From its endless rolling rice fields to the jagged mountains and the winding Mekong River that snakes its way through the countryside, Northern Laos is truly stunning. This Northern Laos itinerary is designed to reveal some of the lesser-known gems and to help you plan your trip to the most beautiful region in all of Southeast Asia.
The majority of this itinerary will focus on the hubs of Northern Laos; the cities of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. These two cities are where you can find accommodation and amenities while exploring the breathtaking scenery.
As a photographer, this country has truly earned a special place in my heart. Take as many days, or even weeks, for your Laos holiday as your schedule will allow if you truly want to experience everything it has to offer.
Note: One week will be enough for the itinerary proposed here.
Laos Travel: Things to know before you go
Below are a few quick and need-to-know tips to read before your arrival.
When to go
While there is no wrong time to visit Laos, there are things to consider for each time of year.
Dry season is from November to May.
Rainy season is from May to October.
September to November is possibly the perfect balance between good weather and fewer visitors. It will be going in to dry season, but after months of rain, you’ll be treated to leafy, glistening landscapes and impressive rushing waterfalls. Temperatures are more manageable and as it’s not quite peak season, you can expect a few less tourists.
December to February is considered peak season in Laos. These months are within the dry season and are when the temperatures are cooler. The river levels are also higher, so it is a good time to take a trip on the river. The downside being that everywhere will be more crowded and prices will often be higher.
March to June are the hottest months of the year and the transition from dry to the rainy season. We visited at the end of May and it was around 33°c each day, but honestly felt hotter. As the rainy season was only just beginning, a lot of the landscape was very dry rather than the lush greens you’d expect. However, it did mean everywhere was a LOT quieter and prices were lower.
July and August are the peak of rainy season and you can expect a lot of rain. While it will not necessarily rain all day, you can expect at least one heavy downpour each day. Washed out roads can be an issue in more remote locations. The Kuang Si Falls can often lose some of their vibrancy as well. The plus side to visiting over these months is fewer tourists and lusher landscapes.
You will need a visa to enter Laos, but they do offer a 30-day Visa on Arrival for MOST travellers. This is the easiest and cheapest way to go.
*Note: As of June 1, 2019, an e-visa is expected to be rolled out, which may be an option.
The Visa on Arrival is available to all but 32 countries (most of which are in Africa and the Middle East). It costs between $30-$42, varying by country. This is payable in USD or KIP upon arrival. If you do not have cash on hand, there are ATMs in the airport you can use.
Anyone from the Americas, Europe, or Oceania will simply fill out a form, pay the fee, and be quickly on your way. If you are from Africa, Bangladesh, or the Middle East, or simply want to find out more about pricing and options, click here for more information on all-things visas in Laos.
Safety in Laos
Laos is a very safe country to travel to overall, with crime rates lower than most Western cities. Petty theft is a lot less common than in other Southeast Asian countries as well, but is still a possibility.
The destinations covered in this itinerary are all well-travelled and safe by most standards. However, as in every country, bad things can happen and it is always important to be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye on your belongings while travelling.
Road travel is also considered safe, with well-maintained roads and minimal traffic. It is worth noting, though, that an increase in tourists renting motorcycles has created a correlated increase in traffic accidents.
While the vast majority of Laos is very safe, there are a couple of places that require caution. None of those mentioned below are included in this itinerary, but I wanted to include them for those of you who may be looking to hit the open road.
After decades of civil unrest and political insurgences, Routes 7 and 13 are finally regarded as safe. Still, it is worth checking travel advisories or asking around in Luang Prabang or Vientiane for the current situation to ensure it’s still safe prior to travelling these routes.
You likely will not travel in the Xaisomboun Province unless you make the active choice to do so. If you do, be aware that it is advised against visiting this region due to civil unrest. Some areas of this region also require a permit to travel to.
Additionally, crime rates are a lot higher in the remote areas along the border with Myanmar, so take extra care if you decide to travel here.
On the topic of safety, it is worth discussing the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng and its deadly past. Many tourists have been killed participating in tubing and other water activities. Many of these deaths were either directly or indirectly related to drugs and alcohol. Nowadays, the focus in Vang Vieng has shifted to its intoxicating beauty and it is a lot calmer than it used to be. Most of the rope swings and ziplines that once lined the river banks have now been removed and tubing is a much more relaxing experience. While there are still some bars along the river, just remember that water activities and alcohol are never really a good idea.
One final, very important note on safety in Laos regards unexploded land mines that remain from the Vietnam War. If you are a fan of getting off the beaten track (literally!) in rural settings, this is absolutely NOT the place for it. While unlikely, the threat of land mines is a very real one in rural parts of Laos.
Language in Laos
The official language in Laos is, unsurprisingly, Lao. You will be able to get around any city speaking English, but its always good to know some key phrases! A few useful examples in Lao are below:
Hello — Sabaidi
Please — Kaluna
Thank you — Khob Chai
How much? — Theoa Dai
Currency in Laos
The local currency in Laos is KIP and will be the only accepted currency in MOST places. However, higher-end resorts will take credit cards and some places may accept Thai Baht as well. Currency rates at the time of writing (June 2019) are below:
10,000 KIP = $1.16 USD = £0.91
$1 USD = 8650 KIP
While it is not exact, I found it easiest to simply round a bit and think of 10,000 KIP as $1.
Day 1: Luang Prabang
Your travels in Northern Laos will either begin or end in Luang Prabang; for us, it was both. The city itself has a few places of interest, but the real reason to go to Laos is for the nature outside of cities!
Most of you will begin your travels through Laos in the city of Luang Prabang. This is the major hub for Northern Laos and is the fourth most populous city in the country. Luang Prabang is easily walkable and offers some pretty scenery along the Mekong River. However, the main points of interest (Kuang Si Falls, Pak Ou Caves, etc) are about an hour away. You can get there by scooter, tuk-tuk, car, or shuttle.
We chose to rent a car from Avis, which cost us $30 per day. This may seem expensive, but when you divide that cost per person and factor in airport pick-up, drop-off, bus prices, etc, it actually ended up being the best value. Plus who doesn’t love a good road trip!? Having our own vehicle allowed us to get the photos we wanted by providing access to remote places at times when no one else was there. AND, we got to listen to the music we wanted – Reggaeton all the way, no shame in our game! You do not need an international license, and our price covered unlimited miles and insurance. We found the best rate by calling directly.
*Note: You can arrange to drop off in a different city for an additional surcharge.
Walk around a UNESCO World Heritage Site
If you arrive in Luang Prabang in the morning, then I’d highly recommend taking some time to explore Luang Prabang city centre on foot. Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 for its outstanding architecture. The previous capital city provides a unique blend of Laos traditional urban architecture and European influences from its colonial era. The buildings are well preserved and make for a beautiful walk around the city.
Mount Phousi sunset
If you arrive in Luang Prabang in the afternoon, you’ll have time to drop off your bags and head to Mt Phousi for sunset. The entrance is located near the night market on Sisavangvong Rd.
Be warned, you’ll have to walk up a LOT of steps and deal with some crowds to earn your view. There is, however, a nice high vantage point of the sun setting behind the city. You will also have to pay a 20,000 KIP ($2.20 USD) entrance fee about halfway up.
And wait, there’s more! After sunset, you will have the choice of a 2-for-1 happy hour at any number of nearby bars along Sisavangvong Rd!
Luang Prabang Night Market
Once you’ve recovered from the sunset hike (if you can even call it a hike – but we’ll stick with it to justify the happy hour stop!), it’s time to grab some dinner and go shopping at the Luang Prabang night market; the second biggest in Laos. How impressed you are will depend on how much of Asia you’ve explored already. As we learned, the second biggest market in Laos is still fairly small compared to what we are used to seeing in Thailand!
Take in some of the city but get back early, as you will want to get an early start in the morning for the real highlight; Kuang Si Falls!
Day 2: Day trips from Luang Prabang
Alms giving Luang Prabang
While I am including Alms Giving within this itinerary, I would advise you to read this thought-provoking post on whether you should attend Alms Giving in Luang Prabang. There are some potential ethical concerns, and the best way to decide where you stand is by being informed.
The ancient Buddhist ritual of alms giving dates back to the 14th century and is an integral part of Laotian culture in Luang Prabang. Every morning at sunrise, the devoted offer food to the procession of saffron-robed monks that walk meditatively through the city from the local temples. The daily alms take place on the main street and various other locations throughout the city.
If you have carefully considered your involvement and decided you would like to take part, then please also make sure you are familiar with the rules and cultural expectations surrounding the event. Reading the information on the Luang Prabang Tourism website will help you understand how to take part in a respectful manner.
Kuang Si Falls
The falls officially open at 8 am, but the gates are (almost?) always open. I strongly recommend considering a rental car for at least one day. Because we had a car, we left at 5:15 am to arrive by 6 am. You will not have this option with shuttles or tuk-tuks! In my opinion, the lost sleep was a worthy sacrifice to have this awe-inspiring world wonder to ourselves for the first 2.5 hours.
If a car or motorbike rental is not an option for you, alternative transport options and all things Kuang Si Falls are well covered in this blog.
There is a small fee for the falls of 10,000 KIP (about $1.16 USD) for entrance to the falls. However, there was no one there to take our money at 6 am (cha-ching!). In addition to the fees, we also avoided harsh light and crowds by arriving this early, which made photographing and experiencing the falls an absolute dream! Just bring a few snacks as the restaurants won’t be open just yet (but you’ll have plenty of options by 9 am).
After a small walk past some sleeping moon bears, you’ll arrive at the start of the trails. There is a main trail that goes up to the left and a rough trail on the right. Your views will mostly be obstructed on the right, so I recommend staying left. The trail on the right once lead to the secret pools, but that has been closed off at this point (for real, it is locked down with fresh barbed wire!)
The hike from the entrance to the falls themselves would take about 15-20 minutes if you walked straight there. Most likely, however, you will be stopping frequently along the way. Personally, I needed about 2 hours to get there! As a photographer, you’ll want lots of time to take in the unique beauty of this amazing place.
When you get to the main falls, you will have the option of hiking to the top. There were once some trails that allowed you unique views of the falls, but most are closed now and, honestly, I didn’t take a single photo during the hike up or down.
After you have taken all the shots you want, cool off with a well-earned swim. The water is lovely, and the feet-nibbling fish provide a free massage!
On your way out, stop and watch for the goofy antics of the moon bears. The sanctuary at Kuang Si is dedicated to helping these endangered cuties.
If you have the time and energy after visiting Kuang Si Falls, you would have the option to visit either Tad Sae Falls or Pak Ou caves. These could also both be made into their own day trip if you had more time in Luang Prabang.
Tad Sae Falls
Tad Sae Falls is a smaller version of Kuang Si Falls and is a bit more of a local hangout. It is located about a 30-minute drive outside of Luang Prabang. You can get there by tuk-tuk if you don’t have your own transport and can expect to pay around 200,000 KIP ($23 USD) to get to Nam Khan riverbank. If you drive yourself it will cost you 5000 KIP (.55 cents USD) to park.
When you arrive, you can expect to pay 10,000 KIP for your boat ride ($1.10 USD) (Tad Sae Falls is only reachable by boat), and another 15,000 KIP ($1.55 USD) for your actual entrance ticket. There is a short hike from here to the “waterfall,” which is more of a tumble really.
We kept this option on our itinerary for the return to Luang Prabang if time permitted, but were not able to visit ourselves.
For a full guide to the Tad Sae Falls, I recommend checking out this blog.
Pak Ou Caves
I want to be honest about the Pak Ou Caves upfront and let you know that I did not visit them. The simple reason is that I found the cost and difficulty of access too high to justify a spot on my itinerary. However, they are worth discussing as a possible day trip, or even a half-day trip to go in tandem with Tad Sae Falls or Kuang Si Falls.
The Pak Ou Caves are located about 45-60 minutes north of Luang Prabang by car or tuk-tuk. You will be dropped off at the small town of Pak Ou, then have to ferry across to the caves. Most tuk-tuk drivers will charge about 200,000 KIP at the high end ($23 US).
You can also get a boat from the Luang Prabang docks and travel via the Mekong River. It will take about 2 hours each way by boat, which are not always the most comfortable. For some, the boat trip was the best part; for others, it was the worst. A group boat will cost about 65,000 KIP ($7.50 US) per person.
As for the caves themselves, they are essentially repositories for “retired” Buddha statues. When a place of worship acquires newer, shinier statues, they cannot simply bury or destroy the old ones. In Laos, they seem to end up in the Pak Ou Caves!
Your personal interests when it comes to travel are really going to be the major factor in deciding whether or not you add the caves to your itinerary. If you are interested in nature, photography, or adventure, skip the caves and save more time for Vang Vieng, or consider the Tad Sae Falls. If culture, history, or religious practices are what connect you to a country, then you may really appreciate the story of the Pak Ou Caves!
Day 3: Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
The next stop on your Northern Laos itinerary will be Vang Vieng. To get there, you can catch a bus from Luang Prabang for about $9 USD per person, or by driving. As mentioned, we chose to rent a car and drive as our research had shown the road trip itself was as incredible as the destination.
If you have any interest in stopping for photos, nature, or countryside culture, I strongly recommend driving yourself and stopping often along the way! In addition to a similar cost, you will love having the freedom to get out and look around. Also, the bus takes a very long route to get there with a 9-11 hour journey, whereas you are there in 4 hours (without stops) by car.
Driving to Vang Vieng
If you have decided to take the bus, feel free to skip to the next section.
After a good night’s sleep, it will be another early start to drive to Vang Vieng. From Luang Prabang, there are two routes of similar distance; Route 4 and Route 13. While both are similar in terms of kilometres, I strongly recommend travelling by Route 4. This route is about 4 hours, while Route 13 is closer to 6 hours. Additionally, the drive along Route 4 is much prettier, and the road is perfectly safe and maintained. In the past, there have been some safety issues with Route 13. While this no longer seems to be a concern, if you do decide to go that route instead, it is worth checking current travel advisories for up to date information.
I also recommend getting an early start to allow plenty of time for stopping, eating, and enjoying the drive itself. My general rule is to double the drive time, but that is because I am stopping to drone and take photos constantly. In any event, you will want to make sure you are in Vang Vieng by 4 pm or earlier for reasons I’ll soon explain.
On the journey, you will be immersed in pretty mountainscapes and countryside. You will also experience a glimpse into rural life in Laos.
Pha Tang Bridge
If you’re driving to Vang Vieng, make sure you stop at the bridge in Pha Tang, about 30 minutes outside of Vang Vieng, and check out the temple just next to it. There is a three-story tower at the temple which provides an excellent vantage point for picturesque views of the lush surrounding landscapes.
Sunset at Nam Xay Viewpoint
The reason it was so important we arrived in Vang Vieng by 4 pm is that Nam Xay Viewpoint is one of the most spectacular places you can be for sunset! If you do only one thing from this Northern Laos Itinerary, make it this!
If you are driving, you will have to pay 20,000 KIP ($2.30 USD) (this price is less for a scooter) to cross the wooden bridge and another 10,000 KIP ($1.16) per person for entrance to the viewpoint. It is located about 15 minutes from Vang Vieng city centre and is on Google Maps so it’s easy to navigate there. You can also easily find a tuk-tuk driver to take you and wait for you there.
A word of warning; this hike is “short”, but it is VERY strenuous. At a brisk pace, we arrived at the top in about 15 minutes but were literally sweating through our shirts! It is very steep and can be a bit treacherous after rains, but the view from the top is worth every aching muscle and lost breath.
Days 4-6: Vang Vieng
While Vang Vieng city is lively by night, most people spend the day out enjoying nature. If you are travelling by bus, your best bet will be to sign up with a day tour or find a tuk-tuk driver that can take you to some of the most popular destinations, ie Blue Lagoon and some of the caves. As we had a car, we instead drove around exploring the limestone karst mountains and seeking unique photo opportunities. There were plenty!
Oh, and if you are like me and need a good cup of coffee to get going in the morning, Bannaan Cafe was the only quality espresso I was able to find in town!
Take in the landscapes
As my primary interest is photography, I spent a total of three days exploring Vang Vieng by foot and car. One day we explored the mountains, the next we walked along the Nam Song river and went for a drive, and one day we celebrated my birthday in town. For most people, 1-2 full days is enough to feel satisfied in what they’ve seen of Vang Vieng.
We were there at the end of the dry season, and therefore the rice fields were dried up or non-existent in some places. At a different time of year, the rice fields will provide incredible foregrounds for your photos.
For more information on my recommendations for the most Instagrammable photos in Vang Vieng, click here.
If you have the desire, a lot of people still choose to spend a day tubing the Nam Song river. Most of those people are looking to have some drinks on the water and beat the heat for a day, which is a cheap and fun way to spend a full day if you enjoy that kind of thing! If you decide to partake, please keep in mind that alcohol and water activities aren’t always the best combo, and enthusiasm for this activity has waned after too many deadly instances in the past.
I went during my first trip to Laos in March 2013, and wouldn’t recommend it during the dry season as the water level is so low, making it a bumpy and uncomfortable ride.
Also popular is rock climbing, caving, ziplining, and kayaking. Vang Vieng has some incredible scenery and there is no “wrong” way to enjoy it, so figure out what you enjoy most and go for it! Cave trips, tubes, and kayak rentals are readily available at any local tour operator once you’ve arrived in Vang Vieng.
Regardless of how you spend each day, make sure you are somewhere for sunset each night. Those dramatic mountain-drops that define Vang Vieng are truly magical at sunset! There are a number of bars along the Nam Song river that offer scenic views and happy hours!
Food and nightlife in Vang Vieng
There are endless local Laos restaurants in walking distance to grab a quick bite that serve local fare (similar to Thai food) as well as standard Western fare. You will also find a lot of places that serve baguette sandwiches for 10,000-20,000 KIP ($1.16-$2.30), evidence of Laos’ French colonial history. I can’t say one was better than the others as all tasted and were priced similarly. However, there is an amazing place for reasonably-priced Indian food called “Dhaka” if you fancy a good curry. It was so good that we ate here back to back nights (including my birthday dinner!).
While not a crucial part of our Northern Laos itinerary, the nightlife in Vang Vieng is renown on the backpacker trail. While the party scene has quietened in Vang Vieng in recent years, it is still a party destination for many backpackers. If you are looking for a bit of nightlife, there are some karaoke spots and plenty of bars, as well as party hostels.
With this in mind, make sure you find somewhere quiet and air-conditioned if you prefer rest to festivities. There are many beautiful hotels and guesthouses with incredible views to choose from! We stayed at the Army Barracks Guesthouse, which was great value for the price and comfortable enough for a basic guesthouse. Just ask for an extra blanket to lie on as the sheet has a weird casing that wasn’t as comfortable to lie on. For current Vang Vieng accommodation prices and availability check here.
What NOT to do in Vang Vieng
Equally important in crafting your Northern Laos Itinerary is knowing what NOT to do. There are a few things that have reputations for being must-do in Vang Vieng that I would caution people against. Not to say “don’t” necessarily, but certainly to manage your expectations.
Let’s start the list of What NOT to do in Vang Vieng with the famous Blue Lagoon. There are three lagoons, but Blue Lagoon 1 is the most visited. While it can undoubtedly be beautiful, I found it to be underwhelming. The picturesque blue water actually becomes mud brown after rain, which is most days in the summer and is way too crowded to truly enjoy. I won’t say its completely unenjoyable or not worth doing, but I do think it wise to not be seduced by postcard photos you may have seen online. I have heard that Blue Lagoon 3 is a bit less touristy and enjoyable.
Hot air ballooning
While it’s beautiful to see Vang Vieng from the sky (an experience I can somewhat realise with a drone), the hot air balloon rides in Vang Vieng are notoriously disappointing. Many of the balloons do not actually go anywhere, simply rising up to about 600-800 meters, then descending back to the starting point. The trips are also very short and, honestly, the views are pretty great from the ground.
Day 7: Onward travel from Vang Vieng
There are so many things to do in Laos that your next decision may be the toughest; where to now?!
From Vang Vieng, we travelled by car back to Luang Prabang. However, one of the most common routes will be from Vang Vieng to Vientiane. From here there are really so many options! If you’re visiting Laos as part of a bigger trip then there’s a good chance you’ll next be travelling to Southern Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, or Cambodia.
If Siem Reap, Cambodia is on your itinerary, I’ve written an Ultimate Guide to Angkor Wat that will tell you everything you need to know from the time you cross the border until the time you leave the country!
If you’re not sure how to get to the next destination, then I’d highly recommend checking 12Go Asia to compare your travel options.