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13d trip in Laos

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While seeing much useful info in the forum,we are still trying to optimise our program in this beautiful country. My wife/I will be there for 13d in 1H November. Our entry point will be Vientiane airport.
We are keen on history, architecture, nature, typical places. While not dying for it, we enjoy much the opportunities of meeting/talking to local people and like to discover less touristic places.
1) Vientiane - 2d (at beginning) & 1d (in the end) - How to best use time there?
2) Vang Vieng - 3d - Is this too long?
3) Luang Prabang - 3d - Are 2 days enough to discover LP? Where to go on 3rd day?
4) Mekong Cruise LP-Thai border - Why is it worthwhile? What is there to see? This is 3d, right (2 days cruise + 1d return by road)? Is it good enough to do half of it, and which half?
5) How many days minimum for a trek to the ethnic tribes? How challenging is the walk? We walk every week 10-12 miles or bike 20 miles throughout hilly areas.
6) Shall I include the following in our travel plans: Nam Ou, Plain of Jars, Nam Lik Eco Village, Any other key places?
7) Given time constraints, what is the best place for an elephant sanctuary (1d visit)?
8) Cost-effective minibus transportation: Any company to recommend?
Thks a lot for your useful insights.
PS. Any suggestions on typical restaurants or places much appreciated.

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    While seeing much useful info in the forum,we are still trying to optimise our program in this beautiful country. My wife/I will be there for 13d in 1H November. Our entry point will be Vientiane airport.
    We are keen on history, architecture, nature, typical places. While not dying for it, we enjoy much the opportunities of meeting/talking to local people and like to discover less touristic places.
    1) Vientiane - 2d (at beginning) & 1d (in the end) - How to best use time there?
    2) Vang Vieng - 3d - Is this too long?
    3) Luang Prabang - 3d - Are 2 days enough to discover LP? Where to go on 3rd day?
    4) Mekong Cruise LP-Thai border - Why is it worthwhile? What is there to see? This is 3d, right (2 days cruise + 1d return by road)? Is it good enough to do half of it, and which half?
    5) How many days minimum for a trek to the ethnic tribes? How challenging is the walk? We walk every week 10-12 miles or bike 20 miles throughout hilly areas.
    6) Shall I include the following in our travel plans: Nam Ou, Plain of Jars, Nam Lik Eco Village, Any other key places?
    7) Given time constraints, what is the best place for an elephant sanctuary (1d visit)?
    8) Cost-effective minibus transportation: Any company to recommend?
    Thks a lot for your useful insights.
    PS. Any suggestions on typical restaurants or places much appreciated.

    The Mekong cruise to upriver to the Thai border is only really worthwhile if you are travelling onto Thailand. It used to be very picturesque years ago but sadly, deforestation has put paid to that. I certainly would not take the trip only to return by car.

    Vang Vieng apparently is no longer party central for drunken backpackers and has quietened down a lot recently ( but do check!). It has some spectacular scenery but, given the time you have available, I feel 3 days is too long.

    Trekking to visit the minority people in there villages can be as arduous or as easy as you like. Accomodation can be very basic so be prepared to rough it. Phongsali, Muang Sing and Luang Namtha are the main centres for trekking. Day treks are possible but 3-4 days would be more rewarding. As with any trekking, the more physical prep you do before hand, the more you will enjoy it. Trekking in Laos is fairly easy when compared with say, Peru, but the heat can take its toll of you are not used to it.

    If I were to take a river trip then parts of the Nam Ou would be better, maybe, Nong Kiaw to Muang Ngoi

    With just 15 days I would probably stick to northern Laos and, given the choice, would fly into Luang Prabang. LP is much, much busier with tourism than it used to be but is still relatively laid back (but expensive!)

    Nam lik Eco village does not get good reviews from what I have seen but I haven't been so can't really comment except to say, be very wary of any establishment that uses "Eco" in its name!

    Plain of Jar is interesting but a long way to travel.

    Other areas in the south of the country worth considering are the Bolavens plateau and Si Phan Don - the 4000 islands area in the Mekong. If in the south the ruins of Wat Phu are also worth a look

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    Glad to hear that VV is no longet backpacker central, although I'm afraid it may be that some of them have moved on to LP. I would still suggest less time in VV and more time in LP. I second crellston's suggestion of some time in the south. I loved Champasak and Wat Phu. I had hoped to make it to Wat Preah Vihear but it was too dangerous at that time (dispute over ownership between Thailand and Cambodia), you could check on the situation later this year.

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    I think you'll find that VV is alive and well, but not as hedonstic as it used to be. You can't take away the scenery and the possibilities in the surrounding countryside.

    If it were me, I'd enter Laos over the Friendship Bridge just outside Vientiane. It's easy to get to by overnight sleeper train from Bangkok (Hualamphong) to Nong Khai, which is on the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge.

    The sleeper train is a great way to start an adventure into Laos.

    Nong Khai proudly sits right on the Meekong River,is a lovely laid back frontier town, and I'd stay there for a couple of nights or so before crossing the Friendship Bridge.

    13 nights isn't really a long time to spend in Laos, especially if you want to wander off the beaten track a bit. So plan any wanderings from the 3 main places.

    So I'd...

    - Spend 3 nights (max) in Vientiane.

    - Tourist bus to Vang Vieng. Takes about 5 hours, but the scenery isn't very spectacular until the last half hour or so. Tourist buses in Lao aren't renowned for their comfort, so a van is an option, though not necessarily a more comfortable one.

    - 3/4 night is Vang Vieng depending what you interests are. But it is a bit more than a tick-off place. Homework required.

    - Tourist bus to Luang Prabang. Takes about 7 hours, and is spectacularly scenic.

    - Remainder of time in Luang Prabang. Fly out, or for a bit of adventure take the slow boat to Huay Xai (Chiang Khong). There's loads of links to the slow boat on the net.

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