It’s impossible not to love Laos! Its authenticity, great food, smiling people, few and chilled tourists, great travel experiences, and wild jungles make it an ideal destination for backpackers
It is undoubtedly one of my favourite places ever. I can’t even explain why, it’s a mix of things to do, people, and a genuinely positive vibe.
So, here is the itinerary I followed for about two weeks in the North of Laos. I traveled in December. Days were short, with some fog in the mornings until 11h, then plain sun until about 18h.
ENTER VIA LAND FROM THAILAND
Entering the North of Laos via land from Thailand is pretty simple. From Chang Mai a bus will take you to the border. If you so desire, on the way you can stop by the famous Chang Rai’s White Temple for a couple of hours.
This is more than enough time to visit the temple, a very crowded place, and jump on another bus to reach the border with Laos on the same day. No need to linger in Chang Rai really.
Once at the border, in Chang Khong, you will be able to take care of formalities and cross the bridge over the Mekong river by foot.
On the other side, some locals provide transportation for your next destination, and accept Thai Baath as well. The currency is stronger than Laotian Kip. Easy peasy!
SLEEPING IN THE WORLD HIGHEST TREE HOUSE
The frontier town Ben Houayxay was my first destination. The town is nothing special, although the Mekong passes by and you can have a nice dinner overlooking the river. You can also try the local fish. The vibe is immediately different from Thailand as well. From the beginning I had the feeling Laotians are more spontaneous.
Anyways, the reason I stopped there was different. There’s a conservation project called The Gibbon Experience, which organises jungle tours to finance the re-population of gibbons in Nam Kan National Park. Tours can be one or more nights, and seeing the gibbons is actually not that easy, especially if you go on a two day and one night tour as I did. Yet, they are totally worth it! Why?
Because you spend the day zip-lining above the jungle, which is already super cool! I mean, proper, 4-5-6 hundred metres long zip lines, all day long, hopping from one hill to the other. You start from inside the jungle, then all of a sudden you are high above it, and then you re-enter the thick, lush green. Wow!
It’s really a lot of fun, and at the end of the day – icing on the cake – you get to sleep in some of the highest tree houses in the world (Featured image). They are beautiful too! They can be reached only with the zip line of course, dinner is great, you get to see the sunset above the forest. I don’t even know how to call this. Is fuckin’ awesome alright?
The Gibbon Experience is a little expensive, but worth every Euro, and for a good cause.
FIRST JUNGLE TREK: THE BBQ SITUATION
From the tree house childhood dream come true, I took a mini-bus (buses are all kind of mini in Laos, and there are no tourist buses) towards LUANG NAMTHA, and across the Nam Ha National Park.
Now, the town is pretty small, but there are several pretty cool things to do.
The local markets
There’s a small street market where everyone goes to eat in the evening. Because there aren’t so many people or so many tourists around, I got to meet some other travellers very easily and spent some time with them in the following days too. The food was also pretty nice, especially soups and fried spring rolls. There’s also a fruit, spice, and meat market to visit, which is pretty interesting.
Rent a scooter and go
One day I rented a scooter and went up to the border with China, passing by a piece of the national park, and entering a different district. On the way, there are some small towns to visit, more markets for food etc. Mostly though, there’s a beautiful, really gorgeous countryside, with small rivers, lush green vegetation, and forests covered mountains in the background.
I took maybe a couple of hours to reach the border, then some Chinese guards looked at me with a mean face and I went back right away, ha! I didn’t have a visa and I don’t believe the border is open over there anyway.
A word of advice: if you drive in Laos be super careful, it’s the kingdom of potholes, read craters. I have seen some accidents, and the locals drive like madmen.
Jungle trek in Nam Ha National Park
The coolest thing was to go for my first ever jungle trek though. It cost about 40 USD for two days and one night, we were a group of six, and we slept literally in the Jungle. I mean, it wasn’t a homestay or anything, it was a big bunk thing in the middle of the jungle, with a roof but open on the sides. That was our bed.
Our guide was a local guy who loved to explain to us all the secrets of the jungle, what we could eat and what not, etc, and make us taste pretty much everything.
Overnight we had to defend our rice from a couple of cute jungle mice who were trying to fill their belly the easy way. I thought it was kind of fun, but the guide wasn’t on the same page.
Once he saw the mouse he started to scream BBQ, BBQ, and ran after the poor beast with a stick, between the bushes, up and down the trees and all. Despite our request no to kill it, he finally got it, and without hesitation started to cook it in the fire we lit. What can I say: traditions! Then he took us for a night walk in the jungle, digestion with a thrill.
There are many options for jungle treks from Luang Namtha, several also with home stays. The national park is still inhabited by several tribes, so every homestay is a little different. Coming back from the jungle we passed by one of the villages and we had the possibility to ask a lot of questions to our guide.
SECOND JUNGLE TREK: AUTHENTIC HOMESTAY
After Luang Namtha, I took another mini-bus and moved towards Muan Xay, and from there to NONG KHIAW. It’s a bit of a long journey in one day, and there certainly were other points of interest, but my time was really limited.
Nong Khiaw is a somehow bigger town, laying on the banks of the Nam Ou river. Most people cross the bridge and then look for a room in one of the many cheap accommodations. There are several restaurants and bars as well, pretty much all on the same road.
One thing you can do independently is to trek up a viewpoint on the top of a hill. It takes about 2 hours if you are fit, and the trail is nice. Many people gather at the top to check the view and wait for sunset. So bring a headlamp for when you go back.
Homestay in the jungle
There are a few agencies organising treks with homestays in the jungle that surrounds the area. As it is the case for the whole northern part of the country, there are several villages and different tribes. The homestay might be cheap for us but does provide decent extra money for the host. For a one night and two days tour I paid about 40 USD.
Our guide was super nice and spoke good English. I was glad as during the trek I had the chance to ask many questions about the region, and Laotians, and the economy and the tribes, incredibly interesting. Of course, sometimes you are hit with a classic “same same but different”. But all in all this experience was better than the previous one in terms of understanding the culture.
The jungle instead was a little less jungly, but still very nice as we passed by cultivated lands, rice fields, and some different landscapes. Many pieces of land for example are bought by the Chinese to grow rubber trees. In fact, China is the main investor in the area, for pretty much any type of scalable financial operation.
Few hills later, deeper into the jungle, we reached the village where we would sleep. We were hosted by a very sweet middle-aged couple. Their home was very simple, a small mud-house with no floor, and a single room that served as bedroom and kitchen for us, few animals in a small courtyard on the outside. They had their separate room. The bathroom was outside, in the free area. Obviously, no electricity in any part of the village.
An authentic homestay, and a different lifestyle in these Laotian jungles. Not even in the high mountains of the Himalayas I had this feeling of remoteness from modernity. Yet, this village was somehow much cleaner than the Himalayas, less infested by wraps and plastic products. I hope it has remained so.
That day we went to wash in a nearby waterfall. Overnight the sky was clear, and the stars were sparkling brightly. We could even see Mars and Venus with a naked eye. A truly great memory!
THE VILLAGE ON THE RIVER
The next step of this itinerary was to reach MUANG NGOY, up the river. A tiny village, only one street in fact, reachable only by foot or by boat. No roads to get there. I took a boat and spent a couple of nights there. Such a peaceful and beautiful place, touching a river surrounded by lush green hills, some pretty high.
One day I went fishing with two local guys, who agreed to take me with them for a small sum. As a kid, I used to go fishing on the river in my village with my father. It brought up memories.
It’s been a marvellous day. We fished with the nets, my job was to beat the water with a long bamboo stick to make the fish move and fall into the net.
Then they took me to a village further up the river, which the name I can’t recall, but I’ll call it the scarves village. Women here make beautiful silk scarves by hand, and sell them for few bucks. That’s all the entire village does. They told me it takes two weeks to weave one of those scarves.
After this visit, the two fishermen took me on an isolated and stony river shore, they lit a fire, cleaned the fish we just captured, and started to cook it. Then they pulled out some sticky rice and some locally made rice wine. We ate, we laughed although they spoke no English and I spoke no Lao, and we got drunk.
THE ANCIENT CAPITAL: LUANG PRABANG
My time in Laos was almost over, I had to reach Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos, to catch a flight. Here the scene changed a bit of course. There were more tourists, more people around, less adventurous ones perhaps. Still, the vibe remained as good as I have felt it in the whole trip, very chilled. The city is not that big anyway.
There’s a market where people walk back and forth, a hill with a temple to visit, and many restaurants and bars. It’s worth spending a few nights in this town. For me it was Christmas time, and it ended up to be a very alcoholic one. In fact, I and a friend ended up kind of crashing a party, but we were quickly accepted as part of the crowd. Cool stuff!
It’s totally worth as well to rent a scooter and go visit the surrounding area, especially the famous Kuang Si waterfalls. They are pretty nice!
10 RANDOM STUFF ABOUT LAOS
√ The food is great, kind of similar to Thai food, street food markets etc., but more sticky rice instead of steamed, same same but different really. Try the sticky rice and mango mmmmmmmmm!
√ Massages are possible, but are not as good as Thai massage.
√ The roads are horrible, however the drivers are crazy as hell. So, no problems!
√ Laotians get car sick, a lot, but incredibly they manage to keep it in until when the mini-bus stops. Chapeau!
√ Transport for goods and for people is one and the same. Expect to find anything on the bus, from chickens alive to fresh fish for the market.
√ I asked once if there was a combat sport, something like Thai Boxe. The reply was: yes, Lao Boxe. I haven’t seen any though.
√ The jungles are authentic, but pretty much emptied of animals. I had the feeling they have all been eaten. Luckily there are some conservation programs now.
√ Leeches are part of the deal, they are not that bad.
√ I asked the fisherman if there are many types of fish in the river. The reply was: fish!
√ No one I talked to regretted going there.
Viva the transparency! There are affiliate links in this article. This means if you click on a link and end up buying (or booking) through those websites, I’ll get a small commission, at no extra cost to you. This helps me maintain the blog, and continue to provide (hopefully) useful travel information. I advertise only products I have tested and sites I use myself!