Traveling across Laos
the best of Laos...
Itinerary and travel tips
Muang Khua, Nong Khiaw, Luang Prabang, Vientiane
16. 8 – 18. 8 MUANG KHUA
The exhausting trip from Hanoi in Vietnam (Old Quarter) to Muang Khua in Laos took an incredible 21 hours. You can read our story from the Vietnam-Laos border crossing and how to do it very cheaply here.
The minibus drops you in Muang Khua 1 km past the bridge at a crossroads in the very center of the village. Contrary to what is said in the online forums, it is no longer true that the bus ends its way at the river in front of the village and it is necessary to take a boat to cross the river. At the junction, you can withdraw local currency from one of the two ATM accepting international cards (24x7). BCEL ATM charged us a fee of 20,000 KIP for using a VISA card.
At the Vietnamese border, the officers are likely to try to scam you saying that exchanging your dollars to KIP is vital. Do not bite their bait, you can withdraw local money easily in Muang Khua, which has 4 ATMs, a Western Union branch and three banks (closing at 4 PM).
Go north of the junction following the only road leading to the river. After a few meters at the intersection, in the right-hand curve of the road going downhill, you can not miss the Muntchai Guesthouse on the left. This newly renovated and clean-looking building offers several standard rooms with a TV, private bathroom and WiFi at 80K per night. In the village, more guesthouses are offering their rooms at half the price. However, the quality is miserable, as was once confirmed to us by one unhappy traveler.
Great meals and big portions you will get in one of two restaurants on the street going downhill to the pier. You can not really overlook them since they are large family restaurants featuring a seating area on the outdoor terrace with stunning views of the Nam Ou River. We were in love with the restaurant (I do not remember the name) located higher up in the hill, farther from the pier. At affordable prices, we enjoyed huge portions of fine Lao and Vietnamese cuisine. I tried Noodle w Pork and Ginger Tea for 20K, delicious Mushrooms w ginger and coffee for 35K or Chicken with mushrooms and coffee for 40K (total price for a meal and beverage).
If your itinerary allows, definitely consider visiting Muang Khua and other villages along the Nam Ou River. If you want to explore the authentic and pure nature (untouched by tourism), taste delicious Lao cuisine, go on a trek and explore the virgin breathtaking surroundings of the river covered with lush vegetation (local guide is available at the Information Center for about 100 USD per trek), this place is made right for you!
Continue by boat downstream to Muang Ngoy (120,000 KIP, 3h) or Nong Khiaw (150,000 KIP, 4h). The price for the boat is quite high, but the experience is priceless. During the trip on this wobbly boat, you will stop now and then to pick up other local passengers waiting in the mud, see the poor conditions in which most of the locals live, stop for a break, and have a couple meaty beetles with rice for lunch. And constantly you will not stop to admire the surrounding nature.
Book the boat trip on the day of departure in the bamboo booth right by the pier. It is necessary to fill the minimum capacity to go at all. We were a total of 9, and we paid 150K to Nong Khiaw per person (most likely they overcharged us). We departed at 9:30 AM and this was the only connection of the day.
18. 8 – 22.8 NONG KHIAW
This village divided into two parts by the river, surrounded by majestic limestones, provides everything you need for an undisturbed multi-day stay. The BCEL ATM is available here as well as a small marketplace and various shops with everything you need (low inventory turnover products covered with dust). The village is still at the beginning of its tourist boom, but it is already seen the increasing efforts of locals, formerly farmers and fishermen, seeking for ways how to get as much money as possible from tourists. Like everywhere, their homes are transformed into guesthouses or restaurants, and instead of working hard on the field, they spend long hours sitting and lounging at home waiting for the tourists to come.
At the ATM behind the bridge, we spot a sign pointing to the Hill Top with views of the entire valley of the river. A few moments later, our enthusiasm disappears, as we find out that for the passage through private land the locals charge 2 USD per person. They adapt really fast ...
For symbolic 5K, visit the Phatoke Cave complex, 2 km southeast of the city, which initially served as a shelter for villagers and a temporary hospital during the 2nd Indochine War. The area surrounding the caves is also interesting - rice paddies, tiny villages, limestone formations. Definitely worth exploring.
If you stay in Nong Khiaw for several days, you can not miss the romantic walk along the Nam Ou River. At the ATM behind the bridge, look for a walkable road, then head north-east. Pass by the expensive Riverside Resort (20USD per person), and the total length of the route depends only on your motivation. The path leads through small villages of a few coconut huts, picturesque rice fields with water reservoirs, and many times you can enjoy magnificent views of the perpendicular rocks and the winding river in the valley beneath you. After about 5.5 km you will reach a smaller tributary (that's where we turned back), and if you continue further, after another 3.5 km, you will reach the end of the road.
There are plenty of accommodation possibilities here. I recommend Vongmany Restaurant and Guesthouse, where you can get a clean, spacious room with WiFi and seating area on the terrace for 60K. Request a room on the sunny north side of the building with a direct view of the river. You have to see this! Food at the restaurant is no glory, go to the other side of the road to Chennai Restaurant instead, where you can taste delicious Indian cuisine (coffee, pineapple lassi, tikka masala chicken, rice for 47.5K or eggplant sauce, cheese naan, cocoa, water for 25K).
How to get from here?
Several vans to Luang Prabang (40K) depart every morning from the "bus station" located 1.2 km northwest of the bridge, near the gas station. Do not rely on any timetables. Drivers wait until the van is entirely (over) filled. So instead of at 9 AM, we headed off at 11 AM, with15 people on board and cargo on the roof. As a consequence of me being squashed into the micro rear seat, my ass after this 3.5-hour wild ride got almost paralyzed. You don't have to buy your tickets in advance, it's okay on the day of departure.
22. 8 – 25. 8 LUANG PRABANG
Whilst villages Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw are worth visiting for beautiful and pure nature, Luang Prabang (UNESCO) offers a perfect blend of traditional Lao architecture with distinct European features, mainly from the French colonial era. This unique historical city, located in the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, is also famous for many Buddhist temples with hundreds of monks living on their premises. It's not a coincidence, Luang Prabang is referred to as the most charismatic city in Southeast Asia.
Indeed, just imagine, you are walking through the city center and in the same street you can admire the magnificent Buddhist temples with golden roofs, decorated with facades and mosaics showing scenes from the life of the Buddha, right next to traditional Lao wooden buildings, and at the same time you feel like strolling in the streets of some European town on the Mediterranean coast. You feel nothing but amazement!
Most of the sights you'll find in the vicinity of Khem Khong street (Mekong River views, parks, and cheap restaurants), Sisavangvong Rd and Sakkaline Rd (temples, wooden and colonial buildings, more expensive restaurants). All this together you can clearly observe from the top of the Mount Phousi.
While exploring the city center, take a break and stop for a coffee on Sisavangvong Rd in one of the many nice "Boutique" cafe shops. Every day, in the same street, just before sunset, the street vendors are setting up their souvenir tents at the time of prayers echoing in Buddhist temples. At the junction of Kitsalat Rd and Sisavangvong Rd, sit on a plastic stool in a temporary shelter and ask for a grilled fish or an excellent homemade noodle beef soup (15K). At the street stand across the road quench your thirst with a glass of Beerlao beer, fresh fruit shake or juice.
For a perfect breakfast, head to the Mekong to Namkhong Cafe. This lovely small cafe at the junction of Kem Khong and Ounheun Rd overlooking the river, will serve you every morning a perfect continental breakfast (espresso, baguette, jam, butter, juice, croissant, fruit salad - all for 30K OR egg, bacon, fruit salad, coffee, juice, baguette, jam, butter - all for 30K). In the afternoon they cook delicious dishes of Asian cuisine (Ginger fry chicken with rice, coffee for 40K or Sweet and sour chicken with rice for 45K).
There is more than enough accommodation options available in Luang Prabang. Walk into the narrow aisles perpendicular to Chao Fa Ngum Road and surely you will discover a lovely, stylish guesthouse. We strongly recommend the Phashoke Guesthouse (head from the junction with Kitsalat Rd southwest on Chao Fa Ngum Road, first turn right, at the beginning of the street). This very cozy and clean guesthouse, of an original architectural character, was one of the most enjoyable hotels we've had in South East Asia. With the room (90K) adorned with wood, new bathroom, TV, WiFi and outdoor terrace we were extremely satisfied.
Traveling from/to Luang Prabang
If you are arriving from northern Laos (e.g., from Nong Khiaw), the van will take you to the Northeast Bus Station 3km away from the city center near the airport (vice-versa for trips to northern Laos). Practically the only way how to get to the center is taking a rickshaw. Almost anarchy rules there, some kind of rickshaw mafia. Rickshaw drivers know very well that for an inexperienced white tourist there is no other way to the city, but using their services. In the beginning, they will ask for a nice sum of money for transport. Bargain pretty hard! While the locals pay 5K, they charge the tourists 20 - 25K per person. I knocked it down to 12K per person for a group of 5 people.
For a trip to southern Laos, go to the South Bus Station. This time 2.5 km south of the center, just behind the Luang Prabang stadium and a few steps (100 m) from a relatively well-stocked large mall. We walked to the southern bus station twice - first time just to buy a ticket to Vientiane and the second time with a backpack on the back. It's fine.
At the South Bus Station, you can buy a bus ticket LP - Vientiane. Do it a day in advance, if you can. You have a choice between VIP (130K) and Air-conditioned bus (110K). We went on the VIP bus - of poor quality but functional air conditioning. Around noon they will stop for lunch, which is included in the ticket price. You can have either Pho soup or vegetarian meal with rice.
We left Luang Prabang around 8 AM and arrived in Vientiane after dusk at 7 PM.
25. 8 – 27. 8. VIENTIANE
After 11 hours of traveling, we were thrilled to arrive in Vientiane. Laotian roads are in a desolate state. After heavy rains and many landslides, the roads are transformed into floodplains covered with scattered pieces of rocks. I admired the driver's maneuvering skills. Finding a safe way amidst the half-meter holes while occasionally scraping the bus chassis on the sharp stones was an art. After some time the driver pulled over, checked the condition of the tires, cooled down the engine with cold water from the hose, and went on.
The road is crazy, but the views are perfect! Past Luang Prabang the bus passes through the beautiful hilly countryside and proceeds through endless serpentines on the steep slopes of the mountains. Wait for the breathtaking views of the sharp rocky peaks and the deep abysses, just a few meters away. Whoever has a weaker stomach, should have a bag handy.
The bus from Luang Prabang takes you to the northern bus station (near the airport), 8 km away from the city center of Vientiane. Getting tuk-tuk here wasn't such a big deal as in Luang Prabang. We managed to get a spot on a halfway-destroyed track for two for 40K to the center. The fare can go even cheaper if you agree to share the vehicle with more people.
In the center of Vientiane, after a few unsuccessful viewings at lousy hotels, finally, we found accommodation at Guesthouse Syri 1 on Rue du Puits, near Lao National Stadium. For 80K, we had a very average room with a fan, weak WiFi and a shitty private bathroom. Times of the glory of this guesthouse mentioned in Lonely Planet passed a long time ago - and in the past twenty years, not much has changed. If you are looking for a cheap guesthouse for a night or two, Syri 1 meets these needs. For a standard Single room, they charge 50K and for the cheapest double 70K.
For a good breakfast, visit at the intersection of Saigon Road and Phanompenh Road the cozy Cafe Croissant d'Or - a French-style cafe (eggs, fried tomatoes, and potatoes, coffee, toast - all for 28K or Chicken curry with rice, coffee, and a muffin - all for 40K). If you are looking for something Asian, Hengboun Road is full of Korean, Chinese and Japanese restaurants.
During our 1-day stay, we didn't manage to see many monuments. Worth mentioning is perhaps the Patuxay Gate "Arch of triumph" in Patuxay Park, combining the pompous French style on the outside with typical Lao ornaments inside.
For a trip from Vientiane to Thailand (read the guide for the cheapest local way from Laos to Cambodia via Thailand), use the Thai - Lao International bus line from Talat Sao Bus Station. You will find the station southeast of Morning Market at Talat Sao Mall. A bus ticket for this dark blue air-conditioned bus Vientiane-Nong Khai you can purchase for only 15K on the day of departure in the western corner of the station in the company's office (at the Khouvieng Road and Nongbone Road junction). We departed shortly after 12.40 PM and arrived in Thai Nong Khai after 1.5 hours without any issues on the Lao-Thai border.