Top tips for travelling through Laos
We spent an incredible month travelling through Laos, but found we enjoyed some parts more than others. The following are our travel tips, with a couple of top picks, things to be wary of and a few ideas for potential itineraries.
TOP PICKS FOR…
Accommodation: We stayed along a beautiful alley in Luang Prabang, spending the first few days at Ho Xieng Guest House. What we found special about this place was the family, there was four generations that lived and worked here. Most charming was the elderly grandmother, who often chatted away to us in Laotian knowing we couldn’t understand her. It was a lovely environment and nice to be more involved with the family than usual.
Food: We found the food through the north was quite similar to Thai food and the southern food had many Vietnamese influences. Our favourite discovery was sweet sticky rice with mango. We naively hadn’t tried this until we reached southern Laos, where a fellow traveller recommended it. While it doesn’t sound appealing, it tastes absolutely beautiful and we were left wishing we had tried it much earlier.
Activities: Easily the best activity we have done to date is the Tree Top Explorer, run by Green Discovery. We spent three days trekking and zip-lining through the jungle in the Bolaven Plateau, located in the south of Laos. At the end of the day we showered under a glorious waterfall and retired to tree houses perched high above the ground. A fantastic trip!
Sights: Kuang Si Waterfalls just outside of Luang Prabang were incredible. The seemingly endless cascading pools and beautiful turquoise waters are an amazing natural wonder. We were fascinated for hours wandering around here.
BE WARY OF…
We have had some of our most enjoyable experiences of our trip (so far) in Laos. The country is gorgeous and the culture is fascinating. As with any country, there are a few things to be wary of before travelling.
- The Chiang Rai – Huay Xai crossing: Many people catch the slow boat to Luang Prabang from Chiang Rai, crossing the border at Huay Xai. This was our initial plan until we discovered they didn’t issue 30-day visa’s on arrival. Consequently we caught a bus to Nong Khai to cross into Vientiane. It is worth checking the most up to date information on the visa processes before you cross the border to ensure you can make appropriate plans.
- Accommodation options: We found it really difficult to prebook any accommodation in Laos, purely because majority of the guesthouses aren’t online. Even though we travelled in late December, a peak time in Laos, we had no difficulties finding a reasonably priced private room in a decent guesthouse on arrival.
- The Laos Culture: The Lao people are incredible and I really enjoyed the culture here. Be wary, they are quite conservative and I felt more comfortable dressed with my knees and shoulders covered. This is a necessity for visiting all temples, museums and cultural sites too. Wearing a bikini or men walking without a shirt on is frowned upon, except in certain more touristy areas, where it is accepted that tourists will wear swimsuits.
- The Laos economy: Laos is one of the 20 poorest countries in the world. While it was a personal choice, we tried to support the locals as much as possible. We chose Green Discovery for our tours as they support local development, feedback to the community and pay fair wages.
- The public toilets: Are far from flash. Be sure to carry toilet paper (I find a pocket-pack of tissues are easiest to carry) and hand sanitiser. There is often a 2,000K charge too.
- The public transport: The roads are terrible, especially between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. If you find you get carsick make sure you have something to settle your stomach, particularly for the road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. The buses are also often late, minivans overbooked, and they make frequent stops to pick-up and drop-off people and deliveries.
- Kuang Si Waterfalls: A major tourist attraction (for good reason), the falls are visited by hundreds of people each day. If you hire a scooter (which is also the cheapest way to get there), head out early and you will find the cascades nearly empty.
- Tubing at Vang Vieng: Historically, 100 tourists died each year while tubing in Vang Vieng. In 2011 the Lao government put a stop to the drug and alcohol fuelled activities that ultimately lead to these deaths. Today, it is quite a peaceful way to spend an afternoon. The river does flow quite quickly in areas and faster after the rain. Be careful you don’t loose your tube.
IF YOU LIKE…
Food: As Laos was a French colony for many years; there is a distinct French influence, especially with the bread and pastries. Jimmy found these were incredible (I’m gluten free so unfortunately can’t lend any first hand knowledge) and the coffee was beautiful. You could easily get lost in the café scene in either Vientiane or Luang Prabang.
Shopping: I didn’t notice any distinct shopping areas, however, the night markets in Luang Prabang had some beautiful hand made silk scarves, amongst other things.
Physical activity: The Tree Top Explorer trip we completed with Green Discovery was amazing. They have multiple tours and the company has policies to pay their guides a fair wage and they also put money into rehabilitating rural communities. Pick and choose the company and tour that suits you best. I would be wary trekking unguided due to the high amount of unexploded ordnance in Laos. We also hired a scooter to tour the Bolaven Plateau loop, it is beautiful and we both really enjoyed ourselves.
Heritage: As Luang Prabang is an UNESCO listed Heritage town (and has been for 20 years), it is easily the best place to go to experience Laotian heritage. The township is extremely charismatic and has some amazing sites worth visiting in the surrounding area.
Culture: We really enjoyed the Bolaven Plateau and felt we experienced a lot of the Lao culture in the few days we spent travelling around here. The best part was the children who would run out from school waving frantically shouting ‘hello’ as we drove past on the scooter.
IF WE WERE TO GO BACK…
I believe there will be an incredible amount of growth and development in Laos within the next 5-10 years. For me, a return trip would partly be a way to cure my curiosity to see where and how the country has changed. I would want to focus more attention on the north, possibly travelling to the Nam Ha National Protected Area for a bit of trekking. I would also return to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. Luang Prabang is beautiful and I believe it should be a part of every Laos’ itinerary. Vang Vieng has a few extra treks and activities I would consider doing on a return trip.
We travelled from Thailand, crossing the border at Vientiane, before travelling to Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Tha Khek (via Vientiane for a night), and Pakse that we used as a base to explore the Bolaven Plateau and where we did the Tree Top Explorer. From what we have seen, the following would be my picks for itineraries.
- One week: With so much to see this would be hard. I would fly into Luang Prabang and spend three days there before travelling to Vang Vieng for two days and Vientiane for the last two days before flying home. The trouble here is the transfers between the towns take 4-5 hours (check out the Laos Travel Guide for more information on transport), which can waste a bit of time. Alternatively, you could spend four days in Luang Prabang before flying to Vientiane for three days.
- Two weeks: There would be a few different ways of travelling Laos in two weeks, the following are my suggestions:
- Fly into Luang Prabang for 4 days before travelling to Vang Vieng (spend 2-3 days here). Travel further south to spend 2-3 days in Vientiane. If you like caves, travel to Tha Khek to explore the cave networks in central Laos. Most people do the Tha Khek Loop, a 450km motorbike loop over 4-5 days (we missed this as we were sick in Tha Khek). There are some tours that include several of the caves that are an alternative option to riding a motorbike. After completing the loop, travel back to Vientiane and fly home.
- The second option is quite similar, 4 days in Luang Prabang, 2-3 days in Vang Vieng and 2-3 days in Vientiane. If you prefer waterfalls, I would fly from Vientiane to Pakse (or catch an overnight bus) to complete the Bolaven Plateau Loop on motorbike. We easily completed this in two days. There are also several tours that depart from Pakse to explore the waterfalls. I would spend the last 2 or 3 days completing the Tree Top Explorer with Green Discovery before flying out of Pakse and returning home.
- Lastly, you could easily spend two weeks exploring the north. Fly into Vientiane; spend 3 days here before travelling to Vang Vieng. Spend 3-4 days here; check out the various sights before heading to Luang Prabang. Use this as a base to explore the far north, perhaps even travelling to the Nam Ha National Protected Area for a few treks.
- Three – four weeks: As always, the longer you have the more you can achieve. I would still start in Luang Prabang, spending 3-4 days here before travelling to Vang Vieng. Spend another 3-4 days in Vang Vieng, and 3 days in Vientiane. You could easily complete the Tha Khek Loop (over 4-5 days) before travelling to Pakse to check out the Bolaven Plateau (2-3 days) and potentially the Tree Top Explorer (2 or 3 days). Lastly, a few days at the Four Thousand Islands in the south (we missed this as we were a bit restricted by the dates we had our flight and the Tree Top Explorer booked) before heading home.
Remember, these itineraries are only a suggestion based on the places we went when we travelled through Laos. We definitely didn’t see it all and there are many other things on offer in Laos.
We really enjoyed our time in Laos and will most likely return at some stage. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to help. For a breakdown of what the various aspects cost us have a look at our Laos Travel Guide, and for more information on the various towns check out the relative blog posts for Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Tha Khek, Pakse, Bolaven Plateau and the Tree Top Explorer.