Laos is arguably one of the most underrated countries in Asia and maybe even the world. Hidden in the shadows of big sister Thailand, the ever famous Bali, Vietnam’s rice fields and beaches, and Cambodia’s ancient temples…
Laos is often totally forgotten about while eager travelers traipse through the region.
And let me be the one to tell you, you’re making the biggest mistake of your travels by skipping over Laos or only trampling through for a couple of days.
Laos is just as deserving of your time as all of the other countries that landlock this treasure of a country. Laos’ landscape is wilder, less trodden, and is as gorgeous as ever. From towering karst cliffs to charming mountainside villages, and to the mighty Mekong that cuts through, Laos is a stunner and it would be a sin to rush through it.
Here’s everything you need to know about backpacking Laos and how to create the perfect Laos itinerary so your trip here is nothing short of magical.
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Thrill! Fun! Excitement! I could go on and on… and I will.
This country is bar none one of the most underrated places to visit in the world.
Backpackers skip through here on their way to Thailand, which is so much cooler, right? Wrong!
Yes. Thailand is awesome. I should know. I spent years there. But backpacking Laos can hold its own any day of the week.
If for no other reason than the fact that it is still so untouched, unbothered, and untrampled, you must throw your pack on your back and enjoy the wide variety of things to do in Laos.
Tourism and ecotourism, especially for backpacking Laos, is on the rise precisely because there is just so much to do here. You can trek through the jungle, bathe in herbal saunas, kayak down rivers, explore hidden cities in caves, and witness history firsthand.
Laos is wild, pure and green.
It is that one place in the world you never knew you needed to experience until you experience it. So before everyone else figures it out and makes it just another “must-see” on the list, go.
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Yes! I’ve convinced you to go. But how do you get there and where do you start?
This can be tricky for some because Laos is landlocked and bordered by Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand, so you can come from anywhere.
Regardless of which direction you come from, the itinerary I’m giving you leads from the north to the south, for good reason.
You’ll begin by trekking through Luang Namtha in the north, head into central Laos for the capital, Vientiane, and the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, and end with the stunning waterfalls of the Bholaven Plateau and a lazy break in the 4,000 islands.
So while I am giving you an itinerary for 3 weeks in Laos, you’ll want to add a day or two depending on where you enter the country.
Should you enter from Thailand and would like to start in Luang Namtha as this itinerary suggests, here’s how to cross the border.
Now that you’re here, how do you get from A to Z? You have a few options, depending on the town you’re in and from which spot to which spot you’re headed.
While you can simply book at the pier, bus or train station, you may want to book ahead for certain legs of your journey to guarantee that you get a seat on the day you need to travel. 12go.asia is the best way to do this. Book your next trip ahead of time so you have one less thing to worry about.
Not gonna happen.
Do yourself a favor and do not try to plan on getting from North to South by jet-setting. This is a laid back, super chill country. The planes you do find will be few, far between, and super expensive.
Yeah, no. They are nonexistent in Laos.
In terms of getting from town to town, buses are your best bet. They can be super slow, but they’re relatively reliable and they run across the entire country.
From each town you stop in, you can catch a line to or very near to the next town on your Laos itinerary but don’t expect each ride to be smooth. not only are they late and slow, they can get very bumpy and windy as well.
Bring Dramamine if you get car sick and be aware that your bus ride will likely take a couple of extra hours than advertised.
The songthaews in town are almost like the inner city buses. These are open truck style taxis with a bench in the back. They can be a big taxi for hire or some of them have a route and pick people up along the way along their loop. They are super cheap to ride.
Yes! This is really the way to go, particularly around the towns. If you want to get to some of the cooler spots like Kuang Si or to go cave exploring in Vang Vieng, a motorbike is a good choice if you want to do your own thing.
If you can imagine yourself on a motorbike for the entire three weeks as you’re backpacking Laos, do it! Alternatively, you could simply bus to each town and then motorbike your way out and around the towns. Either way, proceed with caution.
Riding a motorbike will be a great way to see the country but also comes with its dangers. Don’t think you can hop on a bike for the first time and ride around with no issues. The infrastructure is a poor and road rules are almot non existant. You need to have some experience.
Here’s what to do in Laos if you’re motorbiking: be respectful, be observant, be prepared, and SAFE. Helmets are a must. Backpacking Laos can be one of the most memorable adventures of your life if you follow these simple rules.
That depends on what you’re looking for. Many people go to Laos during the dry season, from October to April.
If you’re trying to avoid rain but still want all the gorgeous benefits of a just wrapped up green season, go in November or December. You’ll still behold amazingly full and rich waterfalls, and river travel will still be ample due to high water levels.
If you’d like to avoid big crowds of tourists backpacking Laos, you might want to take your chances in May or June, right as the rain is returning to the country.
Rains here are typically come down hard but are short-lived, so you can still do plenty of exploring.
Backpacking Luang Namtha and Muang Sing – 3 Days
This will be your first few days in Laos, and it is the perfect place to start because it is laid back and beautiful.
It’s a great appetizer to the rest of your long and fabulous journey through jungles and rivers, coffee plantations and rice fields.
Be sure to visit the Nam Dee waterfall. It’s a little one, but it’s totally worth the short trek to get there.
The Luang Namtha river is the other highlight of this area. Splish and splash through the mud to make your way down to this local river that provides dinner for many of the locals.
Finally, the Sea of Rice will leave you stunned at the wide verdant fields spread out as far as the eye can see. These rice paddy views give you a sense of just how beautiful the production of such a simple grain can be.
Muang Sing is just a few hours from Luang Namtha and worth the trip. You can visit the local villages, as you can in Luang Namtha, and get a taste of local life. In Muang Sing, you’ll even get to walk past “spirit houses,” where dead animals are offered as sacrifices to appease angry spirits.
And of course, your Laos itinerary will not be complete in Muang Sing unless you stop to check out the giant Gold Buddha. He rests there, towering over a gorgeously vibrant garden. Say hello for me.
Backpacking Nong Khiaw – 2 Days
Nong Khiaw is next on the list, and after a day of trekking and exploring the region you may already be ready for some pampering. Fortunately, pampering is the thing to do in Laos, especially in this town; they’ll hook you up!
First, you must trek.
Head out to see one of the awesome caves in the area. The Pha Tok Caves just require a climb up some steep concrete steps, and then you’re in, exploring what was once a hideout for locals during the second Indochina war.
The Pha Kuang Cave is much more strenuous. You’ll have to be in good shape not just to get there but also to squeeze through small holes on your way to the actual cave, 300 meters into the rock!
Now you’ve ventured far into caves and up stone steps, get a stone massage in town.
Of all the things to do in Laos, you must get a massage (or twelve) while you’re here, especially in a town that prides itself on its herbal baths and steam massages. And then go back to your bungalow to swing in your hammock that sits along the river.
Before you leave Nong Khiaw, 100 Waterfalls has to go on your Laos itinerary. Head out early for the one day tour with Tiger Trails, an ecotourism company that has exclusive rights to the region.
Enjoy a day of a beautiful moderate hike that finds you actually hiking up through the center of a waterfall! I’m just gonna stop here. I can’t really top that last part.
Massage, hike, hammock, repeat.
Backpacking Luang Prabang – 2 to 3 Days
Luang Prabang is a charming city with a very Frenchy feel tucked away between hills and river bends.
Many think that this is just a town to chill in, but the truth is there is quite a bit of adventure to be had! Also, you don’t want to chill too much here because that’s pretty much all you’ll be doing at your next stop. You’ve got a whole 3 weeks in Laos. Mix it up!
In the town itself are a massive amount of temples to visit.
Like most places in Asia, temples are a highlight in any major city. Yes, Luang Prabang is considered a major city. Funny, I can’t help but think of this cute little stop as just an overgrown town!
At night, the quaint streets light up, and a huge market fills the laneway. This is my absolute favorite thing to do in Laos, and in any place really. For some reason, markets, especially at night, just seem to make even the most vibrant city really come fully awake.
Take a stroll along the Mekong river, which cruises right through the town. Or, if you’d rather change your perspective a bit, grab a boat and get into the water for a sunset cruise.
Head just outside of Luang Prabang to go swimming at Kuang Si Waterfall which is shockingly beautiful; it is, however, also quite busy.
Everyone comes here, and it’s not hard to understand why. You can hike up to serene turquoise tinted pools that gently spill over into even more pools below.
Finally, you can witness the 50-meter drop as the fall crash down to the giant boulders below.
A black bear sanctuary also resides here for bears that have been rescued from illegal hunting and animal trading. Catch them at feeding time, and you can watch them “hunt” for food and play around a bit.
If you’re on a hunt of your own, for a quieter, more out of the way fall, visit Tad Sae. Getting there is an adventure in and of itself, down a rutted road and along a river in a boat. Tad Sae is glorious, but it pales in comparison to the beauty of Kuang Si.
Finally, rent a motorbike and just head out for a ride for the pure visual stimulation of the surroundings. This is a big part of what many people don’t get about the point of backpacking Laos: just observe, live, breathe in your environment. Laos is perfect for this.
Backpacking Phonsavan – 2 Days
YES! This was actually my favorite place in Laos. Weird, I know, because most people have never even heard of Phonsavan. At. All. It’s actually skipped more often than not.
It’s true; there isn’t much to the actual little town. It was what was outside that got me excited. I was dying to come here to explore the Plain of Jars.
I’m a sucker for the weird and the bizarre, and that’s what I got when I arrived at the Plain of Jars, really the only thing to do in Phonsavan and one of the most intriguing things to do in Laos in general.
Nobody really 100% knows what on earth over 2,000 gigantic, sarcophagus sized stone jars are doing scattered about the outskirts of Phonsavan, but there they rest.
There are jars of all shapes and sizes, some are in decent condition and some are dilapidated, cracked, and broken. Some say that they were perhaps used as an ancient burial vessel dating back to 500 BC.
At the end of your tour be sure you ask to go to a “whiskey village.”
You’ll basically just be visiting someone’s grandmother’s house. An elderly woman took us to her small shack which housed this “interesting” drink in an old bucket. It was served to us in a small shot glass that I’m pretty sure had never seen dish soap and a sponge.
You can also buy the “whiskey,” which is sold in old water bottles. Needless to say, I did not buy any “whiskey,” but I would go back and have another shot with grandma in a heartbeat.
The whiskey is called lao lao and will certainly put some hair on your chest!
Backpacking Vang Vieng – 2 to 3 Days
Ahhh, the “backpackers paradise” of Laos. Vang Vieng is likely the only reason most people even go to Laos.
Backpackers used to head to this fraternity-like town to get wasted on endless cheap alcohol, pass out in a local hostel, and wake up to float down the river, double fisting buckets and beers.
And you can totally still do that. Bars abound in Vang Vieng, and the river is still as fun and lazy to float down as ever (minus some of the death traps that were once here)
My party days are long gone, however, so I took a bit of another, perhaps even wilder, route on my Laos itinerary.
The Blue Lagoon – Come here for a beautiful swim in surprisingly refreshing waters. It gets really hot during the day in Vang Vieng, so the bracing waters of the lagoon are the perfect break from a hike or just from getting all sweaty while wandering and exploring.
Caves (“Tham” in Laotian) – A million caves populate this area.
- Tham Jang is a nice one because it offers a lovely view of the river.
- If you’re going to the Blue Lagoon already, Tham Pu Kham is right there.
- Tham Nam (Water Cave) is an interesting one because you get to raft through a cave, hitting pitch blackness as you get to the center (Don’t worry. You’ll have a guide and a rope to hold onto.)
- Tham Loup, Tham Hoi, and Tham Xang (Elephant Cave) are some other popular ones. Honestly, after one whole day of viewing the caves, you may be set for life!
Warning: proceed with caution in the caves. Considering I am the absolute clumsiest world traveler, I totally took a spill and got covered in mud. It’s dark and slipper in there!
Other things to do: kayaking, boat tours, rafting down the river (not like a drunk, just like a normal person), rock climbing.
The scenery here is awe inspiring. The towering mountains and the tranquility of the river are a perfect blend of power and serenity in nature.
All of this makes for a cool town to chill out in for a few days.
Backpacking Vientiene – 1 to 2 Days
Not my favorite city, to say the least. There was one thing I really loved in Vientiene, and it was actually outside the city.
Visiting the Buddha Park was one of my favorite things to do in Laos. It’s so bizarre! Roam around a garden of random statues and creatures set along one side of the Mekong River with the country of Thailand right on the other side.
The ride out here is an adventure in itself with its crazy dirt roads and cow traffic.
You can also see their version of the Arc de Triomphe and take a stroll along the Mekong River. I also may or may not have gorged myself on delicious baguettes.
It might not be a thing for you but after living in Thailand (aka the land of “eh” bread) for a year, I was in heaven with the bread while backpacking Laos. Thanks, French colonialism!
If you’re truly low on time while backpacking Laos, try skipping Vientiane, you won’t miss much. Although it’s a bit difficult as sometimes bus routes will take you through here anyway. Spend as little time here as you can.
Backpacking Pakse – 2 to 3 days
Nothing nothing nothing… There’s nothing here!
Again, this is one of those places where when you get to the actual town, you’ll be wondering why the hell Nina sent me to Pakse!?
Ah, but then you get outside Pakse and your world explodes into one of the thrills and natural delights.
Pakse is the jumping off point for the Bolaven Plateau and it’s a definite must on your Laos itinerary. I’m so fascinated by this region I wrote a whole love letter to it.
Grab a motorbike in Pakse and head out to explore the land of waterfalls. Make sure you put Tat Lo and Tayicseua (home to over a dozen waterfalls alone!) on your Laos itinerary for sure.
Also: coffee! The Bolaven Plateau is home to coffee plantations galore. With 3 weeks in Laos, you can totally spend a day drunk on coffee and the breathtaking views of wild jungle meeting refined plantation life.
Backpacking Si Phan Don – 3 Days
Si Phan Don literally means 4,000 islands, however, there are not literally 4,000 islands. I’ll give you a moment to get over that disappointment…
So Si Phan Don is the southern region of Laos, home to Champasak country. This area is where the mighty Mekong branches out in all directions and provides a watery nest for hundreds of little river islands.
The three main tourist islands are Don Det, Don Khon, and Don Khong. Khong is a separate island unto itself, but Khon and Det are connected by a small bridge.
So what’s the big attraction to the 4,000 islands in Laos? Well, a lot of people come here to just chill. The truth is there are not many things to do in Laos at the 4,000 islands other than just chill and take it all in.
You can take a tour to the see the Irrawaddy dolphins, which are beautiful creatures but rarely show more than the tops of their bodies while they swim about. Getting a picture is tough; I saw them in Kratie, Cambodia, and it was almost impossible to see much less actually snap a pic.
There’s a delicate little “waterfall” called Tat Somphamit (compared to what you’ve seen by now in the Bolaven Plateau this will seem like water dripping from a faucet.) and even a little “beach” just down the way from the waterfall.
The state of water is questionable down here, so proceed with caution.
Pakse is pretty much the main jumping point to get to and from these islands, so you’ll head down here once you’ve seen the Bolaven Plateau. It’s about a $9 USD boat ride away from the islands.
My honest opinion of Si Phan Don – I didn’t fall in love, and it’s really because I want to be able to jump in the water, and here you just can’t/wouldn’t want to.
So you’re stranded on an island, which should be a peace seeker’s dream, and you’re boiling hot, but you can’t cool off in the water that surrounds you.
Personally, I would skip the 4,000 Islands while backpacking Laos if you’re low on time.
I’m an adventurer at heart. You read about grandma’s whiskey experience! So of course whenever I am in a new country, I have to try the regional dishes.
Easily the official dish of Laos, Larb is a minced meat salad that is to die for. It can be pretty much any type of meat, cooked and minced fine, seasoned with lime, chili, and other spices, and then mixed with vegetables and served with sticky rice. You cannot go backpacking in Laos and not eat larb. Lots of it.
A chunky, smoky, Laos tomato salsa kinda thing, you’ll try once and then spend the rest of your life trying to recreate. Good luck. There’s actually many versions of Jeaw as well, there’s a peanut one to die for that I wanted to pour on everything.
3. Sticky Rice
Obviously. You can’t go anywhere in this country and not find sticky rice, often offered in a bamboo cup. Many people say Laotian sticky rice is the best in the world. Try it and cast your vote.
Have I mentioned how grateful I was for the French influence on bread in Laos? So good! Quite commonly, you’ll find a baguette sandwich in the local markets. It’s typically stocked with veggies and a killer chili sauce, perfect for a snack or meal on the go.
5. Khao Piak Sen
Wet noodle soup. This is a comfort food in Laos, similar to Udon but made with rice, these noodles are chewy and soaked in a delicious broth. A bowl of this is perfect after a long hike and an herbal bath.
Keep in mind that these are all median prices as of the last update of this post. Prices change all the time, they can go up and down depending on the time of year, and if you’re in a super touristy or a super local spot…Prices will vary even more.
1 Laotian Kip is currently equal to .00012 USD. The best to remember is that 10,000 kip is equal to a dollar (it’s actually a bit over but let’s not get too technical when these many zeros are involved.)
- Bus from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang – 135,000 Kip
- Bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng – 120,000 Kip
- Bus from Vientiane to Pakse – 120,000 Kip
- Average Motorbike Rental across Laos – 100,000 Kip per day
- Boat Tour of Si Phan Don – 40,000 Kip
- Tuk Tuk out to Kuang Si from Luang Prabang – 50,000 Kip per person
- Average Laotian Meal – 20,000 Kip
- Average Foreign Meal – 50,000 Kip
- Fruit shake- 7,000 Kip
- Beer – 10,000 Kip
- Hostel/Guesthouse – 20-70,000 Kip
- Hotel – 200,000 Kip
Overall Cost of 3 Weeks in Laos
Depending on which day we’re talking about, you could spend anywhere from 100,000 Kip to 200,000 or 300,000 Kip per day.
You could rent the cheapest bike and stay in a hostel and easily stay closer to 100,000 Kip, which translates to about $12 USD a day.
Add in your bus travel from region to region and you could get by on about 2,500,000 Kip total for 3 weeks, which is about $300 USD from north to south. Not too shabby.
Now, if you’re going to go all fancy and get a spa treatment as often as possible, travel on buses every few days, and rent a motorbike instead of a bicycle, you’re still only looking at around 5,000,000 Kip, or $600 USD.
I’d budget around $25-$35 USD per day depending on the type of traveler you are.
I’d also add on $10 a day for “just in case” money. Just in case you want 5 extra massages… Just in case you want to add on a place because your new friends are going… Just in case you messed up the conversions and didn’t check your change…
Over budgeting is always a smart choice.
- Of all the things to do in Laos, I will advise you to do one thing in particular: bring enough cash money! ATMs are located randomly across this country, so when you see one, stock up. And some places in particular, like Si Pan Don, for example, the exchange rates are horrible and there’s no ATM. So yea, always have kip to last you to your next ATM run.
- Plan to spend that money. Laos is really just coming alive to the world of tourism. This slow-moving evolution means that prices are a bit higher here as supply struggles to catch up with demand (this is in comparison to its neighbors, of course, it’s still cheap!) And once you leave the country, the currency is worthless and nobody will trade you.
- Watch your money. Guard your wallet. Because tourism is just picking up, there will be guides, tuk tuk drivers, and other opportunists trying to gouge your wallet while you’re traveling. Be sure you compare pricing well and check to make sure the service offered is actually one you need. A lot of tours and trips that guides and drivers sell are simple ones you can do on your own for free.
- On a similar note, know your notes! The currency looks similar and a 10,000 note can look like a 100,000, double check change and what you’ve handed over.
- What to do in Laos when stuck on a long, slow-moving bus ride? Bring a book, have your Kindle ready, keep your phone charged so you can pop your headphones in. Be patient with transportation. Know going in that the buses do not hurry for man, woman, or child. Settle in.
- While you’re backpacking Laos you will notice quite quickly and constantly that this is an underdeveloped nation, especially in terms of infrastructure. Laos has been “in talks” about building a railroad system for decades! You’ve just gotta head into this country expecting beauty, charm, and chill. It is not a cosmopolitan city center.
- When in Laos, speak as the Laotians do. The Laos people still largely speak Laotian; many don’t speak English, so they will greatly appreciate any attempts you make to communicate with them in their language. I’m sure I had a much better time while there because I speak a bit of Thai, and Thai and Laotian are similar languages.
- Don’t be a D-bag. You’re a guest in this country. Be humble and respectful of traditions, religions, and personal space. Dress appropriately, don’t act like a fool, and RESPECT the people and the land.
Where will you go after Laos?
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Nina Ragusa is an adventurer, messy bun master, breakfast fan, and full-time travel blogger. She’s been abroad and epically failing at the American Dream since 2011. Her sassy yet informative blog, Where in the World is Nina? is all about how to work abroad to live a more adventurous life. If you want to travel longer you have to work to wander.