The landlocked gem of Southeast Asia
Overshadowed by neighbours like Thailand and Vietnam, Laos might appear to attract less visitors, mostly because of the presumption that it shares similar cultures with other countries in Southeast Asia. In reality, Laos is a real hidden gem and we would suggest exploring its charms before most people do, because it is more than just another destination in Asia.
How to get there:
Travel overland from Thailand
While there aren’t many direct flights from Hong Kong to Laos, there are a few popular ways to reach Laos by road or boat from Thailand. These routes are perfect for adventurous travellers who want to combine the two destinations in one trip and cross the border like a local.
By Bus and Boat
Probably the most scenic, yet the longest route to take, crossing the border from Thailand to Laos is an experience you can’t miss if you have the time. From Chiang Rai in Thailand, you can take a red bus that is clearly marked ‘Chiang Rai – Chiang Khong’. The ride takes around two hours and drops you on the side of the road 5km away from the Chiang Khong Immigration. You can take a tuk tuk from there to the Thai border control, where you will get an exit stamp on your passport. After that, take the shuttle bus to cross the long bridge to the Laos border control in Huay Xai. Fill out your paperwork and get your visa on arrival (US$30-40 according to your nationality).
Once you’re finished at passport control, head up to the slight hill where you will find agencies selling slow boat tickets. There is only one slow boat that leaves at 11am so if you leave Chiang Rai early in the morning, you will be able to catch it on time. It takes two days to reach Luang Prabang, Laos, with seven hours of traveling each day and an overnight stop in Pakbeng. There are many guesthouses to choose from in Pakbeng, so just relax, have a nice dinner and a couple of beers in this lesser known town. Despite it being a long trip, the stunning Mekong scenery makes it all worthwhile and a great introduction to anyone visiting the country for the first time.
If you are a train lover (like me), you will love this overnight train ride from Bangkok, Thailand to Nong Khai, Laos as the new train carriage is super comfy and the process from start to finish is pretty much hassle-free.
Train tickets can sell out quickly during peak season, so book your ticket in advance from 12go, which has a seamless booking system for transportation across Southeast Asia. The train to Nong Khai is only the first stretch of the journey as your final destination is Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The Thai-Laos immigration checkpoint is at the end of the Nong Khai platform, where you will get an easy border crossing experience. From Nong Khai there is a connecting shuttle train to Thanaleng in Laos. From Thanaleng you can catch a mini van to the Vientiane city centre located 20km away.
What to do:
Participate in the Alms Giving Ceremony
A centuries old cultural heritage in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage town, the Alms Giving Ceremony is a Buddhist ritual that happens every morning at sunrise. Visitors are welcome to participate as long as they respect the rules, which is to arrive in time before the ceremony starts and prepare fresh food to offer the monks during Alms Giving. The meal that the monks receive as a gift during the ceremony is the only meal they have every day. Locals line up small chairs along the road and the idea is that you take a seat and offer the gifts as the monks pass by. This sacred Buddhist tradition is a must-do in Luang Prabang for those who are looking for an enriching cultural experience.
Catch a Sunset
Located opposite the Royal Palace Museum, Mount Phousi in the heart of Luang Prabang offers one of the best sunset views in Laos. There are two main entrances to the summit, one on the main street (Sisavangvong Road) and the other is on Thanon Phousion the Nam Khan River road. We’d recommend the second path as you will see more interesting viewpoints, including the Wat Tham Phou Si and different statues of Buddha. The walk to the top offers a stunning view of surrounding verdant mountains and you will get to see the point where Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet. After 355 steps, you will reach temple Wat Chom Si on the top of Mount Phousi. If you arrive just before 4pm, you will get to save a good spot and enjoy a panoramic view of the gorgeous sunset over the hills beyond the Mekong River.
Tip: Be sure you start the walk a good hour or so before sunset as it does get crowded up there.
By the Mekong
Watching sunset over the Mekong River is a must-do in Laos. Life revolves around the rivers in this country and you will get a sense of it when you head to Luang Prabang’s riverbanks. Go straight down from Kitsalat Road to Khem Khong street near the end of the Mekong River where you can choose from many local river bars for a relaxing sundowner and a magical view of the sunset. Join the locals for a Beerlao, dance to Lao pop music and enjoy some delicious Khai Pene (crispy fried sheets of seasoned riverweed) served with Jeow Bong (a spicy chili dip).
Better yet, you can enjoy sunset view on a Bamboo Bridge over the Nam Khan River during dry season. A round trip on the bridge costs 5000 kip, which is is worth paying as you will get unobstructed views of the golden light glowing over the mountains and into the waters of the Mekong from the bridge.
Tip: You will find Dyen Sabai Restaurant & Spa on the other side of the Bamboo Bridge where you can enjoy a delicious meal overlooking the bridge and the calm riverbank.
Visit Kuang Si Falls
Located about 30km from Luang Prabang and easily reached by taxi or motorbike, Kuang Si Falls boasts some of the world’s most impressive waterfalls while remaining accessible to locals and travellers alike. Once you’ve reached the entrance, it is a short walk to the falls either over a paved road or through a jungle path. Be prepared for some jaw-dropping moments as you approach the lowest terrace of the waterfall – it only gets better as you walk up. Kuang Si Falls has several terraces, with the second and third terraces being the best for swimming and snapping Insta-worthy pictures. The main waterfall is 60m high and it is possible to continue walking up to see other smaller falls. Take a dip in the turquoise waters and discover some secret natural pools around you!
Try Laotian Food:
If you think Laotian food would be similar to what you can get in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, you are only half right. In fact, well-known Southeast Asian fare like sticky rice and papaya salad is actually Laotian in origin. So if you want to get a a taste of the Laotian version of your favourite dishes, here are some of the the must-trys:
Laap/Tum Mak Hoong
Probably Laos’s most famous culinary invention, Laap is a fresh, simple and zesty salad you can’t miss. Ingredients include minced meat or fish with padaek, mint, lime juice, spring onion, coriander, chilli and ground, toasted rice – all mixed together to give spicy and sour notes that add layers and incredible flavours to the dish. Another salad that has travelled far is tum mak hoong (green papaya salad), which features unripe papaya, chilli, garlic, shrimp paste, fish sauce, lime and different herbs. If the salad is too spicy for you, try eating it with sticky rice (like the locals) and it will make it more enjoyable.
Khao Piak Sen
One other dish you will encounter on most of the streets in cities and villages alike is noodle soup, which is eaten mainly for breakfast by locals. There is a big variety of noodle soups in Laos but you can’t say you’ve been to the country without trying Khao Piak Sen. What makes this dish so special is the chewy noodles and the thickened chicken broth garnished with pork belly, cooked vegetables, fried garlic and fried onion. We highly recommend Xieng Thong Noodle Soup in Luang Prabang for some tasty Khao Piak Sen. Make sure you order a rice cake as it goes perfectly with the noodle soup.
Khao Jee Sandwich
You will find a vendor selling this French-Lao fusion on almost every street corner. Similar to Vietnam’s Banh Mi sandwiches, Khao Jee (baguette) is split in half and filled with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, carrot, onion, cheese, pork, chopped ham and topped with chili sauce. The best place to get a good Khao Jee sandwich is along the Khouvieng Road, opposite the Khua Din Bus Station in Vientiane. Khao Jee sandwich together with a cup of Lao filtered coffee makes the perfect meal.
Tubing in Vang Vieng
Almost every backpacker has heard of tubing in Vang Vieng, as it was once a notorious spot for backpacker parties. Although the party tubing scene Vang Vieng is quite different to what it was ten years ago, it is still an awesome way to get close to the stunning karst that looms over the river.
The idea of tubing is simple. First, you rent a rubber tube from one of the two main tubing companies in town, with either red or yellow tubes (tip: the yellow tube option offers the longer, more fun and popular tubing experience compared to the red tube). After you’ve paid the rental fee and deposit , a tuk tuk driver will pick you up and head around 3km north to the starting point of the tubing route next to the Vang Vieng Organic Farm. No instruction is needed so you can simply jump in the tube and start floating whenever you’re ready! As you tube down the river, a few bars on the river with music will throw a rope and pull you in so you can stop for a beer, a chat or a game of mud volleyball. Partying along the river can be good fun but no one will force you to stop at the bars so continue downstream and wave at the party people from a distance if you wish. After around three hours, you get off in town close to the offices where you drop the tube off.
Vang Vieng has transformed into one of the best adventure travel destinations in Laos so if tubing is not your thing, there are plenty of other outdoor activities to do in this small mountainous town. Rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, or walking in some of the most spectacular limestone hills in Southeast Asia sounds like a good idea too!
The 4000 Islands
Also known as Si Phan Don, The 4000 Islands is a haven for budget backpackers and travellers alike, with affordable accommodations along the Mekong River, fun outdoor activities and a laidback atmosphere.
There are three main islands that you can stay on, namely Don Khong, and the sister islands Don Det and Don Khon, which are connected by an old French bridge. Don Det is the most happening island with many choices of restaurants, bars and guesthouses, while Don Khon is slightly more developed than Don Det and is a good day trip from Don Det to see the beautiful beaches and waterfalls.
One of the must-sees in The 4000 Islands is Tat Somphamit Waterfalls on Don Khon. Here, you can easily spend a day walking around the stunning waterfalls and relaxing in the bungalows and hammocks at the beach nearby. The waterfalls are very easy to get to from Don Det by bike – just cross the Old French Bridge and turn right. There is an entrance fee of 35,000 kip for Don Khon, but the price includes admission to the waterfalls. When you visit the island of Don Khon, simply follow the local pace, allow yourself to get lost and take your time to explore the villages, waterfalls, sugar cane farms and surroundings.
Another way to engage in some outdoor activities and see the island is by taking one of the many kayak tours. These tours are mostly full day and include breakfast and lunch. You get to see two waterfalls and drift around the Mekong. If you’re lucky you’ll see some Irrawaddy river dolphins too.