Finally wrapping up my Gap Year Saga with a one week itinerary for Laos!
The one that everyone seems to miss off their Southeast Asia route, Laos is a quiet, less touristy country known for its French colonial architecture, lush mountainous terrain and stunning golden pagodas. A lot of the country is unexplored by backpackers due to the danger zones – unexploded mines and bombs dropped over Laos during the Vietnam War.
Because of this, Laos is a pretty cheap place to visit (much like its neighbours) and can be visited on a budget of around £25 a day, including accommodation, buses, food and activities.
Here is a simple 1 week itinerary taking in what I believe to be the key sights, although it can be stretched to a longer trip if you want to pack in more outdoor activities!
Arrive in the country’s capital, Vientiane, and visit a couple of the sacred monuments, such as Pha That Luang, a 44m tall golden pinnacle. There’s not a lot to do in the capital, so I recommend jumping on a bus as soon as possible to Vang Vieng – this journey takes around 4 hours.
Once in Vang Vieng, the whole mood shifts into that of a typical backpacker haven: bar crawls, sleezy hostels and cafes serving burgers and milkshakes while everyone watches constant reruns of Friends. Traversed by the famous Mekong River, one of the most popular activities for backpackers is to go tubing down the river, which is easily organised at your accommodation and costs around £5. A few years ago, however, this activity became quite dangerous as bars sprung up along the water’s edge and highly intoxicated tourists were at risk of drowning themselves (there’s always a few who spoil the fun), so the bars are mostly gone, making tubing a fun but chilled activity here.
There are so many outdoor activities in Vang Vieng, from rock climbing to kayaking to caving, so if you’re a sporty adventurous traveller then this is the place for you!
This is an optional day but one of the highlights of my trip to Laos: a day spent at the Plain of Jars, a megalithic archaeological site (now classed as a UNESCO world heritage site) just outside of Phonsavan. We decided to visit this site as a break between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, and to put it simply, it was weird but wonderful. After a hefty 5 hour bus ride, we trekked through fields and a local village, where we were treated to watching a football game amongst the local boys. Eventually we reached rolling hills covered in huge stone ‘jars’, mythologically believed to be evidence of giants living on the land, but more likely part of an elaborate burial ritual dating back to around 500BC.
If the Plain of Jars isn’t your thing, have an extra day in Vang Vieng or head straight to Luang Prabang on a 6-7 hour bus.
Everyone is so friendly in this little town and there is such a lovely ‘zen’ vibe, more authentic than the party atmosphere in Vang Vieng. I found the markets to be much less claustrophobic than markets in Thailand or Cambodia, where you’re hounded at every step, and there are beautiful golden pagodas and temples on every street.
The highlight of Luang Prabang for me was hiking up the steep path to Mount Phousi, to watch the sunset over the Mekong River alongside Buddhist monks praying at the summit’s shrine. It was really magical witnessing the sunset over one of the world’s most famous rivers, but make sure to head up there early (with plenty of water and mosquito repellent!) to beat any crowds.
If you have an extra day here, take a trip to the absolutely phenomenal Kuang Si Waterfalls – we attempted to go here on our final day in Luang Prabang but got rained off as we visited in monsoon season (so don’t be daft like us and check you’re going at the right time)!
Writing this post has actually made me want to re-visit Laos. At the time (4 years ago), it was my least favourite place that we visited on our gap year trip, but with hindsight I think that was largely due to a) the weather being terrible 90% of the time, and b) we were halfway through our SEAsia route and hit a bit of a lull, and had little motivation to explore more.
We had spent 29 hours on a bus from Hanoi, Vietnam to Luang Prabang (we actually did this itinerary the other way around to how I have recommended it here) and the whole journey had been miserable, which then basically got us started on a bit of a downer. Now, however, I want to re-visit at a more appropriate time of year and see the beautiful waterfalls and do more fun outdoor activities.
I hope this itinerary has inspired you to think a little more about the less-explored corners of the world. Safe travels!