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Laos is a beautiful diverse country with much to offer, but I think it often gets overlooked by many travellers. Preferring instead to experience the islands of Thailand or the paddy fields of Vietnam. It has dense jungles, stunning limestone cliffs and although it is completely landlocked even offers great islands! If you are thinking of taking a trip there, keep on scrolling to read my three week travel itinerary to ensure you don’t miss out on the best sights!
- The currency in Laos is Laotian Kip or LAK. The exchange rate is approx 11,264 LAK for £1 and 8,723 LAK for $1. The most common form of payment is cash, card payments aren’t widely used.
- The wet season runs from May until October, and the dry season from November until April. We visited Laos at the beginning of November, right at the end of the wet season and only experienced rain whilst in the jungle.
Day 1: Cross the border from Thailand to Laos at Huay Xai
Days 2-3: The Gibbon Experience zip lining through the jungle and sleeping in a treehouse
Day 4: Return to Huay Xai from the jungle
Day 5: Slow boat from Huay Xai to Pakbeng
Day 6: Slow boat from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang
Days 7-9: Luang Prabang
Day 10: Minibus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
Days 11-12: Vang Vieng
Day 13: Bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane
Days 14-15: Vientiane
Days 16-17: Bus from Vientiane to 4000 Islands (Don Det)
Days 18-19: Don Det
Day 20: Crossed border to Cambodia
DAY 1: CROSSING THE BORDER FROM THAILAND TO LAOS
As we had spent the previous month travelling through the mainland of Thailand, at this point we were in Chiang Rai, our last stop before Laos. We went to the Chiang Rai bus station and hopped on the next bus going to Chiang Khong, which can get a little crowded especially as the locals hop on and off at their stops.
Before arriving in Chiang Khong you will be asked by the ticket seller if you are heading to the border. If you are, make sure to get off the bus when they tell you to, and don’t worry it’s not a scam! Instead of going to the town where you will have to find a way to get to the border yourself, the bus drops you off by the side of the road where there are tuktuks waiting to take you the last few kilometres. It is way way too far to walk!
After being stamped out of Thailand, wait for the bus to arrive to take you on a five minute journey to the Laos border. Once you get to the border you will have to fill in the forms and you should be given a visa! Woo! Hopefully you will have remembered to bring a few passport photos with you to accompany your visa applications to make the process easier.
Tip: Make sure to get the dollars you need before heading to the border, for us it was $35 each for our month-long visas. We had to exchange our money at the border with a poor exchange rate!
Once through and all sorted make sure to draw out some Kip from the ATM. And then hop on the tuktuk waiting outside to take you to the border town of Huay Xai.
WHERE TO STAY IN HUAY XAI
There aren’t a whole load of options in Huay Xai, it is a small border town that is only really used as a base for the slow boat. So if you haven’t already booked ahead online, I would recommend heading to Sabaidee Guesthouse for cheap, clean rooms and welcoming staff. Plus it is only a few metres away from the Gibbon Experience office!
If you are in Huay Xai for The Gibbon Experience make sure to head straight to the office after checking in to secure and book your trip. We managed to book ours for the very next day.
DAYS 2-3: THE GIBBON EXPERIENCE
If you don’t know what The Gibbon Experience is, first make sure to check out their website here to hear all about their vision in forest conservation and the tours they offer. But in a nutshell they are tours that are run in the Bokeo forest. The main appeal being the zip lines that speed you high up through the jungle, with quite a few of the tour groups being lucky enough to spot wild gibbons. At night time you then sleep in the world’s highest treehouses, made up of multiple levels that you zip line in and out of!
We chose the Classic Tour, which is three days and two nights. Luckily you can store your main luggage at the head office, only needing to take a small backpack with your essentials. The first day started off with a bumpy two hour drive to the jungle and through a deep river! We then had to make the trek to our treehouse, which I did struggle with as it was uphill constantly! There are a few practice zip lines along the way to prepare you for the next day.
Day two was an early start and was zip line heavy! Luckily not as much tough trekking, although my legs were a bit shaky from the previous day. As we zip lined from treehouse to treehouse we even spotted gibbons at the same level as us in the trees!
If this tour sounds up your street and you want to hear all the details, make sure to check out my blog post here, exclusively on The Gibbon Experience. I have gone into much further detail and it will help you know what to expect! At 275 euros it is definitely something to think over, but in my opinion it was well worth the price. The experience felt so unique! It was great not being in a massive group, with only six other people we could all chat as a group in the evenings and play cards. The entire time in the forest we didn’t come across any other tourists, which really added to our time there.
DAY 4: RETURN TO HUAY XAI FROM THE JUNGLE
After another 6am start in the treehouse, you will slowly make your way back to the village on the edge of the jungle. You will be driven back to the town of Huay Xai, hopefully it won’t have rained much so the trucks can make it up the muddy tracks. Otherwise you might be walking! Once back in Huay Xai I would recommend staying one night in the same guesthouse you were in previously, as you will most likely need the rest!
If you are taking the slow boat along the Mekong river to Luang Prabang, you can either buy your ticket in advance for the next day or get up early and buy them in the morning. We bought ours the day before just for peace of mind, and the price was only a little more as it included a tuktuk to take us to the pier the next day. Which is a bit too far away to walk.
DAY 5: SLOW BOAT FROM HUAY XAI TO PAKBENG
Early the next day we made sure we had a big breakfast and bought ourselves some snacks and pre-cooked lunch. The boat doesn’t make any stops during the day, so you will need to take your own food and water so you don’t go hungry! Even if you have bought your ticket in advance, my advice would be to get onto the boat as early as you can. There are no allocated seats, but as we were early we got to pick ours, but if you leave it too late you will be at the back of the boat with the extremely loud engine. Not where you want to be for a 6-8 hour journey!
Upon arriving in Pakbeng just before sunset, you will be greeted at the pier with many locals advertising their guesthouses and hostels, and trying to grab your attention. Try not to be overwhelmed when getting off the boat and finding your luggage, and wait to approach them when you are ready. Once you arrange a price with one of these owners, wait to see the room before you pay any money, just to make sure you are happy with the condition of it.
Tip: Before you leave Huay Xai on the boat a local will give you a speech about how all the guesthouses in Pakbeng will be full and will try to scam you. There are many guesthouses to choose from and the one we went with was completely fine. If you book with the man on the boat you will be paying at least double, so just wait until you get there.
DAY 6: SLOW BOAT FROM PAKBENG TO LUANG PRABANG
You will have been told to meet back at the pier at a certain time in the morning, so remember to stock back up on snacks and water for the day ahead! For the second leg of the journey for some reason the boat was much more full, many people were without seats and they had to rearrange our luggage to squeeze more people on. So make sure to get there early!
You will most likely be a little confused when the boat stops at a pier that looks nowhere near Luang Prabang, when you have bought tickets to be taken to the city. But it is the stop you get off on, and you will have to pay for another leg of the journey to be taken by tuktuk into the city. Even this tuktuk will not take you to your hotel, you will be dropped off near the night market and will have to either walk or pay another tuktuk driver to take you there.
WHERE TO STAY IN LUANG PRABANG
We stayed at Luang Prabang Hotel, which due to the name was pretty hard to locate as Google Maps wanted to show us all the hotels in Luang Prabang instead! But the rooms were large, only £12 a night and it’s always a bonus when breakfast is included. We had initially just booked three nights, but ending up booking one more as we were enjoying the city so much!
DAYS 7-9: LUANG PRABANG
We spent four nights in Luang Prabang, and really enjoyed the relaxed feel of the city with a very French influence. It is really worth spending your morning walking along the riverfront, we did this in the aim to see the Bamboo Bridge, but unfortunately it wasn’t built when we were there at the beginning of November.
Make sure to walk up Phou Si mountain, which is actually in the middle of the city! But you get great views of the surrounding area, we first visited at the middle of the day when it wasn’t busy at all. However if you were to go at sunset that is a whole other story, there were people queuing up to take photos! But it was amusing to see how busy it was even if we couldn’t get a good view!
The Kuang Si waterfalls are beautiful and a great way to cool off! If you can find a few people to group together for a tuktuk, that would be the best way. Otherwise the tuktuk can get a little expensive for just one or two people, as the waterfalls are 30km away. There are lots of levels to these waterfalls, each one being more stunning than the one before. You can even climb right to the top of the waterfalls, where you can get the best views. You will definitely want to take a dip in the water before you go, despite it being freezing cold!
In my opinion every visitor to Luang Prabang should go to the UXO centre, which provides in-depth information about the unexploded ordnances all over Laos. Laos is actually the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history, and to this day the locals still suffer injuries and death as a result of the Vietnam war bombings. This is a continuing problem, and they have volunteers that are trying to eradicate the unexploded bombs. So if you can, please donate to this cause when visiting.
DAY 10: MINIBUS FROM LUANG PRABANG TO VANG VIENG
We had booked our transportation to Vang Vieng through our hotel, and we were actually picked up on time! However as we continued to pick up other travellers from their hostels, it soon became clear that the bus was running out of space! But luckily after a quick shuffle around of everyone’s luggage we all managed to squeeze in, and settled in for the bumpy ride ahead. A lot of the roads in Laos aren’t maintained, and driving through the mountains can be very windy. Which can get pretty scary when the driver is also going really fast! I just try to keep my eyes off the road so it doesn’t make me too anxious!
WHERE TO STAY IN VANG VIENG
Of course, we were dropped off from the minibus at the side of the road outside of Vang Vieng. However we decided to walk to our hostel, and it actually didn’t end up being too far away. We had booked three nights at Nana Backpacker Hostel, which turned out to be the party hostel of the town. Not being party people, we didn’t take part in the evenings activities, and even though there was loud music in the evenings, it was turned off at 11pm every night! So we could get a good nights sleep.
It was a fun hostel and a great place to meet fellow travellers, they even ran a tubing tour everyday that looked like it would get pretty rowdy!
WHAT’S IN MY BACKPACK
DAYS 11-12: VANG VIENG
Vang Vieng is pretty much a town where the tourism is based around the river activities. It is renowned for its tubing tours and party hostels. Whilst we didn’t take part in a drinking tubing tour, we booked a full day tour that included tubing through a cave, kayaking down the river and the blue lagoon. We were exhausted by the end of the day!
Away from the sleepy centre of the town, if you head over the bridge, within walking distance you can get some beautiful views of the limestone cliffs at sunset!
DAY 13: BUS FROM VANG VIENG TO VIENTIANE
We booked our bus tickets through one of the tour/travel agencies across from our hostel, and had to wait a while to be picked up by the tuktuk to go to the bus station. It turns out the bus station is just a few minutes away from Nana Backpackers, but we were dropped off there and had to wait another half an hour for the bus to turn up! The journey was pretty windy and after five or so hours we had arrived in Vientiane. A pretty smooth journey other than the long wait!
WHERE TO STAY IN VIENTIANE
We booked three nights at the Sailomyen Cafe & Hostel which I would recommend as the rooms look modern and clean and the included breakfast is probably one of the best we’ve had. However if you are looking for a more central location look for somewhere closer to the river, where the night market is based.
DAYS 14-15: VIENTIANE
Vientiane is the capital of Laos, and despite other travellers we had met choosing to miss it out, we decided to spend a few days there anyway. If you will be going to Vientiane you only really need one full day to see everything, we were quite stuck with things to do. The main attraction is the Patuxai, which bears resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe. You can also spend hours at the night market by the river, with a wide range of food and souvenir stalls.
I found that compared to the rest of Laos, I didn’t really feel any sort of character to the city that I had felt in the smaller towns. I can see why many backpackers bypass Vientiane on their travels.
DAYS 16-17: BUS FROM VIENTIANE TO 4000 ISLANDS (DON DET)
Given that all of the previous stops in Laos had been in the Northern part of the country, we knew we had a long journey to head South to the 4000 Islands. So we booked the sleeper bus that also included the boat to get to Don Det. This was our first sleeper bus and we were quite surprised that the beds were flat single beds designed for two people to squeeze together with a sort of mattress! We were quite happy being a couple, however I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed it as a solo traveller having to snuggle close to a stranger for that period of time! The sleeper bus dropped us all off at Pakse, and it seemed that there wasn’t any transport arranged to take us the rest of our journey. After an hour of waiting around a tiny tuktuk pulled up and told about ten of us to get in with our luggage. After that uncomfortable journey we then arrived at the local bus station and were rammed in with over thirty people so tight that we couldn’t move our legs an inch. Not ideal for a three hour journey! However we eventually made it onto the boat and finished the long travel day with a refreshing ride across the river.
WHERE TO STAY IN DON DET
Unusually for us, we didn’t book our accommodation before arriving and hoped to get a good deal when we got there. We ended up staying with Souksan Sunset Bungalows, which is very close to the pier and right at the top of the island. I think we ended up paying $28 a night for a bungalow with a sunset view, however looking online now we could have gotten better deals elsewhere. The accommodation was more pricey here than on the mainland.
The bungalow was rustic and relaxed, but the large gaps in the door and flooring unnerved me a little at night time! Breakfast was also included, but was just a choice of scrambled or fried eggs that were often cold!
DAYS 18-19: DON DET
There are many islands in the 4000 Islands, hence the name. But we chose Don Det as it is the most popular with backpackers, however Don Khon just below also caters for tourists. It has a really rustic island feel, with lots of restaurants and bars dotted across the main street. If you rent bicycles in the main part of the town you can cycle down the island and across to Don Khon as a bridge connects the two islands. The journey must have taken 30 minutes tops as the island is so small! Then head to the Li Phi Waterfalls, just a short cycle from the bridge. Compared to the calm waterfalls in Luang Prabang, here you will be able to see the force of the water hitting the rocks. However if you are just looking to relax, Don Det is the perfect place to sit in a hammock all day with a book in your hands.
Tip: Make sure to go to an ATM before travelling for Don Det, as there aren’t any proper machines on the islands. We didn’t think this through and had to accept the poor exchange rates the bars were offering.
DAY 20: CROSSED BORDER TO CAMBODIA
There are a number of travel agencies on the island to compare prices for transport to Cambodia. The ticket included the boat back to the mainland, bus to the border and another bus to take us to Siem Reap. The journey didn’t run smoothly at all, with lots of waiting around for no real reason and cramming more people into the bus than it was designed for. So all in all an authentic Southeast Asian experience!
Looking back on our three weeks through Laos, I feel that we got to see the main attractions that the country has to offer. Although I think I would now have preferred to miss out the capital, Vientiane, I am pleased that we gave it a chance. You never know it might end up being your favourite place in Laos!