Away from the tourist trail in LaosSandwiched between 5 other countries, Laos is commonly visited by those following the classic backpacking route through Asia, “The Banana Pancake Trail”! This route, although well-trodden and popular for many great reasons, tends to miss out some of the most exciting areas of Laos! The stops along this trail are in central Laos, which means that the wild North and the laid-back South are often bypassed, and what a shame that is! So, if you want to get off the beaten tourist trail and explore more of what this fascinating country has to offer, then you’ve come to the right place!
Laos Itinerary – Suggested 30 Day Backpacking Route!
Where to Begin Your Trip to Laos?Where you begin your journey through Laos all depends on where you’re coming from, and as it’s bordered by so many countries, there’s a lot of places to choose from! Whether you’re entering from Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Thailand or Vietnam, this itinerary can be adapted to suit any direction of travel. The most popular way of getting into Laos is along the Mekong River on the famous 2 day slow boat! This epic backpacker journey will take you from Chiang Khong, Thailand, across the border into Huay Xai and down to Luang Prabang. Tip: if you’re not too fussed about riding the slow boat into Laos, then a good alternative starting point would be Luang Namtha, as from here you can travel north to south without having to go back on yourself too often. You can get a bus to Luang Namtha from Chiang Rai in Thailand and Huay Xai on the Thai/Laos border, as well as some areas in China (Jinghong, Mengla) and Vietnam (Sapa, Hanoi). However, for the purpose of this itinerary, we’ll be starting off on the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang!
Week 1 in Laos – Waterfalls and Jungle Hikes in Northern Laos
Day 1-2: Huay Xai – Pak Beng – Luang PrabangYou’ve made it to Laos! Your first stop, Huay Xai, is a town right on the banks of the Mekong and this is where you’ll catch the slow boat to Luang Prabang. (Got a bit of time on your hands before catching the slow boat? Huay Xai is also the location of the Gibbon Experience – a zip-lining adventure through the treetops!) After obtaining your visa (more info on visas for Laos here), Day 1 will be spent floating downriver from Huay Xai to the village of Pak Beng, where you’ll stop overnight. On Day 2 you’ll continue your scenic journey down-river until you reach the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang.
Day 3: Luang PrabangA beautifully quaint riverside town, Luang Prabang has plenty of things to do, yummy restaurants to sample and markets to wander through, making it the perfect place to spend a couple of days (or more!) exploring after a long boat journey. It’s a popular place to visit in Laos, and as a result, it can feel a little touristy, but make the most of it – there’s a lot more choice (food/accommodation/transport etc) here than in some of Laos’ other towns! Start your exploring of Luang Prabang with a visit to the iconic Kuang Si Falls and Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre. Either hire a motorbike or tuk tuk to get there or, if you’re feeling active, why not try this Jungle Trek to the Falls! Back in town, climb up Mount Phousi for a stunning sunset over the surrounding countryside, followed by a trip to the Night Market for dinner and some souvenir browsing along the street-long stalls – you’ll find some local handicrafts amongst the elephant trousers! End the night at Utopia Bar and Luang Prabang Bowling Alley – which is one of the only places open after the 11.30pm curfew!
Recommended places to stay in Luang Prabang
- Downtown Backpackers Hostel 2 – The budget backpacker choice!
- Pakhongthong Villa – The luxury flashpacker choice!
Day 4: Luang PrabangOnto Day 4, and if you are an early riser, wake up at dawn for the Alms Giving Ceremony carried out by the local monks (you will need to be there at 5am). Spend the rest of the day learning how to cook some delicious Laos cuisine with Tamarind Cooking School. Get ready to impress your friends with unusual dishes when you return home! Alternatively, if you’re not into cooking or fancy something more active, why not give mountain biking or trekking a go! There’s endless adventures and activities on offer in Luang Prabang, so for more ideas on things to do, check out our in-depth destination guide!
Day 5: Travel Day – Luang Prabang – Luang NamthaLaos is a big country and the towns are very spread out! With “roads” that are in poor condition and many that run along winding mountainsides, this means there’s going to be a few travel days involved during this 30 day trip! But at least this gives you a chance to relax and admire more of the stunning scenery passing by your window! On Day 5, hop on a 9 hour minibus from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha – a town near the Chinese border renowned for it’s eco jungle trekking! Compared to Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha is much smaller with far less accommodation and food options, which also means that it’s considerably quieter! Find out more about the town, including where to eat and where to stay in our guide to Luang Namtha! Tip: If you didn’t arrive in Laos via the slow boat and/or have some more time on your hands, you could instead take the 2 day boat trip up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, where you can hop on a bus to Luang Namtha! For some advice on this, check out this TripAdvisor Post.
Recommended place to stay in Luang Namtha
- Thousalith Guesthouse – The budget backpacker choice!
- Zuela Guesthouse – The luxury flashpacker choice!
Day 6 -7: Eco-Trekking in Luang NamthaOn the edge of the Nam Ha National Protected Area, Luang Namtha is a hotspot for jungle trekking! There is a big focus on conserving the natural wilderness and the cultural heritage in this area, and this has seen many eco-conscious companies setting up shop in the town offering all kinds of tour packages! You can do anything from visiting ethnic minority villages to kayaking down the river and spending the night in the jungle! With so many organisations to choose from, how do you decide which one to do your trek with? Well to answer this question, we sent backpackers Ellie and Will from Tapp and Bear Travel on a 2 day 1 night trek in Nam Oun National Park with The Hiker Laos! We would definitely recommend an overnight trek for the unique experience of spending the night in a remote hill-tribe village, or even camping in the heart of the jungle! The Hiker also offer awesome off the beaten track kayaking and trekking adventures in Nam Ha National Park.
Week 2 in Laos: Rivers, Jars and History in Northern Laos
Day 8: Luang Namtha to Nong KhiawWeek two in Northern Laos begins! On Day 8, head to the Bus Terminal outside of town and catch the 9am minibus back down south to Nong Khiaw. In the morning the bus fills up quickly, so try and book your ticket in advance from your hostel or a travel company in town – otherwise you might not get a seat! Once on the bus, it’ll take 5-6 hours to reach Nong Khiaw. Keep in mind that you may be dropped off, or have to change buses, at the nearby town of Pak Mong before reaching the final destination. After checking into your guesthouse, spend the rest of the evening relaxing and watching the sunset from a hammock. Hey, a backpacker has gotta chillax once in a while! Click here to search for accommodation in Nong Khiaw!
Recommended place to stay in Nong Khiaw
- Meexai Guesthouse – The budget backpacker choice!
- Nong Khiau Riverside – The luxury flashpacker choice!
Day 9 -10: Nong KhiawSet along the Nam Ou River, Nong Khiaw is hailed as one of the most scenic towns in Northern Laos. Not only does it act as a great place to break up the journey from Luang Namtha, it also has plenty of things to do and you’ll find it easy to fill up the days! Spend your time here hiking to waterfalls and viewpoints, cycling through the countryside or trying your hand at rock climbing. For more ideas on things to do, check out our Nong Khiaw travel guide!
Day 11 – Travel Day: Nong Khiaw to Phonsavan (via Luang Prabang)We’ve done a lot of research into whether there is a bus route from Nong Khiaw to Phonsavan, but we couldn’t get any straight answers! The transport in Laos is very unpredictable and most of the time, it’s better to see what is available on the ground rather than trying to plan ahead! However, a bus route from Nong Khiaw should, in theory, be possible. There are two roads from Nong Khiaw towards Phonsavan, plus there are definitely buses running from Luang Namtha to Xieng Khouang – the bus station serving the town of Phonsavan. It might be possible to catch this night bus on it’s way passed Nong Khiaw/Pak Mong; it should be heading through this area around 8.30pm. The best thing to do in this case is play it by ear and see what hostels and travel agents in Nong Khiaw offer in terms of transport when you are actually in the town. Alternatively, if there is no way of booking a ticket there directly, then take a bus to Luang Prabang, spend one night there and jump on the 9am bus to Phonsavan the next day.
Day 12 – 14: PhonsavanIf you are unable to get from Nong Khiaw to Phonsavan in one day, then Day 12 will be spent making the 8-9 hour journey through the hills from Luang Prabang to this little town in Xieng Khouang Province. Phonsavan is a spot which can definitely be considered off the beaten track. This part of Laos is worth a visit, even just to see a different side to the country, but mainly because this is home to the intriguing Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars are sites scattered with ancient stone vessels spread over several hundred kilometres, the purpose of which is still a complete mystery! Spend a couple of days exploring the barren countryside and different Jar sights around Phonsavan by motorbike or guided tour. If you’re looking for an even bigger and essential dose of Laotian history, pay a visit to the UXO Information Centre for an insight into Phonsavan’s past during the Vietnam War. Check out our guide to Phonsavan for more about the area!
Recommended place to stay in PhonsavanPhonsavan travel guide for more recommendations or see the Phonsavan accommodation listings on Booking.com.
Week 3 in Laos – Climbing, Culture and Motorbike Loops in Central Laos!
Day 15: Phonsavan to Vang ViengAfter you’ve filled up on historical knowledge in Phonsavan, it’s time to start heading south! The first stop is Vang Vieng, and to get there, catch the 7.30am bus from Xieng Khouang Bus Station. The journey takes around 5-6 hours through yet more winding mountain roads (with of course, more beautiful scenery!) but once you arrive at your destination, you’ll be able to take a walk along the river, visit the night market and decide what adventures you’d like to do in the adventure capital of Laos!
Recommended place to stay in Vang Vieng
- Vang Vieng Rock Backpackers Guesthouse – The budget backpacker choice!
- Magic Monkey Garden – The luxury flashpacker choice!
Day 16 – 17: Vang ViengMany visitors to Vang Vieng spend a day tubing along the river – it is what gave this sleepy town it’s notorious reputation after all! But you might be looking for something different – or you happened to arrive in Vang Vieng during the dry season, when the water levels are so low, you’ll most likely find yourself walking along the river bed rather than floating on it! Well you’re in luck: Vang Vieng has so many activities to try you’ll never be bored! As well as tubing, there are multiple tour companies offering kayaking, trekking, zip-lining and many other adventurous activities. Book a Rock Climbing course in Vang Vieng to climb those iconic limestone karsts, rent a motorbike and explore the Blue Lagoons and stunning viewpoints across the river or take a tour to one of the many caves hidden in the limestones karsts! This dramatic scenery of Vang Vieng just begs to be explored… Check out our travel guide to Vang Vieng for everything you need to know about Laos’ adventure capital!
Day 18: Vang Vieng – VientianeAfter a few days soaking up the adventurous vibes of Vang Vieng, head to the sleepy Capital of Laos – Vientiane. The journey only takes around 3-5 hours, so if you catch a morning bus, you’ll have the afternoon to explore Vientiane. Tip: The Northern Bus Terminal in Vientiane is around 9-10km outside of the city centre, so you’ll most likely have to get a tuk tuk from there into town! Whilst in Vientiane you could take a trip to see the statues of the Buddha Park, learn of Laos’ harrowing history in the COPE Visitor Centre and UXO Museum or explore the Wats (temples) and Vientiane’s very own Arc De Triomphe – the Patuxai Monument. Anything you don’t manage too see this afternoon can be visited in the morning before catching a bus to the next destination. Read our travel guide to Vientiane to find out more.
Recommended place to stay in Vientiane
- Barn1920s Hostel – The budget backpacker choice!
- Vientiane Garden Villa Hotel – The luxury flashpacker choice!
Day 19: Vientiane – ThakhekOne night in Vientiane should be enough time to explore the sights surrounding the town, so today continue your journey south! The next stop is the town of Thakhek (also spelled Tha Kaek) where you can hop on a motorbike and ride the Thakhek Loop! VIP buses to Thakhek depart from the southern bus station around 12 noon and 1pm and take around 5 hours. Alternatively, if you would like more time to explore Vientiane, you can catch the night bus towards Pakse (departing around 9pm) and get off when the bus arrives in Thakhek – around 2am in the morning!
Recommended place to stay in Thakhekguide to the Thakhek Loop here for more recommendations or see the Thakhek accommodation listings on Booking.com.
Day 20 – 23: Thakhek Motorbike LoopIf you do decide to embark on the Thakhek Motorbike Loop, then give yourself 3-4 days to complete the 450km journey. Along the way you’ll get right off the beaten track, passing expansive farmland, traditional villages and inquisitive locals, as well as getting the opportunity for a boat trip into the breath taking Khong Lor Cave! Or, if motorbike loops aren’t for you, Thakhek is also a great place for beginner and experienced climbers to clamber up some exciting routes with Green Climber’s Home or even just explore caves and swimming holes dotted throughout the countryside.
Week 4 in Laos – Coffee, Islands and Waterfalls in Southern Laos
Day 24: Thakhek – PakseAfter your motorbiking adventure around the countryside and caves of Thakhek, as well as a night’s well earned rest, take the bus further south to the city of Pakse. The VIP bus departs at 9am, or you can hop on a local bus which depart hourly; both cost around 70,000 kip. The journey takes around 4-5 hours, so once you’ve arrived and checked into your accommodation for the night, why not rent a bike or a tuk tuk and head to the Golden Buddha for sunset! Read more about Pakse, the city you’ve just landed in, in our Pakse Travel Guide.
Recommended place to stay in Pakseguide to Pakse here for more recommendations or see the Pakse accommodation listings on Booking.com.
Day 25 – 26: Pakse, Wat Phu and The Bolaven PlateauPakse is the jumping off point for several interesting sites around Champasak Province. Many tour operators and tuk tuk drivers can offer you a trip to the Khmer ruins and pride of the province – Wat Phu (Wat Phou) – but for more of an adventure, try renting a motorbike and cruising along the dusty Laotian roads instead! Another must-do adventure trip from Pakse is to the stunning waterfalls and vast coffee plantations of The Bolaven Plateau. Tip – If you’ve got more time on your hands, The Bolaven Plateau can also be visited on 3-4 day motorcycle loops, which will take you through local villages, coffee plantations and to even more waterfalls! If you’re interested in this trip, check out Miss Noy Motorbikes – they rent bikes cheaply and, most importantly, provide useful maps and information, as well as ideas on the best places to visit during both loops! More information in our Pakse Guide.
Day 27 – 30: Pakse – 4000 IslandsFrom Pakse you can easily get a bus to the 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don) down in the ‘deep south’ along the Cambodian border, and on Day 27 you’ll do just that! The journey from Pakse to 4000 Islands takes just 2-3 hours and once you stumble off the bus, you’re in for a real treat to end your 30-day backpacking adventure in Laos! Like the name suggests, there are numerous islands to choose from, but we recommend starting off on the traveller favourite, Don Det. This is a great place to base yourself while exploring the surrounding islands and it’s super chilled backpacker vibes are perfect for relaxing on the water! If you can’t bear to get out of your hammock then you won’t regret exploring these charming islands! Renting a bicycle is one of the best (and cheapest) ways to get around, and you could easily spend an entire day cycling along the tiny riverside paths on Don Det and the neighbouring Don Khone. If you’re feeling a little more active, you could also take to the water on a Four Thousand Island kayaking adventure, where you’ll get the chance to see rare Irrawaddy Dolphins and the biggest waterfall in Southeast Asia (seriously impressive!) known as Khone Phapheng Falls! And that’s it, 30 days in the amazing country of Laos complete! From the 4000 islands you can return to Pakse to catch a flight home, or easily continue your Southeast Asian adventure overland – be it west to Vietnam, south to Cambodia or east to Thailand. Happy travelling!
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