thakhek loop

The Best of Laos

Before coming to Laos we didn't know where to go or what to do and we certainly didn't plan to stay as long as we did. In fact, we almost skipped Laos entirely because despite the many blog posts we researched in advance, we couldn't get a clear sense of why we should visit or what makes it so different from Cambodia or Vietnam.

Thank god we didn't skip it because it turned out to be our favorite country so far in South East Asia. Thailand is beautiful but it's extremely developed, westernized and crowded. Cambodia is also wonderful but is also growing quickly in western influence and development. 

Laos is like the gentler, softer sister of the other SE Asia countries. It is quiet, empty, tranquil and absolutely stunning. Upon arrival you instantly notice the hospitality of the local people, who constantly greet you in their local language saying with a smile, "Sabaidee!" Laos is full of natural beauty such as waterfalls, natural swimming pools, mountains and rice patties surrounded by small villages.

Although Laos is technically a communist country, people are allowed to own private businesses and practice religion. It seems as if life is moving at a slower pace here and that is what we loved the most about Laos. And did we mention the food?! Our favorite in SE Asia so far. 

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site. It's a joy walking around and admiring the well preserved architecture and religious sites. Even though Luang Prabang is a famous tourist destination, it hasn't lost its charm. The streets are dotted with young monks walking around in their orange robes, bathing in the river and chanting in the many temples throughout the city. The monks are highly respected by the locals and every morning at sunrise the locals gather on a street for Alms, a giving ceremony. Alms is an offering of food for the monks, typically rice and fruit. You can participate in the ceremony as long as you a respectful, which unfortunately many tourist are not. If you want to take a photo please do it quietly, from a distance and without flash!

Daily life in the village seems to be very laid back.  It's a place where you can truly enjoy being a visitor because you don't have to worry about being harassed by vendors trying to sell you anything. The city is on a curfew to respect the early rise of the monks, and after midnight, night life is non-existent.

This quaint village is situated by the mighty Mekong and the smaller Nam Khan river. The rivers and the surrounding mountains make this village absolutely stunning. On any day you will see the locals and tourists swimming in the river or watching the sunset.

Laos cuisine is amazing! They are especially famous for their love of sticky rice. Our favorite were the noodle soups, which come with plenty of fresh herbs, lettuce and other veggies. It sounds weird to put lettuce in a bowl of hot soup, but trust us, there is nothing better!

Besides the traditional food, you can also find tasty western dishes here. Laos was a French colony and the baguettes and pastries in Luang Prabang taste just like in France.

Another joy of the French influence are the Bahn Mi-like Laos sandwiches, which are everywhere and absolutely worth trying!

The night market in Luang Prabang is a fun place to visit and try some local cuisine. There are plenty of meats on sticks, grilled fish, sandwiches and noodle dishes. In our opinion the food at the night market wasn't the freshest. We saw the vendors packing all the meats after hours of sitting on a table, and placing in plastic bags to be sold the next day. We were actually shocked that we didn't get sick.

The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: Want the freshest street food? Look outside the night markets and you will find they are cooking smaller, fresher portions, rather than creating mountains of food (which they could never sell in one night) to impress tourists. 

If you want to get out of town you can hire a tuk tuk, taxi or rent scooters and drive 30km outside to see the incredible Kuang Si Falls. This place is no secret, and if you want to enjoy swimming in the fresh pools of water you should be there as soon as it opens. We got there about 9 am and there were few other people around, but by noon it was full of tourists and locals.

The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: We highly recommend you go by scooter as you can create your own schedule when visiting Kuang Si Falls. It only costs a little more but the freedom is totally worth it. We read a lot of blogs saying the road and ride out to the falls was dangerous but we found that to be completely untrue.

There are multiple waterfalls and the higher you are willing to hike up the stream, the less people you will see. The water is cool, and it's very hard not to jump into the turquoise water. But don't worry, you can!

There is also a small bear sanctuary on the way to the waterfalls. Most of these bears have been rescued from poachers, who either planned to illegally sell them as pets or kill them. One of the bears was missing a paw, but it was still very playful. The bears played together, cooled off in the pools of water and it was very entertaining to watch them.

Also make sure to stop at the small UXO Museum, which you can read more about here (COMING SOON). There are several of these museums in Laos so if you don't go to this one make sure you stop at one of the others as it's really eye opening and important to learn about the brutal history these people have survived and the problems they still deal with today.


Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw is a tiny village a few hours north from Luang Prabang. This place used to be a real off the beaten track place, but it is getting more popular every day. You can start to see the foot print tourism is leaving on this town with numerous restaurants and guest houses popping up.  

The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: We scored an awesome river view bungalow for $9 by staying a 10 minute walk outside the main town. There is a small dirt road near the school and down by the river are a handful of awesome cheap bungalows. 

There is a nice but strenuous hike you can do to see a spectacular view of the valley and the town below but please, don't go in the middle of the day like we did! It was so hot we barely made it to the top. The trailhead starts about 50 meters past Temple of Ban Sop Houn.

Once you reach the top you are rewarded with a nice viewing hut that offers some shade and even a hammock!

Vang Vieng

We are only going to mention this town briefly as it's the one place in Laos we really didn't like. And why? Because it was one the town most ruined and destroyed by western influence. Viang Vieng was famous for many years as an insane, year round, Spring Break experience for young backpackers. Eventually it got so bad that backpackers were dying, doing stupid things that stupid backpackers do. So the government eventually shut everything down and now there are only a few bars left. We read the town has since changed and maybe it has, but to us it still reeked of its previous heyday and although there are some nice day trips you can do, we think the town is completely worth skipping.

The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: If you MUST go to Vang Vieng, you might as well score some free drinks. We got pretty hammered completely for FREE thanks to the extremely competitive happy hours, (which is basically free drinks from 6-8) that the few bars in town offer to try and lure you in. 


Thakhek and the Thakhek Loop

This town is located between Vientiane and 4000 Islands. The town itself doesn't have much to offer but it is a must stop for the awesome Thakhek Loop which you can read in detail about here

4000 Islands

Don Det is located at 4000 Islands and just getting there was an adventure. We first took an overnight bus that dropped us in the middle of nowhere at 3am where we had to wait until sunrise, and then we traveled for another hour by a small boat to get there. The island itself is lovely. You can do some kayaking, biking, river tubing and read a book in hammocks overlooking the river.

The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: Internet in Don Det sucks but if you seek out the restaurant/café with the fewest customers, you're much more likely to get a faster connection. 

We visited Don Det in the middle of March, which was good and bad. March is the hottest month in Laos and the heat was hard to deal with, but on a positive note, the island was empty and rooms were cheap. 

Laos Travel Guide
Laos Travel Guide


If you've never been to South East Asia, it's easy to assume that all these neighboring countries are going to be very much alike. But as we continue to make our way through the region, we are quickly learning and loving how different they all are. And just because we said earlier, that Thailand and Cambodia are more developed, it doesn't meant they aren't worth visiting as well. But again, what set Laos apart, and what made us fall in love, was the lack of urgency. In a world that is dominated by the aggressive pursuit of profits and status, the people of Laos, in the city AND the villages, seemed untroubled by these pursuits. It's truly the land of "it's nap time", when and where ever you want! Restaurants and stores almost always had an employee or two dozing in a corner somewhere.

And although we fell in love with the simplicity and slowness of Laos, we are also well aware of the countries tragic past, and the struggles it deals with today regarding it's extremely corrupt government and massive levels of poverty. 

Despite these hurdles, we saw nothing but smiles as we drove through village after village in the countryside. And although we hope for a more honest government and more access to education, healthcare and vital services for it's people, we hope they never forget that it's always the right time to sit back, relax, and take a nap. 

Motorbiking the Thakhek Loop

There are road trips and then there are road trips… this the latter. Although merely a 3 – 4 day loop, the majestic views and the multitude of caves and villages to be explored make it a must for anyone traveling through Laos.

We at The Tipsy Gypsies have a great appreciation for temples, museums and guided tours but after so many months on the road, what really tickles our pickle, are trips that involve adventure and allows for the amazingness that is known as, The Unexpected.

Marta taking her first ride!

Marta taking her first ride!

Although we have embarked on far more adventurous journeys such as driving a rickshaw across India, or exploring remote villages in the Himalayas, we were thoroughly excited when we arrived in the town of Thakhek and picked out our rides for this journey. Marta had never ridden a motorcycle before yet she already knew her favorite of the two wheel family, is the dirt bike. Therefor it was natural that we rent a Kawasaki 150cc for her to get her feet wet. Since this was a learning experience, we decided our second bike would be an easy, cruising, fully auto, Honda scooter. That way we could take turns on the more rugged, not designed for road trips Kawasaki, and after a few hours of ass sore, find relief on the cushony Honda cruiser.

We arrived in Thakhek late the first evening so little was to be done. But our next day we rented the dirt bike and stayed in town so Marta could get her bearings on riding the (for her petite size), beast of a two wheeler. Thakhek as a town doesn’t have much to offer but they do have a cute tiny night market at the city center square where you can sit at children size tables and nibble street goods, while watching some projected Lao soap operas.

The next day we set out early. Within minutes of leaving Thakhek you see yourself surrounded by those beautiful steep cliffs iconic to South East Asia. There are a slew of caves you can visit within the first half of your day but after our first, we decided to skip the rest.

There are a slew of caves you can visit within the first half of your day but after our first, we decided to skip the rest. They are pretty, but honestly it felt like (understandably) they were built just to attract tourists to these villages that otherwise, have nothing else. The locals we met were friendly and inviting but the cave we visited left a lot to be desired. Preferring the view from the road, we decided to just continue towards our first days end destination at the town of Thalang.

The drive was spectacular and ascending to a higher altitude, we made some steep winding climbs. Eventually you see the terrain drastically change as you pass the Nakai-Tai Damn. The landscape suddenly takes on a surreal, beautiful and yet post apocalyptic feel as you’re suddenly driving between unnatural islands formed by once-upon-a-time hilltops and surrounded by unnatural lakes filled with barren and dying trees.

The Tipsy Gypsies Thakhek Loop

The town of Thalang itself is tiny and situated on one of the hilltop-turned-islands. There are two companies operating bungalow guesthouses and although Mad Monkeys recommended the first called Phosy Thalang, we decided on the second, which is right before you cross the bridge and is called Saibadee Guesthouse. We still walked to Phosy to compare and we were very happy with our decision. We got a great but modest bungalow for 50,000 kip ($7 dollars) and the family who runs the place is awesome. Really friendly, welcoming and they do an all you can eat BBQ every night which was worth every penny of our higher than normal dinner expense of 50,000 kip/person. Everyone sits at a long communal table and it’s like having a big family cookout.

The next day we took our time and we were on the road by 9:30am. The drive out of the lake area is spectacular and eventually the terrain will change as you reach the junction town of Lak Xao. Not much to see here but a good stop for lunch if you had a light breakfast.

Beyond Lak Xao the terrain again becomes more mountainous and jungly, sprinkled with little villages and picturesque rice paddies.

About an hour out of Lak Xao, just past the town of Phontan, you will see a sign that says Pool Spring, or something to like that. This is a must stop. After hours on the dusty hot road it’s a gorgeous natural swimming hole with a vibrant blue and cool refreshing water. When we first arrived things were quiet and peaceful, but within an hour of getting there, scooter after scooter of local teens from the local school began arriving and the atmosphere turned into a spring break party. We weren’t sure if this was a normal, every day occurrence or school was out for holiday or summer… but regardless, we were happy we got there before the music started blasting. No stress to us though because it was time to hit the road again as we still had another 150km and a hike ahead of us before the day was done.

Eventually you make another climb and then finally a descent into a massive valley. The viewpoint you’ll pass as you descend is totally worth a stop. After you finish your decent you’ll reach the town of Nahim, which mainly exists for the large hydro plant in town. But just past the turn you’ll later make to head to Konglor, is a trailhead and a hike to a waterfall (also clearly marked). There is an entrance fee of 10,000 kip and it’s a beautiful 1.5-3km hike depending on where you park, but we were so bummed when we reached the waterfall.

We've seen better...

We've seen better...

We did this hike in April, which is not the rainy season so the waterfall was merely a trickle. Nonetheless we were still grateful to find a swimming pool large enough for us to cool off before heading back.

After the hike we hit the road fast and furious to make our final stop for the day before the sun went down. This was honestly my favorite part of the day’s trip. The road into Konglor is spectacular as you pass through farming village after farming village. And as the walls of the valley grew narrower and narrower, it only became more spectacular. If you can time this  part of the ride during dusk you won’t regret it. I was smiling from ear to ear at the scenery, back dropped by the pastel colors of the famous Laos setting sun.

We arrived at the end of the road and the town of Konglor, right as it got dark. And we scoped out every guesthouse in town. We can say with certainty, stay in the very first one! The rooms again are only 50,000 kip, which is cheaper than most, and spotlessly clean. Their menu left a little to be desired but you can easily walk to any of the other guesthouses, or the one restaurant in town for dinner.

The next morning we were out by 8:30 and heading to the ferry dock for the main attraction on this trip: the Konglor Cave. Although we had grown less than enthusiastic about the previous caves, this one is worth every penny. And if you share the boat with the max passenger capacity of three, that’s pretty much what this awesome experience will cost you (2,000 kip into the park and 130,000 kip for the boat, which you can divide by the three passengers).

The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: Caution, you will get a little wet and have to walk in some water so bring flip-flops if you have them. If not, you can rent them.

The boat ride is amazing and takes you through the massive 7km long cave, out the other side and then back again. Aside from one small Disneyland, gimmicky section where they’ve lit the cave with colorful lights, your only light source is your headlamp. As you emerge from the other side you’re greeted by lush green jungles and even if only for a moment, you and your two companions feel like real explorers. After a quick break and a cold Laobeer at the other ferry dock, you head back and experience it for a second time. After saying goodbye to our awesome guide and momentary fellow explorer, it was time to hit the road again.

From this point you have two options. Head back the way you came, which takes most people an additional two days, or do what we did because of time, continue the last section of the loop, which connects to the main highway and speeds you back to Thakhek.

Final view before descending towards the main highway.

Final view before descending towards the main highway.

Our recommendation, if you have the time, head back the way you came. Although we hit a couple amazing and quite memorable viewpoints before reaching the main highway, once you get to the busy road, the ride sucks. It’s dangerous and nothing to see. Buses, trucks and cars will fly past you and you’ll be bound to have a few heart attacks along the way.

Needless to say, we were all smiles when we got back to Thakhek. After two weeks of “sight seeing”, it gave us at least a little adrenaline boost and reinvigorated our travel spirits. And on top of that, Marta is now a motorcycle rider! I must say I’m extremely proud of my wife for yet again, wanting to do something ambitious, and kicking ass at it. At a height of 5’1”, a 150cc bike is the MAXIMUM size she can fit on. Her feet barely touched the ground, yet she took it on fearlessly and with determination. I can’t wait to see her ride a bike more her size as I know she will love it even more.

Thanks Mad Monkeys!

Thanks Mad Monkeys!

In Thakhek, we were thoroughly pleased with our experience renting from Mad Monkey who had great customer service and good prices. We were also happy with our stay at the Thakhek Travel Lodge, offering dorm rooms, affordable simple doubles as well as some more upscale rooms if you want something a bit nicer after the long ride.

Two important notes. First, if you are trying to decide between this loop and the Pakse, choose this one! Although we have not done both our selves, we talked to multiple long term riders who have done both and they say the Thakhek Loop wins hands down. Second, if you read some of the other popular blog posts on this loop, most are completely outdated in pictures and details. For example, the loop is now completely paved! We were expecting major sections of road to be dirt and muddy but aside from small side roads to reach caves and swimming holes, the main route is as smooth as butter.

We can’t wait for our next two-wheeler road trip, maybe South America??? Maybe sooner??? Who knows, so stay tuned!

If you have any questions or think we missed something awesome from your trip, please share in the comments below!