Destination Focus: Laos | Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, and the Heritage Trail
I (Chickenfeet co-founder, Simon) first visited Laos in 2004. I went on the normal backpacker route through the country from Vientiane to Vang Vieng and on to Luang Prabang. The only difference to the normal backpacker trip was that we hired a pickup truck for a week and drove. This meant we had the freedom to go wherever we wanted and frequently turned off the main road to discover the local villages, culture and lifestyle.
And, WOW, what a trip! Laos has the most stunning scenery, fascinating culture and the friendliest, most warm-hearted, welcoming people - I really can’t recommend it enough. We picked up friendly locals on the way in the back of our truck, were fed delicious local food by intrigued and hospitable Laotians in tiny villages and even ended up on a night out with a group of kickboxers who travelled the country fighting for money...but that’s another story!
Fast forward to 2019 Laos remains an incredible place to visit and Scoot has recently launched direct flights from Singapore to Luang Prabang. You can now fly direct from Singapore into the cultural heart of Laos and one of the absolutely best towns in Asia. This makes it incredibly convenient for residents of Singapore and anyone visiting the region to take a connecting flight.
What I learnt on that trip back in 2004, though, was that if you have the freedom to drive around and escape the normal tourist trail you really are rewarded. Chickenfeet Travels has therefore put together a selection of suggested itineraries with your own private driver, which optimise your time and budget and immerse you in an incredibly authentic experience.
As with all our trips, they have been planned with different options in mind dependent on the time you have available. With the new flight route, 3 days is all you need to explore Luang Prabang so a long weekend trip from Singapore would be great. If you have more time you can venture north to Nong Khiaw. For the real insight into Laotian culture and history, take a week exploring the Heritage Trail. If you are lucky enough to have the time available you could easily spend a whole month in Laos to get the full experience.
Below are some of the highlights of our trips in Laos. Please bear in mind that our itineraries are only suggestions and they can be customised to suit your preferences, budget and timing so please drop us a line at email@example.com to let us know your preferences:
Arguably the most beautiful town in South East Asia, this is definitely a place not to miss. The Buddhist monks process through the town at dawn and are handed alms by the townspeople which starts each day in Luang Prabang with an almost mystical air. Combine that with beautiful temples, the impact of French colonialism in the architecture and food and a stunning setting on the Mekong river and this town has a charm all of its own.
Explore the old town and temples
See the procession of monks at dawn
Visit the night market
Take a sunset cruise
Stay in a French colonial guesthouse
Take a day trip to stunning waterfalls
Option of a day trip to trek and stay in traditional hill tribe villages
2. Nong Khiaw
Nong Khiaw sits about 3 hours drive north of Luang Prabang. The drive up through the mountains along the river (once you get past the damn that’s currently being built) is truly spectacular. When you get closer to Nong Khiaw town, you will be in awe of and dwarfed by the towering karst mountains to either side.
Nong Khiaw is a sleepy riverside village with crisp, clean, cool air and surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. Its a charming place just to unwind and escape. Its also your stepping off point to explore local mountain life and meet the Khmu and Hmong minority tribes who live in the surrounding mountains. From NK, you can take day trips out to numerous activities:
Trek to the stunning 100 waterfalls of Nong Khiaw
Take a boat upriver to another beautiful village Muong Ngoi and there is a option for a local homestay
Boat trip to unbelievable viewpoints
Nam Ou river kayaking
Visit Khmu and Hmong villages - see where your textiles are weaved
Explore the caves used by the locals to hide in during the Secret War
If you are lucky to have a week or more in Laos you can head east along the Heritage Trail and you’ll be rewarded with a look into real Laos mountain life. The roads wind through the mountains and you will be greeted with stunning views at mountain passes. There are 3 main highlights of the trip:
Vieng Xai Caves
Plain of Jars
Working with the government and local NGOs, the National Protected Area of Nam Et Phou Louey is a star ecotourism example of how protecting the people, the environment, and the animals is the way of the future. Nam Et runs a top class trekking tour (great glamping) and guests will see and experience the positive impact they have on each trip. The wildlife in the National Park includes six cat species (tigers, leopard, clouded leopard, Asian golden cat, marbled cat and leopard cat), two species of bear (Asian black bear and sun bear), white cheeked crested gibbons and and 11 small carnivores including civets, mustelids, and mongoose. There is even a small elephant population.
Continuing along the Heritage Trail, head further east to Xam Nueu and Vieng Xai. You may have heard about the Secret War in Laos which was a side effect of the American War in Vietnam (Vietnam War). In the caves of Vieng Xai the Pathet Lao (the communist party in Laos) established its headquarters during the secret war and set up a “Hidden City” which supported around 20,000 people. Learn from first hand records as you explore the caves how the Pathet Laos lead the resistance against the Americans.
Lastly, explore the famously inexplicable and eerie Plain of Jars. Thousands of ancient jars (from around 500BC) are strewn across the landscape. Theories include that the jars were used for brewing, rain capture or ancient burial practices. This area was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. Only seven of the 90 jar sites have been declared safe enough for tourists to visit and most of the land still remains unusable as 80,000 bombs were dropped unexploded so its important to stick to the paths!
Exploring the Heritage Trail will remind you of the realities of the brutal recent history of this region. That said you will be truly humbled by how warm and inviting the Laotians are notwithstanding what their immediate families endured.
Another option is to head further north and northwest into Phongsali, Luang Namtha, or Oudomxay provinces. This is trekking and homestay paradise. Walk every day through rice fields surrounded by mountain ranges. This is a truly original and Laotian experience. Spend a week exploring the hill tribes and understanding their simple but fulfilling way of life. This region is famous for its incredible trekking, hill tribes, seeing the rice terraces and truly getting off the beaten track.
One of the most fantastic things about this region is that is accessible by boat. Instead of spending a lot of your time in an air-conditioned car, cruise up the river from Nong Khiaw to start your trip or finish with a cruise back to Luang Prabang.