Laos

Introducing Laos

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Laos has a rich history stretching back 10,000 years. At its height, it ruled over present day Laos and much of neighbouring northern Thailand. Landlocked and laid-back, it’s a unique spin on the Southeast Asia experience. Here Buddhism permeates every facet of life, change comes slowly, and cities bed down early. The perfect place to break from office politics or put a pause in a hyperactive travel agenda, this land of mountain, mists and untamed natural beauty tempts with unrivalled peace and serenity. Open your heart, open your mind, and let the genuine faith and generous hospitality of Laos replenish your soul. 

Laos used to be a popular destination for partying but, since the wild tubing days have been curtailed, it’s turned into a more relaxed, outdoor-oriented country. Here you’ll find a landlocked country steeped in nature, food, history, and Buddhism. Laos is going through growing pains as it finally enters the world community. It’s not the cheapest country in the region (everything is imported) but it is one of the best! I loved my time there and, while the country is no longer a “secret”, it’s still a lot less visited than it’s neighbors.

Despite a limited infrastructure, Laos is a wonderful country to visit. Laotians are some of the friendliest, gentlest people in Southeast Asia—devoutly Buddhist and traditional in many ways. Laos has a rich culture and history, and though it's been a battleground many times in the past, this is a peaceful, stable country today. Fewer than 7 million people live in this landlocked nation whose countryside is dominated by often impenetrable forested mountains. Not yet inured to countless visiting foreigners, locals volunteer assistance and offer a genuine welcome.

Luang Prabang and its historic sites are the country's primary claim to fame and the reason most tourists visit, but as a destination Laos also excels with its abundant nature and the chance the small towns and villages here provide to escape normally overcrowded Southeast Asia. In many ways a visit to Laos is a placid throwback to what travel in Thailand was like two decades or so ago. Many parts of the country—among them 4,000 Islands in the Mekong, or Phongsaly, Muang Ngoi, and Luang Nam Tha in the north—offer a fabulous opportunity to unwind, relax, and get away from the stresses of big cities and got-to-see-everything travel. Most visitors to Laos enter via Vientiane, but even here the rhythm of life is calmer than in its regional counterparts. As you venture forth from the capital city, as nearly all visitors do and should, the vibe becomes mellower still.

Highlights

People tend to make a beeline straight for Luang Prabang when they talk about the highlights of Laos. While it's true that the northern reaches of the country have more of the top-shelf attractions, the slow pace of travel in the south can also be very endearing. Most first-time travellers head to north Laos first, south second.

Luang Prabang: The charming city of Luang Prabang, once the capital of Laos and still considered to be its spiritual heart, breathes a rich meld of French Indochinese architecture, Theravada Buddhist temples and a magical atmosphere.

Vang Vieng: Natural wonder, backpacker mecca, party central, Lima Site 6: Vang Vieng, 155 kilometres north of Vientiane on the road to Luang Prabang, has been given many labels. The small town’s striking river landscape lined with towering karst has lured travellers right from the get-go and remains stunning despite being well-visited.

Vientiane: For many years a sleepy backwater capital of an equally backwater state, as Laos has slowly opened up to foreign investment and tourism Vientiane has undergone vast changes and continues to expand. It’s a small city with an easy charm, and it harbours growing ambitions.

4,000 Islands: We’re not sure if anyone has ever actually totalled up these islands at the far southern reaches of Laos, but there are at least three worth your attention: Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Dhon.

Popular destinations

Nong Kiaow: A small town on the banks of the Nam Ou River, Nong Kiaow boasts a gorgeous backdrop of imposing limestone mountains, picturesque river views and genuine local colour.

Pakse: While it doesn’t measure up to the low-key splendour of Luang Prabang, Pakse has a definite charm, some beautiful wats and two gorgeous rivers—great for enjoying some eats and drinks by the waterside and watching the sun smoulder into the horizon.

Don Dhet: Referred to by some as Khao San Road on the river, Don Dhet is a classic backpacker hub with just a fraction of the shenanigans that take place on Khao San Road.

Luang Nam Tha: Nestled in mountainous northern Laos just a hop, skip and a jump from the Chinese border, Luang Nam Tha is an excellent base for trekking and other outdoor activities, particularly in and around the Nam Ha National Protected Area.

Phonsavan: Xieng Khuang province is the site of the mysterious Plain of Jars, the origins of which is unclear, inciting international debate. The best place to explore the Plain from is Phonsavan.

Alternative destinations

Muang Ngoi: A gorgeous, sleepy town, Muang Ngoi gets our vote as one of the friendliest places in all of Laos. Simple as that.

Champasak: Set on the banks of the Mekong in one of its wider sections, Champasak is the kind of town where you can end up staying a few days just reading a book and recharging. It is also the leaping off point for spectacular Wat Phu.

Don Khong: The largest island in the Si Phan Don area, the interior of Don Khong is almost entirely given over to rice cultivation and a forested mountainous area, while just about all the accommodation is crammed into and around the sleepy town of Muang Khong, on the island’s east coast. Chill out here.

Vieng Xai: About an hour by songthaew from Sam Neua is the neat and tidy town of Vieng Xai, set among beautiful karst limestone mountains rising dramatically out of rice fields. During the Secret War this area was the seat of command for the most powerful members of the Pathet Lao; the caves they inhabited are the major reason for visiting Vieng Xai.

Tha Khaek: Across the Mekong River from the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom you’ll find Tha Khaek—the biggest, most tourist-friendly town in the province—and also the base for the best scooter loop in the country.

Excursions

A lot of travel in Laos is all about the journey and in response to this there are a number of straightforward loops that can be undertaken, most commonly by scooter, though car and bicycle are also possible in most cases.

Tha Khaek Loop: A 500-kilometre motorcycle journey starting and ending in Tha Khaek in Southern Laos, the Tha Khaek Loop (also known as the Konglor Loop or just the Loop) takes in the limestone scenery of Khammuan province, remote villages and many caves, of which the highlight is Konglor, a seven-kilometre long cave which has a large river running through the middle of it.

Bolaven Loop: One of the most rewarding experiences on offer in Southern Laos is a motorcycle trip through the Bolaven Plateau. It’s home to numerous waterfalls, great scenery, tribal villages and unexplored corners galore.

Pak Ou Loop: We’ve researched and created a full-day motorbike trip that gets you off-the-beaten track while covering two Luang Prabang attractions. We’re calling it “the Pak Ou Loop” since Pak Ou village marks the furthest point from Luang Prabang.

Chompet Loop: Just across the Mekong River from town is Chomphet district with a 23 kilometre dirt road loop that will take you through the countryside, past small villages, beautiful rice paddies and mountains. It’s bumpy and hilly with some very steep sections. The experience is like stepping back in time.

Vang Vieng Loop: Vang Vieng town itself can be an eyesore but it only takes 10 minutes on a bicycle to get out and find yourself surrounded by rice paddies, karsts and people planting rice by hand.

Great outdoors

The Gibbon Experience: With stunning vistas and lush rainforests, the natural beauty of Laos is one of the primary reasons many people visit and the Gibbon Experience is one of the best ways to appreciate this beauty.

Trekking in the Nam Ha National Protected Area: Trekking is why most people come to Luang Nam Tha—your money goes to employing the local community and to park fees that fund wildlife/forest conservation projects and maintenance. Your visit also sends a message to villages about the value of protecting the environment.

Exploring Phou Khao Khouay National Park: Sprawling yet little-visited Phou Khao Khouay National Park (the name means “Buffalo Horn Mountain”) features some beautiful scenery and a vast array of biodiversity. Experience dense jungle as well as cool, misty pine forests, rivers and waterfalls, including noteworthy Tad Leuk and Tad Xay—both can be visited in a single day trip from Vientiane.

What to do

Cooking courses and food walks: When it comes to food and food walks, all roads lead to Luang Prabang, with Tamarind and Bamboo Tree two stand-out options.

Kayaking in Vang Vieng: Now that Vang Vieng is attracting a different sort of traveller (the kind that aren’t interested in tubing), kayaking has exploded in popularity and trips down the river, ranging from an hour to a full day, are offered by several tour companies in town. Whatever vessel you choose, a trip on the river is a must while in Vang Vieng.

Buddha Park: More curious than spectacular—which makes for a curious spectacle—a rogue monk is said to have attempted to reconsolidate Buddhism and Hinduism into his own brand of mysticism through a prolific collection of sculptures depicting various deities and scenes from both religions. Today, it is known as Buddha Park.

Top Things to do in Laos

Visit Vang Vieng – In the late 1990s, backpackers discovered this little town in the middle of Laos. Located by a beautiful, refreshing river and surrounded by caves, lagoons, and mountains, it was the perfect mountainside chill-out spot. It didn’t take long to develop into a crazy, hedonistic city where drinking and drugs proliferated. Nowadays, after a crack down by local authorities, things have calmed down and it has become a hub for outdoor adventure, jungle hikes, and lazy days cooling off in the river.

Relax in Luang Prabang – This capital city of Luang Prabang province is a great place to watch the sunset over the Mekong River. In the evening, there is a night market that sets up at the end of the main street. Every morning at sunrise, the monks walk through the main streets receiving alms from the local residents. I went for two days and stayed for five. It’s a wonderful place to be lazy and relax.

The Gibbon Experience – This is one of the best activities Laos has to offer. It’s a series of zip lines connects the world’s highest treehouses, where you can stay for 2-3 nights. Not only do you get an adventure, but you will be completely off the grid and immersed in the natural environment. You’ll see plenty of gibbons and go on some intense nature hikes! If you’re looking for a unique, memorable experience, this is it! Prices vary, but the 2-day package will cost around 1,500,000 LAK per person.

Trek to the Kuang Si Falls – This huge waterfall is breathtaking. While one of the most popular attractions in the area (try to avoid the weekends when the locals crowd the area too), it was one of the most breathtaking things I saw in Laos. The water is perfect and the scenery breathtaking. The picture at the top of the page? Kuang Si! Definitely do not miss this place. Be sure to find the secret pool for a swim too! (My blog post has info on how to find it!) Admission is 20,000 LAK, and a tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang will cost 30,000-40,000 LAK.

Explore the Vieng Xai Cave City – Located close to Sam Nua (near the Vietnamese border), these caves served as living quarters for Laotian soldiers during the the 1960s. Guided tours can be found at the Vieng Xai Caves Visitor Centre. Admission is 60,000 LAK. The bus there is 20,000 LAK while a tuk-tuk (no matter how many people) is 150,000 LAK. Tuk-tuk drivers charge 250,000 LAK for the ride home so stick to taking the bus!

Check out the Elephant Conservation Center – Located in Sainyabuli (near Chiang Mai) the ECC was launched in 2011 by a team of elephant specialists working towards protecting the elephant population in Laos. It’s the best way to see elephants in a responsible way that doesn’t harm them. Prices start at 1,700,000 LAK for a 2-day visit while a 7-day volunteering session costs around 4,000,000 LAK.

See the Plain of Jars – An incredible archeological location, the Plain of Jars is full of thousands of stone jars scattered around three different sites. Believed to be part of the burial practices from the Iron Age, it is one of the most prehistoric areas in Southeast Asia. The jars are all made from stone. Legend has it that the jars were made by a race of giants who lived in the area to store alcohol. Admission to Site 1 (the best site) is 15,000 LAK while entry to Site 2 and 3 is 10,000 LAK each.

See the Great Stupa (Pha That Luang) – This huge gold-covered stupa is in Vientiane and is the greatest monument in the nation. It has a long history and conveys the Buddhist doctrine throughout. You can admire the stupa from outside for free (which is what most people do). If you want to enter, admission is 5,000 LAK.

Head to Vientiane – The capital and largest city in Laos is full of important national monuments and temples. It is located on the banks of the Mekong River and sees its fair share of tourism. While there, be sure to check out Buddha Park, a sculpture garden full of giant Buddha statues. This is also the best place to get international food in the country!

Take in the waterfalls at the Bolaven Plateau – Located in Southern Laos close to the city of Pakse, the Bolaven Plateau is part of a crater that formed from an ancient volcano. You can trek around the area and explore several of the waterfalls. The Bolaven Loop cuts through the entire crater and takes you close to all the falls.  Each waterfall will charge an entry fee (usually between 5,000-10,000 LAK) as well as a parking fee for your bike (3,000-5,000 LAK).

Visit the 4,000 Islands – Located in Southern Laos, the “4,000 islands” are the area of tiny inhabited islands in the Mekong River near the Cambodian border. They are popular with backpackers and the vibe is laid-back and chill. Accommodation is simple, cheap, and there’s really not much to do here besides chill in the river and relax at night! Be sure to get a bike to get around the islands!

Slow Boat on the Mekong – Drift down the Mekong River on a long, narrow boat with comfortable seating, great food, and amazing views of the country. You can find a ride typically from the border at Huay-Xai that will drop you off in Luang Prabang. Slow boats take 2-3 days, stopping at guesthouses for the nightly accommodation. Prices will vary depending on the quality of your tour company, but a decent tour will run you around 1,000,000 LAK.

Phou Hin Poun Conservation Area – Mountains, a limestone forest, rapids, caves, and amazing scenery await you in the protected Phou Hin Poun area of Laos. The entire area is filled with unique species of flora and fauna, making it a great place to explore and take some photos. A two-day guided trek will cost around 550,000 LAK.

Relax in Nong Kiew (Muang Ngoi) –  Here you’ll find incredible views in a charming, slow-paced village. Hike to nearby waterfalls or caves before enjoying excellent food, especially the international fare.

Relax with a massage – There is a traditional Lao massage parlor and sauna in Luang Prabang that gives all their profits to the Red Cross. You can get a 1-hour massage for 50,000 LAK or use the sauna for 10,000 LAK. It’s a nice way to relax and make a difference.

Chat with a monk – Once a month, monks gather at the Sangha College in Vientiane to chat with tourists. You’re able to ask them about their practice and daily life (chances are it’s very different from yours!).

Essential information