Despite having a modern eco-tourism industry, Laos is still often known as the forgotten land of Southeast Asia, and is normally covered by tourists as part of a wider trip to the surrounding countries as an extension. Landlocked between China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, it is an ideal and idyllic place for a single-country trip, as it is a unique and sparsely populated country, that exists both in the present and in the past at the same time.
Rather than the hectic and chaotic tourist trails of Vietnam and Myanmar, Laos is laid back, relaxing, and peaceful, and one can enjoy the wonderful Buddhist calm of this off-the-grid country. Laos is a very rustic country, filled with mile after mile of unspoiled nature. The food is delicious, and is on a par with such Asian cuisine as Thai and Chinese, and you can still experience the hot chocolate and croissants that are a leftover from its French colonial past. The country has also got rid of its previous “no-limits partying” image, with 11pm curfews and closure of the old anything-goes debauchery it was once famous for.
Laos has reinvented itself in the tourist industry as the place to go for relaxing, yet exciting holidays, where you can be either adventurous or laid back, depending on how your mood takes you. Take river cruises, zipline adventures, and waterfall swims, or just relax in the spas and retreats or take in the extravagant night market and the monastic alms ceremonies.
Things to Do in Laos
Explore the Temples
Like most Asian countries, Laos has no shortage of temples and stupas to explore. From its ancient pagan days, Laos was overtaken by Buddhism, which remains the dominant religion of the country. The Golden City Temple (Wat Xieng Thong) located in the old quarter of Luang Prabang is a great place to listen to the monks at prayer and enjoy the peace and tranquility.
Located in Vientiane, Wat Si Saket is a small temple that is famous for its thousands of small Buddha images that date back to the 16th century, and that come in a huge variety of sizes, made from wood, stone, and bronze. The small temple contains more than 6,800 Buddhas in total.
That Luang, or the Great Stupa, is the national symbol and part of the nation’s official seal. Located in Vientiane, it is the country’s most sacred monument, and looks more like a fortress with high defensive walls. There are two temples within the main stupa, the 148 feet-high roof of which is covered in gold leaf.
Wat Phu, which means “mountain temple”, sits on a high hillside above Champasak, and offers stunning views over the surrounding lands and the nearby Mekong River. An ancient Khmer Temple from the former Cambodian empire, this ruined temple complex consists of some of the country’s most amazing workmanship in the form of temple pillars, pediments, lintels, and carved statue walls.
The 16th century That Ing Hang Stupa is located in Savannakhet, Central Laos, and is reported to house a relic of Buddha’s spine. This 9 meter-high stupa is covered with beautiful carvings and decorations, and is set inside a more recently built compound to protect it from overcrowding and tourism damage.
Eat and Shop at the Luang Prabang Night/Morning Market
Made up of thousands of tents that sell anything and everything you could want, it is easy to lose track of time here, getting lost while looking and buying and exploring. Undoubtedly, you will come across something you like in this myriad of market stalls where you can shop til you drop and pick up anything from handmade scarves to locally grown coffee beans. Then spend the evening at one of the many bars, cafes, and restaurants nearby. The market opens daily at 4pm, and runs all night til dawn. Then it shuts up and you can move on to the Morning Market a few streets away if you have not yet had enough. Filled with friendly fod vendors and even better food, it is the best way to start the cool, fresh day.
Venture Through Underground River Caves
Laos is filled with underground caves and river systems that were naturally formed by water erosion over thousands of centuries. However, in a newer area for tourism, and a part of the Khammouane Khast National Protected Area, Kong Lor Cave is one that should be on the top of your list to visit. The beauty of the caves and the surrounding mountains is completely unspoiled, and there are boat trips through this extensive cave system, where you ca explore the pitch black caves by torchlight, and explore the mysteries of the tunnels as you walk through the lit passageways. As you come out on the other side, you reach a beautiful cliffside lake where you can dive in and swim to your heart’s content
If you want a completely humbling local experience, then you need to get up very early and watch the Alms Giving Ceremonythat happens in the very heart of Luang Prabang. You can choose to sit back and watch, or buy boxes of rice and biscuits to take part in this unique ceremony. The procession starts on the main thoroughfare near Wat Xieng Thong, and hundreds of monks line the streets, before walking through the local area to receive offerings from the local people. While the monks are given their daily food during the procession, much of it is also given away by them to the poor and hungry as they progress through the city. No matter your religion, the experience is an extremely moving one, and one that happens daily, so if you miss it once, you can go again the next day.
Swim in Refreshing Waterfall Pools
Waterfalls and the sparkling pools at their base are one of the most refreshing places to swim, and none more so than the stepped waterfall pools of the Tad Sae Waterfalls. This amazing network of layered waterfalls and pools is filled with beautiful, turquoise water, where you can take a dip in the pools or relax on the rocks. While the first set of falls is beautiful, hike a little further and the second set is even more stunning. If your visit takes you to the north, and Luang Prabang, then the Kwang Si Waterfalls is another must-visit place to see.
Places to Go
While Laos is not a very large country, it has two of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia, Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Vientiane is the unlikely capital of the country, which looks more like a rural town than a capital city, while Luang Prabang to the north is the Buddhist center of the country.
From the delightful tuk-tuks that roam the city to the famous café society and the affordable spas, this former French colonial trading capital is one of the most beautiful cities in Asia. Walk the historic old quarter, with its glittering temples, river-serpent statues, and wandering monks, along boulevards lined with frangipani and tamarind trees to the old, French-style villas that have been transformed into restaurants and small hotels. Vientiane has managed to achieve and unparalleled level of panache with its distinctly Gallic flavor. No matter where you go and what you expect, Vientiane is a city that has many amazing attributes and attractions.
Although it is still a small city, the capital experiences a major influx of tourists every year. The city contains a great many temples and Buddhist monuments, with Pha That Luang, a Buddhist stupa, being one of the most famous in Laos. the most important national monument in the country, it is very popular among foreign tourists.
The Wat Si Muang Temple is another site of interest, built on the remnants of an ancient Khmer Hindu shrine, parts of which can still be seen behind the decorative Ordination Hall. Patuxai, the memorial monument, was completed in 1968 and is probably the most prominent landmark in the city. Insprired by the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the design also incorporates the Lao “kinnari” motifs, a mythical bird woman from ancient Lao pagan beliefs. From the top of the monument, one can get an amazing panoramic view of the entire city.
Built in 1958 by renowned architect and designer, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, the famous Buddha Park contains a huge collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures from across the country. Scattered in a decorative design among beautiful gardens and old trees, the park is a peaceful place to relax and contemplate the meaning of life, or just sit and have lunch surrounded by the innate beauty of the place.
Literally meaning “Royal Buddha Image”, Luang Prabang is located in northern Laos, and consists of 58 adjacent villages, 33 of which make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site of “The Town of Luang Prabang”. Listed in 1995 for its unique and well preserved architecture, religious and cultural heritage, it is a blend of urban and rural development that has continued for several centuries. There is also a great deal of old French colonial influence to the more modern architecture from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The city has both historical and natural sites of interest for tourists to northern Laos. There are several waterfalls sites that surround the area near the city, which are popular as swimming holes for both locals and tourists alike. And the Pak Ou Cavesare another part of the immense systems of natural caves that can be found underneath almost all of the country. The city lies at the confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River, and contains an amazing 33 gilded wats out of the total of 80 temples, hundreds of faded Indochinese villas, and is famous for its local style of Gallic cuisine.
Built in 1904 for the Lao Royal Family, the Royal Palace in Luang is neither big nor old. Moreover, it was not occupied for long, as the monarchy was overthrown in 1975 by the new communist regime, and turned into a palace Museum. While communism may rule in Laos, the museum contains relics and exhibits from the Royal family going back hundreds of years, as well as parts of the history of Laos for more than twenty centuries. It also contains a 2,000 year-old, 71 meter-high statue of Buddha.
Mount Phousi, located inside the city of Luang Prabang, is not really a mountain, it is a 140 meter hill that is home to several Buddhist shrines and temples. Sitting between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it is a delightful place to watch the sunrise and sunset over the city. However, the climb of several hundred steps to the top is not the easiest in the world, though it is manageable if you take it slowly. And the most notable attraction on the hill is the huge, white statue of the reclining Buddha, which can be seen from almost every part of the city.