Top 10 Destinations in 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 meeting point of the Mekong and Khan rivers, the city is surrounded by spectacular scenery of lush, green covered mountains, colourful flowers, sacred caves and waterfalls.
Smells of fresh coffee and baguettes waft around the French colonial buildings and locals cycle around the charming city streets. Luang Prabang is Laos' spiritual centre and it is a common occurrence to see saffron-robed monks walking through the city for morning alms, or gathering around some of the city's beautiful temples such as Wat Xieng Thong, one of the country's main highlights.
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 watching the sun set over the Mekong. Vientiane is full of things to see – the monument of Patuxai (a Laotian version of the Arc de Triomphe) testifies to its years under French rule while Buddha Park is an intriguing 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 is the laid back atmosphere of the village itself. Opt take a bicycle ride through the rice paddy filled fields and go tubing along the river! Expect an idyllic and fun ride! Vang Vieng is located midway between midway Vientaine and Luang Prabang. En route you also may wish to stop at the colourful market of Thalat, where local hill tribes come to trade, shop and also visit the archaeological site of Vang Xang that dates back to the 11th century.
Phonsavan / Plain of Jars
Situated in the northeast of Laos, Phonsavan is the 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.
Khong is the largest island in the Si Phan Don group, a collection of islands in the Mekong River. The island sums Laos up - quaint fishing communities, lush vegetation and peaceful monasteries all lure travellers in. Visitors to the island simply have to visit the Li Phi waterfalls, always keeping an eye out for the Irrawaddy river dolphins which inhabit these waters. The dolphin is increasingly rare in these over-exploited waters, but conservation efforts are underway to conserve the magical creature, and you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one. Khong is also home to colonial buildings, river piers and a defunct railway - a legacy of French colonial rule which lasted until 1953.
Unlike the mountainous north, southern Laos has 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.
Luang Namtha is found on the banks of Nam Tha River. Surrounded by lush forested hills begging to be trekked through, it’s a popular base for those who want to explore the beautiful Nam Ha National Protected Area; a stunning natural preserve which stretches across 1470sq km of northern Laos and crosses the border into China. It is home 25 hill tribes in the protected area. Once you’ve returned from your trek, there are a number of places offering traditional Lao sauna and massage to help ease your weary muscles. The city is divided into two, with the old town near the airport and the new town to the north, where the guest houses and trekking companies are based. The best way to explore both the old and new parts of Luang Namtha is to hire a bicycle or motorbike and head out into the winding streets, surrounded by rice paddies and water buffalo.
Bokeo Nature Reserve
Bokeo Nature Reserve was established following the discovery of a small population of black-cheeked gibbons in 1997. The species was thought extinct and the park was created to help the gibbon population recover. The park is famous today for its tree houses built up in the forest canopy. Zip lines carry you between the trees at the height the gibbons prefer to remain, giving you an even better chance to spot them. Plenty more native wildlife lives in the reserve and you may be able to spot Asian elephants, water buffalo, sloth bears or, if you're really lucky, an elusive tiger - although there have been no tiger sighting is Laos for several years, and the species is thought extinct in the country.
Wat Phu, meaning ‘mountain temple’, is a collection of ruined Khmer temples and shrines. Once a Hindu place of worship, they’re some of the most impressive Khmer ruins found outside of Cambodia. While they don’t match Angkor Wat’s grand scale, Wat Phu is actually older - dating back to the 11th century with some buildings believed to be more than 1,000 years old. Located at the base of mount Phu Kao, the surrounding forested landscape is stunning. The best time to visit is early in the morning because temperatures are still low and the ruins are cast in a soft light as the sun rises. If you visit Wat Phu on the full moon of the third lunar month, you’ll be able to watch the ceremonies and take part in the activities characteristic of the annual Buddhist festival of Magha Puja.
Phu Hin Bun National Protected Area
A haven of untouched wilderness, Phu Hin Bun National Protected Area is a beautiful and integral part of central Laos countryside. Turquoise streams, sky-high limestone formations and dense forests are spread out over 1,500 sq km. The limestone cliffs tower hundreds of metres in the air with several endangered primates making the rock face their home, including the douc langur and the François' langur. Elephants, deers and even tigers can be found in the deepest part of the jungle. There are many treks available taking you through the biodiverse scenery with overnight stays in one of the many ethnic villages. A river runs through the Tham Kong Lor cave, taking you on a journey into the cathedral-high limestone cave. The Kong Lor Village the best place to base yourself to explore this natural wonder.
Take a look at our handy Travel Guide resources for further help planning your visit to Laos:
Best Time to Visit - climate and weather in Laos
Tourist Visas - information on visa regulations for Laos
Top Travel Tips - useful info on money, health and food in Laos
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