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Northern Laos and the Golden Triangle

Overland from Thailand's Chiang Mai through the remote mountains of the infamous Golden Triangle to UNESCO World Heritage Luang Prabang

2-week Thailand and Laos Tour

Our 2-week Thailand and Laos tour, Northern Laos & the Golden Triangle, makes for a superb introduction to the spectacular scenery, traditional cultures and history of this truly fascinating, yet still relatively little known, region.

We’ll begin the tour in Thailand’s northern capital – the delightful and historic city of Chiang Mai – before heading north through spectacular mountain scenery to Chiang Rai and the infamous Golden Triangle. Until recently, a remote lawless area of opium trafficking and warlords, today we can discover its bucolic scenery, ancient cities, fabulous temples, vibrant markets and tranquil riverside towns.

From here, we’ll cross the Mekong into northern Laos. Travelling by road and by boat through rugged mountain landscapes populated by myriad hill-tribe groups, we’ll arrive at the stunning ancient capital, and now UNESCO World Heritage Site, of Luang Prabang. Time to explore the beautiful temples, colonial architecture and surrounding villages of what is acknowledged to be the best preserved town in Southeast Asia, with of course ample opportunity to relax in riverside cafes and check-out the town’s unique cuisine.

From Luang Prabang, a scenic drive through the dramatic central highlands takes us to the fascinating and mysterious Plain of Jars. Our last stop is the laid back, present-day capital, Vientiane with its scenic Mekong side location.

For those with more time, there’s the option of continuing south from Vientiane into the surreal limestone landscapes of Khammouane Province on our Mekong Adventure while a variety of extensions and/or extra nights can be arranged in Chiang Mai prior to your tour.

Laos

Itinerary

Here's an idea of what you can expect to do and see day-to-day.

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Day 1 - Chiang Mai - arrival and time to explore

Arrival in Chiang Mai, the cultural and historic capital of Northern Thailand. Free time to explore this charming, friendly city or just recover from jet-lag by the pool, before an evening walking tour of the town’s famous night bazaar.

Overnight: Chiang Mai Transport: Walk,  Meals: D, 

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Day 2 - Chiang Rai - travel north through the mountains

Morning departure for a scenic drive through the mountains to neighbouring Chiang Rai, formerly the main commercial centre for the infamous Golden Triangle region – so-called because of its previous notoriety for warlords and opium cultivation. Stops on the way include some hot springs as well as the spectacular ‘White Temple’.

Overnight: Chiang Rai Transport: Minibus,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 3 - Chiang Rai - Golden Triangle tour

Day tour of some of the sites of this northern region. From the magnificent mountain-top botanical gardens of Mae Fah Luang, travel to Sob Ruak where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet, and visit the unusual Opium Museum, before following the Mekong River via the historic ruined city of Chiang Saen to our day’s destination, the scenic riverside town of Chiang Khong.

Overnight: Chiang Khong Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 4 - Luang Nam Tha - cross the Mekong to Laos

Cross the Mekong into Laos where we’ll travel through mountains and jungle to the remote town of Luang Nam Tha near the Chinese border. Stops on the way include the scenic, and only recently discovered, Kao Rao limestone cave system, as well as some of the area’s traditional minority villages. Overnight at a beautifully situated eco-lodge on the banks of the Tha River.

Overnight: Luang Nam Tha Transport: Minibus,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 5 - Nam Ha National Park - day trek

Day trip into the surrounding Nam Ha National Protected Area to hike through some of the spectacular scenery. Visit some of the local hill-tribe villages to discover the traditional way of life of the area’s ethnic Akha people. Guides will show you some of the various forest plants used by the hill-tribe peoples as medicine or food, as well as cooking you a traditional Akha jungle lunch.

Maximum hiking 5-6 hours, but hikes can be tailored to suit all abilities

Overnight: Luang Nam Tha Transport: Walk,  Meals: B, L, 

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Day 6 - Nong Khiaw - scenic mountain drive

Continue across the mountains of Oudom Xai Province to the picturesque village of Nong Khiaw on the banks of the Ou River. We’ll stop to visit a Hmong village and hill-tribe market and staying overnight in traditional Lao-style wooden chalets set spectacularly on the banks overlooking the river.

Overnight: Nong Khiaw Transport: Minibus,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 7 - Nong Khiaw - boat trip up the Ou

Boat trip up the scenic Nam Ou. The section north of Nong Khiaw is the most spectacular stretch of the river, winding through dramatic limestone escarpments. We’ll stop at a Khmu/Hmong village only accessible by boat and return to Nong Khiaw in the afternoon with some time to relax in this superb mountain setting. Discover the area on foot or bicycle, or just sit back on your balcony and admire the mountains and river below.

Overnight: Nong Khiaw Transport: Boat, Walk,  Meals: B, L, 

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Day 8 - Luang Prabang - Pak Ou Caves and on to Luang Prabang

Morning drive south through the Ou River Valley, to the famous cave temples near Pak Ou. Lunch in a riverside café, followed by a visit to a local village, with an afternoon boat journey down the Mekong to the ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang.

Overnight: Luang Prabang Transport: Minibus, Boat,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 9 - Luang Prabang - morning walking tour and afternoon at leisure

Nestled in the mountains, long isolated from the outside world, discover World Heritage Luang Prabang’s fabulous temples, French colonial architecture and taste Lao delicacies (and the famous Lao beer!) in riverside cafes. A walking tour includes the old king’s palace, Wat Xiengthong, Phu Si Hill Temple and the Fine Arts School. An afternoon at leisure allows you to wander the quiet, picturesque lanes or check out the hill-tribe market?

Overnight: Luang Prabang Transport: Walk,  Meals: B, D, 

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Day 10 - Luang Prabang - into the surrounding countryside

Day trip through the surrounding scenic hills where we’ll visit the spectacular Kuang Si Falls and adjacent Free the Bears project. Stops on the way offer the opportunity to discover the fascinating traditional village life of some of the local villagers as well as take in the bucolic landscapes.

Overnight: Luang Prabang Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, 

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Day 11 - Central Highlands - overland to Phonsavan

Early departure for a drive along scenic mountain roads to Phonsavan in remote Xieng Khouang Province – location of the famous and mysterious Plain of Jars. Stops include Khmu and Hmong villages and a hidden cave temple that served as an army hospital during the Vietnam War. Late afternoon arrival in Phonsavan with an atmospheric dusk visit to one of the famous jar sites.

Overnight: Phonsavan Transport: Minibus,  Meals: B, L, 

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Day 12 - Plain of Jars - morning tour and transfer to Vientiane

After a visit the Mines Advisory Group to learn about the work they do in clearing landmines and unexploded ordnance in the area, we will drive out to the picturesque Jar Site 2, where we’ll begin a short our trek along the ridge to the impressive hill-top Jar Site 3. Afternoon flight to the Lao capital of Vientiane with time perhaps to stretch our legs with a stroll along the Mekong waterfront for sundowners in a riverbank cafe?

Overnight: Vientiane Transport: Plane, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 13 - Vientiane - in and around the capital

Our tour of some of the city’s sites includes picturesque Si Saket Temple with its 1,000 Buddhas, the colourful morning market, Vientiane’s famous That Luang Stupa, plus the highly unusual Buddha Park. Less cheerful, but we feel important and very informative, is a stop at the COPE Visitors Centre, established to highlight a problem the local people face daily in the form of unexploded war ordnance.

Overnight: Vientiane Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 14 - Vientiane - morning at leisure and departure

Morning at leisure in Vientiane and departure at your convenience.

Extra nights in Vientiane after your tour or in Chiang Mai beforehand are available on request.

Airport transfers are included if you purchase the 'with flights' package. If you purchased your own flights, airport transfers can be arranged.

Overnight: Departure Transport: Walk,  Meals: B, 

Print Itinerary

Details

The nitty-gritty, the things you need to know, the answers to your burning questions.

Thailand and Laos tour, Mekong rainbow

Just a few of the many highlights

Through the glorious mountain landscapes of Thailand's once infamous Golden Triangle Region to the beautifully preserved UNESCO site and ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang

  • Discover the ancient temples, bustling markets and quiet lanes of Thailand's charming northern capital and historic town Chiang Mai
  • Our Luang Nam Tha stay includes accommodation at the excellent Boat Landing eco-lodge and a trek into the Nam Ha National Park
  • A 2-night stay in picturesque northern Laos' Nong Khiaw village on the banks of the Ou River
  • A tour of the infamous Golden Triangle region - border markets, scenic landscapes, ancient cities and of course the famous opium museum
  • Explore the ancient temples, colonial architecture, narrow lanes and bustling markets of UNESCO World Heritage Luang Prabang
  • And last but not least sample the reknowned Lao & Thai cuisines in restaurants, street stalls and markets

Air Departures (UK)

  • 17 December 19 2,950 GBP
  • 11 January 20 2,800 GBP
  • 7 February 20 2,800 GBP
  • 6 March 20 2,800 GBP
  • 3 April 20 2,800 GBP
  • 1 May 20 2,800 GBP
  • 26 May 20 2,800 GBP
  • 20 June 20 2,800 GBP
  • 17 July 20 2,800 GBP
  • 14 August 20 2,900 GBP
  • 14 September 20 2,800 GBP
  • 14 October 20 2,800 GBP
  • 15 November 20 2,800 GBP
  • 16 December 20 3,100 GBP

Land Departures

  • 18 December 19 1,950 GBP
  • 12 January 20 2,000 GBP
  • 8 February 20 2,000 GBP
  • 7 March 20 2,000 GBP
  • 4 April 20 2,000 GBP
  • 2 May 20 2,000 GBP
  • 27 May 20 2,000 GBP
  • 21 June 20 2,000 GBP
  • 18 July 20 2,000 GBP
  • 15 August 20 2,000 GBP
  • 15 September 20 2,000 GBP
  • 15 October 20 2,000 GBP
  • 16 November 20 2,000 GBP
  • 17 December 20 2,000 GBP

Guaranteed Places Left Special Price Solo Traveller Closed

*Air departures are from the UK. Land departures start from Chiang Mai

*Land departure dates correspond to the FIRST day of the itinerary.

We choose our hotels based on a combination of location, comfort and convenience. Here is a *selection of the types of hotel/rooms you can expect to stay at on this tour...

20 Lodge, Chiang Mai view

  • Delightful lush garden setting & pool
  • Quiet location in the Old City
  • Small, friendly and a welcoming family style

Laluna Resort, Chiang Rai view

  • Comfortable individual chalets in a stunning tropical garden
  • 5 minute tuk-tuk ride from the town's lively night bazaar
  • Pool, spa, massage and excellent in-house restaurant

Namkong Riverside Hotel, Chiang Khong

  • Namkong Riverside in the small border town of Chiang Khong
  • Perfect location overlooking the Mekong River and Laos
  • Comfy well-appointed rooms and friendly service

The Boat Landing, Luang Namtha view

  • The charming Boat Landing, a family run eco-lodge
  • Traditional style accommodation in a riverside setting
  • Wonderful, authentic local food in the in-house restaurant

Mandala Ou Resort, Nong Khiaw view

  • Fantastic riverside location close to Nong Khiaw Village
  • Individual chalets in a garden setting
  • Pool, herbal sauna, riverside bar and yoga sala available

Villa Chitdara, Luang Prabang view

  • 'French colonial' chic at Luang Prabang's Villa Chitdara
  • Friendly staff, a relaxed atmosphere and central location
  • Great spot for exploring the old World Heritage town

Chanthapanya Hotel, Vientiane view

  • Well-appointed rooms with pool, restaurant, bar and gym
  • Great location, a short walk from town centre and riverside
  • Centrally located yet quiet position

*This list should be considered a guide only, hotels/rooms may change (without notice) depending on availability.

Visa Info & Notes

Visas:

Thailand: No visa in advance is required. A free 30-day visa for Thailand is issued on arrival at an international airport.

Laos: 30-day tourist visas are issued at the visa on arrival counters at international airports as well as any land entry point. These are available for most nationalities with the exception of certain African and Middle Eastern countries. (You can check the list at this link.) For some reason, Swiss, Luxembourgeois and Russian passport holders are exempt from visas while any nationalities not included in the visa on arrival list will need to apply at a Lao embassy or consulate beforehand.

Requirements are at least 6 months passport validity, a minimum of 1 blank page and 2 passport-sized photos. Application forms are available at immigration counters though if arriving by flight they are usually handed out by cabin crew while for land crossings our guides are on hand with forms and assistance.

The fees are only payable in $US except for Thai/Lao land crossings where baht are accepted and this is where things do get slightly complicated as pricing does vary from country to country. Most European passport holders plus South African, Australian and NZ are charged $30 with the exception of Swedish who pay $1 more and British who pay an extra $5.  US citizens are also charged $35 while, for reasons we can’t fathom, Canadians pay $41. (Note a $1 overtime fee is charged for public holidays and outside of standard Lao office hours.)

A Lao tourist visa is a 1-page stick on type and you’ll receive additional, regular sized,  entry and exit stamps.

Tipping: we recommend a kitty system for the smaller, daily tips such as hotel/restaurant staff and local guides and drivers. Amounts inevitably vary with group size but would generally be in the region of $3-4 per person, per day. With regards guides accompanying you for longer periods we’d recommend a separate tip of approximately $5 per person, per day though of course, this is always discretionary and performance related. (Local currency or USD are fine.) 

Meals: Breakfasts are generally hotel buffets with lunch and dinners based on local food. Your tour-leader will usually order a selection of dishes, local-style, while a number of meals are not included, which allows you to ‘do your own thing’ or take a break if you’re feeling ‘riced out’.

Although you may assume Lao cuisine is little-known outside of Laos the fact that it’s hugely popular in neighbouring Thailand is a good reference and indeed many well-known Thai dishes such as the famous green papaya salad (som tam) and spicy minced pork salad (laap) are of Lao origin. Certain dishes then can be pretty firey – though your tour-leader can, of course, ask for them to be toned down – while the more Chinese and Vietnamese influenced dishes, which will be more familiar to foreign travellers, being generally mild.

Both vegan and vegetarian diets are easily catered to.

Accommodation: all choices fall into the comfortable 3* range and are en-suite and air-conditioned. We have posted a selection of sample accommodation on the lefthand hotel tab but please note that as we try and avoid the larger hotels, availability, in high season particularly, means we use several options in each destination. Please note that since many establishments are on the small size, swimming pools – with the exception of the 4,000 Island resorts – are not a common feature.

Activities: note that no activities are compulsory and that any offered, including trekking, can be tailored for any fitness level or alternatives suggested.

Further info: detailed descriptions and photos can be found on the corresponding page of our travel blog.

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