Laos is a little charmer. Sandwiched between five countries in the heart of South-East Asia, it’s a tiny place that never fails to tug on traveller heartstrings. You’ll seldom hear a bad word said about Laos. Within its landlocked borders, there’s a shy and wild mystique that enchants everyone who passes through. So, if you’re planning a Laos trip, prepare to be spellbound for life.
Like the rest of South-East Asia, Laos is no stranger to visitors. Hoards of people trudge a well-worn path through its tropical forests, lakes and rivers. Most people travelling independently will cross into Laos from northern Thailand, take a two-day boat trip to Luang Prabang, nip over to Vang Vieng for some river tubing and end up in Vientiane. Those with more time might add a visit to the Plain of Jars and the 4,000 islands. While these are all great destinations, they no longer give you a glimpse of the real Laos.
Beyond what is now called the ‘banana pancake trail’, Laos is unbelievably beautiful and totally addictive. The people are kind and welcoming, the landscape is staggering and the pace of life is deliciously slow. So, if you can afford to be flexible, budget some extra time to get a little bit lost in the backwaters of Laos. You won’t be sorry.
Surrounded by towering limestone mountains with twisting river views, Nong Kiaow is like a rural daydream. It’s the perfect place to take some time out during a hectic South-East Asia itinerary. On the banks of the Nam Ou River, deep in the countryside of Northern Laos, it’s an entrancing, sleepy little spot.
The town has warmly embraced tourism in a low-key, lovely way. It’s great for relaxed river tubing, minus the raucous party scene of Vang Vieng. There’s trekking, canyoning, boat trips and rock-climbing up for grabs, making Nong Kiaow a brilliant base to explore the area. It’s the kind of place where days can easily turn into weeks, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.
How to get there: It’s a bumpy but beautiful bus journey from Luang Prabang to Nong Kiaow, taking around three hours, or we can arrange a private car and driver for a little more comfort! Even better, it’s a six to seven hour scenic boat-trip along the Nam Ou river, which is by far the best way to arrive.
Tucked away amidst a trio of forest waterfalls on the edge of the Boloven Plateau, Tad Lo is a true traveller haven. It’s a laid-back, sociable spot scattered with ultra-affordable bamboo shacks. Think languid days filled with waterfall dips, long walks and swinging hammocks. Visitors to South-East Asia seem to get younger all the time, but you’ll find a refreshing mix of ages in Tad Lo.
There are three waterfalls within hiking distance of Tad Lo; Tad Hang, Tad Lo and Tad Suong. Each is beautiful in its own way, with a handful of safe swimming spots to cool you down after the walk. Tad Suong is by far the tallest and arguably the most spectacular of the three, making it worth the 10km trek to get there. If you’re feeling a little on the lazy side, just hop on a motorbike instead.
How to get there: You can reach Tad Lo by bus or car towards Salavan from Pakse. The journey takes around two hours - sometimes less, sometimes more. That’s Laos time for you…
Phongsali is a mesmerising place. High in the northernmost reaches of Laos, lodged between China’s Yunnan and Vietnam’s Lai Chau provinces, it has an atmosphere all of its own. Dotted across a mountain ridge, in the shadow of Phou Fa, or Sky Mountain, the views - as well as the trekking - will leave you breathless. With clear air, crisp sunshine and a shivery chill after sunset, it’s a wonderful way to escape the heat of the lowlands for a few days.
There’s a very heavy Chinese influence in Phongsali, which sets it apart from the rest of Laos. The Chinese Quarter is day-dreamy - a maze of narrow cobbled streets, low roofs and lanterns. The two main ethnic groups are Phou Noy and Chinese Ho, ancestors of Yunnan traders, each distinguishable by their trousers! The Phou Noy wear white leggings while the Chinese Ho sport traditional baggy trousers.
How to get there: You can take a slow boat (5-6 hours) or a fast boat (2-3 hours) up the Nam Ou from Muang Khua. This arrives at Hat Sa, where you’ll need to hop on a songthaew to do the rest of the journey by road (around and hour). From Luang Nam Tha, it’s a long 12 hour drive, although this depends on which routes are open. Alternatively, you can take the easy option and fly to Phongsali from Vientiane!
Home to the ancient Khmer ruins of Wat Phu, Champasak is often overlooked as a destination in its own right. Wat Phu is Laos’ most important Khmer site, dating back further than Angkor in Cambodia. It’s not huge, but it’s crumbly, rambling and just really cool. If you’re lucky, you might even have the place to yourself.
Champasak itself is a delightfully snoozy affair. Most people choose to stay in Pakse and visit Wat Phu on a day trip, but they’re really missing out. With just one main road, a charming ramshackle string of Chinese shop fronts and a handful of restaurants sprinkled along the riverfront, it’s a great place to spend a couple of days going from hammock to temple and back again.
How to get there: It’s easy to get to Champasak from Pakse by minibus, boat or tuk-tuk. You can also reach the town by minibus from Si Phan Don and by boat from Don Daeng.
Muang Sing is a quieter, less developed alternative to Luang Nam Tha, the famous focal point for trekking and mountain home stays in Laos. Packed with jaw-dropping panoramas, strewn with decorative wooden houses and home to a handful of friendly local ethnic minorities, it’s a taste of timeless Laos.
The town itself has a morning market with a mind-boggling variety of foodstuffs for sale, but the real treat here is the scenery. Hire a bike and head off down an orange dirt track, take a walk through tropical forest or book a day trip to visit more remote villages. You’ll feel worlds away from everything, with the crowds of Luang Nam Tha far behind you.
How to get there: Muang Sing is two hours further north than Luang Nam Tha by road. If you’re travelling onward, you can even head into China from Muang Sing, crossing the border at Boten.
Whatever your budget or style, there are plenty of ways to visit Laos either as a single destination, or in combination with other nearby countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Myanmar. We can arrange flights, accommodation and tours and help you include Laos in a multi-stop ticket. We can also tailor-make your holiday for your style and budget – call us on +44 1273320580 or get in touch for more suggestions and a quote by email.