You’ll need a solid Laos itinerary to make the most of your time there. It’s a bigger country than you might think, and travel can be very slow indeed. Hidden in the shadows of Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is often skipped by travellers in favour of the South-East Asian ‘big hitter’ itinerary.
The most popular Laos backpacker itinerary will take you the full length of the country from North to the South and vice versa. However, if you’re limited on time (like we were in Laos) we’ve created some shorter backpacker itineraries than can be completed in just 7 days.
If you have more time, our other two Laos backpacker itineraries can be combined with some version of this one. That will help you make the most of your visa and complete the full route.
With the days of notoriously drunken tubing in Vang Vieng long gone, the country is developing in to an eco-tourism heaven. Think wild jungle trekking, river kayaking, cave-exploring and all of it with a dramatic limestone mountain backdrop. Travel in this landlocked gem is still frustratingly slow, so don’t expect to get anywhere quickly or easily. And that’s in dry season. Late, slow, bumpy and filled to the brim – buses and mini-vans are the only real transport option when it’s no longer possible to take the boat.
Itinerary 1 – a whistle-stop trip – is perfect for the backpacker with a limited time frame, arriving by slow boat from Thailand before focusing on a quick trip in the North. Itinerary 2 – the best of the North – starts in the northern highlands before taking in the main highlights of Laos. The less popular backpacker Itinerary 3 – a week in the South – starts in the Lao capital of Vientiane before enjoying the quieter southern side of the country.
- 1: a Whistle-Stop Trip
- 2: the Best of the North
- 3: a Week in the South
- Typical Laos Backpacker Budget Breakdown
1: a Whistle-Stop Trip
For those with limited time, this rapid Laos backpacker itinerary is the perfect appetiser to the country. It sees you arrive in laid-back Luang Prabang by slow boat from the border with Thailand.
Days 1 – 2
Kick-start your Laos trip by experiencing daily life on the Mekong River. For full information on this 2-day journey, which is a rite of passage for every South-East Asian backpacker, check out our WIT article the Ultimate Guide to the Laos Slow Boat.
Days 3 – 4
A vibrant night market, incredible food and intricate temples; spend a couple of days exploring all that Luang Prabang has to offer. Make time in your Laos backpacker itinerary for a visit to Big Brother Mouse one evening. You can help teach English to the local community during one of their drop in sessions. Otherwise, marvel at the cool blue water at various surrounding waterfalls, sip specialty coffee and relax with a Beerlao during sunset on the river.
Catch the (bumpy) bus to Nong Khiaw – a small town known for hiking, pampering and sunset views. Drop in to Tiger Trails and arrange your 100 Waterfalls Trek before seeing the 360 Viewpoint at sunset. We’d recommend easing off your sore limbs in one of the Herbal Baths after all this hiking. Accommodation on the river is extremely affordable here so chill out on a hammock and watch the world go by. You can read more about this in our Nong Khiaw WIT article.
WEE TIP: if you do have time, then continue your journey one hour up river towards Muang Ngoi to get even more off the beaten path. It’s possible to visit on a day-trip, but friends who visited loved the laid-back vibes and stunning scenery here. We didn’t time for it, but you should try find a way to squeeze it in to your backpacker itinerary!
You won’t believe that you’re almost at the end of your Laos backpacker itinerary already! Return to the central hub of Luang Prabang. Catch your flight from the International Airport to your next destination, or continue your journey by bus into Vietnam. Just be warned – you’re in for a LONG ride.
WEE TIP: ah, the Laos – Vietnam bus ride. The advertised 16 hour journey from Luang Prabang to Vinh (280,000K ) turned into a 23 hour long slog for us. Although it’s cheaper than flying, it’s not something we would recommend. However, if it’s your only affordable option then stock up on anti-sickness pills, snacks and cash for your lunch on arrival in Vietnam.
2: the best of the North
The extended version of Itinerary 1, this all-encompassing Laos backpacker route can be completed in around 14-16 days and takes in the best of northern Laos’ sights.
After arriving in Huay Xai by bus (from Thailand – see route options here) head straight to the nearby Gibbon Experience. Spend an adventure filled few days zip lining through the jungle, spotting gibbons in their natural habitat and staying overnight in fun treehouses.
Next up, take the bus to Luang Namtha and enjoy some of the most rewarding trekking in the whole country. Spend a few days hiking to local villages, exploring the scenic Nam Dee waterfall and sampling local Lao delicacies at the Night Markets.
Now that you’ve burnt off some calories head to Luang Prabang – several minibuses travel this route daily. If you’re looking to break up the journey on this itinerary, it’s also possible to stop in Oudomxai and you’ll probably be the only backpacker there. For full details of how to fill your days in Luang Prabang, check out our WIT article Top 11 things to do in Luang Prabang.
Having shed it’s reputation as one of South East Asia’s biggest, and sadly, most dangerous party destinations, Vang Vieng has reinvented itself as an eco-tourism hotspot. Nowadays, a visit to this picturesque town is more about having a natural high instead of the ones offered through happy shakes and drunken tubing.
Spend a glorious few days exploring the local caves, ambling through the rice fields and taking in the fiery orange sunsets over the limestone rock formations. Don’t miss out on Nam Xay viewpoint – the perfect Lao instagram shot! There’s also still the opportunity to enjoy tubing on the river. These days this tour comes with the added bonus of being able to remember it!
Spend your last day of your Laos backpacker itinerary in the sedate capital city – Vientiane. It’s not highly rated by most backpackers, and therefore won’t appear on many an itinerary. However, with one of the few international airports in Laos it makes sense as a last stop before moving onto your next destination.
3: a Week in the South
Many travellers forget to add the southern half of Laos to their backpacker itinerary. True, it doesn’t get as much attention as it’s northern counterparts. But with quaint temples, relaxed ‘islands’ and impressive waterfalls, it’s absolutely worth exploring. You can also complete Thakhek Loop – read more about this here.
You can choose to fly direct to your first destination of Pakse (it has an international airport) or catch the long bus from Vientiane. Be sure to squeeze in a day trip to the Bolaven Plateau and prepared to be amazed by the twin cascades of Tat Fan Waterfall.
After all your waterfall chasing in Pakse, it’s time to head to Si Phan Don, also known as 4000 Islands, by boat. While there are not a whole lot of activities to do here, the usual Laos backpacker itinerary involves coming here to simply chill out and do nothing before heading back up towards Vientiane.
And that’s a wrap! We’ve put together a Laos backpacker itinerary for each part of this country worth seeing. Bear in mind that you’ll probably want to combine some elements of these itineraries in order to experience the full North-South route.
Leave a comment below if you have any additions to our itineraries, or any other thoughts! Once you’ve planned your route, be sure to check out our WIT articles for the Laos Slow Boat, Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw.
Laos Backpacker Itinerary 1 Budget Breakdown
If you’re anything like us and you’re travelling long-term, then your daily budget is important. We’ve outlined our budgets below for our (short) time in Laos. This shows (roughly) what we personally spent and where. While this isn’t written with 100% accuracy, it’s not too far from it. The budget breakdown should give you a rough idea on what you’ll spend on transport, attractions and accommodation.
Budget Breakdown (Itinerary 1):
UK Visa (at Huay Xai border crossing on a Saturday): 640,250K ($74)
Packaged Slow Boat ticket & coach across friendship bridge: 684,064K ($80)
Accommodation (including x1 night in Chiang Khong before the slow boat): 638,000K ($74)
Attractions: 452,000K ($53)
Local Transport: 150,000K ($17)
Domestic Transport: 240,000K ($28)
Total for 7D/7N (excluding getting there): 2,804,314 ($326)
This example budget is for two people. However, food and drink is not included. The currency exchange rate was accurate at the time of writing (Nov ’18).
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