Two-week itinerary for backpacking Laos (from $14 per day). This Laos backpacking route includes Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, & Vientiane.
When someone refers to a destination as the “most beautiful on earth” – you better believe it goes to the top of my bucket list. That’s what I heard from many people who were backpacking Laos. They gushed about the gorgeousness of Luang Prabang and the crazy party scene in Vang Vieng. All of these things are true and this is only in the northern half of Laos.
One thing that you might not expect, is that backpacking Laos is more expensive than Thailand (or at least in the major tourist cities). For example, in Northern Thailand, it is possible to buy a curry or noodle dish from 40 Baht ($1.20 USD) but in Laos, the cheapest meal we found was 150,000 LAK ($1.77 USD). Although you can get amazing sandwiches and bottles of beer from 10,000 LAK each ($1.18 USD). It might sound like a small difference but it can add up over time.
Even though we had to watch our expenses more carefully, Max and I still managed to spend only $14 per day over 2 weeks in Laos. To help you have the best possible time without going over budget, here are my recommendations for:
- Laos backpacking route
- Laos backpacking itinerary (2 weeks)
- Taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang
- Traveling from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng to Vientiane by bus
- My travel budget for Laos.
Laos backpacking route
Your Laos backpacking route will depend on your length of time available, your point of entry and where you want to exit. If Laos is the only destination and you are short on time, then you can fly straight into Luang Prabang and fly out of Vientiane (or vice versa), traveling by bus in between. For those who are traveling entirely by land, there are multiple entry points from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and China. Check directly with Laos Tourism to see what visas you require, the correct process and point of entry when planning your trip.
Originally Max and I talked about traveling by land into Laos from Vietnam. The problem was that our last stop in Vietnam was in Hanoi and the only way to travel by land from there into Laos is on a 24-hour bus. As I get motion sickness on buses and the cost of flights between the two countries was high, these were not good options. Luckily, I came across a much easier and interesting route from Thailand to Laos. So we flew from Hanoi to Bangkok, then traveled to the north of Thailand (by train to Chiang Mai then bus to Chiang Rai) before crossing over in Huay Xai.
In total, we spent two weeks in Laos, stopping in Huay Xai, Pakbeng, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane. The Lao capital of Vientiane is conveniently situated near the Thai border, so we were able to cross by local bus to Nong Khai then take an overnight train directly to Bangkok. If you are coming from Thailand, this is also a good entry point.
For those who want to extend their trip, discover the 4000 islands of Laos, enter or exit into Cambodia, then you could travel into the south of Laos.
Laos backpacking itinerary (2 weeks)
Day 1: Huay Xai
Where to stay: Oudomsin Hotel (100,000 LAK Baht for a private room and bathroom per night)
During our 4 month trip of South East Asia, we tried to travel by land as much as possible, enjoying the train system in Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia. Unfortunately, Laos does not have a railway. So to deal with my motion sickness, we chose to travel on a two-day slow boat from the Thai-Laos border town of Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. There is a 12-hour overnight bus option but even if I didn’t get sick on buses, I would still recommend the slow boat.
Once you cross the border from Chiang Rai or Chiang Kong in Thailand over into Laos, you will take a tuk-tuk to Huay Xai. Also, know as Ban Houayxay and Huoeisay, it’s a small town by the river without much to do. We arrived at our hotel, Oudomsin Hotel, around 3 pm and booked our tickets for the slow boat through reception. It costs us 240,000 LAK per person for the boat plus a tuk-tuk to take us from the hotel to the pier the next day.
I read reports of people who hated their slow boat experiences but I loved it! It is two days on a boat with the slow-moving scenery of hills and the occasional village, so I definitely recommend taking a book and other activities to keep you occupied. Max and I traveled with another couple so we spent days chatting, reading, creating macrame anklets and bracelets, and just relaxing.
Here are some other tips when planning your border crossing into Laos and taking the slow boat:
- Make sure you have Lao Kip (LAK) before you arrive as it may be more expensive to buy in Huay Xai
- Try not to cross the border too late in the afternoon, so you have time to book your boat for the next day
- Buy plenty of food to eat on the boat. They only sell overpriced instant noodles and snacks on the boat
- Sit in the middle of the boat, as there is a loud engine at the back and you might get wet at the front.
Watch this video of our experience on the slow boat to Luang Prabang.
Day 2: Pakbeng
Where to stay: Don’t book ahead. When the boat stops in Pakbeng, walk along the street and find the best deal (make sure to look at the bedroom before agreeing).
After the first day on the slow boat, it stops in the small town of Pakbeng. You will need to find your own accommodation here and it is not included in the price of the boat. As soon as the boat pulls up the pier, lots of locals will run up with offers for their guesthouse. You can either stay here and try to negotiate the best deal or walk up the hill to look around first.
We chose to push past the crowd and walk along the main street (there is really only one) stopping each guesthouse to check their price for a private room and bathroom. We paid 100,000 LAK Baht for one night in a comfortable and clean room, but you might be able to find something slightly cheaper. The food in Pakbeng is generally more expensive as it solely caters to tourists. Almost every restaurant has the same menu and prices, which they will make a joke about “same, same but different chef”. We ate at the Indian-Lao restaurant in town and although it was a bit pricier than normal (37,500 LAK for a vegetable curry and naan), the food was delicious.
Day 3-10: Luang Prabang
Where to stay: Vanvisa (97,000 LAK for a private room and shared bathroom per night)
The second day on the slow boat is much shorter than the first and they stop before reaching Luang Prabang. Rather than driving the boats straight up into the city, they finish the journey a few kilometers out so that tuk-tuk drivers can get additional business. The prices for the tuk-tuks are all the same (20,000 LAK per person) and you won’t be able to negotiate, so you can either accept it or choose to walk like a few stubborn backpackers did from our boat. It’s a pretty long way, so we just paid up.
Once you get into the Old Quarter of Luang Prabang, you will be able to walk pretty much all over town. Each night from 5 pm there is a market on Sisavangvong Road. We would always eat dinner here, either taking advantage of a vegetarian buffet (all you can fit into your bowl for 15,000 LAK) or getting a tasty bowl of Khao Soy (15,000 LAK). The market also sells clothing and handicrafts including Hmong, Tai Lao, Tai Dam, and Akha crafts.
To watch the sunset, a lot of tourists go to Phu Si Hill which is across from the Royal Palace Museum. There is an entrance fee of 20,000 LAK and it can get pretty crowded. The other downside is that there are some women selling small birds in cages for tourists to release on the top of the hill (which imaginably are recaptured later). We shockingly saw some people actually funding this cruel practice.
Anyway, save your LAK and avoid the crowds by setting the sunset by the river with good friends and a couple of beers – just make sure you wear plenty of mosquito spray.
The most well-known attraction of Luang Prabang is Kuang Si Falls and it is truly breathtaking! There are a few ways to get to the falls from the Old Quarter, either through a tour, taxi truck, or bicycle. We thought we were super smart by renting bicycles from our guesthouse, Vanvisa, and riding there. But the joke was on us, because due to the heat, lack of shade along the road, and hills, it took Max and me two hours to arrive.
Fortunately, paradise was waiting for us on the other end. Kuang Si Falls may be a popular tourist spot but it is magical and not to be missed!
Bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng
Our journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was one of those cases where we tried to find the cheapest way but ended up losing a ton of time and not saving any money. The best option is to buy a ticket for a minivan that goes directly Vieng Vang in around three hours. You should be able to negotiate for around 100,000 LAK including pick up from your hotel.
Max and I did not take the minivan because we thought we could find a cheaper option. First, we tried hitchhiking to Vang Vieng. Max had successfully hitchhiked from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City and had an amazing experience with Vietnamese locals. Our attempt in Luang Prabang was laughable because not one single car stopped.
In the end, we walked to the public bus station because we thought it would be cheaper than the shuttle. The man selling us the tickets told me the cost was 110,000 LAK per person even though the sign said 95,000 LAK. After I tried, Max went to talk to him and point out the sign but he insisted. Luckily, there was a shift change and the next man sold us tickets for 95,000 LAK. The other unknown was that the public bus went on a longer route than the minivan, and it took us over five hours to arrive in Vang Vieng.
Day 11-12: Vang Vieng
Where to stay: Outland Hostel (75,000 LAK for a private room and shared bathroom per night).
Vang Vieng is a party town made famous by its river-tubing. I’ve heard stories from friends and other backpackers how they would ride down the river on an innertube, drinking and stopping at riverside bars along the way. Sadly, many people died and since then the river tubing has been regulated.
Despite this, there is still a wild vibe to Vang Vieng. In fact, some bars actually have a free happy hour (although it is local Whiskey drinks) and sell mushrooms and gas balloons. On a night out with another couple and a guy from Croatia, I saw one man take off his pants while on the dance floor and two women get into a fight. There is a loose feeling to it all, but it can be fun if you take it easy and stay safe.
As we had just one full day in Vang Vieng, Max and I choose to go to the Blue Lagoon. If you believe the advertising, it sounds like a gorgeous natural lake but in reality, it is more like a concrete hole full of water and packed with tourists. I actually laughed out loud when we arrived but in the end, it was a lot of fun. People were taking turns using the rope swing or jumping from the tree and everyone would cheer them on.
The Blue Lagoon was a good option for us because we could ride our bikes there (free bicycle rental from Outland Hostel) and the entrance was only 10,000 LAK per person. Also, there is a cave at the top of a hill that you can climb and explore while there.
Bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane
After surviving the bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, our journey to Vientiane was much easier. We booked the minivan at our accommodation, Outland Hostel. First, we were picked up by a truck along with tourists from hostels and all taken to the bus station. It was just a ten-minute wait for our van to Vientianne.
Day 13-14: Vientiane
Where to stay: Avalon B&B (90,000 LAK for a bed in a shared room with bathroom)
As this was my second visit to Vientiane, I spent my two days here catching up on work but I do have recommendations for first-time visitors. There is the Riverside Night Market from 6-10pm each night where you can buy souvenirs for friends and family. Around this area, there is also a lot of bars and restaurants.
Probably the most famous and fun activity in Vientiane is the Buddha Park. It is actually 25 kilometers outside of the city but can be reached by bus or taxi. The park is full of Buddha sculptures and various other quirky figures. Strangely enough, there is also a sculpture park across the Thai border, called Mut Mee. So either way, you will get a chance to see giant figures of Buddha.
My travel budget for Laos
All costs are quoted in the local currency (Lao Kip). See below for the average daily spend per person including currency conversion to USD and AUD. I always try to find and negotiate the best prices to share with my readers. If you know of a better deal, tell me about it in the comments below.
Accommodation: Max and I searched for the best deals for private rooms with free wifi.
- Huay Xai: Private room and bathroom for two people in a guest house (100,000 LAK for the room per night for one night). See prices at Oudomsin Hotel or look for other accommodation options in Huay Xai.
- Pakbeng: Private room and bathroom for two people in a guest house (100,000 LAK for the room per night for one night). You can book a hotel upon arrival or look for accommodation options in Pakbeng online.
- Luang Prabang: Private room and shared bathroom for two people in a guest house (97,000 LAK for the room per night for seven nights). See prices at Vanvisa or look for other accommodation options in Luang Prabang.
- Vang Vieng: Private room and a shared bathroom for two people in a hostel (75,000 LAK for the room per night for two nights). See prices at Outland Hostel or look for other accommodation options in Vang Vieng.
- Vientiane: Dorm room and shared bathroom for two people in a hotel (90,000 LAK per bed, per night for two nights). See prices at Avalon B&B or look for other accommodation options in Vientiane.
Food: All the places we stayed offered free water refills and hot water to make coffee except in Vientiane. Breakfast was included in Vang Vieng and Vientiane only. We mostly ate street food and at local restaurants. (48,000 LAK average per day on food and drink).
Activities: Entrance to Kuang Si Falls (20,000 LAK), entrance to the Blue Lagoon (10,000 LAK).
Transport: Tuk tuk from Thai border to hotel in Huay Xai (25,000 LAK), slow boat to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai (240,000 LAK), tuk-tuk from boat terminal to Luang Prabang (20,000 LAK), bike rental in Luang Prabang (20,000 LAK), bike parking for Kuang Si Falls (1000 LAK), tuk-tuk from falls to Luang Prabang (30,000 LAK), bus to Vang Vieng (95,000 LAK), toll bridge in Vang Vieng (6000 LAK), bus to Vientiane (50,000 LAK).
Average daily spend: 124,535 LAK per day each ($19.87 AUD / $14.76 USD as of July 2018). This amount could be reduced by drinking less beer than we did.
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