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Laos forum

Itinerary feedback for Northern Laos trip - December 2015 - 13 days

Posted by alisonrd on 6/8/2015 at 14:47

Hi all!

I'm planning a trip to Laos for this coming December (middle of month, before Christmas) and wanted to get some feedback on my itinerary. I am a female solo traveler from the US who has been to Vietnam solo before. I prefer nature/seeing how people live/bicycling/hiking/kayaking type of activities, as well as history/culture. (I don't need to see too many more wats, though!) I don't want to rush it and try to fit too much in, so I'm happy to go to fewer places if they're worth it and spend days exploring.

I have 13 full days, flying in and out of Vientiane. I was planning on definitely going to Vientiane, Luang Prabang , and Nong Khiaw, but then was unsure if I should fit in Muang Ngoi , Luang Namtha, or Muang Sing... Other suggestions are also welcome!

I was thinking roughly of the following:

- 2.5-3 days Vientiane, then fly to Luang Prabang
- 3-4 days Luang Prabang (visit waterfalls, maybe bicycle day tour, walk up mountain for sunset view, hang out)
- bus to Nong Khiaw (it seems that due to dam construction we can no longer take a boat..?)

... here's where I'm not sure what to do:

- Spend 4 or so days in Nong Khiaw, doing little hikes/exploring/kayak? Take a boat up to Muang Ngoi for a day? Stay there overnight?
- Go to Luang Namtha and/or Muang Sing? (And how to get there?)
- Go somewhere else?

Also: (1) if you have information on weather in December in these places (how cold does it get?) (2) how busy will it be in mid-December, as I know it's high season. (Do I need to book anything in advance?) and (3) should I try to do activities on my own or do tours?

Thanks so much!

#1 alisonrd has been a member since 20/7/2015. Posts: 7

Posted by SoManyMiles on 7/8/2015 at 10:29 TF writer

Hi alisonrd

To answer your questions first:
1) December in northern Laos is usually surprisingly cold, catching many travellers off guard. It gets down to the single digits celsius. Last year for example, night time temperatures were 4 C- 10 C, daytime temperatures mid-20s. There is also no heating at guesthouses and hotels. Bring warm clothing. There are nights where I would have to wear a wool beanie. There is hardly anything decent and warm to buy.

2) mid-December is peak season. Hotels and guesthouses are usually full. You should book your accommodation in advance. Activities - given you have so little time you may want to make enquiries in advance for popular things like cooking classes and elephant mahout experiences. Most of the time though, on the day you arrive you can immediately try to arrange something for the coming days, perhaps joining a departure with people on it.

3) It depends on what you want to do and your comfort level. Most people are content just cycling around towns, but if you get a Hobo Map for places like Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng , both towns have outlying areas that are fantastic to explore by mountain bike. You can easily get to waterfalls by tuk tuk. Experiences like cooking classes, the Living Land Rice Experience, weaving classes enrich your understanding of the local culture.

13 days is quite a short amount of time for Laos and if you don't want to rush it and try to fit in too much, then I would suggest you limit it to three places max. Though distances may be short, road travel can eat up an entire day -- shuttling to and from bus stations, flat tires etc. You can't count on doing much on a day that you are travelling from point to point. Many of the interests you list can be done in Luang Prabang (seeing how people live, bicycling, hiking, kayaking). You can also do cycling and kayaking in Vang Vieng. If you are locked into flying in and out of Vientiane , I suggest you fly Luang Prabang - Vientiane as it is around 12 hours by bus one-way.

One popular itinerary is Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang, and you can stop at Nola Guesthouse in Kasi in between if you're interested in learning more about how people live. Otherwise, Vientiane - Luang Prabang - Nong Kiaow . If you don't have time to fit in an overnight in Muang Ngoi , I'd recommend this day-trip upriver past Muang Ngoi + a hike to a waterfall. It's a fantastic day out.

- no boat anymore from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw as there is dam construction

- you should choose between Luang Namtha or Nong Kiaow. Nong Kiaow is a lot closer to Luang Prabang but the benefit to Luang Namtha is that you can fly back to Vientiane.

But remember your original thoughts about not wanting to rush it and fit in too many places. Stick to three max.

#2 SoManyMiles has been a member since 7/2/2014. Posts: 147

Posted by metsker on 12/8/2015 at 17:34

Similar questions:
I have 14ish days in Laos in November (some flexibility). My thoughts are to spend 5 days in Luang Prabang, then take bus/mini van to Nong Khiaw for a day or so, then travel on to Luang Namtha for a few days, then at least spend three days in Muang Sing. I'd then travel to Huay Xai to head into Thailand. I'd be interesting in hearing feedback regarding the itinerary I have planned. Most interested in landscape photography/hill tribe experiences. Appreciate the comment that a day on the bus is day spent. Sounds like catching the earliest bus possible is the way to go. Thanks for your help.

#3 metsker has been a member since 12/8/2015. Posts: 4

Posted by Yesterday on 13/8/2015 at 07:10

I spent similar time (I had 15 days) in Laos as a solo female about two years ago, I did a similar plan to what you're thinking.
I had two nights Vientiane, I arrived by overnight train from Thailand first thing in the morning. I stayed two nights and really didn't do much except wander around exploring, eating, I went to the COPE visitor centre and just enjoyed some time to really relax.
Then I flew to Luang Prabang and stayed five nights (or 6?), I kayaked on the Nam Ou and went to the waterfalls. Again just explored, ate yummy food, went to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, did some cycling, the Museum (former palace) is quite beautiful inside.
Then bussed to Nong Khiow for one night then boat to Muang Ngoi for one night, it was rainy season and the everywhere was mud, so not much good for exploring, though I did a boat trip further up the river with a group I wrangled together and we went swimming in a clear stream that fed into the wide brown River, it was beautiful. Then I did the boat trip back to Luang Prabang for a further few days. I found Luang Prabang was a great place for meeting some friendly people.
As you see my itinerary is fairly similar to your plan! For me it mostly worked out well but by the time I was back in Luang Prabang I was a little bored of it. I had wanted to do the Living Land rice growing experience but it was way too expensive on my own and no groups were scheduled. I think your idea of a few days in Nong Khiow is probably good, I think Tiger Trails (?) do some trekking from there, which would be really cool. Definitely kayak! It was a highlight for me. I've since been back to Laos and really enjoyed a couple of days in Vang Vieng, the countryside there is beautiful. I really don't think you can go wrong!

#4 Yesterday has been a member since 9/8/2015. Posts: 33

Posted by alisonrd on 13/8/2015 at 09:13

Thanks SoManyMiles and Yesterday (nice name, haha) for your feedback! Very helpful. It's so hard to decide on just a few places, as the country has so much to offer, and unfortunately I can't take longer vacation due to work.

I think I'm probably going to stick to my Vientiane--Luang Prabang--Nong Khiaw/upriver plan. I'd love to do hill-tribe trekking but I think the difficulty/time of making it to Phongsali or Luang Namtha & Muang Sing is probably not worth it for the short trip I have. I did a three-day trek/homestay in Sapa , Vietnam (through Sapa Sisters -- great!) so I got a little of that, although I have a feeling that the ethnic hill tribes in Laos are a bit more remote and less Westernized....

Yesterday, it's good to hear your perspective -- and to know that there's plenty to do in Luang Prabang. Any advice on great places to stay in any of those places? And any tips on staying healthy with the food? I love that there are fresh ingredients in Southeast Asian food, but worry about getting sick from unwashed/washed with bad water garnishes.

#5 alisonrd has been a member since 20/7/2015. Posts: 7

Posted by Yesterday on 13/8/2015 at 21:02

Hey Alison, glad that was helpful! One other thing I did in Luang Prabang was go to Big Brother Mouse and help with conversational English. I have really mixed feelings about this kind of thing, but its all older teenagers who really just want to practice the basics of the English they already know and gain some confidence in talking to foreigners. So its not teaching per se. It was mostly Hmong and Khmu boys when I was there, their explanation was that Lao people can afford English lessons, and as this was free it was their best option. Anyway I enjoyed it.
Food safety, I'm pretty unconcerned with what I eat. Though obviously using common sense, if a place looks filthy I'm not eating there. But I definitely eat street food and at little local restaurants away from the main tourist streets. I have had an upset stomach a few times overseas and also did in Laos. But nothing major. I just take Imodium tablets with me in my bag everywhere I go, in case of emergency (I also usually have Panadol and bandaids, its not a particular food fear). Locals are pretty keen for you not to get ill too, so they'll be doing their best.
Place to stay, I wish I could remember the name of the place I stayed in Luang Prabang the first time I was there. It was a little family run guest house, but has no online presence. I made that trip up as I went along, so just went hunting for guest houses as I went. But last time I was in LP it was organised through a university and they put us up in Villa Ban Lakham which was very comfy and had lots of beautiful teak wood. I just looked at the price online though and whoa that place is over $150 a night!! Its $100 a night more than it is in low season!! I also spotted some decent places for much cheaper in December though
Have fun planning and daydreaming [img]smileys/smile.gif[/img]

#6 Yesterday has been a member since 9/8/2015. Posts: 33

Posted by SoManyMiles on 13/8/2015 at 23:18 TF writer

Hi Metsker,

While your itinerary is theoretically possible, it's extremely packed and you'll spend a lot of time travelling between point A and B. Luang Prabang to Nong Kiaow , factor in a half day of travel. Nong Kiaow to Luang Nam Tha , a full day on the road. Luang Nam Tha to Muang Sing by motorbike is 1.5 hours, 2.5 by bus. Luang Nam Tha to Huay Xai is 4 hours. Nong Khiaw certainly does have the dramatic scenery you are looking for, Muang Sing for ethnic minorities -- it's one of the most ethnically diverse regions in Southeast Asia ethnic. But I suggest you decide between the two, or reduce the number of days in Luang Prabang which would also be a pity.

re: catching the earliest bus, sure but aside from tourist minivans available in major hubs like Luang Prabang, buses in Laos leave when they are full. That could mean waiting for a few minutes or a few hours. And don't forget the inevitable bus breakdowns, flat tires, etc.

By the way, we have recent full updates of Muang Sing, Luang Nam Tha, Udomxai and Huay Xai which will be helpful for planning your trip. Here's a self-guided motorbike tour of the ethnic villages in Muang Sing:

Happy planning!

#7 SoManyMiles has been a member since 7/2/2014. Posts: 147

Posted by SoManyMiles on 13/8/2015 at 23:37 TF writer

Hi alisonrd,

We have a full update on Luang Prabang accommodation on Travelfish - there is something for everyone in town. As Yesterday pointed out, prices are high in December -- it's peak season -- but if you browse the various options and book in advance, you should be able to find something that suits you and your budget.

Upset stomach is a fairly normal traveller experience in Laos. No way around that fact. Sometimes it is your body just adjusting to the different drinking water and food. Stick to what's local and fresh. For example, unless it's an upscale restaurant, you shouldn't be ordering seafood, shrimp, beef -- it's come from another country, sat at the border and travelled all the way by road to get there. The town has plenty of cheap and cheerful eateries that have excellent local food -- Bamboo Tree, Rosella Fusion, Cafe Toui, Tamarind just to name a few. A Lao meal incorporates a lot of fresh veggies and herbs -- locals wash their veg for their meal and the same goes for the food they would serve to guests. Ditto for drinking water. Drinking water and ice served at restaurants come from the water factory. They wouldn't drink tap water, nor would they serve it to others.

#8 SoManyMiles has been a member since 7/2/2014. Posts: 147

Posted by alisonrd on 15/8/2015 at 21:23

SoManyMiles, what meats would you say are the safest to eat, if not beef or seafood?

So here is my updated idea of my itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive Vientiane , acclimate/sleep!
Day 2: Full-day weaving & dyeing class (in VT)
Day 3: Fly to Luang Prabang
Days 4-7: Luang Prabang (5 nights)
Day 8: Bus to Nong Khiaw
Days 9-12: Nong Khiaw and area (5 nights)
Day 13: Bus to Luang Prabang, night flight (latest I can get I think is at 7pm) to Vientiane
Day 14: Explore Vientiane til midnight flight!

Is that too many days in Nong Khiaw? Too few in Vientiane? Is the Day 13 travel plan too much? If it is, I can stay in LP that night and fly to VT in the morning.

Thanks again for the feedback. I'm so excited! Planning, researching, and daydreaming is definitely half the fun (OK, not half, but it makes regular work life much better!) [img]smileys/smile.gif[/img]

#9 alisonrd has been a member since 20/7/2015. Posts: 7

Posted by SoManyMiles on 16/8/2015 at 04:30 TF writer

Hi Alison,
Your itinerary is doable, and Day 13 ( Nong Kiaow to Luang Prabang , then late flight) shouldn't be a problem. How many days you need in Nong Kiaow just depends on what you want to do. That many days means you could stay a few nights in Muang Ngoi. If you feel you've seen enough you could always return to Luang Prabang earlier.

You can cover a lot of the Vientiane highlights including the weaving/natural dyes class in two days. I wouldn't spend any more days in Vientiane than you've outlined if it means taking away from Luang Prabang or Nong Kiaow.

Two days in Vientiane: https://www.travelfish.org/sight_profile/laos/vientiane_and_surrounds/vientiane/vientiane/1969

In northern Laos pork and river fish are local. Chicken is ok, it comes in frozen from Thailand, beef is usually water buffalo. Buffalo is an acquired taste -- stronger flavour, definitely worth the try but not for everyone. Avoid seafood like squid, shrimp, salmon, beef steak unless its an upscale restaurant.

#10 SoManyMiles has been a member since 7/2/2014. Posts: 147

Posted by Yesterday on 16/8/2015 at 05:25

That food info is great to know SoManyMiles, I wondered where all that chicken came from!
Its possible you could get fresh prawns in Muang Ngoi. I saw some guys working at the edge of the river catching them. It was where fresh water from a stream met the large river. Apparently the only place in Laos where there are fresh prawns (according to the local guy I was with at the time). Anyone else heard of/seen this?
Weaving workshop sounds great Alison!

#11 Yesterday has been a member since 9/8/2015. Posts: 33

Posted by Clay1963 on 22/8/2015 at 06:26

We are considering spending 6 days in Laos and like the sound of Luang Prabang --Nong Khiaw/upriver plan.

Fly in and out of Luang Prabang (4 nights) and bus to Nong Khiaw (2 nights), with a boat experience between Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoy,

All along we have been thinking flying in/out of Luang Prabang, spending most of our time in Luang Prabang but also doing some kind of river excursion, We are not into difficult trekking but thinking we would like to boat on a short leg on the river to see scenery.

On the other hand, if you think 6 days is too little for Laos, we could sadly skip Laos. Unfortunately, it unlikely we will ever return to French Indochina.

#12 Clay1963 has been a member since 16/8/2015. Posts: 21

Posted by SoManyMiles on 22/8/2015 at 06:56 TF writer

6 days in Laos is better than nothing! Your plan sounds good Clay1963 and flying in and out of Luang Prabang would save you a lot of time than arriving by road or river. A day trip on the Mekong in Luang Prabang will give you a good taste of what life on the river is like. I prefer downstream from town rather than upstream towards Pak Ou - the scenery is better. You could do an excursion downriver like Banana Boat's day trip to Kuang Si waterfall and as you return at the end of the day, you'll see villages bathing, doing laundry in the river, fishermen coming home and if you're lucky, a nice sunset. Also, if you go Tad Se Waterfall (July to December) by road, it'll include a short 10 minute boat ride on the Nam Khan river.

If you are doing a day trip upriver from Nong Khiaw, I'd recommend going past Muang Ngoi, an additional hour to Ban Sopjam as this is where the river scenery really gets spectacular. I wrote about it here: https://www.travelfish.org/sight_profile/laos/northern_laos/luang_prabang/nong_kiaow/2731
If you aren't into trekking then you can always arrange the trip without the hike to the waterfall.

Laos is a must and even 6 days would be worth it. Have a great trip.

#13 SoManyMiles has been a member since 7/2/2014. Posts: 147

Posted by SoManyMiles on 22/8/2015 at 07:08 TF writer

Hi Yesterday,
Yes I've seen the river shrimp in Nong Kiaow - I rode on the local bus from Nong Kiaow to Luang Prabang sitting next to a man with a bucket of them! It was a long bus ride… The shrimp was destined for his family's dinner table. I could be wrong but the operation sounds too small scale for the shrimp to end up on restaurant menus outside of Nong Kiaow. And you can easily tell them apart from regular prawns.

I avoid river shrimp in Southeast Asia after an acquaintance got cholera from eating it in Bangkok. Within 2 hours he was on the bathroom floor incapacitated, sunken eyes, skin sagging off his face and in need of an ambulance. This is obviously extreme and I usually eat almost anything local but I'd rather not take the chance with this one!

#14 SoManyMiles has been a member since 7/2/2014. Posts: 147

Posted by Clay1963 on 22/8/2015 at 07:11

Thank you for an awesome reply.

#15 Clay1963 has been a member since 16/8/2015. Posts: 21

Posted by Yesterday on 22/8/2015 at 09:35

Good to know SoManyMiles, I won't risk the prawns! The bus trip you describe sounds rather unpleasant too!
And Clay I totally agree that six days I Laos would be worthwhile. That was great advice above.

#16 Yesterday has been a member since 9/8/2015. Posts: 33

Posted by jnobrad on 15/9/2015 at 10:58

We did a similar trip to the ones mentioned on this thread last year. We flew from Bangkok to Luang Prabang in early December and allowed 10 days there. We booked a hotel for the first 2 nights, and then planned the rest as we went. Although for a couple of nights our first hotel choice was booked, they were able to find us a place in a nearby hotel.

The nice thing about Luang Prabang is that there are many tour operators on the main street offering similar tours that can be arranged as late as the evening for the next morning. For most of them, the price is lower if they have more people. We were able to sign up for a tour for the next day, and then the company put up a sign to solicit people to join us. This always happened for us, and they refunded part of our money. We did a bicycle tour to nearby villages and a boat and hiking tour to one of the waterfalls. Both were great.

There are also many wonderful restaurants in Luang Prabang. We particularly enjoyed the Bamboo Tree. We ate in a wide variety of places without getting sick. That said, one of our friends, who had eaten in different places, did get quite sick for whatever reason. She said that she didn't particularly enjoy seeing the inside of the hospital, so it's a good idea to be somewhat careful.

We also took a mini bus to Nuong Kiau, where we spent several days there. There are a few tour operators there, and we were able to arrange similar tours on the spot. Overall, the infrastructure isn't as developed as it is in Luang Prabang. Our "English speaking guide" on one excursion did not speak much English at all. Still and all, it was a wonderful experience. Our friends did an overnight in Muong Nuoy. They said it was nice enough, but they would have been just as happy visiting it for the day and returning to Nuong Kiau.

We thoroughly enjoyed both places. Even with 10 days in the area, we were never bored or restless. In fact, we hope to go back soon and do some of the things that we missed.

#17 jnobrad has been a member since 26/1/2012. Posts: 1

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