First revealed in 2013 — re-visited & utterly up to date in 2018.
Laos is a quiet and thinly populated nation, finest appreciated for its small-scale rural sights and true wilderness. I feel it’s one of many actual highlights of Southeast Asia, and it’s particularly simple to advocate now that enhancing infrastructure makes it extra accessible.
In the event you got here to Laos to get together then you will have been sadly misinformed. This can be a totally sedate nation and nothing in any respect like Thailand. You additionally received’t discover the kind of chaotic and buzzing cities on the dimensions that you just’ll discover in its neighboring nations.
However that’s simply what’s so great about Laos. It’s all in regards to the light exploration of its rural villages and awe-inspiring nature, having fun with its Buddhist calm, and sampling its phenomenal (and underrated) meals. Mass tourism hasn’t gotten its grubby palms on Laos, which appears way more all for community-based and eco-tourism anyway. This can be a vacation spot really made for explorers, with a number of the area’s finest alternatives for trekking and different out of doors actions.
On this Laos backpacking information:
Planning your journey to Laos
The basic Laos route
Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane have lengthy been the most well-liked locations to go to in Laos. Tourism first developed right here and so that you typically see these locations really useful as a part of an ordinary itinerary.
In a pinch, you might possibly do that route in per week. However it’s higher to have at the very least 10 to 14 days as you’ll be able to take it simple and revel in some enjoyable side-excursions. It additionally offers you the potential of taking the 2-day sluggish boat alongside the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.
This basic route works properly as an add-on to Thailand. You may enter from Northern Thailand and exit once more at Nong Khai in Japanese Thailand.
It’s not a foul route, however you shouldn’t really feel obligated to observe it! Vang Vieng is a pleasant place nevertheless it’s additionally fairly touristy, and I feel the trendy capital of Vientiane is just not practically as fascinating as conventional rural Laos. To get the most effective of Laos, you may wish to plan a special route your whole personal.
Different arguably higher routes
I feel a number of the quiet highlights of Laos are literally within the thinly populated and mountainous north. You are able to do roughly a loop that features (or begins with) Luang Prabang. I’ve seen some journey guides warn of dangerous roads and lengthy journey occasions in these components, however the infrastructure is enhancing and touring round right here isn’t that troublesome. Don’t be delay!
Luang Namtha and Nong Khiaw, described later, are two nice bases from which to discover the great nature in northern Laos. You’ll love these locations in the event you’re into issues like kayaking, trekking, biking, or caving.
One other nice choice is to weave your method via the very south of Laos, the place you’ll discover a number of pleasant cities alongside the Mekong River and a few implausible riverine island-hopping at Si Phan Don.
However probably the greatest methods to expertise Laos is to discover the countryside by motorcycle. I did a tremendous day-trip from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing and looped across the Bolaven Plateau in a number of days [post coming soon]. Different vacationers communicate very extremely of the three to 5-day Thakek loop in central Laos.
I’ve highlighted a number of the key locations of curiosity in Laos beneath.
North or south Laos?
Laos is a lanky nation and touring overland between the north and south can take a while. For instance, Vientiane to Pakse takes about 15 hours by bus.
That’s why in case you have just one or two weeks to spare, it could be good to simply deal with one area. I may inform you that each one components of Laos are equally lovely however — sshhh — I feel the north is very worthwhile! It’s an ethnically various area with some superb mountain surroundings.
Touring from north to south, the mountains steadily make method for flat farmlands. Within the Champasak province, you’ll see extra rice fields and farmers carrying conical hats, very similar to in Vietnam. The Mekong River swells in dimension, stretching far and large when it will get to Pakse.
The south has loads of worthwhile sights just like the temples of Wat Phu, the riverine archipelago of Si Phan Don, and the Bolaven Plateau with its waterfalls and conventional villages. You probably have the time, visiting each the north/middle and the south of Laos is certainly not redundant — as each have a really completely different vibe and completely different landscapes! However in the event you’re compelled to choose, I feel it’s good to go to the north first, because the mountain surroundings and rainforests are fairly spectacular there.
Moving into Laos
It was not so way back that Laos had no highway connections to its neighbors in any respect. Again in 2012, I nonetheless needed to take a small boat throughout the Mekong and stamp my passport at a dinky immigration hut. These days, there are bridges and correct border services.
Arriving by bus
Approaching from northern Thailand, you can begin your Laos journey in Huay Xai in Bokeo Province. However honestly it is a fairly unremarkable border city, so it may be skipped in case you have no different journey plans on this area. Some worldwide buses go straight from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang.
One other key entry level with Thailand is on the border close to the capital of Vientiane. And within the very south of Laos, many vacationers arrive by bus from Siem Reap or Kratie in Cambodia.
The boat from Thailand
A well-liked journey with youthful backpackers (and a few older unbiased vacationers) is the notorious sluggish boat, which travels alongside the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. The boat takes two days and offers you a relaxed introduction to Laos. I’ve extra data on methods to determine between the sluggish boat or bus.
Laos isn’t that well-connected by air, although there are some flights to Luang Prabang and Vientiane from regional hubs like Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or Hanoi. Lao Airways has rare home flights to different locations round Laos. As a substitute of flying on to Laos, you may as well 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 on the border. The associated fee will depend on your nationality however ranges from $20 to $40. Vacationers from Nordic nations can journey visa-free for as much as 15 days.
Getting round in Laos
Laos stays one of many least developed nations within the area. It’s true: the roads in Laos aren’t all the time precisely superb. Some distant roads require a eager consciousness of potholes and stray goats to navigate. On different routes, it’s not a lot the roads however the really historical and sluggish buses that may complicate issues.
However infrastructure is steadily enhancing. In the event you’re at the very least fairly affected person then touring round Laos actually isn’t that arduous. Ignore guides that say touring by river remains to be the best way to go; most rivers have been dammed at this level and buses are the primary mode of transportation now.
China is investing closely in Laos. A brand new single-track railway line will ultimately hyperlink China to Thailand through Laos, although this railway isn’t scheduled to return on-line till 2022. When completed, it would absolutely be a speedy and good solution to journey throughout northern Laos.
Lodging in Laos
Low-cost lodging is straightforward to return by in Laos. Most locations have primary bungalows or rooms in guesthouses for beneath $10 an evening. A mattress in a hostel dorm simply prices simply half that quantity.
Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the 2 locations the place lodging might be dearer and the place there are each funds and luxurious choices. In these two locations I counsel reserving forward to get the most effective lodging. Beneath are a number of solutions.
Prime locations to go to in Laos
Atmospheric metropolis and UNESCO world heritage website
The small metropolis of Luang Prabang is clearly the tourism crown jewel of Laos. Located on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it earned UNESCO World Heritage standing due to its well-preserved structure mixing conventional Laos and French colonial kinds.
Luang Prabang a bizarre, contradictory place. It’s most likely the one place in Laos that may get featured in The New York Instances or in in-flight magazines, interesting to a extra upscale clientele. The place can appear a little bit synthetic at occasions, but beneath all of it it’s nonetheless completely Laos. Backpackers can really feel proper at dwelling with loads of $5/evening hostels and low-cost meals on the native markets.
Whereas Luang Prabang may be very touristy, I feel it’s fairly tastefully so. It’s simple to like this city with its cute cafes with fairy lights, conventional teak wooden buildings, and small golden-roofed temples.
Do anticipate a number of the sights round Luang Prabang to be fairly rammed in excessive season. Climbing Mount Phousi, a temple-topped hill proper in the midst of city, gives you some great sundown panoramas, however you’ll be always jockeying for house. The multi-tiered Kuang Si Waterfalls with their shimmering azure swimming pools are phenomenal, nevertheless it’s finest to go right here within the morning or late afternoon to keep away from the mid-day rush.
Yep, it may be a bit crowded, however that’s as a result of Luang Prabang is an fascinating place. And regardless of the presence of quite a few luxurious boutique accommodations and a few fancy eating places with French names, the city doesn’t really feel pretentious in any respect.
In the event you’re on the lookout for a little bit slice of untamed Laos, it’s not distant. Simply take the 2-minute ferry throughout the Mekong from the docks in downtown. It’s additionally value taking a ship up the river north to Pak Ou, the place you’ll be able to go to caves and Buddhist temples. The wonderful website Travelfish has a fantastic recommended motorcycle loop protecting many nice highlights round Pak Ou.
“What’s the massive take care of Luang Prabang?”
I’ve met many vacationers who liked Luang Prabang, but in addition a number of who have been a bit underwhelmed. Possibly it’s as a result of the UNESCO label is so typically related (in lots of traveler’s minds) with epic sights like Angkor Wat or the Nice Barrier Reef, wheras Luang Prabang is notable merely for its colonial architectural kinds. It’s a surprisingly small place (it’s extra a city than a metropolis), and in the event you’re anticipating imperial grandeur or mind-blowing sights, you’re undoubtedly off the mark. Luang Prabang’s attraction is generally in its cute wood Lao homes and former colonial mansions, and the riverside location makes it a pleasant spot to unwind.
A captivating city surrounded by gorgeous limestone mountains
Only a three-hour drive from the vacationer hubbub of Luang Prabang you’ll discover Nong Khiaw, a quiet city surrounded by knobbly karst mountain peaks.
Nong Khiaw isn’t as well-known as different locations in Laos, however that’s most likely only a matter of time. The surroundings is roughly akin to the higher recognized Vang Vieng, however I feel Nong Khiaw is prettier and has a extra of a low-key appeal. It’s a tranquil place with just a few riverside bungalows, some good eating places, and an area bar or two. It’s simply certainly one of my most favourite spots in Laos.
Kayaking, trekking, caving, and waterfall excursions are a number of the prime issues to do right here. There are additionally three mountain viewing factors which might be properly definitely worth the climb.
There are additionally some attractive smaller villages round Nong Khiaw, however these are most likely finest found by your self…
Luang Namtha & Nam Ha Nat’l Park
Pristine rainforests and hill tribe villages
Luang Namtha itself is okay. It’s a reasonably nice city with an evening market and a Buddhist temple or two. However… that’s not likely what you’re right here for. You see, Luang Namtha is true subsequent to the attractive Nam Ha Nationwide Park, which makes it an ideal base for exploring Laos’ lovely nature.
A number of the jungle treks provided right here embrace visits to (or homestays in) indigenous hill tribe villages. In Vietnam and Thailand, such hill tribe treks have a little bit of a blended popularity, as some villages get exploited or overrun with vacationers. In Luang Namtha they’ve tried to handle issues extra sustainably, with not more than two visits allowed per village per week and a most group dimension of eight. Do examine in case your trekking company has popularity for benefiting the native communities.
By the best way, a implausible day-trip is to hire a bike in Luang Namtha and drive the scenic highway to Muang Sing.
Gibbon Expertise in Nam Kan Nat’l Park
Reside within the forest cover for a few days
The Gibbon Expertise is a long-running ecotourism venture based mostly inside Nam Kan Nationwide Park. It invitations you to sleep on the earth’s highest tree huts and zipline throughout jungled valleys utilizing a mixed 15 kilometers (!) of cables. In the event you’re fortunate, you’ll hear the attractive music of gibbons within the morning.
It’s a bit expensive in the event you’re on a backpacker funds — a Three-day package deal prices about $300 — nevertheless it’s additionally an exhilarating and distinctive expertise. Not solely that, nevertheless it’s completely a feel-good venture, because the Gibbon Expertise helps to guard the forests and offers sustainable livelihoods to most of the villages. You may learn extra in regards to the Gibbon Expertise in my report.
Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars
A mysterious archaeological website
Little is thought in regards to the historical civilization that created the hundreds of stone jars strewn throughout the Xiangkhoang Plateau, nevertheless it makes for an fascinating website to discover. The megalithic archaeological panorama might be simply reached from the provincial capital of Phonsavan. Jar Website 1 is probably the most spectacular one.
Laos’ reborn journey tourism hotspot
Wow — I suppose it may possibly take endlessly for the popularity of a spot to show round. Each description of Vang Vieng nonetheless has to begin by saying with what it as soon as was, not what it’s right this moment. So right here goes: Vang Vieng was as soon as recognized for its completely out-of-control events, however then it cleaned up its act in 2012. Nonetheless, a few years later, the outdated popularity lingers.
There is nonetheless nightlife in Vang Vieng. I imply, there’s an Ozzie Bar and an Irish Bar. A few different bars nonetheless play episodes of Pals or Household Man on a loop, making an attempt to lure baked backpackers like moths to a flame. However… these are relics from one other period, and the loopy riverside raves and wild full moon events are lengthy gone.
As we speak, Vang Vieng features primarily as a base for out of doors actions like kayaking, ziplining, and caving. You may even go sizzling air ballooning at dawn, which provides you spectacular views of the encircling karst formations. Different sights round city embrace a small leisure swimming gap referred to as the Blue Lagoon, and the Tham Phu Kham Cave.
Vang Vieng is fairly touristy — and I feel Nong Khiaw has extra appeal — however don’t be completely delay by a number of the outdated issues you could have learn. It’s a worthwhile cease.
A key transit hub (however not a lot else…)
Once I first visited Laos I used to be warned to not anticipate an excessive amount of of Vientiane, and my expectations have been suitably met. The Lao capital (pronounced ‘Viangchan’) merely doesn’t have the bustle of different Asian capitals like Hanoi or Bangkok. It additionally solely has a handful of mildly fascinating sights. The Golden Stupa (or Pha That Luang temple), the nationwide image of Laos, is value a glance.
The Buddha Park makes for a good day-trip from Vientiane. This sculpture park in a meadow by the Mekong River incorporates lots of of latest Hindu and Buddhist statues.
Vientiane is alright in the event you’re simply passing via, however I wouldn’t exit of my method for it. As with all metropolis, you’ll be able to definitely discover fascinating issues hidden inside it, however I feel different locations are a lot simpler to sink your tooth in.
Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau
Espresso farms, homestays, and spectacular waterfalls
The town of Pakse isn’t vastly fascinating in itself, nevertheless it’s an ideal launching pad for exploring the southern area of Laos. A small district with guesthouses and eating places sprung up in Pakse, together with quite a few motorcycle rental retailers.
The close by Bolaven Plateau is a flat elevated area (at 1000 to 1300m) recognized for its many espresso farms, gorgeous waterfalls, and conventional villages. You may drive round right here on a bike in a small loop (minimal 2 days) or an enormous loop (minimal Three days). The roads generally is a bit uninteresting, however the stops alongside the best way are implausible. The waterfalls of Tad Tayicsua and Tad Fane made an particularly massive impression on me.
The Belgian/Lao managed Miss Noy Bike in Pakse offers wonderful data and each day briefings on these two loops. In the event you can’t drive, then you might take a public bus as much as Tad Lo and see some waterfalls and low farms there, although ideally you must have your personal transportation to see the most effective of Bolaven.
[More details on the Bolaven loop in a forthcoming blog post!]
The 4000 Islands
Enjoyable rural river islands
In southern Laos the mighty Mekong River splits into many smaller tendrils when it hits the riverine archipelago referred to as the 4000 Islands (or Si Phan Don).
I’m undecided if it’s precisely 4000 of them, however the area is definitely stuffed with numerous lovely river islands. It’s a tranquil and rural space that’s excellent for locating a hammock and simply watching the world go by. The Mekong sunsets are unbelievable! Different actions round these components embrace bicycling, dolphin watching, and kayaking.
You may learn extra ideas in my information to Si Phan Don, which covers principally the islands of Don Det and Don Khon. (Nonetheless engaged on the 3998 different islands…)
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Journey prices in Laos
Okay, there’s this bizarre meme going round that Laos is by some means comparatively costly. Folks maintain repeating this, however I feel that basically is senseless in the event you have a look at the numbers!
It’s been identified by some bloggers that Laos is closely reliant on imports, so drinks or meals generally is a bit pricier than in its neighboring nations. Possibly that’s true, however Laos remains to be tremendous low-cost total. I’d say it’s truly simply as cheap as northern Thailand or Vietnam (or at the very least very shut).
Throughout my most up-to-date journey in 2018 I spent a median of $24 a day.
This determine doesn’t embrace my Three-day Gibbon Expertise, nevertheless it does embrace all different lodging, excursions, meals, and transport in Laos. I stayed in personal rooms in bungalows (with out A/C), wasn’t choosy about what I ordered, and in addition purchased a number of souvenirs (like a handwoven scarf that value $eight). So I ask the web: how is that this thought of costly? Even within the tremendous touristy Luang Prabang it’s nonetheless simple to journey on a funds. I’d say that $20 to $30 a day is an affordable backpacker’s funds for Laos.