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Laos is an interesting place. It often gets skipped in Southeast Asia travel plans, and for a pretty good reason—there aren’t really any can’t-miss attractions or activities. Still, there are some things worth seeing and it can also be a good place to slow down your travel pace a bit and get away from overly-busy days. Moreover, it is one of the least developed countries in the world and that in itself makes for an interesting travel experience.
In April and May 2018 I spent almost a month traveling northern Laos. That probably seems a lot for half of a country I just described as lacking attractions, but it is a fairly large country with some awful roads so transportation times must be considered. Besides, I wanted a more leisurely experience. Even with so much time I ended up skipping Phongsali and, due to the rain and low season, didn’t really manage any multi-day treks either. I probably could have just hit highlight cities in both the south and north in that time but I decided to save the south for a future trip.
Vientiane – Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang
This is the core travel circuit of northern Laos and where you are likely to find the most fellow tourists and backpackers. Vang Vieng is about four hours from Vientiane and Luang Prabang is about seven hours from Vang Vieng.
Vientiane is the capital city but if you didn’t know that already you might not guess it as the place still has a small city, sleepy feel to it. Vientiane is a place that seems to engender split opinions. Many travelers don’t care for it at all while others find it has a certain charm. There are a couple of things to see and do around town, but not many, though there are a fair number of good restaurants and if you have time to relax and enjoy some down time, drinking a Beerlao by the banks of the Mekong isn’t the worst way to spend a night or two.
Vang Vieng used to be the backpacker, party hangout of Laos. The main reason for that was the infamous tubing and drinking scene, though that was mostly shut down some years ago. Still, you will find plenty of backpackers doing their best to try and keep up the party atmosphere.
Whether the party scene is your thing or not, there is definitely some beautiful scenery to enjoy around Vang Vieng and quite a lot of tours and activities you can enjoy, including one of the cheapest hot air balloon rides in the world (~US$80), tubing (sans party) or kayaking (the more popular option these days), ziplining, the popular Tham Nam water cave (where you float on a tube inside a large cave), the overcrowded but pretty blue lagoon, some waterfalls and several other caves. All the hotels and guest houses as well as many local agencies offer more or less the same package tour options to enjoy all the various things to do around Vang Vieng, though I opted to go it alone one day by renting a motorbike and that can be a good alternative.
One thing I found interesting about Vang Vieng is that despite its long tourist history and robust infrastructure (guest houses, hotels, travel agencies), the place still has a bit of a backwater feel.
Luang Prabang is the crown jewel of Laos tourism and for good reason. It is a charming town with pleasant French colonial architecture and numerous good restaurants wedged between two rivers. It’s the kind of place you can easily spend days and days exploring the temples and surrounding areas or just relaxing and eating good food.
The most noteworthy tourist attraction is the Kuang Si Falls about 45 minutes from town and, while every town in Laos seems to trumpet at least one waterfall, this one is indeed worth the fuss. All hotels and travel agencies offer a “tour,” which is nothing more than shared transportation to and from the waterfall. I don’t recommend using one of these tours because almost all of them limit you to about two hours which is definitely not enough time to enjoy the experience fully.
I would recommend at least 3-4 hours and even more if you want to explore the various hiking trails, visit the Asiatic Black Bear rescue center, spend a fair amount of time swimming in the water, and spend some time relaxing and enjoying the beauty of the various pools and the waterfall itself.
The best way to get more time at Kuang Si is to join together with some fellow travelers and negotiate transport yourselves. With six or more people you can probably get a per person price of 30,000 to 50,000 LAK (round-trip) and can negotiate how long you wish to stay before being picked up. If you are traveling solo, try heading to the main road around the tourist information center and look for other travelers trying to negotiate transport and join them. If that proves difficult, as it did for me due to the low season, you can always rent a motorbike and drive yourself out there, which would be much more expensive than getting shared transportation but much cheaper than getting a private taxi.
If you have done your research you have probably heard about the secret pool, perhaps from Nomadic Matt. I was able to find the path to the pool but these days they have put in extra fencing to really assure nobody visits it so don’t even bother looking.
I read that the Tad Sae waterfall is also nice but is not worth visiting in the dry season. As that’s when I was there I didn’t bother going.
Another popular excursion is a visit to the Pak Ou Caves. I was quite disappointed in these two caves, especially after the fine ones I saw in Vang Vieng. Which is not to say my trip was a complete waste as it required several hours on a boat passing through some very lovely landscapes. For that reason alone it is probably worth doing, but if you have already done the two day boat ride to or from Luang Prabang or another lengthy river cruise, then I would say give these caves a pass. I am sure you can join an organized tour, but perhaps the easiest option is to purchase a public boat ticket from the small office and pier across the road from Saffron Cafe towards the end of the peninsula. The price is 65,000 LAK and there is only one boat per day, leaving at 08:30 and returning around 13:00. Besides the caves, the boat makes a short stop in a local whiskey and weaving village.
Phonsavan is about 7 hours from Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng and the main reason to visit is to see the Plain of Jars. I had read that Kong Keo Guesthouse offers a very good tour but when I went to inquire I was told that there weren’t enough people interested to justify the effort. That is generally true for other guest houses and travel agencies in the low season so your best bet will be to rent a motorbike, which is what I did. There are three main sites to visit, each featuring a slightly different landscape. You can also visit a few other places, including a local village, some waterfalls and the jars quarry. If you are on a motorbike, check with your guest house or the information center for a brochure listing things to do in the area and then mark them on your maps app.
Sam Neua and Vieng Xai
Vieng Xai is home to an extensive network of caves in limestone mountains. Four-hundred eighty of these caves were used by the Pathet Lao for nine years during the Second Indochina War to shelter from American bombardment. Up to 23,000 people lived in the caves, which contained a hospital, a school, Pathet Lao offices, bakeries, shops, and even a theater. The area was home to the Communist army, who were fighting the royalist forces, based in Vientiane.
The big questions for the Vieng Xai caves are whether they are worth the trip and how you can best visit them. I would say that if you are visiting Laos on your way to or from northern Vietnam and if you have enough time (at least two nights), it is definitely worth a visit and will make a nice break from an otherwise very long and uncomfortable bus journey. On the other hand, if you are only visiting Laos it depends how much of a history junkie you are and your tolerance for spending time on minivans traveling poor, winding roads. For the record, I thought it was worth the hassle of an 8 hour minivan ride from Phonsavan followed by a 10.5 hour bus ride to Nong Khiaw.
As for the logistics of visiting the caves, there are two organized tours per day (09:00 and 13:00, 60,000 LAK) with an English speaking guide, which is mandatory (no independent visits allowed). Those times must be reconciled with your transportation options which means that practically speaking you will need at least two nights in the area, and three to be safer if relying on public transportation.
The easiest option would be to get a private taxi from Sam Neua to Vieng Xai, especially if you are traveling with others or can find someone else in town to share the cost (good luck with that in the low season). The best bet would be to stay in Sam Neua and rent a taxi for a one day round-trip visit to the caves since it would cost more to rent a taxi each way and I am not sure if you can easily find one to rent in Vieng Xai.
You can also try using public transportation, though doing so can be inconvenient and unreliable, especially in the low season. There is a songthaew (shared taxi) from Sam Neua to Vieng Xai in the morning which will arrive after the 09:00 tour starts so you will need to do the later tour instead. You can then head to the main road and try to catch the bus from Vietnam that passes around 17:00 as it stops at Sam Neua. Alternatively, you can spend a night in Vieng Xai and take the afternoon songthaew back to Sam Neua, though I have read that sometimes there isn’t one making the trip.
If you are comfortable riding a motorbike, that might be the most convenient option, though with a major caveat. I had read the road is quite good and that may have been true at one time, but when I visited there was a lot of ongoing construction and long stretches of the road closer to Vieng Xai were completely covered in dirt, which became slippery mud after it rained, making for a very dangerous and scary ride. When they finally finish construction or if you visit in dry season the ride will probably be no problem, but perhaps you should ask at the tourist information center first.
There aren’t many motorbike rental options in town, though the Dan Nao Meuang Xam restaurant (next to the Bounhome Guesthouse) does offer rentals and there is a motorbike repair garage near the main market (on the same side of the bridge) that will rent you a motorbike as well. I read there is a rental shop near the tourist information center but I couldn’t find it so I think perhaps it no longer exists.
As I said, a two night minimum stay is pretty much mandatory. That’s because however you choose to get to Vieng Xai, a bus to wherever you are heading after Sam Neua probably will leave sometime during the morning, so that you will have to spend a second night in town after you return from visiting the caves.
Nam Nern Night Safari
I had seen a reference to a night safari when I was looking over the map of Laos but I never came across any mention of it when I was researching my trip. Perhaps that is because it only launched in 2009. The Nam Nern Night Safari is a 24-hour boat-based tour into the core of the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area (NPA). The trip involves night-time wildlife spotlighting: long-tail boats drift down the Nam Nern River looking for wild and endangered animals. Additional nature activities during the tour include bird watching, wildlife tracking, and a short morning hike. Visitors to the Night Safari stay overnight in traditional Lao bungalows built and managed by the community.
I didn’t do the night safari and I have never met anyone who has, but if you have time it seems like it would be a good activity and convenient place to break up a journey between Sam Neua and Nong Khiaw (or even more distant points that include that route).
Nong Khiaw is 3-4 hours from Luang Prabang and makes for a nice place to spend a few days relaxing and enjoying the natural beauty of the surrounding areas. There are a couple of viewpoints you can trek to independently and various organized treks and tours you can do as well, including the popular 100 waterfalls option. It rained steadily when I was there so besides visiting the main viewpoint when I got a bit of a sunny break from the rain, I mostly hung out in my hammock on my bungalow by the river.
Muang Ngoi Neua
Many people who visit Nong Khiaw make a quick trip up the river to Muang Ngoi. The trip is about an hour and currently only can be reached by boat (though a road is under construction). Everyone writes about how lovely the boat ride is, but nobody seems to mention that you get crammed in like sardines which makes the entire trip uncomfortable as hell if you don’t grab one of the precious few real seats.
Muang Ngoi often is described as sleepy with no electricity, motor vehicles or creature comforts like WiFi. That is no longer true as all of those things now exist, though it is still a smaller, more remote place than Nong Khiaw and does make a nice place to relax or do some trekking with or without homestays in local villages.
Luang Namtha is a gateway to the Luang NamTha National Protected Area (NPA) and there are several tour agencies offering guided treks. It’s also a relaxing place to start or end your trip in northern Laos. I didn’t do any organized treks but I did rent a bicycle one day to explore the surroundings. You can pick up a map with two suggested routes at the tourist information center in town.
As Luang Namtha was my last destination in northern Laos I was trying to determine the best way to get to Chiang Mai. If you are interested in doing the same journey, read my post about the various transportation options.
I had read that Phongsali is home to some of the most beautiful areas for trekking in Laos but I was dissuaded from visiting for three reasons: it is still quite remote and I had already spent a lot of time on buses to visit Phonsavan and Vieng Xai, I didn’t relish doing a multi-day trek in the rain, and considering how few tourists I was encountering in other places I figured I would probably be the only one in Phongsali and thus would have had to pay a much higher price for any tour or trek I chose.
I spent a total of 6,625,120 LAK (US$803) over the course of 25 days in northern Laos, or an average of 265,000 LAK (US$32) per day.
Notes: The travel number includes a round-trip flight and a return trip via bus (I ended up changing my plan and taking a bus back rather than my return flight). The tourism number includes my US$36 Laos visa on arrival. The miscellaneous number includes a 5GB data SIM card (US$8.50).
There are a few things to be aware of regarding transportation in Laos.
- The roads in Laos are pretty awful which often means slow transit times even for relatively short distances.
- Many bus or minivan stations (sometimes separate entities) are outside of town beyond comfortable walking distance. When you buy a ticket via an agency they usually charge more but include pickup at your hotel (usually via tuk tuk or shared songthaew taxi to the station where you then get on your bus or minivan). The price is usually a bit higher than if you get your own transport to the station and buy the ticket yourself but you cannot be sure of getting a ticket that way (I traveled in low season and still saw a couple of travelers unable to get a bus they wanted because it was full). And, the price will almost certainly be less than if you make a separate trip to the station in advance to buy a ticket. Thus, it is usually better to just buy a ticket from your hotel or a local travel agency.
- While your ticket will usually include pickup at your hotel you will most likely arrive at a station outside of your destination town and need to pay for a tuk tuk into town.
- In low season the number of options for some routes drops or even disappears.
Miscellaneous Notes and Observations
- Though Laos is probably a generation behind neighbor Thailand in development, prices are actually higher for many things, especially food, transportation, and organized tours and activities. That is not to say things are expensive, simply more expensive than one might expect after spending time in neighboring countries.
- Based on a recommendation from the proprietor of my first guest house in Vientiane I purchased the M Broadband (part of Lao Telecom) Net SIM card for 20,000 LAK and then added a 30 day, 5GB data package for 50,000 LAK. With a few exceptions (including terrible speed in Vang Vieng), I found WiFi in Laos to be surprisingly good so I didn’t end up using most of my data plan. For more options, consult the Laos prepaid-data-sim-card.wikia.com page.
- Low season is really low. This has a few important implications. First, transportation options disappear either entirely or become sporadic (some days yes, some days no). Second, it can be difficult to share treks/tour and thus the price is higher and some tours might not be available at all or have fewer options. Third, prices for guest houses were always cheaper in person than online and with many you could bargain for an even better price.
- Low season also encompasses burning season, usually taking place between February and April each year in SE Asia. During this time farmers burn the remnants of the prior harvest and the quality of air can get truly awful. I would generally advise against visiting during this time of year, especially if you easily suffer from respiratory issues.
- In the primary guest house sections of the core tourist destinations most of the restaurants cater to travelers and often offer strikingly similar menus and prices. Even in low season I rarely saw locals eating in these places. I am definitely to blame for not making more of an effort to get away from these areas and look for local options so this isn’t so much a criticism as an observation.
- Probably the only reason there aren’t more road accidents is because the roads are lightly trafficked. When that changes someday, there will surely be lots of problems.
- You have to pay for pretty much any outdoor attraction in Laos, be it a waterfall, cave, or viewpoint. Usually the cost is 10,000 LAK though more popular places are 20,000.