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When you think of Laos, does your mind envision waterfalls dropping into refreshing pools or does it picture golden temples cutting striking lines against a green horizon? The answer should be both.
Laos is one of Southeast Asia’s most hidden and untouched gems and is home to a diverse and interesting body of cultures, some of which date back thousands of years. Take your time walking around the Old Town in Luang Prabang or exploring the ancient Plain of Jars and you will see just how much history this country has to offer.
After experiencing the past, you can refresh your spirit at a Wat or refresh your body at a waterfall or with a cruise down the Mekong River.
Luang Prabang derives its name from the Kingdom that existed in the area before the Laotian unification. Thus, the city is packed with history and culture that predates the modern country.National Museum Complex
If you are interested in exploring this history further then your first stop should be the National Museum Complex.
The museum sits nestled in a beautiful garden and protects and exhibits hundreds of cultural relics. The interior and exterior architecture of the buildings is special and marvelous on their own and the museum continually updates and changes its exhibits. Open 9:00-17:00 and located on Thanon Sisavangvong Road.Wat Siphoutabth and Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham
Need more history? Wat Siphoutabth and Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham are both hundreds of years old and, although their upturned eaves may have lost some of the vigor of youth, this only adds to the haunting and ancient feeling you will get when you explore their grounds. Wat translates as temple or pagoda.Boutique shops and restaurants
After all that time spent exploring the past, you might want a taste of something more modern, or perhaps just a taste of food! Either way, within the city itself there are a number of very charming boutique shops, and restaurants serving both international and local food.Mt. Phou Si
These shops are almost all located at or near the base of Mt. Phou Si, a 115 meter tall landmark that sits near the center of town. Head towards this convenient landmark right before sunset if you plan to hike it or at any time of day for shopping and food.
Wat Xieng Thong is also known as the Golden City Temple and is one of the most lauded temples in the city of Luang Prabang (mentioned above). How did it come to deserve this honor? The buildings are simply magnificent.
The spires that rise from the roof top corners of the main temple seem to pierce the sky and the building looks like adorned with a crown of gold. There are multiple buildings to explore, as well as the famous carvings of the tree of life and a large reclining Buddha statue.
Open during sunlight hours. Being close to the base of Mt. Phou Si, this temple is easy to find, and it is easy to afford, costing less than 1 USD to enter.
Laos can get pretty hot, so a great way to beat the heat is by taking a plunge in the crystal waters of a mighty waterfall. Let the roar of water drown out your worries while you splash around in one of the deep and refreshing pools formed at the base of the falls.
Tat Sae has many stone pools of different shapes and sizes and is located almost inside Luang Prabang itself, at a tributary of the Nam Khan River. You can walk there if you feel like working up a sweat. Driving there with a private driver is often the best and most comfortable option.
Tat Kuang is a bit further, around 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Luang Prabang. Advantages: less people, and the higher hills around these falls make them feel more secluded than those at Tat Sae. For this journey you will want the comfort of AC provided in a private car, especially during the hot season, as the bumpy roads can make a 30 kilometer journey feel longer.
In the capital city of Vientiane sits one of the oldest and most revered Buddhist temples in the entire country. Wat Si Muang is not only an ancient temple that is free to the public, it also holds the city’s founding pillar.
The temple is still used as a place of worship and is not a ‘full-blown’ tourist site like some temples around South East Asia. Every year this temple is the site of important festivals and parades, and every day it leaves visitors with a sense of awe and wonder.
To find this Wat, head to the east side of Thanon Setthathirat which forms a distinct triangle shape where the street turns into Thanon Thadeua road. As it is free to walk around and an active local temple, you might not be the only visitor. But it is often pleasant to see the normal activities of the locals at this important landmark.
Haw Pha Kaew is a temple complex turned museum that houses numerous marvels, such as a 2,000 year old jar from the Plain of Jars, an 18th century Bronze Buddha, and stone slab Buddhist sculptings. Built in 1565 for King Setthathirath to serve as the private temple for the royal family, the gardens and exterior of the building are suitably exquisite.
The temple is located near the center of Vientiane at the intersection of Setthathirath road and Mahasot road. Chances are, if you are staying in Vientiane, you will be within walking distance, or you can get there on a rented bicycle for 20,000 KIP (2.4 USD) or in a tuk-tuk for 10,000 KIP (1 USD).
Open from 8:00 until 16:00, with a break for lunch 12:00-1:00. You can walk around the outside for free, but to gain the best view and entrance to the museum will only set you back 5,000 KIP (less than $1).
For those of you who forgot their dictionary, a stupa is a large dome formation, built as a Buddhist shrine. This particular stupa is in fact quite grand. Rather than simply a dome, the Grand Stupa is topped with a 45-meter high spire. The entire structure shines like bright gold, adding to its illustrious splendor.
The shrine is located along the conveniently named That Luang Road in Vientiane, and it is in walking distance from the city center; on a hot day you can expedite the process on a bike or in a rented tuk-tuk for between 10,000 and 20,000 KIP (1-2 USD).
Other than the stupa itself, the temple complex has numerous buildings to explore and a museum that is included in the entrance fee (10,000 KIP, around 1 USD). The surrounding gardens are also pleasant but can be uncomfortably warm during midday.
While this is a tourist destination, it is also an active place of worship for the locals and is one of the country’s most important symbols. Expect to see plenty of security, so do as the locals do and mind your manners - no photography allowed inside the museum.
Often compared to the stone heads on the Easter Islands, the Plain of Jars refers to over 90 locations where ancient peoples carved stone jars as part of their burial rituals. At some sites the jars spread for kilometers and range from small to unbelievably large. In addition to its ancient historical significance, the Plain of Jars was also the site of local tragedies and is thus very important to Laotian culture.
There are numerous places to visit the jars and each site has distinct features. It is recommended that you always visit at designated locations. To get to these sites you can hire a private car in either Luang Prabang or Vientiane and the trip should take less than half a day. If you opt to take a private or public bus, expect at least 7 hours of travel time and lots of bumps and stops along the way.
Most private cars or hired minivans will drive into Phonsavan, as this is the primary stopping off point before the plain itself. This is where most tour companies offering tours of the area are located.
Jar Site 1 is by far the largest and the most convenient for families and older travelers, which makes it the most popular. Site 1 is also home to a free visitors’ center where you can pick up more information about the jars or chat with a local.
Jar Site 2 is a bit further down the road but this will be no issue if you are in a private car or part of a tour. Site 2 is divided by the road, so make sure to check out the views on both sides. There are a few snack stands and noodle vendors in this area as well.
Jar Site 3 is, predictably, the furthest from the visitor center but the walk is relaxing and the path between sites 2 and 3 is well marked. Again, remembering Lao’s more recent history, it is important to stay on established trails to avoid the risk of unexploded ordinance.
Each site costs 15,000 KIP to enter (1.80 USD).
The Mekong River is one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful and important bodies of water, giving life to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Taking a boat tour down a section of this river can be simultaneously relaxing and stimulating and an excellent way to experience lots of local culture.
To travel along the Laotian leg of the river, most people choose to ship off in Vientiane (the nation’s capital) as it sits right along the bank of the river. From there, cruises can take you to Angkor, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and even Ho Chi Minh City, although many tourists opt for a one or two day cruise that stays in Laos.
Along the way, many cruises will make stops at a Hmong village, a whisky-making village, a floating town, a river island, and numerous other attractions. Boat sizes range from 15 to over 100 passengers, so you can travel in quiet comfort or make some new friends along the way.
The large number of cruises, destinations, and trip options along the way make giving an estimated price difficult. If you are serious about cruising on the Mekong, then it is recommended that you consider looking at the Asia Highlights tour, listed below, to save time and money.
Generally speaking, a one day tour with 3 stops and lunch included will cost around 50,000-75,000 KIP per person (4USD). Private and luxury tours can quickly exceed this and if you are feeling brave you might be able to find a boat for less.
Laos is one of South East Asia’s most untouched highlights and is an appropriate destination for any traveler. However, getting around Laos can be much less stressful when you have a guide to help you along the way. Look at a few of the trips below that include stops at some of these amazing places.