I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to visit a lot of countries in Southeast Asia and Laos is definitely my favorite. A lot of backpackers overlook Laos in favor of more famous destinations such as Thailand and Vietnam. As a result, Laos is pleasantly quiet and relatively untouristic. And it’s a versatile country as well, from sandy beaches to souring mountains and lush jungle to beautiful cities, Laos truly has something for everyone. Here are my favorite places in Laos that you should definitely visit as soon as possible!
1. Luang Prabang
There can really be only one place that takes the top spot for places to visit in Laos and that’s the beautiful town of Luang Prabang. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a stunningly maintained historical center, filled with elegant French colonial architecture and dazzling traditional Buddhist temples. Luang Prabang is the cultural epicenter of Laos and I have never met a traveler that didn’t fall in love with this city. I did as well and it was love at first sight. The whole town has a very relaxed atmosphere and it is the perfect place to hang out for a few days, leisurely exploring the countryside and the town. My all time favorite thing in Luang Prabang is the night market. You find gaudy plastic crap or fridge magnets here, but the local sell beautiful handicrafts and souvenirs instead. It is also where you can have the best dish in Laos: Luang Prabang Khao Soy. The little stall at the west end of the night market serves the absolute best in the city (and the locals agree). After dinner and some shopping, head over to one of the cool bars in town, such as Lao Lao Bar or the famous Utopia Lounge Bar.
Where to stay: Luang Prabang is filled with guesthouses and hostels. For budget backpackers I would recommend Downtown Backpackers 2 and IQ Inn for backpackers looking for a bit more luxury and quiet.
2. Nong Khiaw
Just 4 hours north of Luang Prabang lies the village of Nong Khiaw. The place has grown into Laos’ outdoor paradise in recent years. From Nong Khiaw you can do a wide array of outdoor activities, such as trekking, kayaking and caving. The village itself is small and sleepy and not yet a big tourist attraction. But the real attraction of Nong Khiaw is the stunning landscape of rivers, mountains and jungle surrounding the town.
Last year I did a three-day jungle trek with a local company called Nong Khiaw Adventure Tours (their office is on the corner next to Delilahs) and it was the highlight of my trip. For 80 USD per person we trekked through the beautiful Lao jungle with our knowledgeable and friendly guide. The trek included food (unusual local dishes like squirrel, water buffalo and fried beetles), accommodation in home stays in tiny villages, stunning scenery and kayaking back to Nong Khiaw on the last day. It was not only the best thing I’ve done in Laos, but one of the best experiences in Southeast Asia.
Where to stay: There is only one hostel in Nong Khiaw called Delilah’s Cafe. It’s decent, but I recommend sharing a room in one of the riverside guesthouses with a fellow traveler if you can as you’ll get more value for money.
Thakhek itself is not an interesting place by any stretch of the imagination. But it is still one of the places most worth visiting in Laos, because of one thing: the loop. The Thakhek motorbike loop, also simply knows as “the loop”, is a road running to and from this small town. It has become popular among backpackers in recent years, because of the beautiful scenery and many caves and sight along the route. The roads are pretty decent (except for the last stretch to Kong Lor cave) and can be driven in 2-4 days, depending on your skill and rush. I drove the loop in 3 days and I loved every minute of it. It is definitely worth doing when you’re in Laos, especially as a stop on your way south.
Where to stay: KGB 2 Hostel is conveniently located right behind the bus station. It also has comfortable, breezy dorms (no bunk beds!) for a very fair price. Look here for more info on where to stay during the loop.
4. Don Det
So, why would you head to the south of Laos? Simple, to visit the 4000 islands. At the border with Cambodia, the Mekong river delta is home to thousands of small islands. I’m not sure if there are actually 4000, but there very well might be. It’s a popular backpacker destination for those traveling over land between Laos and Cambodia. Laos may be landlocked, but they still managed to create a beachy island vibe here. Don Det is one of the bigger islands and popular among backpackers. This is where you’ll find cheap accommodation, cheap food and cheap drugs. Don Det is a stoner paradise, but even if that’s not your thing, it is still a great place to kick back and relax for a few days. Rent a bicycle for the day (10.000 kip) and explore the main islands with their beautiful scenery and waterfalls. Or join a boat party to one of the tiny private islands to have a few drinks and watch the sunset.
Where to stay: Solo backpackers are best off staying at one of the cheap hostels: Ning Ning’s or Easy Go Backpackers, but both have their drawbacks (Ning Ning’s is loud and Easy Go Backpackers is remote). Alternatively you can book yourself a bungalow along the river (I prefer sunset side), which generally go for around 50.000 kip and walk-ins can often negotiate an even better deal.
5. Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng has a real reputation as a party town. And it’s the reason I initially planned to avoid it. But other travelers that I met while riding motorbikes in Thakhek convinced me it would be worth it. And it was! Vang Vieng itself is hideous and filthy, but with a friendly atmosphere. Sure, you can really party hard here with free drinks at happy hour in all the bars and hostels (you can go the whole night without paying for a single drink). But there are also lots of outdoor activities here, such as rock climbing and buggy driving. The thing that has made Vang Vieng (in)famous is tubing. Because of some unfortunate accidents involving drunk tourists, tubing has been toned down a bit but it is still really fun. I thought it would be gaudy, but it is actually a perfectly chilled out day on the water. You spend the day leisurely floating down the river in an inflatable tube, chatting with the others and having some drinks. You stop at three bars, but I recommend bringing your own drinks to save a bit of money (which is allowed!). You don’t need to bring any clothes or shoes and if you want to bring money or your phone, put them in a dry bag.
Where to stay: If you want to party, but also get a decent night sleep, Real Vang Vieng Backpackers Hostel is the perfect place. For just 40.000 kip a night you get a dorm bed, free breakfast, free whiskey at happy hour and use of the pool. The hostel itself is nothing special, but it’s clean and the atmosphere is great.
Have you been to Laos yet? What was your favorite place? Let me know in comments below.
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