Laos was once a hidden gem of Southeast Asia, but is getting more crowded by the day. Globetrotting backpacker and blogger Tasha Amy (of Backpackers Wanderlust), shares her guide to Laos and advice for getting away from the crowds.
Laos is a landlocked country, tucked away between its more touristy neighbours such as Vietnam and Thailand, as well as Cambodia, Myanmar and China. I knew I wanted to discover some hidden gems and gain a greater understanding of the country in my Laos Itinerary. After a bit of research, I knew that traveling on a group tour with Stray Asia would be perfect and really take me off the beaten track in Laos.
I had been to Laos once before, but only for a week and following the popular backpacker trail. I crossed the border at Houay Xai, took the 2-day slow boat trip down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, visited the party town of Vang Vieng before leaving at the capital, Vientiane. This all happened within one week and even though I fell in love with the country I knew that there was too much more waiting to be discovered.
The truth is Laos has much more to offer than these main places. In fact, it’s not until you get away in the Laos countryside that you can really start to appreciate more of what the country has to offer. A bonus of travelling with Stray Asia is their ‘Strademark’ stops. Places that a normal tourist would never go to, allowing me to get away from the crowds and partake in some truly unique adventures. Check out my guide to Laos, off the beaten track.
My Guide to Laos Off The Beaten Track
Mekong River Homestay (Ban Pak Nguey)
The first Strademark location on the Laos Itinerary is a local village named Ban Pak Nguey. Here is where we spent the night at a local homestay during the 2-day voyage down the Mekong river from Houay Xai to Luang Prabang. The trip is almost like a rite of passage for any backpacker in South East Asia. Going to the homestay with Stray allowed us to be immersed in local culture instead of sweating in crowded hostels.
The first day on the river was a long one and we arrived quite late at Ban Pak Nguey. After a swim in the Mekong and dinner on the boat, we packed our day bags and set off into the village for the night.
First stop, the meeting hall where a crowd of local villagers had gathered to welcome us with the traditional Baci Ceremony. After some singing, dancing, and lots of drinking of the infamous Lao Lao whiskey the ceremony is complete. We truly got to experience what it is like to live on the riverbanks during the homestay experience. Snuggled up on mattresses sprawled along the floor with a fan whirling above, you get to know your Stray Asia mates pretty fast with no cell phone reception.
Overall, the homestay visit on the Mekong river is a great first taste of what Stray Asia’s tours can do to take you away from the crowds. You get to experience local culture at a personal level and it’s also a great way to bond with your fellow travellers.
My personal highlight of the Laos Itinerary is the countryside village of Kong Lor. When you first arrive, you might think this is just another country village, but you will soon witness what makes this place so astounding; a 7km natural cave through the mountains.
Kong Lor itself is beautiful and I highly suggest staying in the recommended Stray accommodation, the private balcony looks out the tobacco fields with roaming water buffalo no more than a few metres away from you. The surrounding mountains complete this perfect backdrop.
At the end of the road is the local ‘swimming pool’. A small lake which is a great place to take a swim or join the locals in some mild cliff jumping. Beyond here lies the entrance to the cave, where after a short walk you jump into a small wooden boat and begin the trip. With nothing but a head torch to see where you are going, the trip through the caves is a magical experience. I won’t ruin it for you with all the details, but it is seriously one of the best things I have ever done.
To get to Kong Lor as a regular backpacker involves many connecting local buses and long travel times. An easier way for those comfortable is hiring scooters from somewhere like Thakhek. Because of this, not many tourists visit Kong Lor, making it a very untouched part of Laos. Luckily for us our wonderful Stray bus took us right to our accommodation and then all around the small village.
Another Strademark stop is so remote that in the wet season sometimes the tour bus can’t get in or out so you have to switch to a 4×4 vehicle or worse case a boat! There are many things to do in this small country village and I guarantee you will be some of the only tourists there, and you won’t find it in a mainstream guide to Laos!
Monkey forest is home to a huge number of Macaques. Almost 2000 to be precise. A quick stop earlier in the journey allowed us to purchase bananas which we can now use to go feed the monkeys. With so many in a small space, they rely on the locals to provide food for them. It doesn’t take long before many monkeys appear, ready for food. Although a lot of squabbling happens between the monkeys themselves, they never seem to be aggressive to people.
Another activity in Xe Champhone is a visit to Hotay Pidok library, a 200 year old temple on stilts over a river, housing many Lao scripts written on palm leaves.
Stray Asia: The Perfect Way To See Untouched Laos
Laos is a beautiful country, a lot of it can be seen by following the main tourist trail. However, there is equally a part that you must reach out to explore. The countryside villages of Kong Lor and Xe Champone are home to many wonderful secrets, and a night at the homestay on the Mekong river gives a real inside view into local life.
Taking a group tour with Stray and their knowledgeable local guides, enables you to get the most out of these experiences. To be able to get completely off the beaten path and away from the crowds is becoming a rarity these days. Therefore, being able to do so without the stress of independent travel leaves for nothing but positive memories. I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to Laos with Stray!
Need more? Check out 6 reasons you can’t skip Laos.