Three weeks in northern Laos

Three weeks in northern Laos

Mountainous and ethnically diverse, northern Laos offers rugged adventure, beautiful vistas, trekking, hill tribe villages, memorable river journeys and an eye-opening window into the country’s war-torn history. Three weeks may seem like plenty of time but it’s just enough to cover this region at a rapid pace. The good news for intrepid travellers is that few have the time or patience to make it to Laos’ remote corners. These parts, though not undiscovered, can feel off the beaten track.

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The itinerary represents a tightly packed trip in northern Laos, covering as many of the destinations as possible in ideal conditions. This means a number of travel days spent on the bus and boat. Things don’t always run smoothly in Laos and this itinerary doesn’t account for things like flat tires, rainy season delays, off-season closures and other joys of travel. Drop one or a few places to spend more time in each locale, or stretch it out over four weeks.

Oh so pretty. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Oh so pretty. Photo: Cindy Fan

This trip starts at the Thai-Lao border at Chiang Khong/Huay Xai. Another option is to fly from Vientiane to Luang Nam Tha.

When to go

The dry season runs from November to approximately May. The most popular time to visit (tourist high season) is cool-dry season from November to February, when daytime temperatures are pleasant and evenings usually fresh. Mountainous regions such as Phongsali and Sam Neua can experience heavy fog and long cold spells, with the overnight temperatures dropping to 0 Celsius with no indoor heating and weak water heaters—be prepared.

In March and April, farmers across Southeast Asia burn land for crops and the haze can be difficult for those with respiratory issues. Temperatures soar in April and May, so it’s not a bad idea to add midday downtime into the itinerary.

Beautiful Lao cloth. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Beautiful Lao cloth. Photo: Cindy Fan

Rainy season is when the country is most green, lush and beautiful, however, patience and flexibility in the itinerary is required. Landslides occur and road travel is often delayed or slow going.

Aside from Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane, smaller and less popular destinations are quiet in the off-season. Between May and September, some tourism offices, hotels and restaurants close or have inconsistent opening hours. Lower volumes mean it can be hard to find other travellers to join treks, or some treks are not available due to conditions.

Getting around

Construction of the Chinese-built railway is underway. Slated to open in 2022, the high-speed line will connect Boten on the northern border with Luang Nam Tha, Udomxai, Luang Prabang, Kasi, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. The journey from Boten to Vientiane, which would normally take up to 24 hours by bus, has been announced to be just three hours.

On the road to Muang La. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
On the road to Muang La. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Until then, getting around northern Laos is mainly by local bus on mountain roads, an adventure that can be slow and unpredictable. The road quality ranges from fair to wretched. Travel by river is an important and enjoyable way to go, though it remains to be seen how long these networks will continue as the country’s infrastructure develops and thirst for dams continues.

Day by Day

Day 1: Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha
Cross from Thailand to Huay Xai and arrange ground transport (bus) onwards, arriving into Luang Nam Tha. Once there, rent a bicycle or motorbike for a self-guided tour of the Luang Nam Tha valley. A map of a 2-4 hour route is available from the tourism office. It includes eight ethnic villages and Nam Dee Waterfall (rainy season to December). Head up the hill to Luang Nam Tha Stupa at sunset.

Trekking out of Luang Nam Tha Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Trekking out of Luang Nam Tha Photo: Stuart McDonald

Possible add-on: Consider adding two days before heading to Luang Nam Tha to visit the Gibbon Experience which is situated between the two towns.

Day 2: Muang Sing
Venture to Muang Sing by motorbike as a day trip or an overnight excursion. The scenic 58-kilometre drive follows the Nam Tha River to this small town located in a verdant valley near the Chinese border. Muang Sing is home to nine distinct ethnic groups. Drop in on traditional villages that make rice noodles, whiskey and handicraft. It is also eye-opening to see the environmental damage inflicted by Chinese companies who have converted traditional rice fields into banana plantations and other cash crops, a pattern you will encounter throughout northern Laos.

Even more pretty. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Even more pretty. Photo: Cindy Fan

Alternatively, the day can be spent on a kayaking tour or single day trek in the Nam Ha National Protected Area, or at a homestay in one of the villages close to town; arrange through an agent or at the tourism office. Those with more time can do a trek/homestay further afield.

Day 3: Udomxai
From Muang Sing or Luang Nam Tha, bus it to Udomxai, the major commercial and transport hub for northern Laos. Visit the handicraft centre, climb up to Wat Phu That at sunset for a great view before joining locals for a traditional sauna at the Red Cross.

Pop up to the stupa. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Pop up to the stupa. Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 4: Udomxai
Rent a motorbike for a scenic loop that includes eco-tourism attraction/resort Nam Kat Yorlapa. The basic experience is a hike and forest canopy skywalk to the pretty Nam Kat waterfall—care to take a cooling dip? Other guided options within the park include cycling and ATV. After the waterfall, continue the countryside drive to Muang La village. Visit important pilgrimage site Wat Pha Singkham and soak in the public natural hot springs before returning to Udomxai.

Alternatively, do a day trip to Chom Ong Cave either with transport/tour arranged through the Udomxai Tourism Office or independently by motorbike.

Quite lovely. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Quite lovely. Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 5: Udomxai to Phongsali
Today is a long but unavoidable travel day by bus from Udomxai to Phongsali, the northernmost province in Laos, bordered by China and Vietnam. Expect a twisty, serpentine ride through the mountains, arriving to this remote outpost in the early evening.

Day 6: Phongsali
Shake off yesterday’s bus ride with a leisurely day in Phongsali. Rise early to see the market that appears every morning on the main road; the sellers come from the surrounding hill tribe villages. Wander the cobblestone lanes of the old Chinese Quarter, a relic of traditional Yunnanese architecture. Visit the museum if open, take a trip to the 400-year old tea plantation and climb up to Phou Fa viewpoint.

The view from Phou Fa on a rare clear day. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
The view from Phou Fa on a rare clear day. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Phongsali is renowned for its hill tribes and trekking, some of the most authentic to be found in Laos. Including it in the itinerary adds at least two days. Phongsali trekking is not for everyone. Expect challenging terrain, remote locations and ultrabasic conditions in the villages. If this seems too extreme, we suggest opting for a trek/homestay in either Luang Nam Tha or Muang Ngoi/Nong Kiaow.

Day 7: Hat Sa to Muang Khua
It’s a short ride on a local bus to Hat Sa, the start of a two-day journey on the Nam Ou River, one of the great rivers of Laos, flowing from the Chinese border south through Udomxai and Luang Prabang Province where it joins the Mekong. The Nam Ou has seven dams and villages that once lined the river have been relocated. It’s no longer a straightforward journey—passengers must take a songthaew around the dam—but to the traveller’s naked eye, the trip remains a scenic one.

Above Dam 6. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Above Dam 6. Photo: Cindy Fan

The boat arrives in Muang Khua with a few minutes of daylight for a wander around the crossroads town and photos on the old wooden bridge.

Time saver option: Do not include Phongsali. From Udomxai, take the bus to Muang Khua. Instead of two days on the Nam Ou River, the journey is cut down to one.

Day 8: Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi or Nong Kiaow
It’s another day puttering down the Nam Ou River, the scenery and limestone mountains growing more dramatic and impressive. The pit stop for the next three nights can either be Muang Ngoi or Nong Kiaow—or both. It all depends on the type of experience and accommodation you seek.

Looking downriver from Muang Ngoi. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Looking downriver from Muang Ngoi. Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 9 & 10: Muang Ngoi/Nong Kiaow
Muang Ngoi is smaller than Nong Kiaow and the sleepier of the two. Once known as an off-the-grid backpacker hangout, the riverside village now boasts 24-hour electricity but still has limited internet and most accommodation is budget, basic and without air-conditioning. It is popular for its cheap riverfront bungalows, as well as trekking and kayaking that can be arranged locally or through several companies based in Nong Kiaow. Independent exploration can include Tham Kang cave, Pha Noi cave, hiking up to the view point or tackling the challenging climb up Mount Phaboom.

Nong Kiaow is larger, far more developed and serves as a transportation hub. Built up on two sides of the Nam Ou and connected by a large bridge, the town’s location is stunning. Though the days of cheap river bungalows are over, there is plenty of accommodation, everything from simple guesthouses to a few prettily situated boutique resorts. There is more choice for food and drink in Nong Kiaow than Muang Ngoi, and the tour companies have offices here to arrange for treks to waterfalls and rural villages. A day can be spent cycling to Phatok Cave and Pha Kuang Cave. The climb up to Nong Kiaow’s viewpoint and sunset at a riverside restaurant are a must.

View from the bridge, Nong Kiaow	 Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
View from the bridge, Nong Kiaow Photo: Stuart McDonald

Day 11: Nong Kiaow to Muang Hiam
It’s another travel day to get to the start of the Nam Nern Night Safari, which has two possible pick up points. Catch the bus passing through Nong Kiaow headed to Sam Neua and disembark en route in Muang Hiam, a small town with a few guesthouses, or Ban Son Khoua village, where a simple homestay is available.

Day 12: Nam Nern Night Safari, Nam Et Phou Louey NPA
Welcome to the jungle. The trip commences with an exciting two hour journey into the Nam Et-Phou Louey, Laos’ largest National Protected Area. The eco-tourism experience includes a stay in a jungle camp and the safari. Participants boat into the NEPL’s core protected area and float down river in complete darkness as the guides expertly scan for animals using their torch. With every animal spotted, money is added to a village development fund, thereby incentivising conservation.

Into the wilderness. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Into the wilderness. Photo: Cindy Fan

*2-3 day treks are also available in the dry-season. This is one of the few places in Laos with guided treks in true wilderness. *Note that the Nam Nern Night Safari may have seasonal closures.

Day 13: Sam Neua
The Nam Nern Night Safari returns to Ban Son Khou. Catch the bus to Sam Neua, a remote corner of northeastern Laos near the border of Vietnam. The capital of Hua Phan Province, Sam Neua is a soulless cluster of post-war buildings but it serves as an important transit point and base for tomorrow’s highlight, the Vieng Xai caves. Upon arrival, explore one of the most interesting markets in northern Laos before wandering the sprawling concrete park and up to the temple on the hill for an outlook over the whole town.

Wandering through the caverns. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Wandering through the caverns. Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 14: Vieng Xai Caves
Hire transport or motorbike the 28 kilometres to the Vieng Xai caves, arguably the country’s most important historic site. Hua Phan Province was the military headquarters of the communist Pathet Lao during the revolutionary fight for independence. From 1964 to 1973, hundreds of caves hidden in Vieng Xai’s karst served as a command centre for Pathet Lao leaders and a hidden city/bomb shelter for 20,000 soldiers and civilians. The visit is done with a good audio tour that explains the history and how people survived nearly a decade of bombardment. Stop at Nam Nouan Waterfall on the way back to Sam Neua.

Day 15: Phonsavan
Bus day! Travel from Sam Neua to Phonsavan, home of the archeological wonder the Plain of Jars. Visit Xieng Khouang Provincial Museum, opened in 2018. In the evening, spend time at Quality of Life and MAG (Mines Advisory Group) to watch videos and learn about Xieng Khouang Province’s tragic problem with unexploded ordinances (UXO). Understanding the impact of the Secret War will be important in tomorrow’s tour.

There are jars everywhere! Photo by: Cindy Fan.
There are jars everywhere! Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 16: Phonsavan
There are over 100 jar sites in Xieng Khouang alone but jar clusters Site 1, 2 and 3 are closest to Phonsavan and can be seen in a day through a guided tour or by hiring transport. Site 1, the closest, largest and most impressive, has an informative visitor centre that explains the theories about why the Plain of Jars people carved these stones, as well as the history of the Secret War. Interspersed between the jars are trenches, fox holes, bomb craters and anti-aircraft positions. The Plain of Jars held strategic importance during the war and was heavily bombarded. The day trip can include a visit to Ban Naphia, “the spoon village” making spoons and trinkets from scrap metal (including defused bombs), crater fields and Tham Piew Cave, where an American rocket killed 374 civilians inside.

There are other sights of interest surrounding Phonsavan. Add a day to the itinerary for excursions to Muang Khoun or Phou Khout.

Day 17: Luang Prabang
Final bus day: the journey from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang. After nearly three weeks in Laos’ remote corners and rural villages, Luang Prabang will seem like a big modern city despite the fact that it is a UNESCO World Heritage town. Enjoy sunset on the banks of the Mekong River or atop of Mt Phousi, then shop the night market. After weeks of rice, noodle soups and quiet nights, here’s the opportunity to enjoy international cuisine, night life and something other than Beerlao.

Within Wat Mai. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Within Wat Mai. Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 18, 19 & 20: Luang Prabang
One day should be spent exploring the town itself, cycling to important temples and museums like the Royal Palace Museum and the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, which illuminates several of the ethnic groups you would have met in your travels.

Another day can be devoted to excursions or activities. Kuang Si waterfall is considered a highlight, and in rainy season there’s also Tad Sae. Do a cooking class, travel by boat to Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden or Pak Ou Cave, learn how to grow rice, make rice noodles or weave. Give back to the country by supporting a few organisations doing good work on the ground.

Best to get in before the crowds. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Best to get in before the crowds. Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 21: Departure
Wake up early to observe the morning alms, then stroll through the eye-popping morning market before stopping for a final breakfast, be it Lao-style or French.

Reviewed by

Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.

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