Hidden ruins nestled deep in green jungles, cascading waterfalls pouring over mighty precipices, and lively towns and markets where you can explore the local culture — Laos truly has it all.
But with so many options it can be difficult to know where to start. While Laos is jam-packed with options for adventure it is not huge, and only has a handful of major cities when compared to a country like China. This article highlights possible activities in the two major cities: Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos
The second half of the article discusses Northern Laos and South/Central Laos due to the low concentration of urban areas in these regions. These areas are home to many natural and cultural sights, like waterfalls, ancient ruins, and battlefield relics.
- Stop by Luang Prabang Old Town to explore Laotian culture at street level.
- After the Old Town, get out of town to Mount Phou Si, Wat Xieng Thong, or the Tat Kuang Waterfalls.
- Visit Wat Muang and Wat Saket after taking in the colonial beauty of Vientiane.
- Northern Laos is home to the mysterious fields of stone jars, known as the Plain of Jars, as well as mountain peaks and quiet villages.
- Head down to central and southern Laos to explore Thakhek, Pakse, or Champasak.
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1. Luang Prabang
Nestled at the comfortable confluence of two mighty rivers, Luang Prabang is the northern emerald gem of Laos. Although it is cozy enough for you to navigate its leafy lanes on your own two feet, there is still plenty to see and do.
Luang Prabang Old Town
In Luang Prabang Old Town, the French colonists left behind a lively café culture. The quiet winding streets filled with colonial houses can be explored for days. The Old Town is filled with ancient traditions and customs for you to experience.
The Town is dissected rather cleanly by Sisavang Vong Road. From 1904 to 1946, Sisavang Vong was King of Luang Prabang and then from 1946 to 1959, king of Laos. As you walk down the road and admire the French architecture mixed with local styles you are, in a way, walking ON history.
Bird-eye view of Luang Prabang from Mount Phou Si
Still need more exercise? Climb about 115 meters (360 feet) to the top of Mount Phou Si for a bird's-eye view of the city and surrounding area. The hill is a convenient landmark and is especially beautiful around sunset.
If it is rainy or you feel the need for mental rather than physical stimulation, then try the National Museum, where you can relive the highs and lows of the nation's long and turbulent history.
Another option is the Traditional Art and Ethnology Center. Each of the museum's exhibits showcases, protects, or educates about one of Laos's many minority groups. The country is extremely diverse, and this center has done an excellent job of capturing the diversity in an accessible way.
Luang Prabang City Highlights
In addition to these relaxing options around the Old Town, below are a few of the city highlights.
Wat Xieng Thong is a Buddhist monastery popular among locals and tourists because of its sweeping roof and brightly painted exterior. The eves of the roof seem to curve almost to the ground and visitors can get right up next to the monastery to appreciate the detailed carvings on the building walls.
Kuang Si Waterfall
Wat Xieng Mouane is the oldest temple in the city and its exterior is richly decorated in carvings, stenciling, and etchings. There are numerous statues and statuettes as well, making it a one-stop Wat in terms of admirable artwork.
Are you in the mood to get outdoors? Visit Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls to find out why the local ex-pats have dubbed this destination, “turquoise falls”. The waterfalls cascade into several swimmable pools, creating one of Laos's top swimming destinations.
Vientiane may be the busiest city in Laos, but when compared to the capitals of its Asian neighbors the city seems almost quiet and relaxed. It is a remarkable blend of French colonial architecture and soaring gilded temples and monasteries.
Vientiane is an important city in Laotian history and has been the de facto capital since 1560.
Wat Si Muang
All the sites below can be accessed for less than USD 1.
Wat Si Muang
Wat Si Muang, home to the city's founding pillar, is highly significant to the local people. The Wax Castle procession and many other festivals and parades are centered round this temple, but it is a lively and active place any time of year.
Haw Pha Kaew
Haw Pha Kaew is a temple-turned-museum. This stop is popular with tourists, as it gives an opportunity to observe and appreciate while learning more about the country's history and culture along the way.
There are a few small shops around the entrance so if your time is limited you can grab a few gifts to take home when you are there.
Wat Si Saket
If you are still hungry for Wats, then Wat Si Saket is sure to excite you. Located on the corner of Th Lan Xang and Th Setthathirat, it was built 200 years ago and has maintained its integrity with the help of government refurbishment activities.
Pha That Luang
PerhapsPha That Luang should have been higher on this list, as it is home to the Golden Buddhist statue. This large and impressive figure is said to be one of the most important symbols of Laos and is the pride of the city.
Sync with Indochina's Heartbeat
3. Northern Laos
Bordering Thailand, China, Myanmar, and Vietnam is the rugged and mountainous region of northern Laos. The area is famous for its outdoor activities like trekking and biking.
The northern region is full of history and mystery, and can be explored in many ways, ranging from staying with a local family to zip-lining across the treetops.
Vang Vieng is accessible from Vientiane by private car or bus. The town has a reputation for attracting youth and backpackers, though it does have different types of accommodation. Its setting is beautiful, but at night it may be noisy.
Young and active travelers like to dive in the Blue Lagoon or cycle around the countryside. During peak season, travelers from America and Europe explore all the beautiful and exciting things that the city has to offer.
Blue Lagoon in Vang Vieng
Plain of Jars
If you want to admire the scenic beauty of northern Laos while visiting a site of enormous historical importance, then the Plain of Jars is the destination for you.
Dating back to 500 BC, these stone jars sit in clusters numbering from a few to a few hundred and there are over 90 recorded clusters. You can do the sums yourself.
These jars are thought to be part of traditional burial practices and have been found to contain pottery and human remains, adding to their importance and intrigue. To get to the most common viewing sites you will first need to head to the city of Phonsavan, where you can book a tour.
Luang Namtha is a small city located near the northwest border of Laos. The city itself has little to offer. People usually visit this area to go trekking in the Nam Ha National Protected Area.
Tour agencies in the city offer tours of Nam Ha, which may include trekking, drifting kayaking, and tribal village homestays. The tours take several different routes to minimize their effects on the natural environment.
Cruise the Mekong River
If you are on your way out of the country, you might consider taking a boat tour down the mighty Mekong River. The river winds through rolling hills and towering precipices, and the journey can take anywhere from one to eight days, depending on where you start and the speed of your boat.
Most tours will set off in Chiang Mai, Thailand or Luang Prabang and travel to the other city. Tours feature local foods, stops at landmarks along the way, and the opportunity to see three countries at one time!
4. Central and Southern Laos
Central and southern Laos are homes to many of the country's most ancient and exotic-looking temples and ruins. There is something unique about the way the green vegetation has grown amongst ruins that date back hundreds of years. Here are a few highlights.
Tha Khek is a trekking hub and starting point relatively close to Vientiane. Hourly buses connect these two cities and many travelers choose Tha Khek as the starting point for a kayaking or trekking tour.
In Tha Khek you can rent bicycles and other outdoor gear at The Travel Lodge, which also serves as the local welcome center for foreign travelers.
Savannakhet is located to the south of Thakhek. The region was the battlefield of the Second Indochina War, and remnants of the war can still be found there. The city is also a base from which to discover nearby forests and tribal villages. The Tourism Information Center provides free maps and trekking tours.
In Pakse, you can rent a scooter and ride to the Bolaven Plateau, which is a fantastic place with picturesque waterfalls, villages, and coffee plantations. Some plantations offer the chance to taste the local coffee and also function as homestays.
Daoheuang Market is another fun stop in Pakse on the weekends. Locals rely on this market for many of their daily needs, but there are also souvenirs and other things to shop for.
Champasak city in Champasak province lies close enough to Pakse and can be easily reached in a private car. There are also minibuses that connect the two cities, but these tend to be unreliable, especially during the monsoon season.
From Pakse Bus Station South, the ride takes about two and a half hours and only departs from 9-11 am. Avoid the motorbike drivers at the bus station entrance. They might offer you a cheaper ride, but it won't be a safe journey.
Once you reach this charming town you can also easily reach Wat Phu in under an hour, as well as Wat Nang Sida and the awe-inspiring Thao-Tao ruins. If you do not feel like leaving town, there is a satisfying range of restaurants featuring both Western and Laotian dishes, and several quiet spas.
Visit Laos with Asia Highlights
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