Main places of interest in Laos
For some reason, Laos still seems to be off the radar screen for many travelers. It arguably offers some of the best cultural immersion possibilities with the least outside influence in all of Asia. There are several main areas in Laos that are on most travelers’ itineraries:
Champasak was a part of the Khmer Angkor empire between the 10th and 13th centuries. Champasak’s heritage is best explored by river boat (both public ferries and private charters Are available) down the Mekong to sleepy Champasak town. From here, you can hire a three-wheeled tuk-tuk to nearby Wat Phu, the impressive hillside ruin of a temple complex that was once an outpost of Cambodia’s Angkor civilization. You can then travel by boat or bus to Don Khong, a charming island of rural villages and Khon Pha Pheng, a series of impressive waterfalls just above the Cambodian border near Don Khong Island.
Luang Prabang has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the most amazing places in Laos. Attractions include dozens of historic Buddhist temples (wats), French-era houses and lots of opportunity for active travel. You can hike up Phousi (a steep hill with wonderful views over the town), and visit the wats, many of which are 400-500 years old. Another impressive sight is the former Royal Palace – it’s now a museum. This is where the last kings of Laos lived – and it’s very art deco. Make sure to take a boat to the Pak Ou Caves. They contain about 3,000 wooden and other Buddha images. The boats often stop at hill tribe villages along the way so you can buy handicrafts and sample the local liquor.
Tip: Luang Prabang has plenty of hotels, ranging from rustic to fancy. These are often full during the peak tourist seasons of December and the Lao New Year in April so be sure to book early.
Muang Sing is 360 km/22 miles northwest of Vientiane in Laos’ far northwest corner, near the borders of Myanmar and China. Muang Sing is a good place to see some of the country’s hill tribes. This area was once the largest opium market in the Golden Triangle (Laos, Burma, Thailand juncture). It still has a number of opium dens (but no matter what anyone tells you, opium is illegal in Laos). The area, especially in the markets in town, is a center of commerce for a large variety of ethnic groups. To get there, fly to Luang Nam Tha and then take a passenger truck (a type of local bus service).
The Plain of Jars, 160 km/10 miles northeast of Vientiane, is a vast green plateau named after the large, stone-like funeral urns found here. These jars date from the sixth century; their purpose is unknown. Local legend has it that they were used to ferment rice wine used during celebration of the overthrow of an Angkor ruler. The area was heavily bombed by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, but many of the jars survived. One of the few buildings to make it through the bombings was the Xieng Khouang Pagoda. The new capital of this area, Phonsavan, has several small hotels for visitors (the old capital, Xieng Khouang, was destroyed in the War).
Be aware there are a large number of unexploded bombs and other ordnance in the area.
Always use a local guide if you travel outside the towns.
The highlight of Saravan Province is the Bolovens Plateau, a beautiful area of waterfalls and forests. It’s 485 km/300 miles southeast of Vientiane. Because of its proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the North Vietnamese supply line running through Laos), the provincial capital, Saravan town, was almost completely flattened during the Vietnam-American War. Little of historic value remains.
Savannakhet is 280 km/175 miles southeast of Vientiane, just across the border from Thailand. It is the country’s second-largest city and is the capital of Savannakhet Province. This is Laos’ most populous region, a fertile, productive agricultural area. It’s really not worth a special trip, but if you’re in the area you might spend part of a day in the Colonial-era Old Town.
Vang Vieng is an easy four-hour van ride (or six-hour bus ride) from Vientiane. The area is known for its limestone and karst formations (similar to those found in both Thailand and Vietnam). Vang Vieng lies 160 km/100 miles north of the capital, Vientiane. Tubing trips along the Nam Song River are one of the highlights of a stay in Vang Vieng.
Caution : The current is very fast in places –make sure you have a life vest. Check river conditions locally before signing up for any trip.
Several spectacular caverns (some developed, some not) are within a few hours’ walk from town. Vang Vieng also has a number of opium dens but visitors are advised to steer well clear of these. There is a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of drug use, and tourists have been framed before.
Caution : Although there have been occasional problems with buses and vans being held-up along the road in the vicinity of Vang Vieng, the problem seems to have died down. For the most part the target is locals, not tourists. On the other hand, tourists are the prime target of drug dealers and too many unsuspecting tourists have had drugs planted on them or their property, or have bought or used drugs and then been arrested. Most of the time all the authorities and locals want is cash, but a few people have ended up in a Laotian jail – not a pleasant place to be.
Vientiane is the capital of Laos. It is possibly the smallest,most laid-back national capital in the world. There are tree-lined avenues, decaying Colonial-era houses, and almost non-existent traffic. Rural tribes come in to shop and the all-day “Morning Market” is the place to shop and see the tribespeople. Major points of interest include That Luang (the national symbol of Laos, built in 1566), Wat Sisaket, and Wat Haw Pra Keo. The National Museum (formerly known as the Revolutionary Museum) is stuffed with propaganda against the “running-dog” Western imperialists. Patuxai, Laos’ concrete-and-rebar answer to France’s Arc de Triomphe, stands at one end of town (rumor has it the gate was built with concrete stolen from an airport expansion project!).
One of the most enjoyable views in Vientiane is provided by nature – the sunset over the Mekong River. You may also be able to watch a performance of traditional Lao music and dance at one of the riverside salas (pavilions or halls for various activities).
A good time to visit Vientiane is in early November during the That Luang Festival, a week of candlelit processions, fireworks, and games. Also in late October or early November are the Awk Phansaa festival boat races, in which teams paddle traditional dragon-prow longboats on the Mekong. You might also want to visit the Xieng Khuane Stone Garden (25 km/15 miles from Vientiane) for its unique collection of Hindu-Buddhist sculptures. You can hire a driver and car or a scooter and visit the Vientiane Plain and its 11th-century Khmer Buddhas at Vang Sang.
The top sights and activities in Laos
THE TOP SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES
1. The dozens of Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang.
2. Monks painting the frescos on their temple.
3. The Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins feeding.
4. The rugged hills along the road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane.
5. The waterfalls, especially in the rainy season.
6. Miles of rice paddies bursting with green, being worked by women in conical hats.
7. The pre-Angkorian temples near Champasak.
8. The sleepy international capital of Vientiane.
9. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang.
10. Trekking to hill tribe villages all across Laos.
11. Kayaking or canoeing the many rivers.
12. Watching sunset over the Mekong River.
13. Watching the fishers setting their nets as the sun rises over the Mekong River.
14. Tubing near Vang Vieng.
15. Hiking in the hills and mountains that define Laos.
16. Biking along the relatively sleepy main roads and backroads.
17. Staring at the huge stone monoliths on the Plain of Jars and wondering how they got there.
18. Watching women weaving traditional silks.
19. The night market in Luang Prabang.
20. Renting a scooter and really getting around the country.