The northern part of Laos is an adventurer’s dream. Wild rivers, waterfalls, caves, elephant camps, trekking, hill tribes, ancient temples, mountain biking trails, and former royal palaces. You could spend the entire trip in and around Luang Prabang, wander into the hill tribe areas, go to the Plain of Jars, or to the Pak Ou caves, and on and on. By far my favorite place is Luang Prabang and the activities accessible from there.
Luang Prabang (LP) is a town that is truly deserving of its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Change is coming to LP, faster than I’d like, but somehow the town is coping with a move into the 21st century without giving up all the charms of the past. During my first visit, among the charms and yet most negative aspects of LP were the dirt alleys running down to the Mekong – often filled with mud, garbage and dead critters in the rainy season. Under the auspices of a UN-French program, the alleys are changing, but without losing their unique charm. The open gutters and dirt paths are being replaced with interwoven brick surfaces and covered gutters. No longer is crossing in the dark or during a torrential downpour a risk to life and limb. The houses look almost the same, although many have sprouted large satellite TV dishes, and the chickens still peck in the gardens along the sides of the brick work.
Luang Prabang is a place to relax, recharge, see Southeast Asia as is should be, and experience the charms of a people and culture that maintain their roots while moving onto the future. Take at least a few days – a week is better – and you’ll return to your work-a-day world refreshed, with a greater appreciation for a seriously unique part of a wonderful country.
Getting There & Away
I highly recommend flying to almost all destinations in Laos. The roads are generally poor, and the drivers are, to put it mildly, undisciplined. There are occasional outbreaks of banditry, but generally only along a small stretch of highway between Vang Vieng and Vientiane. However, since this stretch is one of the few road trips I would even suggest you consider, always ask local tourist offices in LP and Vientiane before booking the trip.
Tourist buses ply the main road between Vientiane and LP. It will take from six to about 10 hours
Some people come overland from Chiang Mai in Thailand. It takes 25-28 hours. The buses are so-so, the road is tortuous, and the risks, extra 24-26 hours, and discomfort are not, in my opinion, worth the few dollars you save. If you do choose this route, you MUST get your Laotian visa in advance. The visas are not issued at the border, and don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. You will be turned back and have to wait hours for the return bus, pay a duplicate fare, and end up losing about 36 hours, most of it on a bus.
Driving yourself is not really an option. I doubt there is a place that will rent you a car, and the roads are poorly marked and dangerous. You can, however, rent a scooter or motorbike – there are dozens of travel agencies and tourist offices that will be glad to help. Bring your own helmet. Ask the agent to draw a strip map and show you where you can get fuel en route. Many times fuel is simply sold from 50-gallon drums or small bottles at shops along the side of the road. It is worth asking your agent to write down the information you need to get gas, and what the price should be per liter.
It may be possible to hitchhike, but that is also not an option I can endorse. You may, however, be able to arrange a ride with someone from a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), but that is usually only possible from within the country. From Vientiane it is a real possibility, though.
It is possible to travel within Laos by boat, but connections are disappearing as the roads improve. You can go between Vientiane and LP on the Mekong River. The boats are not luxurious, and some offer better accommodation than others. At a minimum you should be able to get a room with a door and sleeping mats. Ask around at the various travel agencies in Vientiane and LP to see what is available.
Cargo boats are going to take several days to reach Vientiane, and longer to LP (upriver). There are faster boats, but you should still allow two days. Either type of boat may include overnights on the boat or in small villages – it pays to ask.
You can also go to and from LP and the Thai border area (Ban Houei Xai near the Thai border) if you’re feeling really adventurous.
Lao Airlines and Thai Air fly several times a day between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai. Thai Air also flies from Bangkok to LP several times a day. Other carriers may fly from their home countries – for example, Vietnam Airlines flies from LP to Hanoi, and the regional Chinese carriers may have flights. Check with the carriers.
The flight from Bangkok to LP is about 90 minutes; from Chiang Mai it’s about 60 minutes. It takes 60 minutes to fly to Hanoi from LP.
Within the country you can get almost anywhere on Lao Airlines. However, there are three things to keep in mind:
- Flights are often overbooked, sold-out, canceled.
- Flights do not go to the places you want to go as often as you would like. Many flights are only once or twice a week, so plan accordingly.
- Other than a few places in the north, there are no direct flights from LP to the rest of Laos. Plan on overnighting in Vientiane.
History of Luang Prabang, Getting around Luang Prabang
What to do & see in Luang Prabang
Day trips from Luang Prabang
Adventures in Northern Laos
Adventures in Northern Laos (part 2)
Laos travel guide homepage
City guide Homepage