After a month-long journey through Myanmar and 2 weeks in the gorgeous mountains of Northern Thailand, it only seemed logical to work our way through the budding regions of Laos and share with you our Laos 3 week travel itinerary in which we carefully and strategically thought out!
Jim had been here in 2015 and it was absolutely one of his top 5 countries he’s even been to in his life, so it only seemed natural to come back a few years later together and get a take of what it’s like to travel here a couple. But before we get ahead of ourselves and start throwing facts and such at you about the country and our 3-week itinerary in Laos, let’s lead you through that first question that’s probably in your head! Do you need a Visa for Laos...YES...yes you do.
Obtaining Laos Visa
Getting a visa for Laos can be as easy as 1,2,3. To get a Visa you need to have an extra passport sized photo, 6 months validity left in the passport, and a blank page available for the Visa. The price of the passport will vary depending on the country you’re from and the agreement each country has. In this case, Inna’s Ukrainian Passport got her a $30 Visa and my U.S. Passport got me a $35.
Pro Tip: Bring USD if crossing by land as the prices are more money when converting from Baht or other currencies.
Getting to Laos from Thailand
It’s just the matter of getting yourself to the border or flying into the nearest airport. In our case, we took a 2 ½ hour bus ride from Chiang Rai to the border of Chiang Khong border crossing. Paying bus driver ahead of time they’ll take you directly to the exit point of Thailand where you’ll be stamped out and have to pay roughly $1 to take the bus across the bridge to the Houayxay crossing. Once here you fill out the appropriate paperwork and submit to immigration and wait for your visa to be approved. From there you’ll have to take a shared Tuk-Tuk 20 minutes into town for $2.50 a person and find accommodation for the night.
Money In Laos
In Laos the national currency is called Kip. At todays rates you can exchange $1 usd for 8,535 Kip. If you have to exchange money you can do so at any of the exchanges or banks located in any city, or you can take out money from one of the many ATM you’ll find them as well. International fees will occur for withdrawals from ATMs as will a transaction fee, expect roughly $2-3 fee total between the two.
3-week Laos travel Itinerary North to South
1 night Houayxay -> 1 night Pakbeng -> 4 nights Luang Prabang -> 3 nights Vang Vieng ->
2 nights Vientiane -> 4 nights Thakhek bike loop -> 3 nights Pakse -> 3 nights Don Det
Don’t be mistaken or mislead by our itinerary, it can be done in both directions and also done in less/ more time. This is just an outline and recommended route of what we chose to do based off past experiences and what we have read by others!
If you’re looking for a nice and cheap place to spend the night we recommend you stay at Sabaidee Guesthouse! Jim was here 3 years ago on the same day and while prices for accommodation have remained the same, prices for food have doubled and transportation has quadrupled.
If you’ve purchased your “ticket” from a tour or back in Chiang Mai you may be in for a rude awakening once arriving in HouayXay. The boat leaves from the loading docks at 11;30 am with a pickup from your hotel at 9:30, with a promise of a seat. This is not the case whatsoever, it’s first come - first serve and if it’s oversold (which it most likely will be) then those of you who’ve bought your tickets in Thailand will be the ones who have to sit in the back of the boat in a room above the engines with the locals and all the luggage that couldn’t fit in the front on a 7hr ride from hell. Aside from the heat you’ll just be missing out on all the nature and views in which you paid for. If you’re not on the views and the experience, then what else are you on it for?
A now more progressive yet sleepy stopover town along the way from HouayXay to Luang Prabang along the Mekong River. Once getting off the boat you’re greeted by 30-40 people trying to sell you transportation to your hotel/guesthouse for the night. In town, the breakdown is like this.
🍺beers 20k kip
🍽️Buffalo larb 35k kip
🍚Steamed Rice 5k kip
🍛potato massaman curry 20k kip
We chose to spend the night at “Hive bar” as it seemed to be the most lively and affordable. It came with youtube set up on the computer for you to play whatever it is you want, and a pool table. The guy who got us to go there spoke perfect English and helped us pick good things to eat, and we each were given a welcoming banana whisky shot.
Pro Tip: If taking the slow boat and it’s oversold, get yourself down to the pier as soon as you wake up. We arrived at 7:30 am and the boat was not supposed to leave until 9:30 and we still almost ended up having no seat for the 7-hour journey.
Stock up on snacks ahead of time as it’s a long ride and supplies on board are very limited. You can buy beer, water, packaged noodles, and chips only on board. In town, you can purchase canned coffee for 5k kip and vegetarian sandwiches for 10K kip with the option to add meats on varying from 5k to 10k extra.
If you miss your boat or you want an extra service due to the boat being oversold you can grab the fast boat for 200k per person to Luang Prabang or back toward HouayXay.
Luang Prabang is the former royal capital, and now a small provincial city in the north of Laos. Most tourists stay in Luang Prabang around 3 days or longer depending on what kind of schedule they may be on. The city is very chill and relaxed, not a party place for sure. We spent almost a week in this cosy city and we believe that from all the cities in Laos you should spend the most time in Luang Prabang.
There are plenty of sights in Luang Prabang. Despite its small size, there are already 32 Buddhist temples in the city, the Royal Palace, which now hosts a national museum, Phu Si Hill with a magnificent view of Luang Prabang and the surrounding area. Not far from the city, there is one of the most beautiful waterfalls - Kuang Si Falls. In Luang Prabang, you can also witness an interesting old tradition - feeding the monks when the dawn breaks (5.30-6am). Even we got up this early to witness this unusual sight.
The old town of Luang Prabang has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995. Hence, it is forbidden to build tall buildings in the city center, and prohibited to drive trucks and large buses. The styles of architecture are mixed: ancient Buddhist temples, French colonial buildings, local houses in Lao style - all this creates an indescribable atmosphere and character.
In the central streets of Luang Prabang and along the Mekong embankment I wanted to walk for hours, enjoying the unhurried life of the city, drinking tea, coffee in the afternoon and beer at sunset in numerous cafes on the riverbank.
Getting from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
They’ve been talking about this route for a long long time now, and have been telling everyone they’ve built a new road to connect the two cities…but don’t be fooled! They’re gonna take the same old route over the mountains and it’s not gonna be pretty with all the twists and turns. However, it’s one of the most picturesque areas to drive through in Southeast Asia. This will take you about 5 1/2 - 6 hours to reach and will cost you about $12 USD
The infamous backpacker town in which so many travelers stumbled upon due to it’s wild reputation filled with: enjoying cheap food and drinks while laying down at a restaurant watching reruns of friends, and then slugging back buckets of alcohol and tubing from bar to bar and then spending the night at Sakura bar and then heading into the jungle for the remainder of the night for a techno party are now left with only the remnants of the past. You’re now left with nice hostels, coffee shops, 3 bars on the river to tube, and 1000’s of dune buggies to rent for a high price.
This trip we spent 3 nights exploring the land and finding all the things we can possibly do. You’ll still have a wonderful day exploring the lagoons, zip lining, people, and the still relaxed vibes of the backpackers. If you’re looking for a place to spend the night we highly recommend that you stay at Chillao Youth Hostel! Comes equipped with a big breakfast, clean private rooms, and a newly added in-ground pool.
Pro Tip: It’s still a place that you should be making it back to the city before dark. All sketchy things happen after dark, and when you’re out of your element or drunk. If you choose to go tubing then make sure you finish before sun’s down and you work on the buddy system of knowing if your friend is missing.
If the backpacker scene isn’t for you or you’re simply looking for a nice place to retreat to from all the hustle and bustle, then we highly recommend that you head 30 mins outside of town to stay at Sanctuary Nam Ngum. A wonderful all suite style bungalow resort on the lake with all sorts of water sports from kayaking, jet skiing, boating, paddle boarding, pedal boats, and the first we’ve ever seen…a floating pool in the lake! This place is well worth the travel with it’s world class staff and culinary experts waiting to serve you.
Getting from Vang Vieng to Vientiane
Probably one of our least favorite rides to be quite honest! While they’ve been improving these roads for the past fews years, the weather in rainy season can’t help but destroy them each time. This pothole ridden roads will turn your stomach in all sorts of directions and give you car sickness if you’ve got a weak stomach. In all it’ll take you about 6 hours to reach and costs $7USD.
What easily used to be one of Jim's most “vote to skip over cities”, is now becoming a place you should visit. He visited 3 years ago around the same time and it seemed to be in a bit of an identity crisis and lacked vision for such a large city. However, after this visit it seems to be on the up and up and getting with the times. It’s easy to find yourself getting lost shopping, visiting good cafes, and strolling down one of the best night markets in Southeast Asia nestled along the Mekong River and equipped with brand new knockoff Nike shoes, Supreme clothing, and many other popular brands. Can’t wait to visit in another 3-5 years and hopefully revise this in an even better and more elaborate sense.
Getting from Vientiane to Thakhek
A bit of a hassle, but it’s well worth it. Buy your ticket from your hotel or hostel the day before you’d like to leave, and they’ll send a tuk-tuk to pick you up there an hour before departure.
The drive in the completely filled tuk-tuk will take about 45 minutes in all to get to the real bus station and don’t expect to be comfortable in the slightest. From start to finish the journey lasts 7hrs and will cost you $15USD.
Thakhek Bike Loop
By far one of the most exhilarating things to do, Thakhek bike loop put Jim into full explorer mode 3 years back. If you’re looking for the perfect place to spend 4 days seeing the countryside and mountains of Laos while getting a grip on how to drive a motorbike...then this might be the thing for you.
The roads which were once so washed away and pothole ridden are now for the most part near perfect. The days can be spent exploring caves, swimming in lagoons, hiking the countryside, visiting villages by boat, or singing karaoke at night.
Two places we stayed during the bike trip:
First Stop - Phosy Thalang $8 USD a night
Second - Sanhak Guesthouse $6 USD a night
Getting from Thakhek to Pakse
After an exhausting 4 days on the bike you’ll be given a short rest while riding the bus from Thakhek to Pakse. It’s a rough ride, but if you’ve got no problems saving some money and falling asleep on the bus, then this will be perfect for you. The ride take 8 hours and costs about $10USD
Pakse Bike Loop
This loop gaining more and more popularity each year thanks to Instagram can be done as a small loop or big loop depending on whether you’ve got 2 or 4 days to dedicate to this region. We opted for the 2-day loop and we were not disappointed! On this loop, you can also visit waterfalls, do a homestay, go for some good local Laos coffee, and make lots of friends along the journey.
Getting from Pakse to 4000 Islands
A piece of cake. Go to reception at your hotel/ hostel and book your tickets through them. You’ll get picked up half an hour before your time to leave in the morning and brought to the bus station. In all the journey takes about 3 hours and will cost $8USD.
After not making it the last time around, Jim had to make sure we spent time here this time. We opted to visit Don Det, one of the most popular islands to choose from. It was a pleasant surprise to us! It felt as though we were there in the off-season as it was not crowded whatsoever. The vibe was chill, the food was good, and you could see just about everything you’d like to see in a day or two. However, if you’re down to relax and chill, you can stay for that extra day just to get in your time to breathe and have nowhere else in the world to be. Our most relaxing day was merely the two of us out on the water together…fishing and then having a bbq off everything we caught on a deserted beach!
Budget for Laos
For 21 days expect to spend $600-$700
$15 per day for housing
$10 per day for food
$5 per day for transport
Pro Tip: These prices are based off private rooms, coffee, beer, and average priced transport.
In our opinions Laos travel is a must do for the coming years and we strongly feel as though it will be one of biggest pushes for travel in Southeast Asia as it gains popularity more and more each and every year. If you’ve only got a limited amount of time to see the country and don’t have a full 3 weeks to dedicate to this wonderful adventure, then shoot us an email and let us know what you’d like to get out of your trip. We love nothing more than helping others and bring all of their dreams to fruition.
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