Published: 4th June, 2019
Getting around Laos can be a time-consuming affair. Despite its small size (the landlocked nation is about half the size of California), the common mistake of time-crunched travellers is to pack in too much. Limit a one week trip to just a handful of destinations and fly into/out of the country.
Located in the heart of northern Laos, Luang Prabang is the country’s rising star and main tourist draw. The Mekong River, temples, waterfalls and UNESCO World Heritage status have put the town on the map, while hotels, museums, tours and daily flights from Bangkok make Luang Prabang an attractive pick for a brief trip.
What follows is a well-trodden (though no less arduous) route through the mountains to Vang Vieng, the former party capital reformed into the outdoor adventure capital of Laos. It ends with a whirlwind visit to Vientiane, the rapidly developing city trying modernise and catch up with the rest of Southeast Asia. From here it’s an easy to hop across to Thailand or other onward connections.
The most popular time to visit (tourist high season) coincides with Laos’ dry season (November to May), especially cool-dry season from November to February, when daytime temperatures are pleasant and evenings fresh. In northern Laos, occasional cold snaps can drop overnight temperatures to near 0 degrees Celsius. There’s no indoor heating so come prepared.
In March and April, farmers across the region burn old crop stubble to prepare for new crops and the haze can exacerbate respiratory issues. Daytime temperatures soar in April and May, so it’s not a bad idea to factor in midday downtime, swimming or a siesta into the itinerary.
Rainy season is when the country is most green and lush. Waterfalls are full and hotels offer low season rates and deals. Often a downpour will only last for an hour or so, sometimes at night. However, rainy season can affect road transport and some activities.
The months of May and September are the quietest times of the year.
Construction of the China-Laos railway is well underway. Slated to open in 2022, the high-speed line will connect Boten at the Chinese border with Luang Prabang, Kasi, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. The journey from China to Vientiane, which would normally take up to 24 hours by bus, will supposedly be cut to just three hours.
Until then, getting around northern Laos is mainly by mountain roads and rivers, as slow and unpredictable as ever. Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the most convenient hubs, which is why this route is so popular as a quick introduction to the country. Luang Prabang has flights to Hanoi, Siem Reap and Singapore. Vientiane has flights to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Singapore and domestic connections to the country’s far corners, as well as Udon Thani airport and the overnight train to Bangkok just across the border.
If you are thinking of doing the slow boat trip on the Mekong from the Thai border, keep in mind that it requires almost three days of travel: go to Chiang Khong and cross the border (overnight in Huay Xai), a day by boat to Pakbeng (overnight), a full day on the river arriving to Luang Prabang in the late afternoon. Arguably, for those with only a week, the time is better spent experiencing Laos on terra firma rather than on a boat with other tourists.
During rainy season, leave some flexibility in the itinerary. Landslides occur, cutting off Route 13 and “the new road”, the only two land routes between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
Day 1: Arrival to Luang Prabang
The best way to get your bearings is to cycle or walk the peninsula. A road runs along the Nam Khan river, wraps around the tip and continues along the Mekong River. Quaint alleyways spider to the main street in the middle. Try to visit Wat Xieng Thong and perhaps there is time to squeeze in a museum visit (TAEC, UXO Lao Visitor Centre, Royal Palace Museum) before settling down somewhere for sunset: join the crowds at the top of Mount Phousi, head to the banks of the Mekong River or hop on a boat for an hour cruise. Try all three while in Luang Prabang. Take the first of probably several wanders through the night market before sampling Lao cuisine at one of the town’s many good restaurants.
Day 2: Luang Prabang
Wake up early to see the monks receive morning alms, followed by a walk through the bustling morning market. Tuck into a tasty Lao or French style breakfast. Head out to Kuang Si waterfall, where visitors can hike to the top, visit an Asiatic black bear sanctuary, swim in cool turquoise pools and picnic by the falls. Visit the nearby Kuang Si Butterfly Park and on the way back to town, stop in a Lao Buffalo Dairy for a tour and buffalo milk ice cream. In the afternoon, take the shuttle boat to Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden for more natural beauty.
Day 3: Luang Prabang
The town has an abundance of excellent activities, tours and classes (advanced booking required). The day can be spent in a cooking class, at a farm learning how rice is grown, a noodle making workshop, kayaking the Nam Ou or in a weaving class. Other options for the day include a boat trip to Pak Ou Cave and the “Whiskey Village” Ban Xang Hai, walking in Nahm Dong Park, listening to traditional Lao folklore at Garavek and during rainy season, swimming at Tad Se Waterfall. It’s the final night to browse boutiques and the night market. Of all the places on this itinerary, Luang Prabang is the best place to shop for souvenirs.
Day 4: Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
Today is a travel day, which means a bus or minivan on a serpentine road through the mountains with some impressive views along the way. Depart in the morning to arrive in Vang Vieng in time to check into accommodation and head to the Nam Song River for sunset. The spectacularly beautiful karst and end of day tranquility of the river makes up for the general unattractiveness of the town itself, a mishmash of old and new large generic hotels. Shaking off its former drug-booze-party reputation, Vang Vieng has evolved into a playground for mass tourism. The destination’s main redemptive quality is that now there is something for everyone.
Day 5: Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is about getting outdoors. “Tubing”, floating down the river in an inner tube, is still a popular activity and an enjoyable way to see the landscape, so long as you are not under the influence and are a good swimmer. Kayaking is another inexpensive option. Heading outside of town, cool off at the Blue Lagoon. There are caves galore and miles of rough country roads to explore—the surrounding rice paddies can be breathtaking. Vang Vieng is also one of two places in Laos to learn rock climbing.
Day 6: Vang Vieng to Vientiane
An early departure from Vang Vieng should land you into Vientiane by midday, leaving the afternoon free to visit COPE Visitor Centre, as well as at least two or three of the city’s most important temples and monuments. We suggest Wat Ho Phra Kaew, Wat Sisaket, That Luang and Patuxai.
Another option is to head 25 km outside of town to see the unusual Buddha Park. Whatever you choose, definitely make it back to the sprawling Mekong riverfront at sunset to see all the local buzz and refresh with a drink.
Vientiane is booming with cafes, international restaurants and bars of all flavours. The old city centre used to be the main entertainment hub but today the wine and dine scene extends everywhere in the city. Visitors are spoiled for choice.
Day 7: Departure
Time to check out the enormous Talat Sao market or see any remaining sights. Those intending to cross the border for the overnight train to Bangkok should start making their way by mid to late afternoon.
Arrive in and depart from Luang Prabang. Include a two night side trip to Nong Khiaw or Muang Ngoi. Some travellers say they could easily spend an entire week in Luang Prabang, filling the time with treks and a resort retreat outside of town.
Arrive in Vientiane, fly to Phonsavan, see the Plain of Jars, then travel by bus to Luang Prabang.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
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How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.