Whenever I am asked advice on where to go in Southeast Asia, I always recommended to try and head to Northern Laos. From the stunning scenery, deep jungles, remote mountains and the ethnic hill tribe villages, to the friendly locals who are still curious about you, plus the amazingly slow and simple pace of life that has since made me view life very differently. It’s a way of life that feels different to anywhere else I’ve been. In Northern Laos, it’s not hard to take a detour which can take you truly off the beaten path, to places which will open your eyes to what this beautiful country has to offer.
Northern Laos is mostly mountainous and rural, with some of the best scenery I saw in the whole of South East Asia. The roads are sometimes just dusty dirt track roads in the very rural parts, with lots of bends, which means journeys can be extremely long and uncomfortable, but the fantastic scenery from the bus window certainly makes up for it. It’s one of those places where a slow 15 hour bus journey is actually really interesting!
Laos is bordered by Thailand, Burma, China, Vietnam and also Cambodia in the south. So if you are travelling overland, there are plenty of ways to enter the country.
Here’s my Top 4 Most Beautiful Places in Northern Laos, which I recommenced to add to any itinerary:
1. Luang Nam Tha
Luang Nam Tha was our first stop in Northern Laos. It is located in the North West of the country and we arrived here after leaving Northern Thailand. The bus journey from the border goes through deep mountains and jungles, and if you want to see and learn more about the ethnic hill tribe villages then you’ve come to the right place. There are over 140 ethnic groups in Laos, and we saw many within this region. A lot of the ethnic groups in Northern Laos remain virtually untouched by the modern world and still live traditional lifestyles. If you are looking to visit one of the villages, try to choose a company promoting sustainable and responsible tourism and do some research beforehand to ensure that your impact is a positive one.
However, even if you are just catching a bus through Luang Nam Tha province you are still likely to pass through many hill tribe villages, plus the bus driver will do a mighty honk of the bus horn around each bend in a village to make sure there are no children playing on the road!
The town of Luang Nam Tha is your base for exploring the area. The town has many options for accommodation and I recommend simply arriving and finding a good deal with a local guest house. There will most likely be a few locals around on your arrival offering you their guest house to stay in.
The area is a popular place for ‘Eco-Tourism’; whether you want to trek, kayak or grab a bike and explore the local area and it’s stunning scenery and waterfalls.
We chose to spend one of our days here Kayaking down the river, stopping off at villages along the way down the river, plus lunch sat in the jungle eating rice and egg off a huge banana leaf.
2. Phongsali Province
If you want to experience remote-ness and authentic, truly traditional Laos then you’ve come to the right place. This region is one of the least visited by tourists and home to some of the most traditional hill tribes in the country. Deep in the far north region of Phongsali, children would stare at us blankly continuously and not look away or respond to a smile, a wave, or even a hello in the local language. On local buses here, we would be sat completely surrounded by locals, sometimes sat just on a sack of rice next to chickens! Expect very dusty, bendy roads in this region.
In this region we did some trekking and volunteering through a sustainable volunteering program, where and we spent some time staying in an ‘Akha Tribe’ village located miles and miles up in the remote mountains. It took us 2 days on a bus and over half a day trekking to reach the village. Here, we stayed in the chief’s family home and taught English to the village children. We shared 1 tap for washing with 76 other families. We tried some of the most unusual food I’ve ever come across including raw squirrel soup. But it was the most fantastic experience of my life. If you want to read more about this experience, or perhaps you want to experience it too, check out my article on ‘What is it like staying with an Akha Tribe in Laos?’
3. The Kuang Si Waterfalls (Tat Kuang Si)
These stunning waterfalls are best reached by a bus journey of 32km from Luang Prabang. The waterfalls are a perfect setting to spend a day relaxing and cooling off in the beautiful blue plunge pools. The falls are located in a public park which charges a small entrance fee. Another great thing about this place is that on the way to the falls, after you have gone through the entrance, there are rescued sun bears which have been relocated here after they were rescued by poaches.
4. Vang Vieng
I debated whether to add Vang Vieng to this list, but i feel it’s a shame that such a beautiful area should be left out just because of it’s bad reputation caused by drunk party-goers. With the fantastic scenery all around; jagged limestone cliffs and beautiful countryside surrounding the small town, the surrounding area has so much to offer. I couldn’t not include Vang Vieng in this list. Plus, it is a perfect stop off if travelling the long journey between Vientiene and Luang Prabang.
The word ‘Falang‘ (meaning foreigner) may not be used so kindly here as in the previous 3 locations and unfortunately parts of Vang Vieng does have a bit of a ‘paradise ruined’ feel about it. But aside from the drunk backpackers, dance music, raving bars down the river, and restaurants showing ‘Friends’ episodes on repeat, there’s much more to Vang Vieng than this. So if tubing down the river drunk isn’t your thing (I must admit, a few years ago we did try it) just grab a mountain bike, a kayak, or head off on foot and explore some of the most fantastic scenery Laos has to offer.
There is a range of accommodation in Vang Vieng. From the cheap wooden shacks made into backpacker hostels, to nice boutique guesthouses and bungalows. We have stayed in both (quite amusingly, Shaun woke up with both a frog and spider on him whilst staying in a cheap hostel, even though he was under a mosquito net!). To avoid this type of place and the party crowd, the nicer guesthouses can be found further downstream.
One thing I love about Vang Vieng is the continuous amazing views, even just relaxing in the restaurants in the town, you will be able to enjoy your meal with some of the most amazing views imaginable.
Top Tip! Watch out for bed bugs in some of the hostels in Laos… we found it to be a bit of a problem!
So those are the 4 most beautiful places I visited in Northen Laos. I know a lot of people are put off travelling here by the amount of time it takes travelling around on buses in Northern Laos. And it’s true. It can take 24 hours to get around some parts of it and it certainly felt like half my time was spent on a bus! But I promise you, it is seriously worth it, especially if you just try and get off the beaten track and into the remote mountains you won’t regret it. Particularly as the more remote you get, the better and more interesting even the slow bus journeys become 🙂
Are you heading to Laos soon? If you have any questions or would like further info on travel in any of the above destinations, please ask away in the comments below!