This loop Northern Laos itinerary starts and finishes in Vientiane, Laos’ capital city. It doesn’t exactly look like a loop on the map because you actually need to take the same road to leave and go back to Vientiane.
The itinerary covers the two main gateways in the north of Laos – Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, along with Phonsavan where you will learn about a terrible period of the country’s History. It is a well-balanced itinerary with a good share of cultural discovery and natural beauty.
The Itinerary at a Glance
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1 Full Day
The quiet capital city of Laos was built on the left bank of the mighty Mekong River and is home to about 800,000 inhabitants. It is reachable by air via its international airport, or by bus from Thailand.
It sometimes has a reputation of not having much to see for tourists but it is totally untrue! Obviously, it is not Paris or New York City but you can still find enough things to visit to keep you busy for a couple of days. For example, if your flight arrives in the middle of the day, you can plan to start visiting a few things in the afternoon plus the following full day.
Let’s keep this example of arriving mid-day. The afternoon could be spent relaxing from your long trip and strolling along the Mekong River, discovering the Chao Anouvong Park and the Quai Fa Gnum. Watching the sunset on the river from the promenade is wonderful. In the evening, the night market takes place.
On the next day, after a good sleep, you can spend the day discovering the cultural heritage of Vientiane. The number one attraction you can’t miss is the That Luang golden stupa. It is the most famous landmark of Vientiane and a symbol in the whole country. Another popular visit is the temple of Wat Si Saket.
Vientiane → Vang Vieng
Bus | 160 km (100 mi) ⁝ 3-4 hours
In order to go to Vang Vieng, you can go to the northern bus station and see the available options. There should be varied buses or VIP vans that can take you to Vang Vieng. You can also ask your hotel in Vientiane if they can arrange a van with pick-up service from the hotel for a reasonable price. Usually, the ticket costs around 60,000 kip.
If you prefer to book a bus ticket by yourself in advance, you can search below!
Vang Vieng has long been a tourist’s paradise. The incredible beauty of its landscapes has been attracting visitors from all over the world for decades, and the destination is still booming.
The town of Vang Vieng was built along Route 13 and the Nam Song River, and this river alone provides good activity opportunities such as kayaking. Vang Vieng is a paradise for active holidays. Tours and activities include:
- Tour to the Water Cave (Tham Nam): you need to drag yourself by a rope while sitting in a tube, to explore an underground river. It is a little touristy but gives fun memories!
- Blue Lagoon: Often in the package with the Water Cave, the Blue Lagoon is a natural pool with clear waters where tourists like to swim or jump into the water from a big tree. There is also a cave to explore nearby.
- Kayaking the Nam Song River: This is probably the # must-do in Vang Vieng, and many times a bit of kayaking will be included in tours that the local agencies offer.
- Cycle the gorgeous countryside: This is one of my best memories of Vang Vieng. You can find a bicycle or a scooter for rent very easily and venture away from the town exploring villages, rice paddies and find yourself surrounded by the characteristic hills.
→ Read the full article here!
Vang Vieng → Luang Prabang
Bus | 185 km (115 mi) ⁝ 5 hours
You have once again various options that you can find by asking your hotel or by directly going to the bus terminal. Minivans tend to be faster than buses. Old and slow local buses can take something like 8 hours to do this trip.
If you prefer to see bus options and book it directly online, you can use the search form below.
During this trip, open your eyes! The road is at times a little difficult (many zigzags) but crosses some mind-blowing mountain scenery. You really get immersed in the grand landscapes of Northern Laos.
Luang Prabang is the former capital of the legendary Kingdom of a Million Elephants, Lan Xang (1354-1707). Nowadays, it is one of the prettiest cities in Laos with splendid temples and charming French colonial architecture.
It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Luang Prabang is a great base to explore all the wonders that nature and culture have to offer in the region, starting with the legendary Mekong River.
The region is also renowned for its waterfalls, and if you want to get close to elephants it is the right place to do it. Here are some ideas of what to do for a few days in and around Luang Prabang:
- Temples of Luang Prabang: The city is home to beautiful temples, including Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai, and Wat Visounarath.
- The Royal Palace: It is home to a museum telling the history of Luang Prabang.
- The night market: On the street next to the Royal Palace, every evening, the night market takes place. There are many things to be found there, including beautiful souvenirs.
- Mount Phu Si: Again in front of the Royal Palace, starts the trail going up to the top of Mount Phu Si. From there, a fantastic panorama awaits you over the whole of Luang Prabang and the Mekong River. Particularly popular at sunset.
- Tad Sae & Kuang Si Waterfalls: The two most popular and beautiful waterfalls around Luang Prabang. They feature swimming areas where you can relax and enjoy the turquoise waters. If you can, do the trek to the Tad Sae Waterfall, to be immersed in the Lao countryside and villages.
→ Full Article about the waterfalls of Laos here!
- Elephant camps: Luang Prabang is the ideal place to get close to and ride elephants. I know about the controversy that exists about tourists riding elephants. While we all like wild and free animals, sometimes the elephants are in these camps because they got saved from much worse conditions. In any case, the choice is up to you.
- Pak Ou: Pak Ou is a village famous for its caves overlooking the Mekong, turned into religious shrines. Some elephant camps are also in this area.
Luang Prabang → Phonsavan
Bus | 260 km (162 mi) ⁝ 6-7 hours
As always, you can ask your guesthouse or go directly to the bus terminal to buy a ticket. There is a bus leaving every morning for Phonsavan (Xiengkuang) at 8:30 which costs 75,000 kips. The road is once again crossing amazing mountains but the snaky road has many sharp turns.
1 Full Day
Phonsavan, in the Xieng Khouang Province, is much less touristic than Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Located at a higher altitude, the climate is cooler.
There is not much to see in the city itself, but I found it to be a very interesting stop for the Plain of Jars, and also to learn about a dark page of recent Laos’ History.
The region of Phonsavan was very badly hit by the secret war that the Americans were leading in parallel with the Vietnam War. Nowadays, the country’s development is still penalized by all the mines still buried here and there in the countryside. A touching and interesting story to discover.
In spite of all the efforts made to clean up the mines, some areas are still risky. When I arrived at my guesthouse, the guy explained that they can’t let tourists just go wherever they want because they might put themselves in danger.
You can book a tour from them, it’s the most convenient option. You will be presented with various things to see in the area and you can choose what you want to visit. Here I will list some of them:
- Plain of Jars: Probably the primary attraction of Phonsavan, this strange and mysterious archaeological site is huge and is made of dozens of different sites. As a tourist, you will probably visit one or two. I visited Site 1 and Site 2, Site 1 was the best.
→ Read the full Article here!
- “Bomb Village”: This village of the Hmong community is famous for using bomb remains to build part of their houses or other things.
- Bomb craters: They can take you to a spot in the countryside where you can see impressive craters made by American bombs that got dumped on the Laotian countryside.
- Tham Piu Cave: In 1969, a US jet fired a missile into that cave killing 374 innocent farmers who were trying to hide from the bombings. I personally didn’t visit this cave but it must be quite touching.
- The MAG (Mines Advisory Group) Museum in Phonsavan: A small museum, or rather an exhibition room presenting the UXO that are poisoning the life of this region of Laos. There is also a video you can watch. Entrance is free. An interesting visit for your free time in town.
→ Read the full Article about the Xieng Khouang Province here!
Phonsavan → Vientiane
Bus | 350 km (220 mi) ⁝ 10 hours
There are 6 buses per day to Vientiane from 7am to 8pm. Depending on how much time you have available, it can be a good idea to take the 8 pm one and arrive in Vientiane the next morning. The ticket should cost about 110,000 kips.
Last Thoughts About This Itinerary
This is the most common and most convenient way to visit the highlights of Northern Laos. This trip is rich in History (Luang Prabang, Phonsavan), in jaw-dropping landscapes (such as the one around Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang’s waterfalls)) and experiences (like getting close to elephants).
Some of you might notice that another destination could have been included in this Northern Laos itinerary: Luang Namtha.
Luang Namtha is located north of Lang Prabang, and it is a trekking land. I personally did not go there so I don’t have much to recommend here, but if you have the time to include it in this itinerary it’s probably well worth it.
If you have more time (such as 3 weeks for example), you can definitely see more than the north of Laos and venture to the center and the south of the country. For instance, you could take a bus from Phonsavan to Savannakhet or Thakhek to see the nearby caves.