When compared to its neighbors, Laos is the lesser known and lesser traveled South East Asian country. Many backpackers have a “set” route that includes Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but for some reason Laos gets overlooked.
Maybe it’s because Thailand is so famous for its beaches, Cambodia for Angkor Wat, and Vietnam for being a budget-friendly beauty. All these overshadow an equally beautiful, historical, and affordable country.
Laos (officially known as Lao PDR – People’s Democratic Republic) shares its longest border with Vietnam to the east, northern Thailand to the west, Cambodia to the south, and small portions of China and Myanmar to the north. Despite being surrounded by such diversity, Laos stays true to its roots with many traditional aspects.
What’s even more interesting is that Laos only opened the doors to tourism in 1989. This means the country’s tourist industry is far less developed than its border countries. The local culture is less spoiled by foreign influences and therefore emits a raw and genuine atmosphere – one that can be hard to find in other South East Asian countries.
The travelers who would enjoy Laos the most are those willing to seek out, explore, and go with the flow. Laos is a very laid-back country; perhaps the most laid-back in the region. Life moves slowly and time passes lazily. In fact, playing on the PDR acronym that follows the country’s name, “Please Don’t Rush” has become the unofficial mantra of the country. This should give you an idea of “Laotian Time.”
It’s the type of place you may plan to spend only a few days, and without realizing why or how, those few days turn into a few weeks.
Those who are open-minded and easy going will love discovering this country. Calling all hippies, flower-children, and free-spirits– Laos is the place for you!
This place is first on the list because here, time literally stands still. Whether it’s the porch hammock you never leave, the river tubing that never gets boring, or that “happy” shake you had for lunch – there’s something about the 4,000 Islands that is unlike any other place in Laos. However, it probably gives off the most “hippie” vibe of all the places on this list. It is, to say the least, rural.
The name is a direct reflection of the thousands of islands that dot the Mekong River in this region. Some are just big enough to support a single sapling or tuft of grass, while others are big enough to fit a village, guest houses, and restaurants.
Don Dhet is the most popular of the islands to stay on due to the plentiful accommodation options. Basic bungalows with homemade hammocks line the river banks. Small and simple restaurants and bars serving cheap food and “hippy snacks” are aplenty.
Don Khon & the Liphi Waterfall
Rent a bicycle and explore the rural dirt roads of Don Dhet. Cross over the bridge and discover Don Khon, the sparsely inhabited neighbor island. Don Khon is home to the beautiful Liphi Waterfall and deserted beaches that are worth the effort to visit.
One day on Don Dhet must be dedicated to a river float. Inflatable inner tubes are available to rent and the day can be passed drifting listlessly around in the Mekong.
Mekong River Cruise
For some truly incredible picture opportunities, I recommend hiring a boat and pushing off into the river in the late afternoon. The sunset over the Mekong is spectacular.
Located about midway up in the country, Vientiane deserves a one or two night stay. The capital city isn’t the most impressive in Laos, but there is one funky attraction may spark the interest of a curious wanderer.
A sprawling outdoor park that houses over 200 Buddhist and Hinduist sculptures, known as Buddha Park, is a must-see attraction in Vientiane. The impressive collection was created by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat in 1958.
It’s a little strange to see such striking and bizarre statues all crowded into abandoned field outside of town. However, it’s the peculiarity of the whole thing that gives it its appeal.
The first structure inside the entrance is a globe-like sculpture with an evil looking demon with a gaping mouth guarding the entrance. If you dare, pass through his open mouth and climb the 3 stories to the top. From here, you will have a panoramic view of the park and all its sculptures.
The highlights include the 40-meter tall reclining Buddha statue and a four armed, four-headed deity.
The place for socializing, meeting new friends, and tubing down the Mekong, an activity that put Laos on the map decades ago. Due to safety hazards and multiple fatal accidents in 2011, Vang Vieng has since cleaned up its frat boy reputation. Don’t worry though, tubing is still alive and well.
Vang Vieng is more commercialized than Don Dhet and certainly has more of a party scene. There are several bars in town that advertise cheap beers and drinking games all night long.
However, Vang Vieng is still not the wild party place it used to be; and maybe that’s a good thing.
These days, floating down the several kilometer stretch of the Mekong is more of a tranquil experience instead of a raucous one. There are only several bars still operating along the tubing route and they’re pretty low-key versions of what they used to be.
If you’re in need of refreshment, someone on the shores of the river will toss you a line and pull you and your tubing buddies out of the gentle rapids and onto the banks.
Up at the bar you can have a few beers or cocktails, play drinking games or volleyball, and just chill out. When you’ve had enough, just hop in your tube and drift away again. Before you reach the exit point you’ll run into one or two more bars which offer more of the same, but are worth the stop anyway.
The best part of tubing this part of the Mekong is the breathtaking views. The river is shrouded in dense jungle, with a mountainous background and the occasional hot air balloon floating up into the sky. This type of scenery is one of a kind.
The Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham Cave
For more peace and less people, rent a motorbike or tuk tuk and head a few kilometers out of town to the Blue Lagoon. This small lagoon with its cool, milky sapphire water is beautiful in its own simplistic way. You can spend a few hours here swimming, playing on the rope swings, or jumping from the trees into the water.
After a swim, you can make the short trek up the hill immediately behind the lagoon to the Tham Phu Kham Cave.
After Vang Vieng, head north to Luang Prabang, declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. This tiny town is probably the most popular destination in Laos.
The charm of Luang Prabang is immediate. Most will find it difficult to resist the serenity that comes with stepping into this majestic place. The town is home to over 30 Buddhist temples, fantastic displays of old French architecture, and rugged, natural beauty.
The muddy Mekong winds its way through the northern section of town with the endless Luang Prabang Mountain Range creating a gorgeous backdrop. The town is also famous for its gorgeous waterfalls.
A great way to see the town is to rent a bicycle and just get lost. There are endless dirt roads that branch off in different directions, taking you on a tour of the most rural parts of town. There’s a few amazing bamboo bridges that crisscross over the Mekong that can be tackled on foot or bike – if you’re brave enough!
Kuang Si Waterfall
Luang Prabang is also famous for its waterfalls. The biggest in town with three tiers, multiple cascades, and a 50-foot drop from the highest point is the Kuang Si Waterfall. Leading up to the main falls are several big rock pools filled with cobalt- blue water just begging to be swam in. Have a dip or try swinging into the water from the rope swing hung on a nearby tree.
Most people don’t trek all the way to the top of the biggest fall. It requires a 30-minute steep uphill climb through the jungle. The path is marked, but narrow and rocky. If you do decide to go for it, your reward is a private oasis with shallow pools amidst a jungle. It’ s possible to creep to the edge of the falls and peer over the first tier. Don’t lean too far though; there’s no guard rail or anything to prevent a dangerous fall.
Tae Sae Waterfall
If you’re visiting Laos in the wet season (August – November), check out another one of Luang Prabang’s natural wonders. The Tae Sea Waterfall isn’t as high at Kuang Si, but the dozens of cascades gushing over limestone cliffs creates a spectacular sight.
This waterfall can only be reached by boat, making it further removed than Kuang Si and more of a journey to get to. This is a popular place with the locals, too. The wooden deck and stairs built around the water pools beneath the falls create the perfect swimming opportunity.
After an adventurous day at the falls, it’s time to head back into town to catch the sunset. The best view in town is from the top of the 150-meter Mount Phousi. This provides an unbeatable view of the sunset over the Mekong, as well as a 360-degree panorama of the city.
Leave at least 45-60 minutes before sunset to get to the top as there are multiple temples and viewpoints to stop and admire along the way.
After sun down, head to the main street of Sisavangvong to browse arguably the best market in the country. This is the best place to buy authentic handicrafts, textiles, trinkets, and souvenirs.
For dinner, head to the Food Night Market at the far end of the main road and indulge in a buffet of delicious local dishes for only a few dollars. It’s the best deal in town and the quality of the food is well above average.
Alms Giving Ceremony
This spiritual tradition is something that must be witnessed when visiting Luang Prabang. Every morning at sunrise over 200 monks pass through the streets in a long line and accept the small offerings presented by the locals. This ancient tradition of Alms Giving is done to honor the monk’s commitment as well as to provide them with their basic needs.
The offerings usually consist of rice, fresh fruit, or sweets. Foreigners are welcome to watch the ceremony or participate, if desired. Just be sure to model the behavior of the other locals and act respectful at all times.
Laos is a special and spiritual place. From laid-back river days to ancient customs to natural beauty, Laos is a peaceful and welcoming country to travel though. It is less a place for party-hardy backpackers and more for those who wish to get in touch with the simpler side of life. Regardless of who you are or what you seek, a trip to Laos will open your eyes to a humble world with unpretentious values, a rarity in this day and age.