Laos isn’t a huge country, but getting around it can take time – especially if you veer away from the usual tourist trail. The classic route, “Between Two Capitals”, is deservedly popular with visitors wanting a quick introduction to Laos, with a good mix of cities and natural beauty, plus plenty of tourist comforts along the way. The other two itineraries suggested here require more time, but reward handsomely with sleepy temples, plunging waterfalls, hill-tribe treks and mysterious ruins.
Easily covered in two or three relaxed weeks, this route takes in some of southern Laos’s most picturesque spots, with plenty of hammock time built in.
Start in the south’s colonial gem, where sun-yellowed villas have been restored as restaurants, hotels and tour offices organizing treks into nearby jungles.
This thriving Mekong city is a natural base for trips around the Bolaven Plateau, and is within easy day-tripping distance of sleepy silk-weaving villages.
3 Tad Lo
A chilled backpacker community is growing up near the base of these falls, which slosh splendidly over rounded rocks and swimming holes.
4 Tad Fan and Tad Yuang
After touring the Bolaven Plateau’s coffee plantations, take a dip at Tad Yuang, a picture-perfect dual cascade. The much taller Tad Fan, surrounded by dense jungle, is just a kilometre away.
Dusty orange light lends a magical feel to mornings and evenings in this town on the Mekong’s west bank, once the capital of a bustling kingdom.
6 Wat Phou
A Khmer ruin to rival many of the temples at Angkor, Wat Phou occupies a prime location beneath pristine forests.
7 Si Phan Don
On its final push through Laos, the Mekong splits into a web of serene tropical islets, inviting island-hopping tourists to kick back with a glass or two of lào-láo.
Travelling through the mountainous north can be tough, with cooler temperatures and cramped bus rides that make even the locals feel queasy. Allow yourself around two weeks for this route.
1 Vieng Xai
Monuments are all that remain of plans to make this chilly communist backwater the new Lao capital after the Pathet Lao successfully hid out in its caves.
2 Sam Neua
It’s not big on sights, but Sam Neua is a good base for textile enthusiasts. The region’s designs are some of the most sophisticated in all of Laos.
3 Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars
Cluster munitions dropped during the Second Indochina War still litter the Plain of Jars, famed for its mysterious stone urns.
4 Nong Khiaw
Surrounded by karst mountains, Nong Khiaw makes an ideal base for trekking, cycling and kayaking trips.
5 The Nam Ou
Take a scenic boat ride along this lazy river, parts of which are still edged by impenetrable jungle.
Let the crisp air of this small, high-altitude town soothe the soul before setting out on a trek to local hill-tribe villages.
7 Nam Ha NBCA
Biking and hiking trips through this protected area are best organized in Luang Namtha, a relaxed centre that’s home to the north’s best-value accommodation.
This route is well trodden, with good road and river connections, and could easily be covered in ten days. Allow an extra week if you want to spend time exploring the countryside around Vang Vieng.
Once a staging post for Chinese merchants, this little border town is now best known as the launching point for slow boat rides to Luang Prabang.
2 Luang Prabang
A mountain kingdom for more than a millennium, Laos’s former capital has blossomed into a world-class tourist destination, yet retains its exotic charm.
3 Vang Vieng
Set among epic karsts, the notorious backpacker capital is slowly shaking off its bad reputation and emerging as an outdoor playground for active travellers.
4 Ang Nam Ngum
Fresh fish and boat rides draw Lao families to this vast, island-speckled reservoir, created with the damming of the Nam Ngum river.
The engine room of modern Laos is a fast-growing Asian city, but traces of French rule are still seen everywhere, from wide boulevards to street-side baguette stands.