Gay Laos itinerary: the best places to visit in Laos for the most adventurous

Closed off to the outside world until 1989, Laos now opens up as the last piece of the puzzle for any SE Asia itinerary, surprising visitors with its sheer scale of untouched wilderness. Oft overlooked in favour of the flanking nations of Vietnam and Thailand, Laos benefits from relatively few tourists to maintain a certain rustic magic. Compensating for its lack of coast with endless rugged green landscapes, the never-ending countryside lies undeveloped except for rolling rice paddies and rural farms, best explored on a motorbike trip passing through humble working villages and French eco-retreats along the way. Our itinerary starts in the wealthy northern capital of Luang Prabang, pausing at hidden waterfalls, caves and river settlements en route to a series of thousands of tiny islands right on the Mekong.

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Vang Vieng | Photo: Pascal Muller

Gay Laos

A communist state on the border to Thailand, Laos is decidedly conservative towards same-sex relationships and – though homosexuality is not illegal – existing laws continue to hinder the progression of LGBTQ rights. Laos is an inward-looking country and so travellers must bear in mind that traditional attitudes prevail. Most gay locals in Laos live in the closet, expected by their families to marry someone of the opposite sex and produce children. Despite this, most Laotians are incredibly welcoming and tolerant towards outsiders and at a social level, there is a growing acceptance of homosexuality.

If you come expecting more of the same wild gay nightlife you found in Thailand then you’ll leave Laos disappointed. Laos’ rural towns and settlements have limited contact with westerners, while, in the cities, nightlife is near non-existent and the Laos gay scene even more so. The capital city of Vientiane is the exception to this rule and the only place you may be able to find a rare gay party. The gentrified city of Luang Prabang also has some great meeting points thanks to its trendy fusion restaurants, boho café cum bars and late night bowling alleys. Of the many pretty boutique hotels located here, the majority will be respectful to same-sex couples and you won’t be the first! Outside of the privacy of your suite, however, respect the culture and customs of the country, keeping PDA to a minimum and dressing appropriately when visiting religious and stately sites.

Photo: Honey Fangs

Travel Tips

Woefully used as a pawn in the Vietnam War, Laos’ countryside is still strewn with millions of unexploded landmines, dropped between 1964 and 1973 in a bid to wrest control from communist forces in Northern Vietnam. Still recovering from this and only open to foreigners for the last three decades, Laos has quickly come to lean on its tourism industry for growth, making for fast development and a population of locals who remain inexplicably warm and welcoming of foreigners, in comparison to some of the more tourist-weary places on the SE Asia backpacking route. The nation’s relatively recent development also means that Laos holds onto its traditional culture and lush natural beauty, offering a glimpse into age-old ways of living, among remote mountains, rainforests and tiny islands on the Mekong, as well as colonial-era cities.

When to travel

Conventional wisdom pins November to January as the best time to visit Laos, when the subtropical weather is at its most bearable, though up in the far north temperatures can come close to freezing in the evenings. Generally speaking, however, Laos is a stellar option any time of year, excluding the months of March and April during the routine burning of crop fields when the air turns heavy and humid. May comes equally as hot, followed swiftly by the rainy season running from late May to September. Don’t discount this time; simply come prepared for a few unexpected downpours in the late afternoons.

Photo: David Suaza

Photo: Roman Odintsov

Travel requirements

As for your legal requirements; getting a visa for Laos couldn’t be easier as most tourists can apply and pay around $30-40USD at the border to receive their 30-day tourist visa on arrival. Exceptions to this rule are citizens of certain countries in Africa and the Middle East, while citizens of ASEAN countries, Japan, Switzerland and Russia can sail right through in about 10 minutes.

Safety

Laos is a place you can largely relax. Besides exercising general caution in regards to personal belongings (don’t leave money out in your hotel room or vehicle; keep your valuables in your eye line while travelling on public transport), Laos can be considered safe and the Lao people will almost certainly go out of their way to help you should you require it. Rural parts offer their own dangers however and going off track when trekking or solo exploring is ill-advised. While roads, well-trodden trails and tourist attractions are deemed safe, many unexploded land mines still mar the countryside, as well as the area near route 7 and 13. Don’t go off track without a knowledgeable guide, and get insurance before travelling to cover any possible accidents, such as motorbike wobbles.

One sign of Laos’ communist rule is that there is a national curfew in place throughout the country. Though this is rarely enforced, most businesses won’t stay open after midnight and some guesthouses ask you to return home before curfew and refrain from making too much noise after 10 pm, to allow the local monks a good night’s sleep before their early rise to give alms.

How long to spend in Laos

There is a well-worn tourist trail in Laos and giving yourself 10 days to two weeks to complete it is usually sufficient, allowing coverage of most main attractions and at least one motorbike tour. The most convenient flight schedule lies north in Luang Prabang, likely your first stop before moving south to cover Vang Vieng, Vientiane and the 4000 Islands.

Vang Vieng | Photo Bckfwd

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The best of Luang Prabang comes hidden in the overgrowth, such as at the vibrant aquamarine Kuang Si waterfalls, a site so beautiful it became the stuff of great legend

1. Luang Prabang

Opulence on a shoestring, Luang Prabang will have you feeling like a king by way of its Indochinese boutique villas, gilded temples and affordable feasts spread throughout. While certainly, the centre of the city has heart, the best of Luang Prabang comes hidden in the overgrowth, such as at the vibrant aquamarine Kuang Si waterfalls, a site so beautiful it became the stuff of great legend. Besides bathing in the pools here, visitors can try trekking the nearby mountains or kayaking at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers before finishing up at a European-style café along the river or stepping on board a river cruise to view the winding landscapes up close.

Back in town, there’s more trekking after dusk in order to explore the full extent of the main night market, a site which spans the length of the high street with bargain souvenirs, handicrafts and creations unique to the nation, as well as tasters of scorpion-spiked Laos whiskey and local coffee beans. About halfway down lies the French-colonial era Royal Palace, now an overflowing museum of extravagant kingly purchases and the number one attraction to compliment 33 other UNESCO-protected temples studded through town. One of the top things to do in Luang Prabang for early risers is to stand across from the nearest temple gates at dawn to witness daily alms being handed out by the city’s monks. Once wide awake, make the most of the morning with a short trek to view a spectacular sunrise at one of the city’s elevated shrines.

Luang Prabang | Photo: Kyle Petzer

Luang Prabang | Photo: Molydar Souama

2. Vang Vieng

Tucked amongst the nation’s lush mountains on the Nam Song River around 5 hours south of Luang Prabang and 2 hours north of Vientiane, is the tourist-centred town of Vang Vieng. Join a subsection of hedonistic backpackers for optional riverside bar crawls and tubing shenanigans, or appreciate the slower side of Vang Vieng and be won over by its wild valley aesthetics. In proximity to a fantastic range of hiking, mountain climbing, caving and river kayaking opportunities, the town is a formidable base for outdoor explorers, with the added bonus of a vibrant nightlife scene centred on a small number of reggae cafés and party hostels.

Bite down on street eats suitable for all palettes – from traditional Laotian curries and Thai noodles to American subs and French crepes – heading out for a full or half-day tour of the Mekong and surrounding wilderness to be back in time for cocktails and pink-hued sunsets over rugged mountain landscapes. One of the top things to do in Vang Vieng is to get up close to the local nature, by way of ziplining through the forest or plunging from a rope swing into the Blue Lagoon, a paradise pool frequented by locals and tourists alike. Nearby you can also find the equally worthy attraction of Phu Kham Cave where you can trek the cool, dark depths beneath the cliffs to view the majestic reclining Buddha.

Vang Vieng | Photo: Igormattio

3. Vientiane

Continuing south, we head into the capital of Vientiane, doubling the expected journey time from Vang Vieng to allow for Laos’ somewhat sluggish transport system, likely arriving in just under four hours. One of the more understated places to visit Laos has to offer, gay Vientiane appeals to queer travellers for reasons other than its nightlife. Come to experience old European charm exuding from the French Quarter, the nation’s trading centre during colonial times. Though there’s not a whole lot of things to do in Vientiane, the city can be forgiven thanks to its affordable accommodation and low-key vibe that induces a kind of meditative state on any visitor. Slurp languidly on Beerlao at any of the city’s riverside cafés, moving through the city by tuk-tuk or motorbike to view Lao’s version of the Arc de Triomphe (Patuxai) as well as more crumbling French-style architecture amongst local markets and sacred Buddhist sites such as Wat Si Saket and Buddha Park slightly further out of town.

Vientiane | Photo: Pixabay

Vientiane | Photo: Nguyen Do

4. Pakse

Closing in on the nation’s southern foot, we arrive in the city of Pakse, a common layover point for travellers aiming for 4000 Islands. More than just a bed for the night, however, Pakse offers insight into the lush Champasak Province, a region most vibrant after the summer rains. Within town you’ll quickly tick off all of Pakse’s things to do – indulging in a slap-up seafood meal along the waterfront and an afternoon at a herbal sauna – but hire a motorbike or tuk-tuk for the day and the region quickly becomes even more enticing. Journey from town to the stunning waterfalls and tea plantations of the Bolaven Plateau for the easiest day tour, though with added time you can venture all the way to Xe Pian National Protected Area or Lao Ngam in the neighbouring Salavan Province.

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Four thousand little islets here all dotting the many strands of the Mekong River as it threads south into Cambodia, many of which remain uninhabited

5. 4000 Islands

Si Phan Don might garner disbelief in its claim of having four thousand islands, but on arrival – via a somewhat bumpy journey of bus, tuk-tuk and river taxi from Pakse – you’ll soon discover this is no exaggeration. There are indeed four thousand little islets here all dotting the many strands of the Mekong River as it threads south into Cambodia, many of which remain uninhabited. Of the few with a native population, there are fewer still with facilities for tourists. Don Det and Dong Khong are the most popular among young backpackers, filled as they are with bohemian guesthouses and reggae bars perfect for mingling with other harem-pant-wearing foreigners from across the globe. Though crowded with bungalows close to their respective main docks, tranquillity can certainly be found on the opposite end of each island. To avoid the party scene altogether, Don Khon is the place for it, providing a more authentic look at island life and fewer foreigners.

Bicycling is the main way of travelling around the islands as roads are altogether non-existent. Rent a bike for as little as 10,000 kip ($1.25 USD) crossing over onto neighbouring islands by bridgeway to pass by tiny villages, rice paddies and natural attractions, such as the epic Khon Phapeng Falls, a sheer sight to behold. Besides cycling and hammock dwelling, other activities to consider are Irrawaddy dolphin watching tours, kayaking and tubing, before winding down in the evening to watch spellbinding sunsets over the Mekong from various angles.

Don Det Island, Si Phan Don | Photo: Basile Morin

More time in Laos?

Those not yet done with Laos can consider veering from the beaten path to explore the northern border in a little more detail. Huay Xai is usually only visited by those looking to cross the border into Thailand but it also offers another expedient mode of transport back into Luang Prabang via the Mekong River. Make the most of trekking opportunities amongst rural mountain communities in the area, seeing rural hospitality at its most heart-warming with a homestay or a few nights in a treehouse at the Bokeo Nature Reserve for the Gibbon Experience, an activity that’ll see you ziplining through the forest canopy and catching sight of gibbons, elephants, tigers and buffalo in their natural habitat. When ready to make a move, hop on a multi-day Mekong River cruise said to be a common highlight of any trip to Laos.

Another place rising up the list of places to visit in Laos is the remote village of Nong Khiaw, a place made for trekking and chilling in equal measure. Located on Nam Ou River and accessible by boat, Nong Khiaw comes surrounded by karst cliffs and limestone caves – such as Pha Tok, a great spot for spelunking.

Last but not least is the infamous Thakhek Loop, something you’ll soon hear talk of on arrival in Laos if socialising with other travellers. Not the only motorbike loop in the nation, Thekhek Loop earns legendary status thanks to its year-round popularity with free spirit solo travellers keen to take to the open country roads. Running 450 kilometres in a loop that starts and ends in the small town of Thakhek, the loop can take anywhere between two and four days depending on your pace. Stop along the way at countless natural attractions, cooling off in lagoons, touring Kong Lor and Buddha caves or wherever takes your fancy (sticking to the well-worn trails, of course!) catching up with familiar faces from town at French-owned guesthouses along the way.

Nong Khiaw | Photo: Giuliano Gabella

Photo: Roman Odintsov

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Si Phan Don | Photo: Simon Berger

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