Laos provides a pleasant change of pace for travelers who are used to Thailand or Vietnam. This small Southeast Asian country has stunning scenery, from limestone mountains to dense forests and spectacular waterfalls. It’s a great place for adventuresome travelers or those who don’t mind roughing it. Some of the best places to visit in Laos can be difficult to get to, but it’s all part of the adventure of exploring a developing country known for its ethnic peoples.
The most popular place to visit in Laos, Luang Prabang is an historic city that once served as the capital of the Kingdom of Laos. Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the city has numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries, with monks walking through the city collecting alms in the morning. There are several waterfalls nearby, some of which offer elephant rides to visitors. A night market at the end of the town’s main street is a good place to buy souvenirs. Adventuresome eaters might want to try fried Mekong River moss, which is a local delicacy.
The Laotian capital of Vientiane, located on the Mekong River, was a French colony at one time, so visitors can expect to see traces of French influence, including street signs in French. The most popular tourist attraction in this city, also known as “the city of sandalwood,” is a Buddhist stupa, Pha That Luang, which dates back to 1586. The stupa stands 49 meters (147 feet) tall and is believed to contain relics of Buddha. Wat Si Muang, another popular site, is built on the ruins of a Khymer Hindu shrine. The city is a good place to buy silk.
3. Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is a tourist city about a four-hour drive from Vientiane. Originally settled in the 14th century when it was known as Mouang Song, it was given its present name when Laos was a French colony. It is best known for its limestone karst hills. Because it is located on the Nam Song River, many tourist activities, including kayaking and tubing, revolve around the river. Vang Vieng is popular with backpackers who enjoy the relaxed atmosphere as well as hiking in the hills and exploring caves. Ethnic villages, including Hmong, are located close by.
Phonsavan, a name that means “hills of paradise,” is a good place to experience the U.S.’s Old West, only with Laotian characteristics. Since cattle raising is one of the city’s main businesses, it’s not uncommon to see Hmong “cowboys” wearing violet and brown cowboy hats. The city even hosts bullfights during Hmong New Year. Phonsavan is a good place to visit the Plain of Jars with its ancient megalithic structures that resemble jars. At one time, Phonsavan belonged to Siam, now Thailand, and then the French, with remnants of each culture still to be found.
5. Si Phan Don
Si Phan Don (meaning 4,000 islands) is a beautiful set of islands, set against a scenic section of the Mekong River in Southern Laos. The Mekong is impassable to river traffic here due to the Khone Falls, a series of rapids that stretch 9.7 km (6.0 miles) of the river’s length. The Mekong below the falls has a small population of the highly endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins. The three principal islands that cater to tourists are Don Det, Don Khon and Done Kong. Most of the lodging available consists of simple, family run bungalows. Bikes and kayaks can also be rented here.
6. Wat Phu
Wat Phu (or Vat Phou) is a ruined Khmer temple complex located at the base of mount Phu Kao, in the Champasak province. The Hindu temple structures date from the 11th to 13th centuries. Wat Phu is small compared with the monumental Angkor-era sites in Cambodia but the tumbledown pavilions, enigmatic crocodile stone and tall trees that shroud much of the site give Wat Phu a mystical atmosphere. The temple is still in use as a Buddhist site today.