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Laos

Laos Itineraries

Laos: Islands of the Mekong

Luang Prabang Laos in 3 Days

Weekend in Vang Vieng, Laos

Experience the Asia of old, land of tradition and ritual

Laos is Southeast Asia’s most laid back destination. While it does have enough “must see” sights, its main appeal lies in its abundant open space (Lao has the lowest population density in Asia), tranquil rural areas, and the friendly and easy going Lao people, making it an excellent spot to drop anchor for awhile, grab a hammock, beer, and good book, and chill out!

Many visitors start their journey off in Vientiane, the capital and only real large city in the country. While it is presently undergoing a massive building boom, it still is far tamer than other Southeast Asian cities, still navigable by bicycle, and a good spot to find some French food and sit along the Mekong River. It doesn’t have a lot of sights, so people usually just make it a transit point.

Depending on your available time, you’ll most likely have to choose between the north and south, or at least use flights to get around, as public transport via the roads takes a lot of time. Most first time visitors head north, with the most visited destination in the country being Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to beautiful temples and a pristine setting at the confluence of two rivers. Some of Laos’ best luxury resorts are to be found here, and a Mekong cruise into Luang Prabang is one of the top highlights of any Lao journey.

Off the beaten track

Heading further north, Luang Nam Tha is the place to go for trekking, rafting, eco tourism, and ethnic hill tribe visits. Located near the Nam Ha Bio Reserve, its a great base for exploring, and several adventure travel companies have set up shop in town to help travellers make the most of their visit. If you want to get really off the beaten path, if you can brave the 10 hour bus ride to Phongsaly, at the northern tip of Laos, you’ll be rewarded with few tourists, hill tribe trekking, and an area with one foot still firmly in the past. Also of note up north is the wonderful river community of Muang Ngoi, a sleepy hamlet accessible only by boat, with wonderful scenery, and a slew of inexpensive guesthouses and chilled out lifestyle, now quite popular on the backpacker circuit.

Speaking of backpackers, Vang Vieng, which was renowned for full moon parties and debauchery, has now somewhat reverted to its old days, with the river bars gone, and the local government trying to clean up its image. What does remain is one of Asia’s most beautiful places, miles of wild limestone karst studded landscape, with caves and swimming holes just beckoning to be explored. There is even the first boutique resort in the area now in town, and a visit to Vang Vieng really should be on every Lao visitor’s bucket list.

Islands of the Mekong

If you have the time, the south of Laos is also worth a foray. The prime draw here are the 4000 islands in the Mekong, with Don Khon, Don Det, and Don Khong islands being the pick of the litter. All have sleepy tropical lifestyles, accommodations for tourists, and you can check out the fresh water Irawaddy dolphins or go kayaking here, see Khone Phapheng, Laos’ most impressive waterfall, or just laze in your hammock. It is also worth coming south to visit Wat Phu, an ancient UNESCO protected temple ruins that evoke Angkor, and host to a yearly pilgrims festival.

When To Go

Laos can be visited at any time, but most travellers tend to prefer the winter season, known here as the Cool, with temperatures being warm to hot by day, and cool enough at night to need a sweater (and possibly a jacket up north, where it can actually get cold). The cooler season falls between November and February, and while weather-wise it is the most optimal time to visit, it is also the most crowded period, especially around Xmas and New Year, as well as Chinese New Year. Almost all accommodation in Luang Prabang will be booked solid at this time, so be prepared to plan well in advance.

From March through May is the hot season, characterized by scorching temperatures of over 100 degrees, along with dense haze, especially up north, from farmers burning the fields. It is not an ideal time to visit due to these factors, not to mention that rivers are at their lowest, making boat trips often impossible. However, if you have to come at this time, you will get to experience Laos’ best celebration of the year, the Bee Mai Lao New Year is celebrated in mid April, and Luang Prabang plays host to a one week water fight, where everyone takes to the streets and gets each other wet. There are plenty of cultural festivities as well, and this is the one time during this season when you’ll also have to make advance bookings, as all transportation gets booked weeks ahead, and hotel occupancy is sky high.

The final period of the year, the rainy season, occurs from June through October, with the rain being heavier later in the season. As it usually doesn’t rain all day, but tends to be monsoon downpours for short periods, this can be a fun time to visit Laos. This is the tourist low season, so prices are in your favor, and as Lao isn’t a beach destination, the lack of sun won’t ruin your holiday. Additionally, everything is lush green, from the jungle and mountains to the freshly planted rice paddies, and some swear that this is the best time to be in Laos. Travel might be more difficult at this time though, as roads do occasionally flood, and river travel in spots might even be a bit dangerous.

What it Costs

The Lao kip is a stable currency these days, and prices are now quoted in it, as opposed to US dollars, which was the norm years ago. While Laos is not an expensive destination, do bear in mind that most goods in the country come from Thailand, so local prices tend to be slightly higher. Accommodation is also not as cheap as Thailand, with even backpacker rooms going for slightly more than you’ll find further south, especially in Luang Prabang. From local tuk tuks to street food, you’ll pay an extra 10-20% above Thai costs.

All budgets are catered to in Laos. Luang Prabang and Vientiane sport luxury hotels that can run hundreds of dollars per night. In fact, the Amantaka in Luang Prabang is one of Asia’s most expensive resorts, at well over $1000 per night for a room! On the other end, $15 rooms are just as easy to come by. A couple travelling on a budget, staying in cheap hotels, eating at least one restaurant meal out per day, and taking local transport, will get by on less than $50, while those looking for uber-fancy hotels and restaurants will spend 5-6 times this rate. Outside of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, luxury choices are far more limited. Vang Vieng now has a five-star resort, and there are one or two fancy boutique places in the 4000 islands, but for the most part, costs are much lower outside the urban areas.

You’ll find ATM’s throughout Laos, and credit cards are accepted in fancier hotels and restaurants, especially in Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The Thai baht is also accepted in all the border towns, including Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, and you might even be able to spend some in Luang Nam Tha. Every local will be able to quote you the equivalent price in baht. However, the kip cannot be used on the Thai side of the border, so best to change or spend your remaining kip before leaving.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $xx per person
$$ => Tickets $xx-xx per person
$$$ => Tickets $xx per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $xxx for a double
$$ => Rooms $xxx for a double
$$$ => Rooms $xxx for a double

Eat
$ => $1-xx per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $xx-xx per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $xx per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $xx per person
$$ => Tickets $xx-xx per person
$$$ => Tickets $xx per person

Transportation

Laos offers a variety of transportation options, most of which take a lot of time, especially up north, where mountainous terrain makes for slow travel. Road conditions are far better than they used to be, with most of the main routes between towns now paved, however, the winding and steep terrain gets hammered during the monsoon season, and especially on the Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang road, there are occasional landslides and other obstacles.

Visitors who want to see a lot of the country and are limited by time will need to take domestic flights. Lao Airlines has upgraded its fleet in recent years, but it is neither inexpensive, nor does it have a stellar safety record, yet it really is the only option, other than the array of flights in and out of Luang Prabang, which are mainly international. Buses cover almost all routes in the country, with the most popular stretches being Vientiane to Vang Vieng and then on to Luang Prabang, a trip of around 10-12 hours or more. From Luang Prabang, buses go north to Luang Nam Tha, or to more remote destinations like Phongsaly. There are also mini-vans doing these routes, and they are a bit faster than the buses, plus the drivers here seem to take it a bit slower than their maniacal Thai counterparts.

Boat travel is also a good way for getting around. The majority of visitors coming from Thailand to Luang Prabang take boats on the Mekong River, ranging from luxury cruises to budget backpacker boats, for the two day journey from Huay Xai. In the rainy and parts of the cool season, when the water is high enough, you can do small longtail boat trips along the Nam Ha and Nam Ou rivers, as well as other spots, which is a fascinating, albeit slow and simple way of seeing the country.

Around the 4000 islands in the south, boat travel is naturally a good way to go, and shared pickup trucks ply the route from Pakse further south. Also of use in getting down here are the overnight buses which run south from Vientiane, calling in at Savannakhet and then Pakse. These buses offer beds, making it possible to sleep the night, as well as save on accommodation, although bear in mind that the beds are quite small, and tall travellers may want to fork out for two beds (they come in pairs), if not sharing with a significant other or close friend.

For in town getting around, the hated tuk tuk is unfortunately the only way to go, as Lao doesn’t really have much in the way of a public bus system or metered taxis, although Vientiane does have a few. Tuk tuk drivers here charge far more than their Thai counterparts, and are extremely hard to deal with in tourist areas. Beware of those carrying placards which list the “official” prices for journeys, the only thing official about them is the hole they will put in your wallet. One great way to avoid the tuk tuks in both Vientiane and Luang Prabang is to rent bicycles, which can be found in both places. Both cities are not big, fairly flat, and pedalling can be a great way to see the sights and get some exercise.