Tucked away between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is a country often missed when heading to Southeast Asia for vacation. This country has many amazing outdoor activities to offer: zip lining in Houayxay, tubing in Vang Vieng, and waterfall swimming in Luang Prabang. Two weeks is a good amount of time to spend here. Try to head down to Four Thousand Island to relax a bit if you can. It isn’t worth staying in Vientienne for more than a day and it can easily be skipped.
When to Go
November to February is the best time to visit as the temperatures are the most moderate and enjoyable. In March and April the heat is almost unbearable and after that comes the raining season until September.
There are no direct flights from the US and Canada to Laos. You will have to connect through Seoul if you want only one stop, otherwise you will have to fly through Thailand and another country, such as China.
An easy way to get to Laos is by land. You can cross from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. If you are planning to do the Gibbon Experience, this is definitely the way to go and it doesn’t cost much. From Chiang Rai, Thailand, there are two daily buses (10am and 4:30pm) from Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 2 that you can take to get to directly to Houayxay, Laos for only 220baht (about $6US). You can book your tickets at the bus terminal at the 999 booth. The journey takes about three and a half hours and the buses are air conditioned. The bus driver will provide you with all the immigration papers needed when you board the bus. There are two bus terminals in Chiang Rai though, make sure you go to Terminal 2. If you aren’t planning to already be in Chaing Rai, flights are cheap from Bangkok. It will only cost you $20-$30US on a local airline.
The Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1 does have buses that go hourly to Chiang Khong (the town closest to Houayxay on the Thai side) but it drops you off a few km from the border crossing and you have to find your own way to Houayxay. This bus only costs 65baht but it is not air conditioned. You can take a tuk tuk for about 50baht to the border or walk about an hour. Once you get past the Thailand exit office, you have a few more km to get to the Laos immigration office. You can take another tuk tuk there for 25baht and then once you cross into Laos you will have to take another one into town. All in all, it is best to take the bus from Terminal 2 for the extra dollar or two. If you have some time to kill at the Bus Terminal 2, head over to a small restaurant stand next to the river that has some nice wooden tables, electrical outlets and Wi-Fi. Food is cheap here too.
Traveling Between Houayxay and Luang Prabang
Traveling between these two towns is very easy. You have a few options: take a boat down the Mekong River or take a 12 to 15 hour bus (if you do this make sure you take the VIP one). If you have the time, definitely take the two-day slow boat down the river for only $20-$24US (cost will depend on where you purchase your ticket). It is very enjoyable and a lot of fun if you have a group of people. It leaves every morning from Houayxay at 11am and you will arrive the next day in Luang Prabang at around 3:30pm. Make sure you get to the boat early to stake out your seats as it fills up quickly and they pack on a ton of people, especially in high season. There is also a more luxurious boat cruise for about $150US. Food is included and it stops at a few villages and caves along the way. Both boats overnight in the small town of Pak Beng. A hotel room isn’t included in the price of the boat ticket but you can find a place to stay in town for 25,000kip. Just wander up the main street a little bit and the places get cheaper. Speedboats are also offered, which takes only 6 hours, if you are short on time but they are known to be very dangerous. It is advised not to take them.
All tourists, except for ones that hold a Japanese, Russians, Swiss, Indonesian, Malaysian, Pilipino, Singaporean, or Thai passport, will need to apply for a visa to enter Laos. Many countries can apply for a visa on arrival, including Canadians and Americans. The cost of the visa will differ depending on where you are from. Canadians have to pay $42US and Americans $35US for the visa. You have to pay in cash so make sure you bring USD because they give you a very bad exchange rate if you use Thai Baht or Laotian Kip. You also need a passport size photo to apply, but if you don’t have one they will only charge you an extra $1US. If you are crossing by land, they will charge you an extra fee of $1US if you cross before 8am or after 4pm Monday to Friday, or if you cross on the weekend.
Before You Go
- If you have a medical emergency in Laos, try to get to Thailand and avoid hospitals in Laos as the medical system is horrible.
- There are a lot of mosquitos in Laos so make sure you bring a lot of bug repellent.
- The sockets here can fit North American plugs as well as European so there is no need to bring a converter.
- You will come across a lot of Lao Lao rice alcohol which is homemade and clear (so don’t mistake it for water as you will likely find this in recycled water bottles)! They call it rice wine or rice whiskey depending on the percentage of alcohol in it.
- Sticky rice is very common here and you will likely eat it at most meals.
Currency & Payment
The currency here is kip but most street vendors will also take USD. $1USD is equal to 8,000kip and $1CAD is equal to 6,000kip. ATMs are easily found around main cities and take Visa and MasterCard. Found that most snacks (smoothies, sandwiches, etc.) and souvenir items that priced at 10,000kip can be bought for $1US.
Luang Prabang is a small quaint town located in the northern part of Laos which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. It is very calm and clean and although touristy, you won’t find people try to aggressively sell you things at every street corner, even in the night market. Spend 3-4 full days here.
The town is very small and you can almost walk around everywhere. You will need a tuk tuk to come from the boat dock (if you take a boat down the Mekong River) which costs 20,000kip per person, to go to the airport which costs about 80,000kip for a full tuk tuk (but if you are by yourself you can negotiate for 25,000kip), to go late night bowling which costs 5,000kip per person and to the Kouangxi waterfall which costs 30,000kip per tuk tuk (make sure they wait for you at the waterfall and pay at the end). Tuk tuks are easily found everywhere but if you want to organize a private one ahead of time, here is the contact info for one that is reliable and reasonable.
Tuk Tuk Driver Name: Mr. Keo Cell Number: 020 56083376
You can also hire scooters to explore the outskirts of the city but they are expensive here (100,000kip per day) and the roads aren’t the greatest. So make sure to drive slowly if you do rent one.
Where to Stay
There are many guesthouses and hostels around the small town. The average cost will be about 50,000 to 60,000kip for a dorm and 80,000 to 100,000kip for a private room.
- View Khem Khoung Guesthouse ($)
- Apple Guesthouse ($)
- Sanctuary Luang Prabang Hotel ($$$)
- Villa Maydou ($$$)
- Mekong Riverview Hotel ($$$$)
- DO NOT stay at Sokdee Guesthouse. It is cheap but horrible and dirty.
What to Do
- Swim in the Kouangxi waterfall. This is one of the most famous attractions in Luang Prabang. It is a magnificent waterfall and a lot of fun to swim in. Make sure to hike past the main swimming hole to get to the larger waterfall. You will find a lagoon on the way with a swing, and a floating piece of wood that makes a bridge. If you can walk across the bridge and back without falling, the owner of the bar will give you two free beers. But if you fall, you have to buy a drink from the bar.
- Shop at the Night Market – great for local handcraft souvenirs and very cheap. Make sure to negotiate for a better price as they always start high.
- Watch sunset at the top of Phousi mountain. Here you will have a great view of the city. Entrance fee is 20,000kip. Make sure you get there early to get a good spot for sunset.
- Go to Bar Utopia for drinks then the Bowling Alley after the bars close for a great night out! It costs 20,000kip per person per game to bowl and
- Get a massage. There are many cheap massage places around the city.
- Wake up before sunrise to see the monks participate in the alms giving ceremony monks. These happen on the streets around the temples.
- Go on the one-day mahout experience with Elephant Village. I know many people have issues with these elephant tours, but the Elephant Village only lets you ride bare back and you also can bathe them as well. The elephants at this village were rescued from the logging companies who used them to move tons of lumber for many years. They are well taken care of and are fed plenty every day. This one-day mahout experience costs $99 online, plus a 3% credit card fee but if you book it in person at their office it will only cost you $93. They pick you up and drop you off at your hotel and the experience includes lunch. You also get to visit the Tad Sae waterfall as part of the experience.
- Swim in the Tad Sae Waterfall. It is a very spacious waterfall with many levels to swim. It is deep enough so you can jump from the levels.
- Explore the Pak Ou Cave which is about an hour and a half north of Luang Prabang by scooter.
- Take an afternoon to explore the temples around the city.
Where to Eat & Drink
- Morning Market – great fruit smoothies for 10,000kip and food.
- Night Market – great dinner buffets for 10,000kip (vegetarian) or 15,000kip (includes seafood and meat) per plate. The vegetarian buffet is located right along the main street where the market is held, Sisavangvong Road. You will find the other buffets in a small alley off the main street right before the tourist information center.
- Pick a restaurant along the Mekong River and have dinner while watching the sunset.
- Big Tree Café & Gallery – for lunch or dinner. They have some beautiful photographs upstairs in the gallery and free Wi-Fi.
- Khaiphaen – for delicious local food in a restaurant setting.
- Bar Utopia – for drinks and pizza. You will only find tourists here but it’s a great setting and a lot of fun. All bars in Luang Prabang close at 11:30pm so head over on the earlier side if you are going only for drinks. If you aren’t tired when it closes, head over to the Bowling Alley for more drinks!
- La Pistoche – great for day drinks. They have pool here where you can relax all day in the sun.
- Icon Klub – for drinks. Small bar located on Soukkhaseum Road.
If crossing into Laos through Thailand or vice versa, you will likely stop by Houayxay, in the province of Bokeo located in the north of Laos. It is a small town of a few streets, separated from Thailand only by a river. This town is home to the Gibbon Experience, which is something you must do when you are in Laos!
Since the town is only a few streets, you can walk to all the restaurants and bars. Getting to and from the boat docks and bus stations, you have to take tuk tuks because they are a bit far. If there are multiple people, it should cost more than $1US per person to get around in a tuk tuk though. If you take the slow boat down to Luang Prabang, the ticketing company should include pickup from your hotel.
Where to Stay
There are only a few places along the main street of Houayxay so you can just wander down the road and find a place because not enough tourists come through the town at once for everything to be sold out. If you are traveling with someone else, private rooms in guesthouses are very cheap, even cheaper than the hostel sometimes. And if you book in person, you can negotiate. Most private rooms in guesthouses go for 50,000-60,000kip depending on the quality. There is only one hostel in the town – Little Hostel. This is a great place to stay. It costs 40,000kip per night to stay here but there is no AC. At night though, you don’t really need it. If you book on hostelworld, it will cost you $6US ($1US more than if you book in person). But because there are only two rooms of 4 beds at the hostel, it fills quickly so sometimes it is worth booking in advance.
The Gibbon Experience
The Gibbon Experience is the only thing to do here. It is why a lot of people come through the city. It was one of the best experiences I had in Asia and I met an amazing group of people. You zip line through the jungle for 3 days and sleep in the tallest treehouses in the world at 60m high! It is a quite expensive to do (for Asia), but it is well worth it and I highly recommend you do it!
There are three excursions you can go on: the express (2 days, $190US), the classic (3 days, $310US) and the waterfall (3 days, $310US). Do the waterfall experience if you can, but make sure to book as far in advance as you can because they sell out the waterfall experience quickly. They will ask you to secure your spot via PayPal if you book in advance but you can pay in USD cash when you get there or by credit card (but they charge a 3% fee if you use one).
The waterfall experience has a bit more trekking and you get to hike/zip to a swimming hole with a small waterfall for one afternoon. You also stay in two different treehouses instead of just one. There will be 16 people on the waterfall experience and before you start the trek they will ask you who wants to do the waterfall that day and who wants to do it the next day. Go to the waterfall the second day, you will have more time to spend there and the flow of the whole experience is better if you do it this way.
Although it is called the Gibbon Experience, the chances of seeing Gibbons are not high. You will likely hear some, especially in the mornings, but they are hard to spot. You might see some other animals though as there are many that live in the area, including Asian black bears. The guides will help you spot animals while in the treehouse and trekking.
Because you have to carry all your stuff with you while hiking and zip lining, pack a small day pack to bring for the few days you will be on the experience and leave your big bag in the Gibbon Experience Office. Below is a list of what you should pack in your day pack:
- Mosquito repellent
- Hiking Shoes
- 3 shirts (dry-fit are the best)
- 2-3 pairs of shorts
- 1 pair of capris / pants (sometimes more comfortable for zipping because the harness won’t be rubbing on your skin)
- 3 pairs of socks
- Flip flops (useful to cross the rivers and for going to the waterfall)
- Toilet paper and toiletries (including shampoo – there is running water and a shower)
- Warm clothes for nighttime
- Bathing suit (if you are on the waterfall experience)
- Headlamp / flashlight
- External battery charger because there is no electricity in the treehouses (make sure your camera and phone batteries are fully charged before you leave)
- Water for the first day of hiking
- Alcohol if you want to drink at night (there is no cooler for beer so hard alcohol is best)
- Cards to play at nighttime
Also, here are some tips for the trek:
- At night, put your day bags inside your tent and tuck the mosquito cover under the mattress as rodents may visit your treehouse.
- Bring flip flops. The guides will tell you that you don’t need them but they come in very handy!
- Bring some money in case you want to buy some beer or snacks when you stop for bathroom breaks on the way to the jungle and one the way back to the village.
Where to Eat & Drink
There aren’t very many restaurants in the town but Bar How is good if you are craving western food and is a good place to drink. If you are taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang, make sure to buy some snacks, sandwiches, beer and water for the trip as it is a long journey and food and drinks on the boat cost double the price. A big glass bottle of beer should cost no more than 10,000kip and a sandwich should cost no more than 10,000kip. They have big coolers on the boat so if you befriend the attendant of the booth, they may let you keep your beer there or switch your warm beer for cold ones as you drink them.