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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.
The second half of the article discusses Northern Laos and South/Central Laos due to the low concentration of urban areas in these regions. Northern and South/Central Laos are home to many of the natural wonders of Laos, like waterfalls, as well as ancient ruins and cultural sites.
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.
In Luang Prabang’s 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.
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. You can walk to the hill from the city center or go by tuk-tuk.
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.
Both museum and Art Center are open from 9 am-6 pm daily and entrance will cost under $2. Both are best reached by private car, cab, or tuk-tuk, although the Art Center is within walking distance of the city center and can be easily found at the base of Phousi Hill.
In addition to these relaxing options around the Old Town, below are a few of the city highlights.Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong is a Buddhist monastery popular with locals and tourists alike for 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.
Most temples are open to visitors from sun up to sun down. The interior of the monastery closes around 6 pm.Wat Xieng Mouane
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.
Located at 600 Sakkaharin Road, you can visit the temple and marvel at its exterior any time of day.Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls
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 a number of swimmable pools, creating one of Laos’s top swimming destinations.
You can get there by tuk-tuk in about 45 minutes, but the road can be rough, so a private car is recommended.
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.
All of the sites below can be accessed for less than $1 US.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.
Location: Corner of Th Lan Xang and Th Setthathirat.
Open: 8 am-noon and 1-4 pm daily.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.
Location: Th Setthathirat.
Open: 8 am-noon and 1-4 pm daily.Si Saket
If you are still hungry for more Wats then Wat Si Saket is sure to excite you. Located on the corner of Th Lan Xang and Th Setthathirat, it is easy to find. It was built 200 years ago and has maintained its integrity with the help of government refurbishment activities.Pha That Luang
Perhaps Pha 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.
Open: 8 am-4 pm with a break at noon for lunch.
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 tree tops.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Wat Phu is a popular site where you can get up close to the ruins of an ancient temple. The first temple was built in the area in the 5th century, so you can be sure every local tuk-tuk driver is familiar with how to get there.
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. It can be tricky to find, so make sure you bring its address: No. 38 Rd[Is this missing the name of the Road?], Pakse 1600
Champasak city in Champasak province lies close enough to Pakse to be reached easily from Pakse 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 a number of quiet spas.
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