Laos has long been included on the famed backpacker banana pancake trail, but recently it’s starting to feel more like a two day stop, check-off-the-list country.
Most travelers you meet that have been to Laos spent a couple days, at most, in Luang Prabang or Vientiane and then took off to Thailand or Vietnam.
But Laos is so much more than a check-off-the-list country and a longer Laos itinerary should definitely be done.
After 7 months in Southeast Asia, we were left with a lasting impression from our time in Laos.
We have a feeling that it will grow into one of the top destinations in the region thanks to its amazing people, incredible food, and unreal landscapes.
If you only have a few days to spend in Laos, we recommend spending all of them in Luang Prabang. It remains one of our favourite cities in Southeast Asia and our list of activities below will guarantee you a great time.
You could comfortably cover the 3 main cities in Laos in a week, but 10-14 days would be better. We spent 14 days in the country along with 2 days getting there…slowly….
These are some of the best things to do in Laos.
2 Weeks Laos Itinerary
Getting to Laos
Flights from the major Southeast Asia hubs like Bangkok and Hanoi are plentiful to both Laung Prabang and Vientiane, which means you can easily get connections from most Southeast Asia cities to get into Laos. The discount airlines make it easy and affordable.
Probably the least ideal option, you can get into Laos by bus from Bangkok or cross in the north from Chiang Mai. But it’s long, uncomfortable, and rarely cheaper than other options.
If you have the time, we absolutely recommend taking a slow boat along the Mekong to get into Laos. We did just this after spending a few days in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A two hour bus ride to the border town of Chiang Kong and then the rest of your journey is by boat.
The slowboats are long wooden boats filled with old van seats. It’s far from glamorous, but it’s definitely one of the most unique ways to experience the Mekong.
It’s a two day trip, with the night spent in a small village along the way. Each day is 6-8 hours on the water – so bring plenty of snacks!
A 1-2 Week Itinerary
Divide your time between Luang Prabang (50%), Vang Vieng (30%), and Vientiane (20%)
You can easily start at either end and take land transportation between the cities and then fly or boat out of Luang Prabang, or fly or bus out of Vientiane.
Explore Luang Prabang.
You can feel pretty comfortable with the layout of the city in just one day.
It’s very walkable and relatively small which adds to the charm. We recommend exploring the known viewpoint in the middle of the city on your first day so you have a layout of the entire place.
Lao cuisine definitely follows in the footsteps of Thai, with some Vietnamese blended in – not surprisingly given its in between those two countries.
Thailand and Vietnam are regarded as some of the top food destinations in the world, so take advantage of the Lao twist on these power house cuisines!
You’ll particularly enjoy the Lao food if you like sweet Thai meals like Pad Thai, or fresh and savory like Vietnamese Bun Thit Nuong.
Coffee shops are literally on every corner in Luang Prabang. We regularly spent afternoons relaxing or working in coffee shops across the city.
While you’re out exploring, add a stop at the UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) Museum to learn about the devastation Laos endured through unrelenting bombing during the Vietnam war, and the constant threat these unexploded bombs still cause to huge stretches of the country.
Don’t forget to wake up early one morning to see the local monks receive their alms.
Every morning at sunrise they form a procession through the main streets and receive rice and other food from the locals.
It’s a peaceful and humbling experience.
Luang Prabang Night Market
Luang Prabang has one of the most charming old downtowns in Southeast Asia. You can feel the French history, but more importantly, the city has a vibrant yet relaxing energy to it.
Many equivalent main strips in Southeast Asia feel overly touristy and uninviting – but that wasn’t the case in Luang Prabang! We consistently went to restaurants and bars downtown and loved walking through it multiple times a day.
Every evening the main downtown street fills with vendors. The bulk of them are selling goods, but there was plenty of great street food and about a dozen stands making amazing fruit smoothies.
Big Brother Mouse
One of the easiest ways to give back to a local community during your time in Southeast Asia is to visit Big Brother Mouse.
This not for profit, which is run by expats, connects english speaking tourists with locals who want to improve their english, as well as providing english books for those locals.
You can show up when they open in the evening, grab a seat, and they will introduce you to a couple local students (from elementary to high school students, plus some adults) for you to speak with.
It was incredibly inspiring to meet local high school students who would consistently come here in the evenings because they knew the value of learning english.
We ended up going back multiple nights and saw other travelers doing the same. This was also a great way to learn about the Lao country and culture directly from locals.
Waterfalls Near Luang Prabang
Kuang Si Waterfall- Yes it’s touristy, but it’s on every Luang Prabang must do list for a reason.
The waterfalls are incredibly easy to get to, beautiful, and refreshing. We hired a taxi for a round trip to Kuang Si (they’ll be asking you on every corner which does get old).
Negotiate to spend at least 4 hours here, but you could easily spend more time exploring, climbing, and swimming.
Tad Kung is the other waterfall that’s popular. We went as part of a full day outdoor excursion.
We shopped around with multiple tour agencies until we found one we liked. We left early in the morning on bikes, up through the mountains for a couple hours (including a roadside stop to have the best pineapple of our lives) before arriving at the river.
There we swapped our bikes for kayaks and went about 20 minutes down the river to the waterfall. We were there during the dry season so we only saw 2 other people.
Even though the falls weren’t flowing at full capacity, the pools were still full and we had them to ourselves for a couple hours.
Lunch was an amazing grilled fish wrapped in banana leaves followed by a hike to the top of the waterfall. We finished the day with a couple hours kayaking back to Luang Prabang.
Getting to Vang Vieng
You can take a bus from Luang Prabang or Vientiane. We were heading south from Luang Prabang, so the drive was about 4 hours.
A warning, it was the bumpiest overland trip we took in all of Southeast Asia!
Vang Vieng is very small and humble. There’s no paved roads and the entire city can be walked around in much less than an hour. But it’s a must stop for outdoor activities.
We would have loved spending more time here.
The city has a (not so favorable) party reputation, known as a backpacker party city – particularly for the number of deaths from people that go tubing there while drinking.
But, the party side of the city is definitely wearing off as it’s being reinvented as an outdoor lover’s dream destination.
Hike up a Mountain Viewpoint
In the background of the city you’re surrounded by lush mountains and hills. We were inevitably drawn to get up one, and rented bikes to get to the Pha Ngern viewpoint.
You do pay an entrance fee, it’s on private property, so don’t be surprised when someone stops you to buy a ticket.
This ended up being an exhausting muti hour hike up the mountain but like all great viewpoints in Southeast Asia, definitely worth it.
There are many other similar viewpoints in the area you can hike to as well.
Check Out The Caves and Waterfalls
Hang on to your rented bikes and get in a visit to some of the nearby caves. Tham Jang is nearby and easily accessible.
If you didn’t get in enough waterfalls during your time in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng offers many as well.
Tubing and Dune Buggy Rentals
The two activities with the biggest reputation we did not do. Tubing, as mentioned, has garnered a negative reputation for the drunk backpackers that have been injured or died – and we weren’t interested in that.
You’ll see dune buggies for rent all over the city. We were interested in this because they look pretty cool, but it’s really expensive for just a short period of time, and unless you’re using it as transportation to one of these other activities there isn’t really anywhere to go outside of touring through the dirt back roads.
Both of these were hugely popular activities so they’re absolutely worth considering if it suits your interests.
Getting to Vientiane
There are regular buses between the two cities, it’s another 4 hours and considerably less bumpy than the previous journey.
We had high expectations for Vientiane after how much we loved Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, but were actually quite disappointed.
It felt like the city was still finding its identity.
They’re certainly making efforts to create a great destination, such as the newly built boardwalk market, but unfortunately it really hasn’t taken off and what is available didn’t make for an enjoyable experience.
It’s right along the Mekong, and we loved walking along the river at sunset each night, but overall we weren’t impressed with Vientiane.
We do still plan on going back, as we think in the next 10 years it will find its identity and become one of the best cities to visit in Southeast Asia.
The potential is there, it just needs a bit more time.
While still an important visit during your time in Laos, we recommend budgeting less time here than the other two cities. We spent our days running along the river, at the local public pool & gym, and checking out the city’s restaurants.
Restaurants in Vientiane
Vientiane has a plethora of unique restaurants and bars, and after 10 days of outdoor activities, maybe it’s the perfect break you need.
There’s something for everyone here; we had dim sum at sunset, the best quesadillas we found in Asia, and spring rolls as good as any in Vietnam.
You can book buses to Bangkok, but it’s a long trip and typically costs equal or more than flying there. We took Scoot airlines out of Vientiane to Bangkok, and many other carriers fly the same route.
It’s easy to get to the airport, just wait at a bus stop and the next taxi to pass will stop and offer to take you for the same fare as the bus.
Take advantage of some extra time in Laos, this growing country will soon be on the map as a Southeast Asian hotspot and we loved experiencing it before that happened.
You definitely get the sense of “Thailand 25 years ago” while there. It’s a young culture and an outdoor lover’s dream, but most importantly; Laos is becoming a destination in itself, not just a country to check off the list.
Jason Kraemer is the co-founder of Flashpacker Co, a lifestyle brand aimed at helping the growing number of global flashpackers get the most out of their adventures. He’s been a long-term traveler and digital nomad for the past 5 years. Follow Flashpacker on Instagram @FlashpackerCo and their website; flashpackerco.com
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