Twice now, I’ve done a visa run through northern Laos. Each time, I’ve seen several attractions and skipped even more. Here’s the best way to spend a week in northern Laos, whether you’re going for a visa run or just want to see the highlights.
Entry Through Huay Xai
The northernmost entry into Laos from Thailand is from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos. You can get a bus from Chiang Rai straight to the border for 65 Thai baht ($2). Getting through the border will cost you about $35 for the Laos visa. The price varies, but for US and UK citizens it’s $35 preferably USD). Once you’re in Huay Xai, you have two major choices – book your ticket for a slow boat down the Mekong River, or spend a bit more for the Gibbon Experience.
Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
Both times, I went straight for the slow boat. This is a two-day experience traveling down the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, spending a night halfway in Pakbeng. Perhaps this cruise isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s the best way to get from the border into the country. On the other hand, I’ve heard horror stories about taking the bus instead of the boat.
The Gibbon Experience
This is the one attraction in Laos that I wanted to do more than any other, but skipped both times. It’s also the least backpacker friendly item in this article. That’s because this experience will set you back $310! But gosh is it worth it. It’s a two- or three-day tour where you bus into out of Huay Xai and then trek to a group of jungle trees where they’ve built the highest tree houses in the world. They’re connected by a series of zip lines. I think there’s also a hike up to a waterfall (perhaps just for the three-day experience) and other activities, but as I said, I haven’t done it myself.
I’ve talked to a lot of friends who did the experience and some of the stories are just epic. My favorite was a guy in Luang Prabang who was telling me about the shower room for the tree house. Except it wasn’t a room at all. It was a platform under the house. He described it as a grating to stand on, a railing, a shower head above you, and open air all around. Maybe not for someone with a fear of heights, but talk about setting yourself free!
The first major city to visit in northern Laos is Luang Prabang. This city dates back to the 8th century and was the capital of the country between 1949 and 1975. Plenty of backpackers have settled there, and it’s on the highway leading from China down into Southeast Asia.
Luang Prabang has changed massively in the past couple years with a tourism boom. Talking to the owner of the erstwhile top guesthouse in town where I stayed, I found that five years ago, he was operating at maximum occupancy every day of the year. Now, he struggles to fill up his rooms with the competition from hundreds of other guesthouses, hostels, hotels and resorts that have opened up.
Alms Giving Ceremony
I was so upset on my last trip when I got up at 6:00 a.m. to see the famous, unique alms ceremony, only to find that I had missed it. I had read a website saying that the ceremony takes place at 6:30, but it’s actually 5:30. Every morning at that time, the monks come out of their temples to get handouts of food from locals kneeling on the sidewalks outside the temples. The ceremony dates back eight centuries, and apparently it’s the only food that the monks will get for the day. It’s a very solemn ceremony, but you can participate in it if you follow all the rules. Even if you don’t participate, you can still get up early to take photographs, but from a distance and with extreme respect for what’s going on.
Mount Phousi for Sunset
Mount Phousi is a hill right in the center of town. At the top of the hill is Wat (Temple) Chom Si, commanding a panoramic view of Luang Prabang. For 20,000 kip ($2.50), you can climb over 300 steps to the top of the hill and visit the temple. I would recommend going up for sunset. Start heading to the top an hour before the sun is scheduled to set. It’s not that it takes a long time to get to the top, but rather because it can get crazy busy for the sunset, and also because the sun sets behind the mountains so it’s a few minutes before when Google reports. Getting there early ensures you have a good spot to watch the sunset from…or a spot at all for that matter.
The UXO Museum
There are very few museums in the world that impacted me as much as the UXO Museum in Laos. Actually, only the Uprising Museum in Warsaw was tantamount to how this place made me feel. UXO stands for UneXploded Ordinance. The museum details the 80 million potentially live bombs strewn across the country, and the efforts that have been made to clean them up.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
Easily my favorite attraction – and a direct counterpoint to the UXO Museum – is the Kuang Si Waterfalls. This wonder of nature, located an hour away from Luang Prabang, offers a full day of fun, relaxation, hiking and…a fish spa! Yep, you can get your feet nibbled on while soaking in the beautiful blue water. Just make sure you visit between November and April outside the rainy season. When the monsoons hit, the water not only turns brown, the current can be deadly.
I skipping this town on my first visit to northern Laos, but made sure to get there on my second. Vang Vieng is a really interesting place which was put on the map in the 1960s when the US plopped an airstrip down in the center of town from which to carry out bombing missions. It then gained notoriety, or perhaps infamy, in the late 1990s when it became popular to float down the Nam Song River in an inner tube, drinking a bucket of alcohol with perhaps a few drugs mixed in, until you fell off the side of the tube, got caught in one of the swings hanging in the water, and died.
In 2012, the government cleaned up the vice in the town (since it was mostly illegal activities). Since then, the town has reverted back to its original tourist attraction – the spectacular landscape. I’d say the town still primarily caters to backpackers and party-goers, but that’s no reason that anyone can’t find things to do enjoy there.
Mercedes Benz’ Kong Resort
As mentioned earlier, the number of accommodations in Laos has increased exponentially. Some are very simple out in the rice fields, while others are quite luxurious. While I prefer to stay at the cheaper options, some resorts are going for extravagantly opulent, and they’ll charge several hundred a night for it. Personally, I’d rather pay a few dollars for a hut raised up over a rice field…as long as it has a good mosquito net.
In Vang Vieng, a great choice is the Kong Resort. It’s actually a company retreat for Mercedes Benz, but when the company isn’t using it for their own employees, you can rent out their rooms for a great price. They have a wide range of villas, including two massive family houses with three beds and a jacuzzi. I love the design of Kong as they use shipping containers for all their villas. There’s also a swimming pool and a large dining hall for breakfast. Just know that the primary route to get to it is across the toll bridge, but there’s another free bamboo bridge further upriver if you’re just walking or on a scooter.
The Blue Lagoon of Laos and Phu Kham Cave
Out of the couple dozen activities and attractions to choose from in Vang Vieng, I picked the Blue Lagoon. It’s cheap, close to the city and you can also explore the Phu Kham Cave while you’re there. Of course, the main appeal was getting to swim in the water and escape the blistering heat of northern Laos in April. I think it’s also the top tourist attraction in town, although it’s wasn’t nearly as busy as I thought it would be.
Technically there are two walking streets in Vang Vieng. The southern one is far more established than the other, but also appeared to be more empty when I walked by it. Obviously that was during the day, and it gets a lot busier at night. For some reason, I can’t seem to find either of them on Google Maps. The “official street” is here, and the unofficial street is here.
Since I was turned off by the emptiness of the main walking street during the day, I only went to explore the small one at night. One end is full of the usual clothing and merchandise stalls you’d expect to see at any street market in SE Asia. The other end is where you’ll find the food. If you’re on a budget, this is definitely where you’ll want to eat. The dishes are a fraction of the cost you’d be spending at the restaurants in town.
However, the best spot is a little German restaurant (run by locals, not Germans) that claims to serve the best schnitzel in SE Asia. I’m wont to agree. The batter was incredible. I tried to talk the owner into telling me what his special ingredient was, but he wouldn’t budge. He said he’s spent decades perfecting it, and wants to remain the best. That’s fair! It used to be on the walking street but now has moved a few streets north. Just find the Viman Vang Vieng Thai German Restaurant on Google Maps.
Dune Buggies and Hot Air Balloons
There are plenty of attractions in Vang Vieng that I skipped – partially for lack of time, and partially because they cater to a much more wealthier clientele. A popular activity in town is to rent dune buggies to drive out to all the different waterfalls, watering holes, caves and hikes. The rentals go for about $100 a day. Yeah, I preferred a scooter rental for $8.
The other activity that looked absolutely spectacular was a hot air balloon ride. These are weather dependent (Laos is certainly known for its rains). The landscape of Vang Vieng, as mentioned, is the highlight. What better way to see it than from above? But the experience doesn’t come cheaply. A ride for the afternoon will set you back about $150.
If you’re on a visa run in northern Laos and plan to get more than just a visa-less entry back into Thailand, your main destination will be Vientiane. You might also be spending a couple days at the Thailand Embassy – one day to submit your application and the next day to wait for it to be approved. It’s not like Vietnam where you can get same-day service, or Malaysia where you can have your hotel or hostel handle the whole visa application process for you.
It’s just as well that you spend your time in Vientiane at the Embassy, as there isn’t that much to do in the city. However, if you do have a couple hours to spare, there are a couple sights which are interesting to catch. And if you have half a day, I can’t recommend the Buddha Park enough.
Right in the center of Vientiane is a really interesting monument. Construction started in 1957 as a monument to Laos’ independence from French rule. Due to a lack of funds, it was never completed. I find the design really interesting, considering its significance. It’s modeled after the Arc de Triomphe, but with a German twist.
The monument isn’t far from the center of town. Near the bus station is the main road of Vientiane, running north from the Presidential Palace. Just walk up the road about half a mile and you’ll come to the arch. You can pay about $0.50 to climb to the top, see the carvings on the walls and get some photos of the city (which aren’t that impressive). The better vantage point is around the back side of the monument. There’s a large reflection pond, albeit quite rundown and filled with green water and sprinkler heads. Still, you can get a pretty good shot here of the monument rising up above the reflection pond.
Further up the street is the Pra That Temple with its giant golden stupa. Somehow I didn’t make it on either of my visits to Vientiane. A stupa is that bell-shaped structure that goes along with Buddhist temples. As this is the top temple in Laos, it’s the biggest stupa in the country.
My favorite attraction in Vientiane, or rather just outside of town, is the Buddha Park. It’s a collection of over two hundred sculptures. The artist studied both Buddhism and Hinduism. Both religions are thoroughly depicted throughout the park with scenes from the scriptures and statues of the various deities. It takes about half an hour to get out there by city bus (don’t waste your money on a cab that will charge you a disgusting 50 times what the bus is). The park itself takes about an hour or two to explore, depending on how much you want to study the sculptures or relax in one of the huts for lunch.
Riverside Markets and Exercise
If you spend your day dealing with your visa, you’ll at least get to enjoy the night markets of Vientiane. Over the past few years, the riverside has been built up a lot. What used to be a hodgepodge of stalls with massive crowds pushing their way through every night is now a partially organized series of structures and stalls with massive crowds visiting every night.
If you can get to the river before sunset, you’ll get to see the dozen or so large groups of locals attending exercise classes on the large concrete pathway above the river’s flood plain. It seems like every local of Vientiane comes out at night to exercise, shop at the markets or just take a stroll with their partner. A few bands perform around the eating areas of the market, and there’s a new activity center for the kids that was set up since my first visit there. It certainly wasn’t what I expected to see in a communistic country.
Returning to Thailand via Udon Thani
When you’re ready to go back to Thailand, the easiest way is to get the bus straight to Udon Thani. This is purchased at the end of the central bus station. The tickets are supposed to be 22,000 kip (about $2.75), but they usually tack on another couple thousand for one reason or another. Still, $3 beats any of the tour buses and is easier than taking the 14 bus to the border and then getting the train to Udon Thani.
I was surprised to find that the food in Laos was generally a bit more expensive than Thailand, but the hostels were usually about the same or perhaps a bit cheaper. Obviously there’s always a huge range of options for all kinds of budgets. I usually look for the cheapest options for the simple reason that paying less allows me to travel longer. If you have a bigger budget and a limited amount of time to spend it in, by all means, splurge away.
For all the activities listed in this article, except for the crazy expensive ones like the Gibbon Experience, dune buggies and hot air balloon, it’s possible to comfortably make the entire journey from Chiang Mai, through northern Laos for a week, and back to Chiang Mai for under $150. I would say you could do it for $100 if you don’t want any comforts, and $200 if you want to make it a bit more comfortable with a couple extra activities (such as in Vang Vieng). However you go, I hope this article has helped you plan out your journey!
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Planning to visit Laos? Here are my other stories on what to do there, and some of my personal adventures.
- Journal Entry: Putting Up With the Scams in Asia
- A Guide to Spending Three Days in Luang Prabang, Laos
- The Ultimate Guide to the Slow Boat in Laos
- A Full Itinerary for a Day at the Kuang Si Waterfalls
- The Blue Lagoon in Laos is Nothing Like the One in Iceland
- A Complete Guide to Buddha Park – Vientiane’s Best Attraction
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
- 5 Steps to Book Cheap Flights
- Hostels: To Book or Not to Book
- Is Workaway Worth it for the Traveler?
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