Although Vientiane and Luang Prabang are both on the banks of the Mekong River, the land between them is extremely mountainous, while the opposite left bank of the Mekong, composed of huge ranges separating Laos and Thailand, forms its own remote province of Sayaboury. As almost everyone’s itinerary in Laos includes the journey between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, you’re highly likely to cross this stunning terrain at some point, and there are three main options to choose from for travel between the two cities.
The quickest option is to follow Route 13 north from Vientiane through the karst mountains of Vang Vieng and up the old Royal Road through the mountains north of Kasi. Route 13 was first completed by the French in 1943, and although it was improved in the 1960s with American aid, there was very little maintenance on the road until the mid-1990s, when it was properly sealed. Until that time, this rough track of a road took at best a full 24 hours to traverse, and often as long as three days. The highway was finally completed in 1996 after years of toil by Vietnamese road workers, twenty of whom were killed by guerrillas in the process. The breathtaking mountain scenery from Kasi to Luang Prabang makes this one of the most scenic routes in all Southeast Asia.
If you don’t fancy making the ten-hour bus journey from Vientiane to Luang Prabang in one go, Vang Vieng makes an ideal stopover and is well worth an extended visit in its own right. Aside from tubing, which has earned the town notoriety in recent years, there are beautiful caves, ethnic minority villages and a host of outdoor activities to keep you busy. Phou Phanang NBCA runs close to Route 13 for 75km, but although two tracks lead into the reserve off Route 13, the NBCA is still fairly inaccessible to tourists. However, if you’re prepared to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle or dirt bike from Vientiane, you could try a dirt track running the entire western boundary of the reserve and linking several villages.
The second route, a detour through Sayaboury, the sparsely populated region of rugged valleys and wild elephants on the western side of the Mekong, is more complicated, and takes you along a path well off the banana-pancake backpacker circuit. Unless you have your own four-wheel-drive vehicle, the Sayaboury route is tough, and you’ll need to travel at least part of the way by boat along the Mekong – the lack of decent roads west of the capital makes Sayaboury much more remote than it appears on maps. The third route is to travel the whole way by boat, an attractive option but requiring at least three days of travel time by slow boat, although speedboats can make the trip in a day.