Puttering down jungle rivers, scaling mist-laced mountain roads, ziplining across treetops, and sitting roadside with a steaming bowl of noodles: it’s all possible in one week in Laos without losing that special sense of calm the country brings.
With seven days, a few bus rides and some well-timed cafe stops, you can take in the country’s relaxed capital of Vientiane, outdoor-activities haven Vang Vieng, and stunning World Heritage city Luang Prabang.
Day one: Vientiane
In the nation's friendly capital of Vientiane, visit Laos’ most important national monument, Pha That Luang (Golden Stupa) and take in the surrounding temples. As the temperature rises, head closer into town to scope out the beautiful temples of the inner city, such as Wat Si Saket, with some cafe stops in between. At sunset, join the rest of Vientiane’s city folk and take a stroll along the Mekong. Come evening the old quarter beckons, with its range of tasteful restaurants at affordable prices.
Day two: Vientiane
Get right under the skin of Vientiane with Tuk Tuk Safari, a brilliant tour outfit with a community spirit that takes you by tuk-tuk to the real city. In the company of a friendly local, you’ll witness a silversmith at work, go behind the scenes at a restaurant that helps street kids, and see the inspiring COPE centre, which supports victims of unexploded ordnance.
Day three: Vang Vieng
Perched on the pretty Nam Song (Song River) and backed by soaring jagged karsts, the former party town of Vang Vieng is one of the most stunning places in Laos. It’s popular for kayaking, caving and climbing – and, of course, relaxing. Watch the sun turn to burnt peach behind the cliffs from the bar Earth with one of their flavoursome cocktails in hand.
Day four: Vang Vieng
Enjoy the peaceful Nam Song on an inflated inner tube. Long a rite of passage for foreign tourists in Laos, this is a blissful couple of hours floating downriver passing jungle, cliffs and rice fields. Head out early to save the second half of the day for another activity, and if you’re here in October just after the rainy season, be aware the river flows fast so stay alert. Come the afternoon, try the more recent craze of ziplining, involving being harnessed to a cable and whizzing through the canopy over river, valley and jungle. A host of companies organise this but you could start with Green Discovery.
Day five: Luang Prabang
Grab an early bus to the jaw-dropping World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, which enjoyed its 20th year of protection under Unesco in 2015. Unparalleled scenery will keep you occupied as you travel along mountainous roads that reveal picturesque hilltop villages perched on the edge of abysmal drops, while children play at the roadside beside powder-blue Hmong houses. On your arrival in Luang Prabang, head straight to the peninsula to see some of its 33 wats (temples), wander the riverside, stop at cafes, and marvel as the sun sets over the mellow Mekong. In the evening, enjoy a stroll through the Handicraft Night Market, where Laos specialities, such as handmade quilt covers and silk, can be picked up for a steal.
Day six: Luang Prabang
Take a dawn yoga class with Luang Prabang Yoga before breakfast at Le Banneton for the best croissants in the city. Then head off by tuk-tuk to Tat Kuang Si, Laos’ most spectacular waterfall. Take a dip in cool menthol-green pools set amongst verdant jungle at the base of the cascade. On your way in, don't miss the Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, a sanctuary for Asiatic Moon bears that have been rescued from the illegal pet trade. In the evening, head to the river and watch the sun go down with a Beerlao in hand.
Day seven: Luang Prabang
Get up at dawn for the monk’s procession (Tak Bat), keeping a respectful distance between you and the monks, then check out the creepy-crawlies on parade at the local produce market. Take your time to explore the many exquisite and famed temples of the city; when you’re templed out, hop on a ferry and cross the Mekong to visit the village of Ban Xieng Maen, but make it back in time to catch the sun setting over Luang Prabang from hilltop Phu Si. In the evening, take yourself off to the intimate Garavek theatre for a traditional hour of storytelling and Lao mythology accompanied by music, before finishing the night with a cocktail at bohemian Icon Klub.
If you’re a war and history buff and you have more time in your itinerary, add on a visit to Phonsavan (from Vang Vieng) and wonder at the mysterious ancient burial ground known as the Plain of Jars. On arriving in Phonsavan, make for the UXO Information Centre to learn about Laos' continuing struggle with unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War. Organise a tour for the next day taking in all three main Plain of Jars sites (the final two have more picturesque settings; the first is the largest).
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.
Regular buses run from Vientiane to Vang Vieng (three to four hours), and from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang (seven hours). Phonsavan is about five hours by bus from Vang Vieng. There are also regular flights connecting Vientiane and Luang Prabang (40 minutes), operated by national carrier Lao Airlines (laoairlines.com).
This article was first published in May 2011, and updated by Richard Waters in January 2016.