We entered Laos via the ‘Chiang Khong-Huay Xai’ land border crossing from Northern Thailand and travelled from North to South Laos over the course of 2 weeks. We went with a company called ‘Stray Asia‘ where all of our transport across South East Asia was pre-paid and you could hop-on or hop-off any of the buses at each of the stops for as long as you liked. On each of the buses there is a local guide who tells you the history of each place and makes recommendations on restaurants, accommodation and things to do. It was a great way of meeting new people doing the same route as us. It works out a bit more expensive than booking local transport as you go along, but it takes you to places off the beaten track that you would normally by-pass and it’s fully paid before you leave so you don’t need to budget for transportation while on the road. It is ideal for anyone who is new to backpacking or for solo travellers. The route outlined below is the ‘Stray Asia‘ route but it can be done by booking local buses along the way as you go.
For tourists from most countries, the Laos visa is available on arrival at overland borders and all international airports in Laos. The visa on arrival is valid for 30 days. To obtain this visa you must fill out an application form at the border, have two passport-size photographs and the visa fee in cash. The fee is determined by your nationality and most cost around $30. It can be paid in US dollars, Thai Baht or Lao Kip. If you are paying in US dollars, ensure that they are in pristine condition. If there is any tear or mark on the notes, they will not accept them. To find out specific cost for your nationality click here.
Luang Prabang was the first main city in Laos for us to visit. We arrived via a slow boat along the Mekong River from Huay Xai (See ‘Boating along the Mekong River‘ post). There are local buses going from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang which take only 6 hours, but if you have the time we would highly recommend getting the slow boat. It is a great introduction into the Laos culture and you get to see the beautiful Laos countryside and local villages. You can also fly directly into Luang Prabang international airport.
Length of stay
With a bit of planning ahead you can easily see everything that Luang Prabang has to offer with 2 days and 2 nights.
We stayed at ‘Sysomphone Guesthouse’ which cost us €19 for 2 nights for a double room. There are loads of accommodation options in Luang Prabang, depending on your budget. This place was just a 10 minute walk into town, and had breakfast included, which is something that we always try and get. You wouldn’t believe how much money you can save by just getting a basic breakfast at your hostel.
Things to do
1. Explore the city
On our first day of any new city, our favorite thing to do is just wander around and get to know the vibe. Luang Prabang is quite small so you can easily do this in just an hour. One of the famous landmarks in the city is its tallest building which is only 4 stories high!
2. Night Market
The main street in Luang Prabang gets transformed every night into a massive street market. It always blows our mind how dedicated the street vendors are to set up their stalls every single day, rain, hail or snow. We have been to countless numbers of street markets in Asia and very rarely ever buy anything because our backpacks are already bursting at the seams, but we love just walking through and seeing what there is to offer.
3. Morning Market
This market is starkly different from the night market. Where the night market is 100% aimed at tourists and contains mainly random souvenirs and elephant trousers, the morning market is for locals to buy and sell their produce. It has everything from fruit and vegetables, to fish, raw meat, insects and live chickens for sale. This market is not one for anyone who has a delicate stomach in the morning as the smell can be a little over powering.
4. Kuang Si Falls
If there is just one thing you do in Luang Prabang, let it be Kuang Si falls! It takes around 45 minutes by car or motorcycle form Luang Prabang.
We organised to go with a bus from a hostel in town. Every hostel and guesthouse in Luang Prabang will have offers for buses to go to Kuang Si falls, it is just a matter of shopping around to find the cheapest one. There are loads of places around Luang Prabang that rent out mopeds for as little as €3 a day. It works out a lot cheaper than getting the bus, but at this stage we had only driven one once and we weren’t 100% confident, so opt’d for the bus instead.
We hit the road for Kuang Si falls on the earliest bus available at 8.30 am to try and avoid the crowds. If you are confident in riding a moped, then we would recommend hiring one and driving out yourself for when the falls open at 9 am. Entry into the falls is 20000 Kip (€2) and it is so worth it. These are the best falls that we have ever been to. There are 5 tiers of incredibly blue water before reaching the huge Kuang Si Falls itself. We spent 3 hours here walking around, taking pictures and swimming. If you decide to go swimming, beware of the nibbling fishes!
5. Phousi Mountain
So firstly, although it is called Phousi mountain, this is not a mountain. It is 3-400 steps up to a temple in the centre of Luang Prabang. The views from the top are incredible, however, do not go for sunset, or if you do, be there at least an hour early because the crowds are insane. We got there about half an hour before sunset and it was packed to capacity with people trying to get a good spot and the perfect photo. Needless to say we lasted about 15 minutes before we had had enough and headed back down. Apparently sunrise is meant to be less hectic if you are an early bird, or just a random time during the day would be better.
The journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng takes only about 4 hours by bus. We went with our pre-booked stray bus, but there are loads of local buses that you can book with your hostel in Luang Prabang.
Length of stay
We stayed 2 days and 2 nights in Vang Vieng, but we did leave feeling like we could of done with on more day, so to see everything without rushing we would recommend 3 nights at least.
We stayed in ‘Vang Vieng Freedom hostel’. It cost cost us €16 for the 2 nights, with breakfast included. This was one of the nicest places that we have stayed so far and we would highly recommend. It is right in the middle of the town, the staff are super friendly and it has a pool table- what more could you want!
Things to do
1. Explore the city
This is going to be our top thing to do for everywhere. It is so nice to just walk around a city without a plan when you first arrive to suss out the area and scope out places for food and drinks. This was one of the places in Laos that we had heard so much about and we were really looking forward to visiting. When we arrived it wasn’t quite what we expected. We thought it would be similar to Luang Prabang, which has lots of tourists but still has it’s local charm, but Vang Vieng is what I would describe as very ‘backpackery’ with lots of western restaurants and bars.
2. Pha Ngern View Point
It is the surrounding landscape that makes Vang Vieng a must see in Laos. On our second day in we decided to head off early and explore this landscape a bit more. We got a tuk-tuk to bring us around to Pha Ngern viewpoint and the blue lagoons. If you split a tuk-tuk between a group it makes it much cheaper so just chat to people in your hostel and see if they want to do a similar route. Renting out a moped is also an option here but the roads are terrible so only do this if you’re really confident riding one.
We left at 7 am as we wanted to leave early to try and get the best view. However, it had been raining the whole night previously and when we started to hike up to the viewpoint the path was really wet and slippy. We tried to climb for about 15 minutes without getting very far before we decided to turn around and make our way back down. We were really disappointed because the views are meant to be some of the best in Laos, but we didn’t feel like it would of been safe to continue. This was the first time that being in Asia during rainy season really affected our plans.
3. Blue Lagoons
There are 3 main blue lagoons around Vang Vieng, each one very different from the other.
- Blue Lagoon 1: This is the most well known blue lagoon in Vang Vieng and for this reason it is also the most crowded. We avoided going to this as we had heard that the other two were quieter and much nicer.
- Blue Lagoon 2: This is located about 7km southwest of Blue Lagoon 1 and has a number of different pools that you can swim in. There are small ziplines, platforms and a number of deck chairs for sunbathing. This is known as the ‘chilled’ blue lagoon, so if you’re looking for somewhere to spend the day lounging in the sun, this is the blue lagoon for you.
- Blue Lagoon 3: This is the furthest from Vang Vieng town, approximately 17km on extremely bumpy roads, but it is definately worth it. There are numerous ziplines, swings, balancing beams and a bamboo raft. Its the most fun blue lagoon that we have been to.
4. Sunset over the river
There are many bars and restaurants along the river that are great for watching the sunset. We went to the ‘Sabai Dee River View Restaurant’ and even though it was quite cloudy the views were brilliant. We went back to this spot both evenings that we were in Vang Vieng.
Although we didn’t do this, we have met many people that say it was the highlight for them in Vang Vieng. This essentially is when you sit in a rubber ring and go down a river and stop at riverside bars along the way for drinks. It didn’t sound like our cup of tea, especially when we only had one full day, but if it sounds like something you’d like to do then just ask your hostel and they will organise it all for you.
6. Enjoy the nightlife
The nightlife in Vang Vieng is probably the best in Laos, so if your looking for a good night out, this is the place for you. However if you are over 23 be prepared to feel old! As we mentioned before, Vang Vieng is full of backpackers so you can find loads of drinks deals, happy hours and free t-shirts. Our favourite bar was Gary’s Irish bar (of course), it’s quite chilled compared to the others and from there you can go to Sakura bar or Viva Pub, which tend to stay open until the early hours of the morning.
Vientiane is a 4 hour journey from Vang Vieng. There are numerous local buses that go daily. Most hostel or hotels will book a bus for you if you ask them nicely.
Length of stay
One night is definitely enough time in Vientiane. Although this is that capitol of Laos, there isn’t much happening here at all.
We stayed in the ‘Vientiane Star hotel’. This was just €10 a night, and although it isn’t our favorite place we ever stayed, it was a good location and had breakfast included of course, so it did the job for one night.
Things to do
1. Night markets
Every night the bank along the Mekong River gets transformed into a massive night market. This is quite different to the other night markets we had been too, and instead of having souvinirs and paintings, it was filled with fake designer clothes, handbags, shoes, you name it. This was probably one of our least favorite markets to be honest, but its still worth a wander.
2. Walk along the river
There is a lovely walkway the whole way along the Mekong river which is ideal for a morning walk/run. In the evening it can get quite busy with the markets and random outdoor aerobic classes so definately go in the morning if you want to make the most of the views.
3. Visit the monuments
On our way into the city we stopped at 2 of Vientiane’s most famous monuments, Putaxai Victory monument and Pha That Luang. These are both really beautiful and well worth the visit. The city is quite small and easy to get around so you could easily cycle or walk around to see these if your bus doesn’t stop on the way.
If you are planning on travelling further south, you may need to start taking your malaria tablets whilst in Vientiane. With many of the malaria tablets, you need to start taking them a couple of days before you enter the high malaria risk area. Check with your doctor before you leave to see if this is the case. The NHS website fitfortravel is a great website to check before you go travelling for information on vaccinations etc.
Kong Lor is a tiny village tucked away off the beaten track in Southern Laos. The entire village is just one street with a couple of guesthouses and local restaurants set in the middle of some of the most beautiful scenery we have seen so far.
Length of stay
One night is definately enough time to see everything in this little village.
We stayed in the cutest little bungalows called ‘Thongdam Guesthouse’. Each bungalow had a balcony with a hammock overlooking rice fields and limestone mountains. The views were incredible.
Things to do
1. Kong Lor Cave
This is of course the top thing to do in Kong Lor. This cave is an impressive 7 km long and 300 feet tall with the Nam Hin Bun River flowing through. To explore the cave you must hire a motorised boat for about US $6 per person. Unfortunately this was the second time during our trip that we got caught out by the rain. It had rained all night and the river was much higher than usual. The local people said that there was a 50/50 chance of us getting through to the other side and getting stuck in the cave… Obviously we decided not to go in, but we hear it’s meant to be amazing so we would still recommend checking it out.
2. Relax in your hammock
There really isn’t much else going on in Kong Lor, so we took our evening there as an excuse to relax in our hammock, read and enjoy the views.
This is a small town mostly used as a border crossing between Thailand and Laos that lies on the banks of the Mekong River. It is just a 2 hour journey from Kong Lor.
Length of stay
One night is loads of time in Thakhek.
We stayed in the ‘Mekong Hotel’ which cost us €10 a night and has a gorgeous view over the Mekong river.
Things to do
1. Kong Lor Caves
If you do not want to stay overnight in Kong Lor, you can get a day trip up to the Kong Lor caves from Thakhek. These tours can be booked by your hostel.
2. Motorbike tour
Thakhek is most famous as the starting point for a 3-4 day motorbike loop throughout the Laos countryside. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to do this, but if time is not an issue for you, then we have heard great things about this. You can hire a motorbike and drive it yourself, or there are tours where you sit on the back of a locals bike, but these are way more expensive.
We ate dinner at the ‘Sunset bar’ in Thakhek and as the name would suggest, we caught a gorgeous sunset over the Mekong river. The food was really good too which was a bonus.
This is another off the beaten track sleepy town. There is not really much happening in the town itself, but the surrounding countryside is really beautiful.
Length of stay
One night is definately enough time here.
We stayed in the ‘Phonethavy Guesthouse’ in Xe Champhone. It was very central and comfortable so we couldn’t complain.
Things to do
1. The monkey forest (Dong Ling)
This was possibly one of the best, but also one of the most frightening things that we have done so far! The Ban Dong Muong forest is home to approximately 2000 Rhesus Macaque monkeys These are all wild monkeys that are protected because the locals believe they are the spirits of people that used to live in the village. On the way to the forest we stopped and got a few bunches of banana’s each. As soon as we pulled up beside the forest a massive troop of monkeys swarmed around us, grabbing at the bags that the bananas were in. We had to hold the bags of banana’s above our heads and just keep walking through them and into the forest where there were literally hundreds of monkeys. It was the most wild monkeys that we have ever seen in one place.
2. Hotay pidok library
This library is a unique wooden structure that sits on high wooden stilts above a pond. It was built over 200 years ago to house Buddhist scriptures. When you visit it you must be dressed modestly, with shoulders and legs covered. The Budddhist scriptures are kept in a room in the middle of the library with a narrow corridor around it. Apparently if you walk around the corridor 3 times wishing for something, your wish will come true.
Our second last stop in Laos was the chilled city of Pakse. This is a 5 hour bus journey from Xe Champhone and there are local buses that go every day.
Length of stay
We just stayed one night here which was enough to see everything. However, just staying one night everywhere and packing up the next day can be tiring. If you have enough time Pakse is a good city to chill out if your sick of packing your bags every morning.
Things to do
1. Tad Yuang Waterfall
This waterfall is located 40 kilometres from Pakse so you will have to get some sort of transportation to get out to here, but it is well worth it and a must see if you are in Pakse. The cheapest way to get to Tad Yuang Water is of course to hire out a motorbike. Otherwise, there are loads of group tours that go here if you are not confident on a motorbike. When you arrive at the falls you have to walk past loads of souvenir shops and over priced restaurants before you see the true beauty of the falls. The walk down to the falls is a series of very steep steps. Because we were there during rainy season, the waterfall was huge and the pool at the bottom had a very strong current. As we walked down the steps the mist from the waterfall had us drenched before we even got to the pool.
2. Visit the coffee farms
On the way out to the Tad Yuang Waterfall you pass many coffee farms. On the way back we stopped in one for a taste, and it did not disappoint. This was the first proper cup of coffee that we got whilst being away so it tasted even better.
3. The night market
Like most tourist cities in Laos, Pakse has a night market where you eat traditional Laos food for really cheap prices and buy souvenirs that you do not need!
4. The Golden Buddha
We have lost count of the number of giant Buddha statues that we have visited, but this has to have one of the best views out of all of them. It overlooks the Mekong river and Pakse city and is the best spot in town or sunrise or sunset.
4000 Islands- Don Det
4000 Islands is, as the name suggests, lots of tiny islands scattered in the Mekong Delta at the foot Laos on the Cambodian border. Most of the islands are uninhabited, but one of the Islands, Don Det, has become one of the top backpacker destinations in Laos. To get here from Pakse you must first get a bus to Nakasang Bus Station and then get a boat transfer over to Don Det. You can easily book these tickets at your hostel in Pakse.
Length of stay
We stayed 2 days and 2 nights which was enough for us. Don Det has a very similar ‘backpackery’ vibe to Vang Vieng, with western restaurants and hipster looking bars giving away free t-shirts with shots. If this is your kind of scene then maybe stay 3 nights to fit in a few nights out.
We stayed in the ‘Lebijou Guesthouse’ which cost only €8 a night for a double room and it had air conditioning, the first place to have air-con since Luang Prabang so we were delighted. It’s just off the main strip of bars and restaurants, but far enough away for it to not be too noisy.
Things to do
1. Irrawaddy dolphin spotting
The 4000 Islands is the last remaining location of freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins anywhere in the world, which is an incredibly sad fact. If you would like to see the last remaining pods in the wild then one of these tours is ideal. There is no guarantees that you will spot a dolphin, but we were lucky enough to see 3 on our tour which was really amazing! The tour costs around 150,000 Kip (€15) per person and lasts about 2 hours.
To get to where the dolphin spotting tour starts you must get a tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks on Don Det are very different to any we have see before. They are pretty much a trailor attached to the side of a moped. The roads on the Island are some of the bumpiest we have been on, so it was a very interesting journey.
2. Cycle around the Island
Hiring a bicycle is a great way of seeing the ‘real’ Don Det, away from the backpacker packed village. There is a dirt path that circles the whole island where you see beautiful rice fields and you can get views of the surrounding islands. You can rent one from numerous places in the village.
3. Catch a sunset
The sunset at Don Det has been one of the most beautiful sunsets that we have seen so far on our trip. We watched the sunset from ‘Kea’s Backpackers Paradise’, but there are many ‘sunset’ bars along the river where you can relax with a beer Lao and enjoy the views.
We opt’d for the boat tour instead, but if you wish you can take a day long kayaking expedition along the Mekong and try and spot the Irrawaddy Dolphins. This costs between 170,000-220,000 KIP and can be organised in one of the tour company offices in Don Det village.
From here we went on to continue our trip to Siam Reap in Cambodia. There are buses that go from Pakse to Luang Prabang however if you are flying from there.
And that concludes our 2 week Laos itinerary. If you have gotten this far, then well done and thank you very much for reading. This is our first post in this format and we would be very grateful if you could let us know what you think in the comments below or on Instagram.