Our trip into Laos was a fairly last minute decision. We’d heard and read good things, but everything we found there made it the best part of our trip. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, but we found it to be one of the friendliest and most welcoming. I’d go back in a heartbeat and I couldn’t recommend a visit highly enough.
We chose Luang Prabang to explore. It’s a small town on the Mekong River and there’s opportunity to explore the beautiful surroundings through homestays, treks, elephant riding, and kayaking. Other tourists had come from Vang Vieng, which is apparently similar to Luang Prabang and with a reputation for tubing.
Getting to Luang Prabang:
The bad news about Laos and Luang Prabang is that it isn’t esay to get to from Hanoi (check out my blog from Hanoi here). A mixture of bad planning on our part and poor transport links meant we spent two consecutive nights in small, non-tourist towns on the way.
Firstly, Dien Bien Phu on the Vietnam-Laos border is the location of a 1954 battle where Vietnamese forces defeated the French. There’s not much to do, apart from a museum dedicated to the battle. We were held up here as the onlybuses into Laos left before we arrived. Udomxai in Laos is similar to DBP, just a bit bigger. Neither town caters for tourists, so I’d definitely advise planning your journey into Laos to avoid a couple of wasted days.
The visa situation in Loas is simple, and you can pay for a 30-day visa on arrival.
Roads in Laos are notably more bumpy and less developed. At one point, we were delayed due to the road still being built. Our bus managed to fit nearly twice as many people in as there were seats, with many on plastic stools in the aisles. It was an uncomfortable journey, but there was some stunning scenery to make up for it.
I can’t be certain, but I’d imagine routes to Luang Prabang from the Laotian capital, Vientiene, would be easier to negotiate. Despite the trouble, I can’t stress enough how much we enjoyed Laos and Luang Prabang once we got there.
What to do in Luang Prabang:
The town itself is very laid back, and is home to a number of temples. The Royal Palace is in the centre of town with impressive gold artwork. At night, the main street turns into a vibrant night market which was one of the better markets we came across in Asia with unique stalls selling a nice range of authentic clothes and souvenirs.
The Phu Si hill has stunning views of the town and Mekong River. Go in the evening to see the sunset – there’s bound to be a lot of other tourists enjoying the same view, but you’ll get a great picture.
We spent a day on rented mopeds and it’s a great way to explore the area without the ridiculously busy roads of Vietnam. You ‘need‘ a licence, but they won’t probe whether you actually have one. There are quiet roads to practice if you’re not experienced on the roads, but even if the roads in Laos are slightly quieter than Vietnam, they still maybe aren’t the best introduction for a first time driver.
We stuck to the quiet but unpaved roads through local villages past the wooden bridge which allow you to go slow. My only tip would be to not use power to negotiate mud (I found this out from experience, after bumping into a wall infront of some unimpressed locals…) If you’re confident on mopeds, there are some good main roads to explore and you’re not far from some quality scenery.
We also booked a 2 day trek through Jewel Adventures that took us trekking in the Laotian hills, riding elephants, and staying at a local village. They tailored the tour to what we wanted to do, but offer larger tours over a number of days. Our tour guide, Kum, was really informative and helpful and had food prepared. We spent five hours trekking through farms, rice fields, and villages to our destination for the night – a village with wooden houses, one communal shower and limited electricity. The community couldn’t really have been any more different from our English home, but everyone had a smile on their faces and I really enjoyed experiencing a simpler way of life in a stunning location.
I also enjoyed the 50% whisky shots that the local family used for a drinking game that night – there wasn’t much to this game: if you were given a shot, you drank it. And then got very drunk.
The second day of our tour saw us trek to an elephant sanctuary. Here, we rode an elephant through the woods on a seat on its back and then on their necks without the seat. We really discovered how incredible these creatures are when we took them down to the Mekong River. Here, they crouched down before playfully shaking us off into the water when their trainers shouted a command. It was such a fun experience, and I really felt like the animals were being looked after.
The whole 2-day package cost us $25. It was easily the best value we found all trip, and if you want to do the typical gap-year activities, it’s a great option.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang:
Luang Prabang is home to a range of accommodation from luxury spas to budget hostels and guesthouses. Follow the guidebook recommendations and you won’t go far wrong. We stayed at a family run guesthouse just off the main strip up a couple of flights of steps. It was run by a father and son who were very helpful. I’d recommend it although I can’t remember the name.
There’s a nice amount of restaurants if you’re tired of the low-cost cafes. Or, you could stick to the night market where there’s plenty of food and smoothie stalls towards the end.
Lots of buses were heading south the Vang Vieng and Vientiene, which may have better transport links (although the capital didn’t seem worth a visit from what we’d heard.)
We went back to Vietnam after our really enjoyable stay in Luang Prabang. Like our journey there, it wasn’t the simplest journey we took. My blog on Vietnam’s Phong Na Ke Bang National Park is here!