A popular route for travellers and backpackers to take when they visit Laos is to go from Vientiane to Luang Prabang or vice versa. When I did my 5 day trip to Laos I too decided to go from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, stopping off at Vang Vieng along the way. It was a good amount of time to explore Northern Laos – I got to see some incredibly beautiful places and the itinerary didn’t feel rushed. Of course it would have been great to spend longer here and have time to really relax and discover some lesser known places in the south such as the backpacker’s paradise of Don Det for example. But if you can only spend 5 days in Laos, read on for your perfect Laos itinerary!
Whilst Vientiane (pronounced ‘wieng chan‘) is the capital of Laos, it is a lot quieter than other South East Asian capitals. It has a very calm, relaxed vibe, and to many people it feels more like a town than a capital city. This can be a good thing if you’re tired of big SE Asian metropolis cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Saigon (HCMC) for example and want somewhere a bit more manageable, chilled and easier to navigate!
Vientiane is not heavily saturated with tourist sights, and sadly many tourists skip it in preference of other parts of Laos such as Luang Prabang as they seem to possess more charm and character. Nonetheless, the French Colonial city of Vientiane has some really interesting and unique places to visit and is certainly worth exploring – especially as you’ll most likely pass through here as you enter or exit Laos. If for example you have 10 days in Laos, then 2 days in Vientiane would be perfect and would mean you could explore at a slow pace and still have plenty time to relax. However, if you only have 5 days in Laos, spend just 1 day here in Vientiane.
So, what to do in Vientiane in 1 day? Below are the main sights of Vientiane – I have put them in a specific order so that you can walk from one to the next without having to go back on yourself.
First off stop off at the Cope Centre. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. COPE is a charity in Vientiane that helps thousands of local people who have become victims of unexploded landmines by providing them with prosthetic limbs and orthotics. Visiting their Centre was such a moving, eye opening and informative experience and I 100% recommend you to come here to learn about Laos’ ongoing tragedy:
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history. No it is not at war. The bombs are left over from the American-Vietnam War. Two million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos by the Americans: the equivalent to a plane full of bombs dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. Even almost 50 years since the war these bombs are still killing the people of Laos. This is because many of the bombs dropped didn’t explode at the time and so go off even now if somebody steps on the land above it, or when someone is cooking nearby on an open fire.
Entrance to COPE is free. The centre is open 7 days a week from 9am until 6pm and there are lots of short movies and displays that explain everything really well. The Centre can be a little tricky to find. Head for the National Rehabilitation Centre (Centre for Medical Rehabilitation CMR) on Khouvieng Street. Actually go into the grounds, then turn right and at the end you’ll see the COPE Visitor Centre (small white building).
Click here to see the Google maps location.
Wat Si Muang Temple
Wat Si Muang Temple (below left picture taken here) is a 10 minute stroll from the COPE Visitor Centre. This beautiful Buddhist temple is one of Vientiane’s most popular and special temples amongst the Laotian people. The temple is named after the young lady Si Muang who sacrificed herself here to the spirits. You can see her small statue behind the temple and it is believed she is protecting the city of Vientiane.
For this reason and because of it’s location in the centre of town many locals come here to worship. At the entrance to the temple there are several stalls where you can buy gifts such as flowers, incense, bananas and candles to offer to the gods during worship.
Wat Si Muang is open daily from 6am – 7pm.
That Dam (Black Stupa)
Carry on down Rue Samsenthai for about a mile. You’ll then see to your right in the middle of a roundabout on a quiet street lies the most magnificent Buddhist stupa (pictured above right). The stupa is known as That Dam Stupa or the Black Stupa, and was built in the 16th Century. Standing at the bottom of this charming giant bell shaped pagoda, I felt like I was back in Bagan – it was so big! I loved how the grass had been left to grow on the pagoda.
That Dam Stupa was once completely covered in gold. During the Lao- Siamese War (Lao Rebellion) in 1826-1828 however, the gold was taken to Siam (now Thailand). This is the reason why it is now called The Black Stupa, and it is still held in high regard by the people of Laos.
Click here to see the Google maps location of That Dam Stupa.
Wat Si Saket
The vibrant red and yellow Wat Si Saket (Sisaket Temple) was built over 200 years ago. It remains one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Vientiane as many were destroyed during past wars and invasions and subsequently rebuilt. At Wat Si Saket (‘wat’ means temple) there is also a small outdoor museum here that houses 5000 ancient buddha statues. Entrance to Wat Si Saket and Sisaket museum costs 10,000 kip. It is a really unique temple and definitely worth a visit.
Patuxai Victory Gate
As Laos is a former French Colony you can see several examples of French architect here in Vientiane. The Patuxai Victory Gate is probably the best example of this. Patuxay was actually built to resemble Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. There are a couple of differences however: there are 5 towers on top that resemble traditional Laos style architecture, and you’ll also see some Hindu gods carved into the gate.
You can climb to the top of the monument or use the elevator to get some level views over the city.
Pha That Luang
3 kilometres from the Patuxai Monument is Pha That Luang. Pha That Luang is a 16th Century golden stupa that is often considered the most sacred building in Laos. It is also known as the Vientiane Giant Stupa as it has a giant central stupa that is over 45 metres tall.
Vientiane Night Market:
In the evening stroll along the Mekong River that runs alongside Vientiane. This river actually separates Laos from Thailand so you’ll be able to look across to Thailand from here!
There are a few restaurants along the riverfront, or if you prefer a cheaper dinner you’ll be able to enjoy some typical Laotian street food at the stalls at the Vientiane Night Market! Vientiane Night Market is open from sunset until late, and in addition to the street food you’ll be able to find a mix of souvenirs, clothes and paintings here.
If you have more time:
If you have longer than 1 day in Vientiane, head to Xieng Khuan (also known as Buddha Park). Xieng Khuan is also located along the Mekong River but it is 25 kilometres south east of Vientiane. The giant open air Buddha Park has over 200 sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities, and there is even a reclining buddha that is over 40 metres high! I really wanted to go here as the pictures look incredible, but I just didn’t have enough time!
The small laid-back town of Vang Vieng is a great place to spend a couple of days as there are so many activities to keep you occupied, and the landscape is stunning with limestone karst mountains in every direction.
How to get to Vang Vieng from Vientiane
Vang Vieng is 160 kilometres north of Vientiane. Conveniently it is situated roughly half way between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
The best way to get to Vang Vieng from Vientiane is by bus or minibus. It costs around 60,000 kip (£5.20) and buses depart at all times throughout the day. There are three bus stations in Vientiane but the buses for Vang Vieng depart from the Northern Bus Station.
The Northern Bus Station is about 10 km outside of town, so usually the price of your ticket will include the transfer to get to the bus station, but check beforehand! It is always advisable to reserve your seat beforehand so you can get the most convenient time bus to suit you. You can ask your guesthouse to book your ticket when you arrive to Vientiane. You can also book tickets online on Klook or Bookaway.
The VIP bus is the best option as it is the most comfy, and often the minibuses are always full. We took the minibus and behind me were a load of noisy chickens, so I would definitely advise the VIP bus if you would like a quieter and less eventful ride!
It takes about 4 hours on the bus, often with a halfway toilet stop. The road is very bumpy and winding as you are going along mountain roads for a large part of the ride, so be prepared it certainly won’t be the smoothest ride of your life!
Before you get to Vang Vieng, check where the bus will drop you off. The main Vang Vieng bus station is 2km from town (in which case you’ll need to get a tuk-tuk to your hotel), but often the bus will drop you off in the centre of town or at the abandoned airstrip a few hundred metres from the hotels.
If you leave for Vang Vieng on your second morning in Laos, then relax and explore the small town of Vang Vieng on foot for the rest of the day. There are lots of really cheap restaurants here and the views are stunning. Organise a scooter for day 3 (read more about scooter hire below!) where you will go visit the nearby lagoons, mountains and caves!
Vang Vieng then vs Vang Vieng now:
Vang Vieng was once known for alcohol and drug fuelled tourists floating down the Nam Song River on inflatable rubber rings (known as tubing) all day for hours on end, stopping at bars that lined the river and buying drugs and alcohol (yes drugs were even written on the menu).
After many, many deaths of tourists (there were 50 deaths alone in 2011) in the river – getting drunk, falling in and getting caught up in the current, or simply just floating down the river way after dark and never coming back, the police decided to clean up the place overnight and tore down all the bars and laid down strict rules.
It was a brave move but it definitely paid off. Nowadays, the atmosphere is a lot calmer and quiet, and Vang Vieng rightly so now focuses on promoting the natural beauty of the areaL it is full of absolutely stunning scenery! There is lots to do to fill up your days, including swimming in the blue lagoons, climbing the mountains, hiring a scooter and driving past the beautiful rice fields, or exploring the many caves. I for one am so glad the reputation of this town has changed for the good.
Getting around Vang Vieng
The cheapest and easiest way to get around Vang Vieng is by hiring a scooter as many of the sights are a few kilometres apart.
Here are some important things to bear in mind when hiring a scooter here:
- When you hire a scooter you will need to leave your passport with the scooter rental people.
- There are plenty scooter hire places in town all offering similar prices. You can either rent the scooter from your guest house or from one of the scooter rental places in town.
- It usually costs around 80.000 LAK to rent a scooter for the day (£7) – bargain! Check what time you need to return it by (and don’t forget to collect your passport before you leave)!
- Ask them for a map of the local area if they have one so you can easily plan out your route!
- As with most places in Asia they will often give you the scooter with an almost empty tank. You therefore fill up what you need for the day and return it with the same amount of petrol in that you received. Of course you always end up putting in more petrol than you need! I think they do this so you will fill up too much and return it with fuel so they can use it, so don’t fill up too much petrol!
- The roads around Vang Vieng are VERY uneven. They are actually the worst I have ever experienced. I was riding on the back whilst my friend was driving and I briefly hurt my back a couple of times on the motorbike because the roads were so bumpy and rocky.
- Make sure you wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the dust. Honestly this is essential when you are here – there is so much dust on the roads. Even wearing them, my eyes were so red by the end and my hair felt gross and really dry from all the sand in it.
- There are lots of little ‘petrol stations’ along the road. You may not even notice them at first as it is not like a regular petrol station. It is someone sitting on the side of the road with a load of see through plastic bottles containing petrol lined up. The petrol is the colour of pee – for some reason I had always thought petrol was darker so was confused at first. The person there will fill up your petrol for you using a funnel to pour the petrol into your tank.
You can drive across the Nam Song Bridge, but it is a toll bridge so you have to pay to go across. Instead, drive on the narrow wooden bridge (that looks like it’s just for pedestrians) that is nearer to town. The local people and the people at the scooter hire told us it is ok to drive across here on the motorbike and they do it all the time.
There are 3 Blue Lagoons in the Vang Vieng area – the closest (an busiest) being Blue Lagoon 1 and the furthest (and quietest) being Blue Lagoon 3. Particularly with the first Blue Lagoon, the water isn’t always as picturesque blue as you would imagine, especially if it has rained lately as the water can turn a murky brown. But the lagoons are lovely places to visit, have a swim in, relax and have fun! It is definitely worth half a day exploring the 3 Blue Lagoons Vang Vieng has to offer. There is a small entrance to visit the Blue Lagoons.
One thing I highly advise when going to visit the Blue Lagoons is to start your day EARLY before other tourists get here as they get very busy! You’re never going to have all 3 of the lagoons to yourself, so what I recommend to do is to drive to Blue Lagoon 3 first like we did.
Blue Lagoon 3
Blue Lagoon 3 is the furthest away of the 3 Blue Lagoons. It is located 13km from Vang Vieng town but took about 45 minutes for us to reach on motorbike due to the bumpy dusty roads. Blue Lagoon 3 is also the quiestest of the 3 lagoons, so if you don’t want to be surrounded by people, or want to get some great Instagram shots without other people in, I definitely recommend to come here! Infact most tourists only know about the first Blue Lagoon, so this one remains the most undiscovered, and I’m always a fan of those kinds of places!
Arriving here first thing will mean you’ll be able to enjoy the place to yourself. We had it to ourselves the whole time we were there and it was incredible! It certainly wouldn’t have felt as special if there were lots of other people there.
The water here at Blue Lagoon 3 was so clear and you could see down to the bottom of the lagoon with all the plants growing underwater. There are bamboo rafts you can sit or stand on and row across the lagoon. You can also climb up onto a swing and then use this to jump into the water which is fun! From the platform the swing is on you can get some lovely pictures of the lagoon rafts, huts and mountains in the background (both of the above pictures were taken here). No drone was required for those pictures!
By the time we got to Blue Lagoon 2 late morning it was so busy (actually with more locals than tourists!). We spent an hour or so there as well, and it was a really nice atmosphere (but too crowded to get any Instagrammable pictures!). We drove past the first Blue Lagoon on the way back but didn’t even go in as it was so crowded by the time we got there. Personally I was happy with visiting Blue Lagoon 3 and 2 that I didn’t feel like I missed out on seeing the Blue Lagoon.
Phangern and Nam Xay Viewpoints
When in Vang Vieng make sure to climb at least one mountain during your time here as the views are out of this world! The two most popular and incredibly picturesque viewpoints are from Phangern Mountain (Silver Cliff) and Nam Xay. They are located close to each other, both about 4km from Vang Vieng town and close to the Blue Lagoon.
Nam Xay is a little easier to climb than Phangern, but both offer incredible views! I really really wanted to climb both, but my friend couldn’t handle two hikes in one day so we only managed Phangern. From the pictures I have seen though, Nam Xay has the best view, so if you have to choose between the two I would pick this one!
It cost 10,000 kip to climb up Pha Ngerm Mountain. The climb is pretty tough but the views are incredible (see below left). There are a few spots along the way where you can rest and take some shade (see below right).
There are also many caves you can explore around the town, including Changi cave, Elephant cave and Chinnaly cave.
Getting from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is about 185 km north of Vang Vieng. Again, travel by bus or minivan is the best way. The journey does take slightly longer than the journey from Vientiane to Vang Vieng though (about 5 hours).
We booked our transport for Luang Prabang from Vang Vieng, presuming we would be travelling in a minibus again. This time however, a large tuk tuk showed up (one that fits about 10 people) – like the jeepeneys in Manila (see below right picture)! We travelled with local people all the way – many getting on and off. Even though we couldn’t communicate well with the locals, it was fun and really amazing to share this everyday experience with them. Even if it was very bumpy!
The majority of people who have been to Laos (myself included) will say Luang Prabang is their absolute favourite place in Laos. It just has an incredible vibe and is very picturesque! There is a great atmosphere here, with lots of boutique cafes and a huge artisan night market every night of the week that goes from about 5pm til late.
To really enjoy Luang Prabang, 3 days is a good amount of time to spend in this small city. However if like me you just have under 2 days you can still see and do all the best bits! Spend the first day exploring Luang Prabang (LP) on foot, then on the second day visit Kuang Si Falls – a must visit when in Laos! Get there early in the morning to avoid the crowds, then in the afternoon head to a place called Living Land. Living Land is an organic farm provides fruit and vegetables to many places in Luang Prabang, and proceeds go to teaching children English and helping families in need. You can also do the Rice Tour there, to see how rice is made.
Like Vientiane, Luang Prabang sits along the Mekong River. Once you arrive and get yourself sorted, head down to one of the restaurants along the river. They have a great selection of dishes at very reasonable prices! Plus the view is stunning! You can also do a cruise down the Mekong River if you wish!
Phou Si Mountain
In the centre of the Old Town of Luang Prabang, just a short 100 metre climb up the hill by the night market is Phousi Mountain and a lovely little temple on top of the hill. Despite being called a mountain, it only takes maybe 10 minutes to climb it and you will be rewarded with beautiful views of the town below and views of the Mekong River and the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang. Sunset is the most popular time to visit, when it gets VERY busy (you’ll struggle to even find somewhere to sit sometimes!). But the sunset views are so stunning – see the below middle picture for the view!
Kuang Si Falls
Kuang Si waterfalls is probably the most famous, well known and most Instagrammable sight in Laos and absolutely cannot be missed during your trip here. It is a stunning set of several waterfalls located a short ride from Luang Prabang. On our motorbike it took 45 minutes, but if you come by car it will be quicker. Even if you have one or two days in Luang Prabang you can visit Kuang Si Falls in the morning and be back in Luang Prabang for lunch.
Kuang Si Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen. The water is an incredible light turquoise blue colour and it cascades down into tiered rock pools. The water comes crashing down from the thick jungle above into several seemingly perfectly created limestone pools – the picture below left is just one of the pools here. The water is really this beautiful and you can swim in this heavenly water, although it is quite cold!!
Entrance to the falls is 20,000 kip ($2.50) and I advise to get there first thing as it can get very crowded later on in the day. The picture below was taken at the first main pool, and this is where most people take photos of them jumping into the water, so get here early if you don’t want a queue of people watching you! I tried to dive but failed miserably so had to settle for the picture below!
And that was our 5 day Laos itinerary – from Vientiane to Luang Prabang via Vang Vieng. We packed in a lot, but had lots of time to relax too. It was an incredibly beautiful country and made a change from other hectic South East Asian countries. If you need any more information on Laos just drop me a message in the comments below!
Need to know information about Laos:
Currency in Laos: Kip.
1 USD = 8882 Laotian kip.
A visa is needed for most passport holders to enter Laos.
If you are backpacking across South East Asia you will probably visit Cambodia and Thailand too. Check below for some super useful articles to help plan your trip:
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