Photo: Classic scenery surrounds Vang Vieng.

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About 2.5 weeks in northern Laos - can I get all of this done?

Posted by Buzz on 15/9/2010 at 18:15

I'll be meeting up with a friend in Bangkok in early November (he's currently backpacking Japan) for exactly 2 months in SE Asia. We're not planning on much Thailand as I've been there before - mostly Laos and Vietnam, with a little bit of Cambodia. The plan is to get to Vientiane (either by air or by land, we'll see), arrange a visa to Vietnam while we're there, and head north. I wanna cross the border at Dien Bien Phu about 18-20 days later, so my final stop in Laos should be Muang Khua.

I know I can "get everything I want done". Thing is, I don't want to just "be everywhere", I want to be able to enjoy my time, trek some villages, spend a night or two in a homestay... I figured I'll write down what I was thinking, and you guys could help me and tell me if it's doable, or if it's too much squeezed together (and if so, some advice on what to skip and save for another trip).

Now while we are backpackers, in the sense that we're budget travelers with a backpack, we're not big fans of the backpacker scene. We're traveling to see places and experience new cultures - not to get drunk with a bunch of other Europeans. Also, I hate organized tours unless absolutely necessary. I prefer the DIY approach. Just wanted to say that to explain what sort of trip I'm aiming for here xD

Here it goes: from Vientiane we'll probably head to Vang Vieng (I'll probably hate it, but still). After that, Phonsavan, and then Luang Prabang. Then I was thinking Luang Namtha and possibly Muang Sing. On to Nong Kiaw, boat to Muang Ngoi, then boat to Muang Khua, then across the border.

Is it too much to properly enjoy all these places in, say, 19 days? Should I skip something? Also, where in this area would be best to arrange a homestay?

Sorry for the long post, and thanks in advance to all helpers!

#1 Buzz has been a member since 15/9/2010. Posts: 6

Posted by Nokka on 15/9/2010 at 18:59

I didn't get further north than Nong Khiaow, so can't help much there. But a couple of thoughts:

Luang Prabang has a Vietnamese Consulate where you can also get your visa - in case you're not in Vientiane for long.

Why go to Vang Vieng if its not your scene ? I did that, partly out of curiosity, but wished I hadn't bothered. Should have stayed on the bus, even though the trip from Luang Prabang to Vientiane takes forever. I thought a stopover would be good, but the place wasn't for me and from what you say doubt it will be for you either.

How are you getting from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha ? Flying ? 'Cos its an awful long way otherwise.

I trekked from Nong Khiaow and loved it. Did a day long trek which was great. Not sure about homestays from there, but we stopped at one village which were interested in setting things up with the guide, so probably possible.

I think your trip is doable overall. Not too rushed, though you'll probably still wish you had longer.

#2 Nokka has been a member since 6/4/2009. Location: United Kingdom. Posts: 259
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Posted by kees5 on 16/9/2010 at 13:18

>Why go to Vang Vieng if its not your scene ? I did that, partly out of curiosity, but wished I hadn't bothered. Should have stayed on the bus, even though the trip from Luang Prabang to Vientiane takes forever. I thought a stopover would be good, but the place wasn't for me and from what you say doubt it will be for you either. <

I agree, VV is not for the faint hearted :-)

I stop over from time to time for lunch when driving from VT to LP, and once or twice stayed a night, but IMHO it's a circus, and not particularly pleasant, the only redeeming feature its landscape, the towering rocks. If it is not your scene, just skip it.

>How are you getting from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha ? Flying ? 'Cos its an awful long way otherwise. <

As far as i know, there are no regular flights from LP to LN. The road trip can take about 7-8 hrs, depending on the state of the road. it has been closed from time to time in this rainy season because of slips, and at times the road surface is poor - the Chinese are currently working on building a new road, not sure what stage that is at. But it is worth making the trip, Luang Namtha province is fascinating to visit.

Yes, your itinerary is doable, but be prepared to improvise, things don't always work out the way you plan in Laos.....

#3 kees5 has been a member since 11/8/2010. Posts: 11
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Posted by Nokka on 16/9/2010 at 20:04

Apologies, you are right - no flights from LP to Luang Namtha, though maybe there were when I was originally considering going up there. Perhaps they were from Vientiane, though according to Lao Airlines site, no flights at all at the moment. I'm delighted to read the journey by bus is only 7 hours, I honestly thought I'd read it was significantly longer than that. I'm delighted as I'd love to go back to Laos and get further into the north like you are doing, Buzz.

#4 Nokka has been a member since 6/4/2009. Location: United Kingdom. Posts: 259
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Posted by wanderingcat on 16/9/2010 at 21:20

if travelling by bus, LPB-LNT takes closer to 9 hours. shorter time if by private vehicle.
the LPB-Oudomxay stretch alone usually takes 5 hours in dry season. last dry season (Dec 2009) parts of it seemed more like 'ex-paved' rather than paved road...& heard that this recent rainy season hasn't been kind to it.

#5 wanderingcat has been a member since 21/10/2006. Posts: 730
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Posted by Buzz on 21/9/2010 at 16:53

Thanks for all your quick replies!

I kinda have to stop at Vang Vieng. I'll be meeting another friend there, and I'd like to at least see what all the fuss is about. Worst case, I'll leave after one night...

Is Phonsavan worth the detour?

I suppose worst case, if I see I'm running out of time towards the end, I'll skip NK and MN and head straight by road from LMT to MK. That's doable, right?

#6 Buzz has been a member since 15/9/2010. Posts: 6

Posted by kees5 on 21/9/2010 at 18:39

Wandering Cat is probably right, I was driving usually in my own 4wd truck, and dis it in 6 1/2 hrs once. But the road is worse now, and next week I'm going up in my Honda Jazz, which I'll leave parked in LP, while I'll take a bus or minibus to LN. Fastest ever was with a minibus driver called Sisombat, who drove like a maniac and got us there in just over 6 hrs, BEFORE the new road from Boten to LN was built. In short, it varies, This is Laos!

#7 kees5 has been a member since 11/8/2010. Posts: 11
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Posted by Buzz on 28/9/2010 at 18:49

OK, I think I decided to skip Phonsavan this time around. I prefer leaving time for other stuff further north.

Now, which of the following makes better sense, transport and time-wise:

1) Luang Prabang -> Luang Namtha -> Muang Sing -> Luang Namtha -> Nong Kiaw - > Muang Ngoi -> Muang Khua

or

2) Luang Prabang -> Nong Kiaw - > Muang Ngoi -> Nong Kiaw - > Luang Namtha -> Muang Sing -> Luang Namtha -> Muang Khua

?

#8 Buzz has been a member since 15/9/2010. Posts: 6

Posted by wanderingcat on 28/9/2010 at 22:03

option 1 will cover the nicest section of the Nam Ou (between Nong Khiaw & Muang Khua), although the scenery gets better going downriver rather than upriver.

in terms of transport...

LNT > Nong Khiaw: no direct transport. earliest bus out of LNT won't get you to Oudomxay in time for the once daily direct songthaew to Nong Khiaw. though there will be 1-2 songthaew to Pak Mong (~1h from Nong Khiaw) in the afternoon. most tourists express horror at the suggestion of overnighting in Oudomxay town...which is great as it means no drunken revellers tubing down the Nam Ko right through the town centre or hilltop full moon parties on Phou That & Phou Xay :P

Nong Khiaw > LNT: again no direct transport. supposed to be one daily direct songthaew to Oudomxay, but till now have only heard of maybe 2 reports of tourists being able to catch it without having to charter the entire vehicle, or making it only as far as Pak Mong (~3h from Oudomxay), due to lack of passengers headed that way. chances are you'll hafta take the Nong Khiaw-LPB songthaew/van & jump off at Pak Mong, & wait by the road to flag down a bus passing through on its way from Vientiane or LPB to Oudomxay or points further north.

Muang Ngoi Neua - always keep an eye on all valuables (not just in rooms, have seen ~2 reports of stuff left on restaurant tables/counter vanishing when backs were turned). don't expect help from police. & you might find it to be part of the 'backpacker scene'.

#9 wanderingcat has been a member since 21/10/2006. Posts: 730
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