We spent two weeks in Laos travelling from the Thai border down to the capital city of Vientiane, where we then flew to Vietnam to continue our travels throughout South East Asia. Two weeks in Laos was the perfect amount of time to incorporate the Gibbon Experience, catch the 2 day slow boat to Luang Prabang with enough time to explore it, stop in Vang Vieng on the way down south and finish with a couple of days to experience the capital city, Vientiane.
Here is the route we took and all our travel tips for each of the 5 destinations on the journey…
1. Gibbon Experience
Luckily we didn’t book anything in advance because when we arrived in Laos we found out about the Gibbon Experience in Huay Xai, and there was no way we were going to miss the opportunity to go hiking and ziplining through the jungle to stay overnight in a treehouse during this trip! This spontaneous decision took a chunk out of our travel budget (160EU/$256AUD each for 2days/1night), but at least we knew the money was going towards the National Park’s conservation project, and looking back, The Gibbon Experience was one of the main highlights of this whole South East Asia trip. Read all the details here.
Tip: If you’re doing any kind of adventure sports such as zip lining during your travels, remember to get travel insurance. We use and recommend World Nomads simply because they are the most trusted travel insurance site for travellers and offer the best cover for what we need. Get a free quote here.
In Huay Xai we stayed at Oudomsin Hotel, which is a comfortable budget hotel with air-conditioning. On that same street there is one local restaurant with a very friendly owner, you’ll know it when you see it. We ate all our meals at this restaurant during our time in Huay Xai before and after The Gibbon Experience, and highly recommend going there!
2. Two Day Slow Boat
After returning from the Gibbon we spent another night in Huay Xai before catching the 2 day slow boat to Luang Prabang the following day.
The boat journey was very long and boring (no phone service) and I’d probably recommend paying extra to get a bus that only takes one day. But in saying that, I’m glad we did it because we got to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the Mekong River and saw tiny rural villages that were completely off the beaten path. We also witnessed extreme poverty on this journey, which was very confronting and sad, yet made us feel overwhelmingly grateful for everything in life.
We booked tickets for the slow boat with the local from the restaurant mentioned earlier as he sold them for 235,000kip (approx. $37.70AUD), whereas the average in town was 240,000kip (approx. $39.30AUD) with guaranteed front seats, and he dropped us off himself in a comfortable air conditioned car.
3. Luang Prabang
When we arrived in Luang Prabang we were surprised at how clean and beautiful this city is, and it’s so well cared for that it even makes the cut for being a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can see the French influence in the food and architecture, and you can also venture out to visit caves as well as the famous waterfalls nearby. If you had to choose only one city to visit in Laos, Luang Prabang is it.
Even if you’re not travelling over the border like we did, Luang Prabang has an International airport so you can fly in from anywhere.
While in the city be sure to check out the markets, with Luang Prabang Night Market being the most popular for buying souvenirs and street food. There is also the Morning Market or Phousi Market that’s more for locals to get their local fruit and vegetables.
Admire the architecture at the Grand Palace and National Museum, and if you’re planning on visiting temples be sure to dress modestly. The main temples in Luang Prabang are Wat Xieng Thong Temple, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham and Wat Sensoukharam.
Walk along the Mekong River and take the postcard perfect photo of the Bamboo Bridge…
…and in the evening you could hike further up to Mount Phousi for sunset. The view is amazing, though it is extremely popular so very busy, and not too pleasant if you’re looking for a quiet place to farewell the sun.
Another popular experience among travellers in Luang Prabang is waking up early for the Alms Giving Ceremony of the Monks at 5am. We didn’t witness this, though if you choose to, please do your research as to how to be respectful, as this religious ceremony should not be treated like a tourist attraction.
In Luang Prabang city you could also do yoga, cooking classes, learn Art of Textile at Oak Pop Rok (though a bit pricey for what is it in my opinion) or we read somewhere that you can also teach English at a nearby school for the day between Monday to Friday.
But let’s face it, you’re not going to travel all the way to Luang Prabang in Laos and not venture out of town to see the stunning Kuang Si Waterfalls are you? Dedicate a full day to heading out to the waterfalls via a tuk tuk. From memory it was the equivalent of approximately $3AUD to get in, and once there you’ll find seven layers of stunning waterfalls that make up Kuang Si.
Tip: There are many tuk tuks in the city that advertise to take you to the waterfalls and back, but as we mention in most South East Asia blog posts, make sure to haggle, as the starting price is never the real price in touristy areas like Luang Prabang.
Dedicate another day to visit The Ou and Tam Ting Caves. We wanted to see the temple cave on the river which according to Google maps was only one hour drive from Luang Prabang so we decided to hire a tuk tuk.
At first we thought our driver was trying to rip us off but we soon realised it was a fair price considering to get to the caves he’d have to take his vehicle through the bumpiest dirt road we’ve ever been on, ever. Imagine ‘holding on with all your strength for an hour straight’ kind of bumpy and feeling like the whole tuk tuk was going to fall apart. We had no idea what we had got ourselves into. A totally rural off the beaten path kind of experience and a little concerning considering the same driver took us to the waterfalls the day before and broke down half way there. Thankfully we made it back in one piece, and later found out that most sane people catch a boat to the caves!
While in the Luang Prabang area you can also have a go at Loatian farming at The Living Land Company. There is also an Elephant Village near Luang Prabang that we DO NOT recommend. If you want to see elephants in South East Asia go to The Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, an ethical elephant sanctuary for rescued elephants.
Besides sightseeing and adventuring around Luang Prabang, you’ve got to experience the food culture. There are so many cute French bakeries in Luang Prabang, it felt like we were in a mini France.. It seemed like a strange combo, but worked for us since we got to eat baguettes and croissants and enjoy South East Asian culture at the same time. Le Banneton Bakery was our favourite, got to add it to your list!
Besides street food stalls that sell baguettes and sandwiches or Laotian street food at the night markets, there’s also Atsalin Restaurant (budget option), Pizza Phan Luang if you feel like Italian, and on the high end of dining the popular choices seemed to be Traditional Lao Cusine at Manda de Lao and 3Nagas Restaurant.
4. Vang Vieng
Our next stop in Laos was the popular backpacker party destination of Vang Vieng, half way to the capital city of Vientiane. Besides stoping over to break up the bus journey and to see the gorgeous blue lagoons, the main reason for stopping in Vang Vieng is to go to the crazy tubing party along the Nam Song river. We’re not too into partying but thought this would be that one time on this trip that we’d ‘let loose’ a bit. However when we got to Vang Vieng not one bone in our body felt like doing anything at all. We didn’t have the energy to go, and relaxing in a nice hotel room sounded much more appealing, so we had the shocking realisation that maybe we’re getting too old for the backpacker life.
Nevermind, as there is plenty to see and do in Vang Vieng besides party, so we definitely recommend to hire a motorbike to get around. Our first stop was Blue Lagoon 1, only 10,000kip ($1.60AUD), and we somehow managed to enjoy it before the crowds rolled in. We were surprised that we had it all to ourselves but it wasn’t until moments later that all the tour groups started arriving. Luckily there are other beautiful lagoons in the area with enough space for everyone to enjoy if you’re looking for a peaceful place to relax. Don’t forget to add Blue Lagoon 2 to your bucket list, it’s less touristy and attracts mainly backpackers.
Nearby at Blue Lagoon 1 there are some caves worth checking out. We chose to climb through the dark Tham Phu Kam Caves without a guide, and with just our iPhone torches and thongs (flip flops). All I can say is be a little more prepared than us! You have to do some serious rock climbing, and it’s very easy to get lost. We got lost with two other groups who had the same idea as us. After taking a few wrong turns we eventually saw the light and tried different routes until we finally made it out. But was it an adventure? Yep!
We still wanted to have a tubing experience in Vang Vieng and so one one of the days we decided to visit the Tham Nam Water Caves, where you can go tubing (without the hangover). The picture on the bridge below was taken when we arrived, just before finding out the water at the time was too shallow for tubing. We thought, “oh well, let’s go to the waterfalls instead then.” On our way to the Kaeng Nyui Waterfall we realised the dirt road was too muddy for our scooter to get through, so we had to go back, which also meant we’d miss out on climbing the insta-famous Phangern Mountain. By this point we were very exhausted from travelling in general that it didn’t even bother us to miss out, though if you end up going to these places after reading this post leave us a comment below.
Some other ideas for activities in Vang Vieng are to visit the Tham Chang (also known as the Elephant Cave), kayak along the Nam Song River, go rock climbing at Adam’s Climbing School (though be prepared to pay between $110-225US) and you can even go Hot Air Ballooning in Vang Vieng.
Our food recommendations are Chaleun or Sababa Organic for cheap local food, Amigos for mexican, an Australian owned coffee shop called Cafe eh eh for coffee, Sabaidee Burger, or Gary’s Irish Bar for a good Western meal.
If you are in Vang Vieng to party the main places to go for nightlife seemed to be Smile Beach Bar (quite chill), Sakura Bar where there is free whiskey available between 8-9pm, Viva Pub, Moon Bar, and there’s also apparently a ‘Jungle Party’ every Friday night.
We got to a point on this trip where the travel burnout had got real. We’d travelled non-stop many times before and usually we’d start feeling burnt out at around the 8 month mark, not after just 8 weeks! But every time we set out to travel long term we’d be staying in one place for at least 4-6 weeks at a time before moving on. Never before had we been moving from place to place every 5 days or so. So for the first time ever we understood what people mean when they say “I could never travel long-term like you.” In Vientiane we splurged a little and stayed 3 nights in a nice hotel with a pool and buffet breakfast while we explored the capital city of Laos.
One of the first things we did in Vientiane was have a traditional Loation herbal steam sauna and massage at Wat Sok Pa Luang Lao Sauna. It was a mission to find the place that only a few bloggers have written about before, but once there we felt like we were getting a true non-touristy cultural experience. The sauna is open from 1pm-8pm and costs 50,000kip ($8AUD). If you go to the nearby temple on a Saturday from 3pm you can talk with the monks so they can practice their English and in exchange they will let you meditate with them from 4-5pm.
When it comes to exploring the city of Vientiane, the Patuxai Victory Monument is the main point of interest. It looks similar to the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, though ironically this war monument was built in memory of those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. The monument is open from 8am for those who want to climb to the top for an entrance fee of 3,000kip ($0.50AUD) per person.
If you’re interested in history there are many museums in Vientiane. There’s the Laos National Museum that’s open from 8am (though doesn’t have the best reviews), Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre (open Monday-Friday), Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial Museum, and the COPE Visitor Centre.
We went to the COPE Visitor Centre and leant that Laos was actually the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world war! And most of the bombs didn’t actually go off so are still in the Earth throughout certain zones in the country. Meaning thousands of locals who don’t live in bomb-free zones are accidentally stepping on these land mines each day and getting their legs blown off, years after the war. It is really sad, but luckily the COPE organisation is supporting these victims and raising money with the goal to slowly eliminate all the unexploded bombs to make all of Laos a bomb free zone by 2021. It is free to enter, and if you feel inspired you can give a donation as you leave.
The main temple in Vientiane is the Golden Stupa (see photo above), which is worth a visit. Other temples in Vientiane include Wat Si Saket, Haw Phra Kaew, Wat Ho Phra Keo, Wat Si Muang, Ho Phra Keo, and That Dam (also known as Black Stupa). Another famous landmark in Vientiane that we unfortunately ran out of time to visit is Buddha Park, an hours drive from the capital.
For food in Vientiane we ended up coming to The State of Pasta each day as we loved how the chefs put together Italian food (our favourite) and mix in Loatian flavours. We also recommend Lao Kitchen for Loatian food, and Naked Espresso for coffee.
When it comes to nightlife in Vientiane for Westerners it is pretty much non-existent. You could check out Walking Street, and New World Shipping Centre, or there’s the Ban Anou Night Market (night bazaar), though we didn’t think it was very good. Another really random but fun thing you could do in the evening is get involved in the open air aerobics that are on every night at the Mekong River during sunset, a great way to end our last night in Laos.
And that was our 2 week journey through Laos, with all of our travel tips and recommendations along the way. We hope you got some great advice from reading this to help plan for your next trip to Laos!
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