With its magnificent landscapes, rich culture and welcoming people, Laos is an increasingly popular destination in South-East Asia, attracting more and more tourists every year. Among regions, visit Northern Laos offers a unique experience for travellers seeking cultural discovery, adventure and breathtaking natural scenery.
Northern Laos is renowned for its verdant mountains, majestic rivers and traditional villages. In this article, we offer you a practical guide to exploring this fascinating region.
Northern Laos map
Northern Laos covers an area of over 170,000 km², bordered by China to the north, Vietnam to the east, central Laos to the south and Thailand to the west. The region includes towns and provinces such as Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi Neua, Phongsaly, Louang Namtha and Phonsavan, of which Luang Prabang, the former royal capital is the largest and most important.
Northern Laos is a mosaic of ethnic groups such as the Hmong, Khmu, Akha, Yao and Lao Loum. It is an ideal destination for exploring the surrounding ethnic villages and discovering traditional ways of life, including making paper from tree bark and picking tea.
The region is renowned for its spectacular scenery: forested mountains, crystal-clear rivers and impressive waterfalls. The rice terraces are a breathtaking sight, especially during the rainy season when the fields are flooded. Northern Laos is also famous for its caves and rock formations, such as the Pak Ou cave near Luang Prabang and the Tham Kong Lo cave near Phonsavan.
For trekking enthusiasts, this is a destination of choice, offering spectacular hiking trails with breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
Best time to visit Northern Laos
The best time to visit Northern Laos is from November to February, when the weather is dry and cool. Temperatures can reach 25°C during the day and drop to 10°C at night, so make sure you pack warm clothes. This is also a good time for festivals, with cultural events such as the Festival of Light in Luang Prabang and the New Year Festival in Vientiane.
It’s important to note that the climate in northern Laos has marked seasonal variations:
During the dry season: which runs from November to April, temperatures are cooler and rainfall is scarce, offering sunny days and cool nights. However, during the rainy season, from May to October, temperatures are higher and rainfall is abundant. The rains can sometimes be torrential, leading to flooding in certain regions.
The hot season in Laos: from March to May, is characterised by temperatures that can exceed 35°C during the day, which can be difficult for some travellers to bear because of the high temperatures and humidity. Taking part in the rocket festival in Xieng Khouang and the Lao New Year Pi Mai in April can offer a unique experience, but can also lead to high tourist numbers.
Best places to visit
Luang Prabang – a historic city listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is an iconic destination. Nestling at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang’s charm lies in its Buddhist temples, lively night markets and French colonial architecture.
Highlights include Wat Xieng Thong temple, Wat Mai, Wat Visoun Art, the Royal Palace (now a museum) and Mount Phousi. Don’t miss the Sai Bat (morning alms), a long-established tradition in Lao Buddhist culture. In observance of this practice, the faithful offer food to the monks of Luang Prabang every morning.
You can also explore the surrounding area by hiking and visiting the Pak Ou caves, located around 25 kilometres from Luang Prabang. These caves are home to thousands of Buddha statues laid down by pilgrims over the centuries.
Kuang Si waterfalls
- Map: 29km South of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Opening: from 8am until 5pm
- Entrance fee: 20,000 kip (2.5 USD)
If you have a little more time to spare, don’t miss the Kuang Si waterfalls, where the turquoise waters melt harmoniously into a lush forest. The Kuang Si is one of the most amazing waterfalls in Laos. It is very popular for day trips and half-day trips with locals and tourists from Luang Prabang.
The Kuang Si Falls has 3 tiers leading to a 50-metre drop into shallow pools, before flowing downstream. The pools make great swimming holes and you can change into your swimwear at wooden huts close to the waterfall’s entrance.
Nong Khiaw – a charming little town on the banks of the Nam Ou River, is a popular tourist destination in Luang Prabang province. This picturesque town is nestled in the heart of impressive karst mountains, offering breathtaking views of the majestic Nam Ou River.
One of the major attractions of Nong Khiaw is the hiking opportunities through the surrounding karst mountains. The trails are well-maintained and allow visitors to enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. For those in search of a refreshing swim, the opportunity to bathe in the Nam Ou River or hire kayaks to explore the local villages and surrounding landscapes is a real treat.
Finally, visitors have the chance to discover the local culture by exploring neighbouring villages and learning about local traditions, such as the production of rice alcohol and the making of traditional textiles. This immersion in local life offers an authentic experience of this magnificent region.
Muang Ngoi Neua
Muang Ngoi Neua – a small peaceful village nestling on the banks of the Nam Ou River, offers an idyllic setting for nature lovers and culture enthusiasts alike. It’s the perfect place to recharge your batteries while discovering the rich local culture amid magnificent mountain scenery, verdant rice paddies and picturesque traditional villages. Muang Ngoi Neua is reached exclusively by boat, adding to its unique charm.
Once there, visitors can explore the surrounding area on foot or by bike, for a total immersion in this exceptional region. Must-do activities in Muang Ngoi Neua include a visit to Tham Kang Cave, home to impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations, and a refreshing swim in the Nam Ou River.
Travellers with a passion for local culture can also explore neighbouring villages to gain a better understanding of the way of life of the local people, whose main activities are farming and fishing. You can also attend traditional ceremonies and sample the delicious local cuisine.
Located close to the Chinese border in northern Laos, Phongsaly has a unique charm thanks to its majestic mountains, lush green rice terraces and picturesque traditional villages. Hiking enthusiasts will be enchanted by the countless trails that criss-cross the hills and offer breathtaking views of the surrounding valley. What’s more, the mountainous region is dotted with waterfalls and hidden caves, adding a touch of mystery to its character.
Phongsaly’s cultural richness is another fascinating aspect. The various ethnic minorities, such as the Akha, Tai Lue and Hmong, have lived in harmony with nature for centuries. Visitors have the chance to stay in authentic villages and interact with the locals, offering a unique experience of cultural immersion.
Phongsaly’s gastronomy also deserves a special mention. Local dishes, such as khao soi (a spicy noodle soup) or lap (a marinated meat salad), are prepared with fresh, local ingredients, highlighting the unique flavours of the region. Finally, for those in search of relaxation, Phongsaly offers natural hot springs where you can relax and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of hot water.
Luang Namtha in north-west Laos, offers breathtaking scenery and a variety of outdoor activities including trekking, rafting, hiking and cycling. Must-see sights include Nam Ha National Park. Local ethnic villages, such as the Akha, Hmong and Tai Dam, offer a unique opportunity to discover the culture and traditional way of life of Laos’ minorities. Luang Namtha has a rich historical heritage, bearing witness to the influence of neighbouring kingdoms on the region. Buddhist temples such as Wat Sing Jai are real architectural gems to explore.
For food lovers, Luang Namtha offers tasty, authentic local cuisine. Dishes based on glutinous rice, pork or chicken, enhanced with spices and aromatic herbs, will delight the taste buds of even the most discerning gourmets.
Visiting Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang province, is a rewarding experience for travellers looking for a unique destination. One of Phonsavan’s highlights is the famous Plain of Jars, a mysterious archaeological site made up of hundreds of stone jars dating back to the Iron Age. Phonsavan is also packed with magnificent temples and pagodas, including Wat Phia Wat, which stands out as one of the most famous in the region, with its traditional architecture and superb carvings.
For outdoor enthusiasts, the Tad Kaew waterfalls are another popular place to relax and cool off in the crystal-clear waters. As well as its natural attractions, Phonsavan also offers delicious cuisine with traditional Lao dishes such as laap (minced meat salad), tam mak hoong (green papaya salad) and khao piak sen (chicken noodle soup).
Oudomxay – the heart of Northern Laos
Oudomxay province tranquil, beautiful and sometimes hidden in the clouds is located in the heart of northern Laos and is one of the most accessible of the far northern provinces. The rugged mountainous landscape has peaks up to 1,850 meters covered in varying forest types and wider fields. Oudomxay is mainly populated by the Khmu, Hmong and lowland Lao, with a total of 23 ethnic minorities, each with their own languages, cultural heritage and lifestyles.
Chom Ong Cave just outside the Khmu village of Baan Chom Ong is known for its impressive stalactites and stalagmites. Located about 45 kilometres from Muang Xay, the capital of Oudomxay, this 12 km long cave has a river flowing through it, giving the choice of a dry or wet cave experience to the intrepid traveler. A great place to visit, whether you have a few hours or, if you are feeling particularly adventurous, local guides will also give tours lasting several days.
How can I visit northern Laos?
If you’re travelling from Vietnam or Thailand, the most convenient way to get to Northern Laos is by plane. The region has two main airports: Luang Prabang International Airport and Phonsavan Airport. Airlines serving these airports include Lao Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways.
However, if you are travelling from southern Laos or Thailand, the bus is an economical option for reaching northern Laos. There are regular buses from Vientiane – the capital of Laos, to Luang Prabang and Phonsavan. Note, however, that buses can be crowded and the roads can be bumpy, so make sure you’re comfortable with this mode of transport before you set off.
For a unique experience, you can also take a boat to the north of Laos. There are boats that ply the Mekong from Luang Prabang to the Thai border. This option is slower than the others, but it offers a breathtaking view of the river and the surrounding countryside.
When it comes to accommodation in northern Laos, there is a wide range of options to suit all budgets. Travellers can choose to stay in the city of Luang Prabang, where there are a variety of establishments. Check out the best hotels in Luang Prabang.
Northern Laos itinerary: How many days?
To explore Northern Laos, it’s advisable to plan an itinerary that will allow you to discover the region’s wonders. In general, a 15-day stay will give you the opportunity to visit the region’s main attractions:
Day 1: Arrival in Luang Prabang
Day 2-3: Discover Luang Prabang
Day 4-5-6: Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi
Day 7-8: Phongsaly
Day 9-10-11: Trekking in the mountains of Luang Namtha
Day 12: Return to Luang Prabang
Day 13-14: Xieng Khouang and Phonsavan
Day 15: Return to Luang Prabang or departure from Phonsavan
This itinerary gives you a complete overview of Northern Laos, allowing you to discover both popular tourist sites and more remote locations. Of course, you have the flexibility to adjust this itinerary to suit your preferences and the length of your trip.
Our final words
With its spectacular scenery, rich culture and historical heritage, Northern Laos is a must-see destination for anyone aspiring to explore the wonders of Southeast Asia. With careful planning, you’ll be able to take full advantage of all that Northern Laos has to offer. Enjoy your trip!