes will play the show all day and be filled with backpackers sitting and watching.
The river here is popular as a tubing spot. Simply rent a tube and float down the river enjoying the view. This isn’t without it’s dangers though, be sure not to float past the exit point. And if you stop at any of the bars on the way, please do not go on the rope swings or jump into the river. It is full of rocks! Vang Vieng has been notorious over the years for backpacker deaths from those who took stupid risks.
Sakura bar is arguably the most famous (or is that infamous?) bar in Southeast Asia. Its always full of drinking backpackers and the drinks are cheap. There are several other nightspots around too, you’ll have several options. On the other hand in you fancy relaxing and avoiding the night life then be sure to stay out of the main town area.
Venturing away from town one of the best viewpoints can be found across the river. Look for the hill ‘with the flag’. This is Pha Poak viewpoint. It has a small entrance fee and is a great place to escape too for awhile, the views really are worth it.
A short ride by tuk tuk takes you to The Blue Lagoon. As well as the lagoon itself Phu Kham Cave is here and can be explored.
1 to 3 nights
In my view the capital of the country is actually the least interesting place this Laos Itinerary takes you too. That’s not to say it’s not worth a visit and you pretty much have to pass through anyhow given the road routes in Laos. Its not that I think it’s a ‘bad’ place to visit, I just think the rest of the country is more interesting. However there are some things to do here to keep you occupied. It also has some good food spots too.
One of the ‘must see’ things here is the COPE Visitor Centre. It tells you about the impact on Laos of the ‘Secret War’. This was a bombing campaign conducted by the USA in the country alongside/as part of the Vietnamese War. It has left a lot of unexploded ordnance in Laos and sadly many people have been injured or killed by this.
Around the city look out for the Patuxai victory gate. Its was a built as a monument to those who had fought against France for Independence. In the evening a large night market is open along by the Mekong.
You could also consider visiting the Buddha Park that is located around 25km from the city. There you can find around 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues.
Need a Visa for Vietnam?
The Vietnamese embassy in Vientiane is a popular place to get your Vietnamese Visa sorted. You can get one month visa’s here for entry by land or air. Usually it only takes one day to process, but check when you get there. This obviously means you may need to stay in Vientiane for longer than planned whilst you wait for your visa to be processed. You will need to take your passport and payment in cash. You’ll also need a passport photo (take a couple just in case). Costs vary depending on your nationality. The latest I am aware of US$70. This is actual payment in US dollars, using Laos Kip is more expensive. The dollar notes should be as clean and crisp as possible.
This is of course based on the idea that you will be travelling to Vietnam after your time in Laos. You need to specify the start day of your visa so if your planning to go to another country first it would be better to delay and get your visa there instead.
The small village of Konglor is an interesting place to stay for a night or two. The slow pace of local life is nice to observe and the local natural surroundings great to admire. For nice budget accommodation I advise you head into the village and down towards the river where there are some guesthouses. There are also ‘home stays’ advertised should you want to experience staying with a local.
The main attraction here of course is the cave, also known as Tham Kong Lo. Its part of Phou Hin Bun National Park and you can take a boat and guide through the 7km length of it. Formed from Karst Limestone its rather spectacular and well worth the trip. The boatman will take you though, stopping at points to show you things. there is also the chance to walk through part of the cave.
Take note there is no ATM in Konglor, get plenty of cash out in Vientiane before you make the journey. When leaving you will need to take the bus from the village that goes early in the morning. Check with locals about the exact time you need to be there.
The Thakhek Motorbike Loop is a popular excursion for people travelling through Laos and can be done at this stage of this Laos itinerary. It takes around 3 to 4 days to complete.
I haven’t done it myself but I have friends who have and really enjoyed it. So if your a fan of riding bikes I’ve included it here for you to consider as an option. Konglor cave is included as one of main interests on the loop. If you decide to do the loop then it’s advisable to travel from Vientiane straight to Thakhek to begin. You can rent your motorbike there and sort out space to keep your stuff. Its advisable to leave your ‘big bag’ and only take what you need with you. Then take 3 to 4 days to of the loop, staying at various points along the way.
Travel South via Savannakhet and Pakse
Unfortunately due to the long distances and slow buses in Laos it can take up to a day to get from Konglor/Thakek to Pakse. Savannakhet is a large town on the way that you may be required to change buses in. I have visited and stayed the night but there’s not much there to interest people so I don’t think it’s worth staying at if your following this Laos Itinerary.
Upon reaching Pakse you will need to stay the night before you can take the bus in the morning. The accommodation there can be a bit expensive and not of the best quality. However there are good places to eat in the city and tourist agencies to sort out your bus for the morning.
The small town of Champasak is a sleepy stop along the Mekong river. It has pleasant guesthouses and restaurant with riverside views. There are old colonial buildings here worth a look to admire the French architecture.
The main reason for a visit though is to visit the Vat Phou Khmer ruins. These are the largest Khmer ruins outside of Cambodia and are certainly worth the stop. There are signs that the complex was dedicated to Shiva, one of the main deities in Hinduism. These days the site is one of Buddhist worship and is considered sacred by the local ethnic Lao people. Heading past pillars and ruined buildings you then find structures built onto a cliff-side. Look out for the carving of an elephant and another of a crocodile.
When arriving at Champasak you will be dropped across the river from the town. This is the Ban Muang village boat landing. You will need to cross by boat, you can hire one privately or join a shared crossing. You will arrive at
Ban Phapin boat landing point. From here take a tuk tuk to the town.
The boat to the next stop – the 4000 islands – goes from Ban Nakasang. This should be where your bus drops you coming from Champasak. It’s normally a bus that has left Pakse and then also picks up at Champasak.
3 nights (or more if you want to relax)
Known locally as Si Phan Don, these are a collection of islands in the Mekong River right at the southern tip of Laos. The thing to do here it to relax and take it easy. The pace of life is slow here, and it’s an excellent way to end this Laos Itinerary.
The main backpacker island here is Don Det. You can also find accommodation on Don Khon, which is the next island over. Only the most expensive places on the islands have options to pre-book online. The best method for budget backpackers is to turn up on Don Det and walk around the island until you find a bungalow for rent. I recommend the ‘sunset’ side of the island. The other option of course begin the sunrise side. Walk along the sunset path until you find somewhere suitable. Look for the signposts when you arrive or just ask someone. My other recommendation would be to insist upon a bungalow with a hammock!
Don Det is full of small restaurant and cafe spots to enjoy your meals. They tend to have pillows and matt rolls so you can laze about for hours admiring the views. There is a village area on Don Det too, should you for instance need to pick up some basic supplies.
As well as simply relaxing on the islands it can be nice to take a boat trip for sunset. The setting sun really is spectacular in this part of the world, some of the best I’ve seen.
You can walk across from Don Det to Don Khon, where you find the Somphamit Waterfalls. These are beautiful and include some awesome rapids. In addition there are ‘beach’ areas nearby which can be explored.
That brings the route of this Laos Itinerary to an end. I hope it helps and inspires your own trip!
Where to next?
Thailand / International Flights
If you want to head to Thailand from the 4000 Islands then you can return to Pakse and cross from there. You can take a bus that goes to the Chong Mek border crossing. From there you can travel onward as required. The nearest large transport hub is Nakhon Ratchasima, which is also known as Korat.
If you need to fly home after completing this Laos Itinerary then the best plan is to head to Bangkok to take an international flight from there. Ask around the many tour agencies in the 4000 islands to see what they suggest. Give yourself plenty of time, it’s a long journey. Consequently you might want to plan for at least one night in Bangkok, should you get delayed.
For those heading to Vietnam you have two choices, to enter by land or to fly. Either way you will need to travel back up the country from the 4000 Islands. Therefore you will need to allot additional time at the end of this Laos Itinerary to get there. The most effective way would be to travel back to Vientiane. From there either fly to Hanoi or take a long distance bus across the border. If you fancy a challenge and going the remote rout then you can head to Savannakhet and then across to Dansavan. There is a border point here you can cross. There are mini vans that pick up on the other side that can take you to Đông Hà. From there you can travel Huế.
However these aren’t always clear as to where they pick up and they likely will not speak English. Keep your eyes open as to where others are congregating. There is a gas station and mini vans are known to pick up there. Be prepared, it’s wise to have a map handy so you can point where you would like to go. And similarly it’s not obvious where the ATM’s are so you may need to negotiate a stop to pick up some Vietnamese currency.
Either way the journey will be long, at least 24 hours to your departure point in Laos if not more. There is a small airport in Pakse that offers some flights so that could be worth checking out too. It might be worth flying from there to Vientiane, and then onward to Hanoi.
Should Cambodia be your next destination you can find plenty of buses and mini vans heading there from the 4000 Islands. You should ask around the travel agents to find a good deal. Above all make sure you avoid any scams. They can be difficult to spot sometimes but some are obvious. For instance you may be approached at the border by someone offering to do your visa on arrival for you. Simply decline and do it yourself.
Phomn Penh is the capital and a common starting point when exploring the country. However Krati is a good first stop in Cambodia and offers you the chance to see Irrawaddy river Dolphins in the Mekong. I’d therefore suggest you head to Kratie first, and then onward to Phomn Penh.
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