The intriguing country of Laos is a must-see on the well-worn Southeast Asia travel circuit: with centuries old temples, monasteries replete with monks dressed in ubiquitous orange robes and traditional settlements alongside the mighty Mekong, there is plenty to enthrall curious visitors.
Explore the Historic Royal City of Luang Prabang
Northern Laos is home to the fascinating and deeply historic city of Luang Prabang, which is one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country. Luang Prabang is best known for its multitude of ornate temples, vibrant night market and the exquisite colonial era architecture. The former capital is a fantastic introduction to Laos, with its traditional wooden houses and European colonial architecture, a legacy of the French Indochine rule. What really sets the city apart is it enviable location, sandwiched between the mighty Mekong River and the Mae Kok River, which makes water-based exploration a real possibility.
Don’t miss the beautiful Vat Xieng Thong monastery which is the oldest in Luang Prabang and which is sure to appeal to spiritual travellers. More adventurous travellers will appreciate the opportunity to climb Mount Phousi (also spelt as Phou si) which rises majestically to 100 meters and offers superb panoramic views over both the city and daily life on the Mekong. Early risers can catch a glimpse of the local monks, clad in eye-popping saffron robes as they walk the royal city every morning at 6am in a ritual known as a ‘tag bat ceremony.’ Don’t miss the Royal Palace Museum which is home to the respected Buddha image of ‘Pha Bang’ which gives the city its name. Visit the elephant sanctuary at the Xiagnabouli River near Luang Prabang, pictured. Finally, haggle your heart out in the Hmong Market where textiles, silver and handicrafts are popular purchases.
Discover the sleepy capital city of Vientiane
Central Laos is home to the capital city of Vientiane, which is pretty laidback compared to other cities within Southeast Asia. Located on the banks of the Mekong, Vientiane is best known for its eye-wateringly beautiful temples, Buddhist monuments and spectacular sunsets over said Mekong (complete with a local beer in hand).
First stop should definitely be the atmospheric Wat Sisaket temple, which was built in a Bangkok-style in 1818 and is said to be the oldest temple within Vientiane. Incidentally the word ‘wat’ is used across Southeast Asia (particularly Thailand, Cambodia and Laos) and means ‘monastery temple’. Stop by the Wat Si Muang Temple and admire the vast (and curious) collection of massive statues within the Buddha Park. Browse the exhibits on display at the Lao National Museum, aka the Revolutionary Museum which details Laotian life from the 18th century. Don’t miss the ornate Pha That Luang Stupa which is the single most important religious monument within Laos, pictured at the top of this post.
Cool off at the picturesque Kuang Si Waterfalls
Just south of Luang Prabang are the beautiful Kuang Si Falls which are set in a natural landscape. The main waterfall features a 60 metre (200 feet) tall impressive cascade. Visitors can swim in the crystal clear pools and explore the area via the wooden bridges over the falls.
Explore the heritage of UNESCO-listed Champasak
The second (and last) World Heritage Site within Laos is the province of Champasak, which is home to Wat Phu with its Angkor-style Khmer temples. The Hindu Vat Phou Temple complex has been carefully preserved and is known to date back over 1,000 years. Close to the borders with Thailand and Cambodia, the confluence of styles is easy to spot.
Try tubing and caving in Vang Vieng
Adventurous backpackers have long known about Vang Vieng and its becoming legendary for its adventure activities based around the caves and Nam Song River. Try rock climbing, paintball, canoeing, river tubing, hiking and kayaking. The multitude of caves and caverns make the area popular with adventure enthusiasts. Hire a local guide and explore Tham Phu Kham Cave, Tham Hoi Caves and Lusi and Pha Poak Caves. Cool off after all that exertion at the pristine Kaeng Nyui Waterfalls.
Trek the spectacular landscape at Luang Namtha
In the very north of Laos, close to the border with China, is the town of Luang Namtha, which as well as being the capital of the north is also best known as Laos’ best trekking and hiking spot. Hire a local guide and immerse yourself in a hill tribe trek ensuring you take in the stunning Luang NamTha National Protected Area, which is home to a plethora of endemic flora and fauna. As well as some twenty or so different temples within Muang Sing, the dense rubber forests are also home to the Malayan Sun Bear, the black cheeked crested gibbon, potentially colonies of the red panda and nearly 300 different species of birds.
Admire the French colonial heritage of Savannakhet
The second largest city within Laos is Savannakhet which as well as being an important gateway to all four corners of the country, is also home to a startling large array of French colonial architecture. In the far south of Laos and located on the banks of the mighty Mekong, Savannakhet is actually connected to Mukdahan in Thailand via a bridge. There is also plenty of Lao traditional culture waiting to be experience. Don’t miss the highly revered 16th century That Ing Hang Stupa, wander the old French colonial buildings around Savannakhet’s central plaza and Catholic Church and admire former leader Kaysone Phomvihane's House.
Catch a traditional Lao Festival
Steeped in tradition and mysticism, a centuries-old Lao festival is an absolute must-see! Catch the Heuan Hin Festival each March which is held to respect ancestors. Join likeminded revellers at the Lao New Year Festival which is held every year from 14-16 April and is the biggest
festival in Laos. Don’t miss the colourful Rocket Festival, which is also known as Bounpavet (Elephant Parade) which is held across the country each April/May time. And finally Laos celebrates its independence from France each year on 22 October.
Soak up the history within the Plain of Jars
Both ancient and contemporary history come to the fore at the central Laos site of Plain of Jars. This is one of the many history-centric things to do in Laos, in an area which is best known for its Iron Age cemetery site near Phonsavan, as well as reputedly being the site of the ‘Secret War’ during the Laotian Civil war.
Use Pakse as a base to explore southern Laos
The city of Pakse is located in the southern province of Champasak and is the ideal gateway to the four thousand islands and also the famous Wat Phu ruins. From here you can access the pristine waterfalls and colourful markets of the Bolaven Plateau. You are within easy reach of the magnificent Angkor temple complex at Wat Phou as well as Si Phan Don, aka the ‘four thousand islands’, close to the border with Vietnam, where travellers can really chill out by swimming, walking, snorkelling and biking.
Map Credit: User:Burmesedays