Laos is still one of Asia’s most beautiful secrets. Take a glimpse of life from a simpler time, as hill-tribes retain their age-old customs and devout Buddhist monks collect daily alms. Even the capital Vientiane preserves a laid back riverfront style of life, retaining the charm and buzz of a provincial town. World Heritage listed French colonial town Luang Prabang’s tranquil atmosphere, charming villas and gilded temples make it an essential part of any journey here. Here are our top picks for any trip to Laos.
Once an ancient capital of northern Laos, the UNESCO World Heritage listed site of Luang Prabang is the very essence of charm and tranquillity. Set 700m above sea level at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, the city is surrounded by spectacular scenery of lush, green covered mountains, colourful flowers, sacred caves and waterfalls. The perfume of frangipanis and freshly made coffee and baguettes fills the narrow streets between crumbling French colonial buildings whilst bicycles and pedestrians rule the roads. Luang Prabang is the spiritual centre of the country and saffron-robed monks trail the streets for morning alms and dwell in temples during the day. The city is home to over 30 gilded temples, including the stunning Wat Xieng Thong with its painted figurines and intricate coloured glass mosaics.
The capital of Laos, Vientiane manages to retain the charm of a provincial town despite being the largest city in the country. Sitting along the banks of the Mekong River, the city streets of elegant French mansions bloom with bougainvillea while the aroma of steaming noodle stalls fills the air. The tree-lined boulevards and friendly locals endow the city with a relaxed yet captivating ambience and the riverside cafes provide the perfect place to enjoy a beer while w atching the sun set over the Mekong. Vientiane is full of things to see – the monumen t of Patuxai, a Laotian version of the Arc de Triomphe, testifies to its years under French rule while Buddha Park is an unusual collection of sculptures from Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, mythology and iconography.
Nestled on the banks of the Nam Song River surrounded by lush countryside is the delightful village of Vang Vieng. The local caves are the prize attraction as the laid back atmosphere of the village itself. Opt take a bicycle ride through the rice paddy filled fields or go tubing along the river. Vang Vieng is located midway between midway Vientaine and Luang Prabang. En route you also may wish ot stop stop at the colourful market of Thalat, where local hill tribes come to trade and shop and also visit the archaeological site of Vang Xang that dates back to the 11th century.
Situated in the northeast of Laos, Phonsavan is the provincial capital of the Xieng Khouang province and the base for trips to the area’s star attraction – the Plain of Jars. Thousands of mysterious stone jars are scattered across the rolling hills and grassy plains, appearing in clusters ranging from just a few to several hundred and weighing up to 6 tonnes. Their origin is unknown though legend tells of a race of giants who inhabited the area. After winning an arduous battle with their enemy, they built the jars to store wine to celebrate their victory. Initial research in the 1930s suggested that the jars were used for prehistoric burial practices and have been dated back as far as the Iron Age. Human remains have since been found, supporting this theory.
The largest island of Si Phan Don, a group of islands in the Mekong River, Khong Island offers a unique opportunity to experience rural life in Laos with its lovely fishing villages, serene monasteries and lush vegetation. The island has a number of natural wonders including the powerful Li Phi waterfalls and if you’re lucky, you may just spot the Irrawaddy dolphins on the south coast. The islanders live in and around two villages – Muang Khong on the eastern shore and Muang Saen on the west. Life here moves slowly and the villages are best experienced on bicycle rides around the countryside. Colonial buildings, river piers and a defunct railway are all left over relics from the French built during the late 1800s.
Unlike the mountainous north, southern Laos is flat and fertile land with verdant landscapes and tropical palms. Small villages with their own distinctive customs dot the region with Pakse being the only major town. Pakse sits on the confluence of the Mekong and Don rivers and is blessed with a laid back lethargy yet boasts the largest market in the country, famous for its coffee. A number of temples in town are worth visiting, including the Big Buddha temple with views over Pakse and the river. The town also serves as the base for trips to the Bolaven Plateau, known for its diverse and intriguing minority villages, as well as its dramatic waterfalls and plantations, and for trips to Si Phan Don or ‘The 4,000 Islands’, a riverine archipelago of idyllic islands.