My idea of backpacking South East Asia doesn’t include stopping over in Laos. That isn’t to say I don’t like the country, but just that Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam overland satisfies all my needs. Why would anyone include Laos in their journey around the region?
For luxury travellers, Laos can be the forgotten country of Asia (along with East Timor). However, for backpackers travelling on a shoestring, Laos is becoming more and more of a destination in its own right. While not as immediately accessible as Thailand, and while not having the array of cultural attractions like Vietnam or even Cambodia, Laos is still a very cheap destination with beautiful scenery and plenty of things to keep you occupied. But is it worth the extra effort in getting there and adding it to your overall itinerary? Or would you just head to Laos on its own for some backpacking palaver instead of Thailand (to avoid being too mainstream)? After all, even from the busiest airport in South East Asia (busiest outside of China), Singapore Changi, there are no direct flight to Luang Prabang, and only 1 flight per day to the capital Vientiane.
When looking at how to tackle Laos, it is wise to try and get to Luang Prabang initially (there are direct flights from Bangkok and Hanoi) and then head southwards on the VIP Bus via the Plain of Jars – Vang Vieng – Vientiane – Savannakhet – Champasak – Bolaven Plateau, at which point you can plan an overland border crossing into Vietnam or Cambodia. However, you need to remember that visa on arrival is not available in Vietnam, so you will need to obtain it in Laos beforehand.
Luang Prabang is the farthest north major city in Laos, and while it is quite popular with backpackers, I found more middle-aged and old-aged travellers there, and it seems a very sleepy city with not much entertainment value. Despite that, though, it is extremely cultural and you can’t help but fall in love with the local way of life.
Phonsavan is an overnight trip from Luang Prabang (around 8 hours each way in a minibus), and the principal reason anybody comes here is to see the Plain of Jars, the origin of which nobody knows even to this day! It is quite a spooky place, relatively off the beaten track, but due to years and year of war, there are some unexploded mines in the area (not on the usual tourist trails, but close by), so don’t venture too far away from the designated pathways!
Vang Vieng is one of those love or hate places. Most backpackers will have heard about it when researching Laos and the region as a whole, but it has a somewhat infamous image, being full of drunken backpackers who do nothing all day but experiment with drugs and river tubing! In the 1980s, I guess this was commonplace, but times have changed, and nowadays, a trip to Vang Vieng – despite its natural scenic beauty – comes with an unwanted reputation.
From Indonesia, Singapore or Malaysia, Vientiane is clearly the easiest city to get to by air. It is a fairly lively city, but Laotian standards, much more so than Luang Prabang. Yet for a capital city, it has surprisingly little to offer backpackers, and usually you will stop here for a night or two before heading elsewhere.
Somewhat stuck off of the major tourist routes, Savannakhet is like a time warp back to the 1930s. If you want to come to Laos and do absolutely nothing, and pretend you’re in a different century, then Savannakhet is definitely your place. It is a good 3-4 hour drive away from Vientiane by minibus. Savannakhet is also the primary base for a bus ride to the border with Vietnam at Dan Savanh/Lao Bao, on onwards to Hue or Danang. To the border from Savannakhet, it will cost around 35,000 Kip on a VIP Bus.
Now deep in the Laotian south, Champasak is another sleep rural town. It is kind of like Luang Prabang of the south. Nothing for tourists to do in the town itself (not even a decent market), but there are some epic day trips available, including to Khone Phapheng Falls, Si Phan Don (1000 Islands), and Wat Phou (not to be mistaken for the temple in Bangkok with the same name), which is legendary because it was an example of what the Angkorian Empire built BEFORE they arrived at Angkor!
The Bolaven Plateau represents the most south-eastern point of a backpacking itinerary in Laos. Once you’re all the way down here, there’s no point heading north again. You may as well just head over the border and into Vietnam! But the Bolaven Plateau itself is a huge tourist draw (by Laotian standards, anyway) for its beauty landscaping, including mountains, waterfalls, and exotic wildlife. It’s just a shame that decent accommodation is so sparse this far south!
If you visit Laos at all, it is a sure thing that you’ll want to experience the north of the country: Luang Prabang-Vang Vieng-Vientiane. From Vientiane, you must decide if Laos is worth more of your precious backpacking time. If not, you can always hop over the Thai border at Nong Khai, which is pretty close to Vientiane anyway. Yet if you want to continue in Laos, you should head – via Savannakhet and maybe Champasak – to the Vietnamese border in the east at Dene Savanh/Lao Bao, or even further south to Cambodia via Si Phan Don (from where you should cross the border and embark on a 12 hour bus journey to Siem Reap).