Northern Laos Travel Guide

Northern Laos, especially the old capital of Luang Prabang, is the most familiar to visitors. The capital of the old Lang Xang Kingdom, Luang Prabang is today a quaint town nestled along the Mekong River that carries UNESCO World Heritage site status.

There is a direct flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and a direct flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang on Lao Airlines several times a week. Many people take the bus or hire a driver and car and take the land route to Luang Prabang. This can be an arduous but scenic trip as the roads are not in good condition. Travel time by car is more than seven hours from Vientiane, whereas the flight is less than one hour.

It is the ambience that makes Luang Prabang such a lovely place to visit. In the early mornings, the monks walk the streets receiving alms. Visitors may also give alms to the monks, but note that women cannot touch or hand items directly to the monks. Always be respectful and keep your head below that of the monk’s head.

The best way to explore Luang Prabang and its many temples is on foot. Don’t miss the museum and temple at the Royal Palace complex, which gives visitors a rare glimpse into royal life in Laos. If you are up for climbing, visit Wat Phu Si. From the top of this hill, you will have breathtaking views of Luang Prabang, well worth the climb up the 100 plus stairs.

There are also plenty of day trips or half day trips around Luang Prabang. It is best to hire a driver and car or join a tour, as driving oneself is not really an option and motorcycle rentals have become very restricted due to safety reasons. Popular trips include a visit to the Kuang Si Falls or weaving village, roughly a 30-minute drive from town.

Boat trips on the Mekong are also a must. The high-speed motorboats are not for everyone and they may make you deaf. Rather, take a slow boat up the Mekong and enjoy the scenery. Stop at some of the ethnic minority villages along the river. A must visit are the Pak Ou Caves, where many Buddha images were put for safe keeping during the last war.

However, northern Laos is not just Luang Prabang, although that is the most popular destination. Many people head to neighboring Xieng Khuang province to see the famous Plain of Jars. This is exactly what it sounds like - huge stone jars scattered across the hills and valley. No one really knows what the jars are for or where they came from.

Laos is also the most heavily bombed country in the world by square mile and bomb craters pit the landscape in many areas. There are efforts underway to clear the country of unexploded ordinance, but you would do well to keep to clearly marked paths when wandering about the countryside.

The most popular time to visit Luang Prabang and northern Laos is during the winter season from November to January. Luang Prabang is also a popular destination during Pi Mai, the Lao New Year.