Floating down serene rivers and coasting along country roads gawping at stunning countryside? Check. Poking your way around ancient temples filled with enigmatic, saffron-cloaked monks? Check. Sipping on a famous Beerlao brew as the setting sun melts the magnificent Mekong into a simmering river of gold, and monks chant their oms in the distance? Yes. Laos’ beautiful personalities, incredible sights and unique, laid-back nature can all be enjoyed in just a week. Here’s how:
Day one - Vientiane
In the nation's friendly capital, visit Laos’ most important national monument, the Golden Stupa (Pha That Luang), and take in the surrounding temples. As the temperature rises, head closer into town to scope out the inner-city’s beautiful temples such as Wat Si Saket, café-hopping in between. At sunset, join in with the rest of Vientiane’s city folk and take a stroll along the Mekong. If you have energy to spare, test out Vientiane’s bar scene: head to Sabai Dee or Lunar 36. Eat: Baguettes and fruit shakes from street vendors; Aria; Le Banneton.
Day two - Vientiane
If you're feeling intrepid, hire a motorcycle from the town centre and explore the surrounding countryside en route to artist Luang Pu’s Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan). Go past landmarks such as the Beerlao brewery and the Laos-Thai Friendship bridge, wats (temples) dotted along the roadsides and busy produce markets, riding alongside young monks riding bikes under the shade of umbrellas. Cap off the day with a visit to Vientiane’s night market.
Day three - Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is most easily reached by bus, which you can easily book from a travel agent in Vientiane. Allow for half a day’s travel, and once you’ve settled yourself into a guesthouse, grab a place to sit by the Nam Song river and watch the sun fall atmospherically over the limestone karst cliffs that dominate the skyline. Eat at: Central Backpackers (don’t miss Laos’ best cocktails here); Organic Mulberry Farm Café; Nazim; Mitthaphao Fusion.
Day four - Vang Vieng
Experience Laos' most famous adventure: tubing. Head out late morning to avoid the young crowds and have the river to yourself. Spend the day being swept along the Nam Song by tiny currents of water while taking in the jaw-dropping scenery. Stop by at a few bars – but not too many - take note of this Lonely Planet advice: 'as idyllic as it sounds, keep a clear head, for there’s the occasional horror story; in times of high water, rapids along the Nam Song can be quite daunting.' Once you've passed the very last bar, grab a tuk-tuk back to the town or continue via tube.
Alternative to Vang Vieng - Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars
If the tubing/partying scene is not your style, skip Vang Vieng and head to the mysterious centre of Phonsavan and wonder at the ancient burial ground, the Plain of Jars. On arriving in Phonsavan, head to the UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) centre and learn about Laos' plight with unexploded bombs that were dropped during the Vietnam War. Organise a tour for the next day that takes in all three main Plain of Jars sights (the final two have more picturesque settings, the first is the largest). Visit the Bomb Village where houses have been constructed out of bomb debris, and meet the woman who runs a Whisky distillery out of an old shed. During the evenings, watch a free film screening about Laos’ UXOs. Note that the area still has unexploded bombs, so take care when walking to stay within designated areas - only the three main Plain of Jars sites are considered reasonably free of UXOs. Eat at: Nisha Restaurant; Craters Bar & Restaurant.
Day five – Luang Prabang
Grab an early bus to the Unesco heritage-listed city of Luang Prabang. This may be a day of travel, but unparalleled scenery will keep you occupied as you cut through mountainous peaks and crevices that reveal picturesque little hilltop villages where children play along the roadside and farm animals grunt and squawk as you go by. On your arrival in Luang Prabang, head straight to the riverside and marvel as the sun sets over the gushing Mekong. In the evening, enjoy a lazy stroll through the night-market's exquisite handicrafts where Laos specialties, such as handmade quilt covers and silk can be picked up for a steal. Eat: Head to the night-market for scrumptious BBQ fish and other colourful local dishes.
Head to Laos’ most spectacular waterfall Tat Kuang Si, where tempting pools of incandescent blue are set amongst tall, shady trees at the base of this massive cascade of water. On your way in, don't miss the bear sanctuary that has rescued sparring Asiatic black bears from the illegal pet trade. Amble back through spectacular countryside that breaks into views over Luang Prabang and the Mekong. Eat at: Dyen Sabai; Lao Lao Garden; Coconut Garden; Le Banneton.
Get up at dawn for the monk’s procession (Tak Bat), then check out the creepy crawlies on parade at the local produce market. Take your time to explore the many exquisite and famed temples; when you’re templed-out, grab a ferry and cross the Mekong to visit the village of Ban Xieng Maen. Take your time doing this, but remember to catch the sun setting over the city from the hilltop Phu Si, back in Luang Prabang. Take another peek at the night market for souvenirs, then finish your trip with a dance at popular nightspot, Utopia.
Kylie McLaughlin manages and writes for Lonely Planet Images' blog.
Further reading: Lonely Planet's article on Motorbiking in Southeast Asia