Laos may be small but this landlocked nation is richly diverse. Its modest population of 6.5 million people is one of the most ethnically diverse in Southeast Asia, with 86 living languages and 49 official ethnicities. The geography also varies greatly, from the open plains and plateaus of the south, through to the north, with its impenetrably high mountain ranges; the capital city Vientiane acts as the dividing hub in the centre.
Though the distances you might wish to travel in Laos can seem small, don’t underestimate the amount of time needed to travel from point A to point B. We’ve seen proposed itineraries that go from Luang Prabang to Pakse by road in a day (tip: do NOT use Google Maps when calculating travel time) or one week plans that include trekking in Nong Kiaow, tubing in Vang Vieng and some downtime in the 4,000 Islands. Unless you can teleport, it’s impossible. If you only have two weeks or less, we recommend you pick either northern Laos or southern Laos. So which is right for you?
Northern Laos has been cemented into the “Banana Pancake Trail”, the well-trodden backpacker circuit that includes Huay Xai to Luang Prabang by slow boat and Vang Vieng. While the two-day boat journey will give you an appreciation for just how undeveloped and remote the country is, a sacred unexplored passage it is not.
In the north, the ethnic minorities are actually the majority population. If you’re interested in learning about ethnic tribes like the Hmong, Akha and Tai Dam, head to Luang Nam Tha, the most ethnically diverse province in Laos, with 19 different tribes steadfastly holding onto their traditions. It’s only 2.5 hours on excellent roads from Huay Xai at the Thai border, yet it’s often skipped as most travellers choose the slow boat to Luang Prabang.
There’s a reason people flock to Luang Prabang. A UNESCO World Heritage Centre since 1995, the town has 34 wats and a special mix of French colonial and Lao architecture that oozes with charm. It’s a living museum and your visit is an immersion. It’s a fantastic spot to experience cultural events like the boat racing festival, the boat lantern festival and wild Lao New Year Pi Mai celebrations. Not to be missed are the turquoise waters of Kuang Si waterfall, just 45 minutes from town and often ranking as a top highlight of people’s entire trips.
Before you dismiss Luang Prabang as too touristy, remember that more visitors means better tourist infrastructure: museums, guides, educational activities and transportation, from local bus to tourist vans. The town boasts guesthouses and hotels to suit everyone’s taste and budget, from $5 hostels to five-star hotels.
Vang Vieng is a playground. Once infamous for drink-and-drug fuelled debauchery while tubing down the river, the town has cleaned up its act considerably and now tries to lure more refined travellers. Visitors appreciate Vang Vieng these days it for its stunning natural beauty – easily one of the most spectacular vistas in the entire country. There’s a range of good value places to stay and activities such as kayaking, rock climbing and blue lagoons. Backpackers don’t fret: tubing, banana pancakes and endless episodes of Friends are still a Vang Vieng mainstay.
Those craving remoteness need time and willpower to get there. A loop through the northeast near the Vietnamese border is a journey through both ancient and recent history. Phonsavan is home to the mysterious megalithic Plain of Jars, and it was one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos during the Secret War. Visit the caves in Vieng Xai, the headquarters of the Pathet Lao and where 20,000 people survived in a hidden city.
Southern Laos requires an adventurous and independent streak. Far fewer travellers venture here and you may encounter only a handful of foreigners along the way. Transportation is mainly local bus or shared songthaew. Service can be erratic, connections difficult. The best way to explore the region is by motorbike. The good news is that the roads are flatter and in far better condition than the treacherous roads of the north.
Southern Laos is Shangri-La for outdoor enthusiasts: Jet eight kilometres on a subterranean river through Konglor Cave, a highlight on the popular Tha Khaek Loop. Zip-line through forest canopy. Motorbike the Bolaven Plateau, home to coffee plantations and waterfalls galore: Tad Lo, Tad Yuang and Tad Fane, to name a few.
Wat Phu, eight kilometres from Champasak, is a UNESCO-protected complex of pre-Angkorian and Khmer Empire ruins from the fifth to 15th century. Pre-dating Angkor Wat, it was once an important imperial and religious centre. You will need a guide or do your own reading to appreciate the early and classic Khmer architecture, the symbolic layout and the Hindu motifs found throughout.
In need of a backpacker haven? Don Dhet near the southern border with Cambodia has the requisite reggae bar and cheap bungalows. This is as close to island life as it gets in Laos – and as far away from the real Laos. The most popular activity is zoning out in a hammock. Snap out of it and you may realise you were supposed to leave a week ago. The 4,000 Islands are for rest and relaxation. There really isn’t much to do except chew the fat with other backpackers while you wait for the food you ordered three hours ago.
Not to be forgotten in the middle, Vientiane is a capital city going through unprecedented changes and rapid growth. Travellers often dismiss it as boring and try to skip it. Hang around though and you’ll discover galleries, iconic monuments and a great wine-and-dine scene: hip cafes, vibrant bars and an array of excellent local and international restaurants. Vientiane represents what Laos aspires to be.
While you really should explore the country top to tip, we know it may not be feasible. North or south, expect stunning natural beauty and a traditional way of life that revolves around the village, religion and rice fields. It also wouldn’t be a trip to Laos if you didn’t spend some time on a river; The Mekong and waterways are the lifeblood of the entire country.
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.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.