My boyfriend and I are twenty-something backpackers who are planning our first trip to South East Asia. We plan to spend the majority of our time in Thailand, but would also like to explore Northern Laos and Cambodia. We will be in the area for 2 months (May and June) and are planning to roughly follow one of the itineraries on travelfish (https://www.travelfish.org/trip_planner/thailand-indochina-tour1). The map at the bottom is really helpful for understanding our plan. We will not be visiting Vietnam and instead want to explore Southern Thailand more, and in order to do this all in 2 months we are leaning towards cutting out the stops in Laos south of Vientaine.
Do you think will will be making a mistake but cutting out central and southern Laos? If so, any recommendations for where to stop?
And secondly, how should we do this leg of our trip? We were looking at flights from Vientaine to Phnom Penh but they seemed sort of expensive. Any suggestions for (safe) budget airlines? Or are busses the way to go?
Any advice about traveling in Laos or getting through Southern Laos quickly would be much appreciated. Thank you!
You've got a few choices for getting from Vientiane through southern Laos and on to Cambodia/Siem Reap. First, as you've said, you could fly. In that case Lao Airlines is a fine and possibly your only choice. A similar option would be to fly from Vientiane to Pakse in southern Laos and then continue overland. Doing that gives you a chance to explore Pakse, Champasak and Wat Phu, and the 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don) area, with maybe even a side trip to the Bolevans Plateau. Third, you could bus it all the way, either taking the overnight sleeper bus from Vientiane to Pakse (it won't be comfy but may at least be an adventure) or breaking up the bus trip with quick overnights in places like Thakhek and Savannakhet . Travel in Laos is slow going. Consider it part of the charm.
Personally, I didn't find Thakhek or Savannakhet to be as interesting as the other places I've visited in Laos like Luang Prabang or Vientiane or even Phonsavanh. But I really liked both Pakse and Champasak, the first as a travel-friendly spot and the second for its laid back, small Lao town feel. But it is a long and indirect route from Vientiane through southern Laos, so it would really depend on if you are interested in things like Wat Phu or the 4,000 Islands to determine if going through southern Laos is worth it for you.
Another alternative is to cross back into Thailand at Vientiane/Nong Khai and then make your way overland to Cambodia from there. You'd get to see some of the less visited parts of Thailand that way, but those areas also don't have the same level of traveller-friendly infrastructure (buses, english-languange menus, etc.) as other parts of the country.
No matter what you decide, keep in mind that passport holders from most western countries typically get a 30-day visa exemption on arrival in Thailand when you arrive by air, but only 15 days if you come overland. So if you came back into Thailand overland from Laos or Cambodia, you'll likely only get a 15-day visa exemption. It is important to factor that into your plans, so you don't get caught short on your visa situation.
I hope that helps. Cheers.