Top 10 Things to See and Do
1. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient town of Luang Prabang lies in the northern end of the country 700 metres above sea level, encircled by mountains that can barely contain its colour and charisma. With its clutch of gleaming temples, ornate French architecture and supreme natural beauty, there is a reason it continues to supersede the country’s capital of Vientiane as the country’s first choice tourist destination.
2. Set in picturesque gardens and backed by the majestic Karst formations, the tour of the Vieng Xai caves are a must for any visitor to Laos. Once important war-shelter complexes, the historical background to the caves (described by a knowledgeable audio guide) is nothing short of fascinating.
3. If you’re beginning your trip in Thailand, why not make your way to Laos by gliding down the transcendent Mekong river; book a cruise and relax as the dramatic scenery of this remote land unfolds before you, and take a look at life in Laos as you cruise past the multiple villages and social settlements that lie nestled along its banks.
4. For hundreds of kilometres around Phonsavan, vast stone jars that are thousands of year old rise majestically from the ground. Mysterious in their origin (no one knows quite how they came to be, although guides enthusiastically offer guesses), they are set across three sites that form the basis for most tour loops.
5. With over 200 impressive religious statues that include a 40 metre high reclining Buddha, the famous Buddha Park is located 25 kilometres southeast of Vientiane, and is well worth a visit. A giant, three-storey pumpkin structure provides excellent views across the park and unrivalled photo opportunities.
6. Nestled in the very heart of the famous golden triangle, Bokeo borders both Myanmar and Chiang Rai province in Thailand, while China is less than 100 kilometres away. The smallest province in Laos, Bokeo is still home to a diverse array of different minority groups; its name translates as ‘gem mine’, and digging for precious stones is one of the major occupations of this area.
7. Located in the country’s capital of Vientiane, the temple of Wat Si Saket is famous for both it beautiful architecture and its cloister wall, which displays thousands of tiny Buddha images and rows of hundreds of seated Buddhas which date from the 16th and 19th centuries. Basking in the shade of surrounding tropical fruit trees, the temple is particularly magical in the early mornings, when many locals visit to pray and offer food to the monks.
8. A town of earthbound paradise, Vang Vieng is surrounded by soaring mountains, rolling green rice fields and the gushing Nam Song River, popularly utilised by travellers for floating lazily along in inner tubes, taking in the scenery. Stop to peruse the authentic local market, or visit the Tham Poukham Cave for a dip in the ‘Blue Lagoon’.
9. The Bolaven Plateau is home to some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the whole of Southeast Asia, most notably the twin falls of Tad Fan, which tumble over 100 metres down the face of the rugged cliffs into a gorge. Part of a large national park, this rainforest spot also boasts a plethora of wild animals, including leopards, elephants, tigers and monkeys.
10. A proud hallmark of Lao culture, the Baci Ceremony is a ritual used to celebrate important occasions or events such as births, marriages, welcoming guests, beginning a new year or entering the monkhood. It involves the tying of white cotton around a persons wrists and praying, and tourists are often warmly welcomed to participate in what is a powerful and moving introduction into Lao culture.
A country that has unerringly retained traditions that have begun to fade elsewhere, Laos has a rich and intriguingly distinctive culture that can be sensed from the moment you arrive. Home to perhaps some of the friendliest people on earth, you may find yourself being invited for meals or to join the celebrations of a birth or marriages by locals, particularly in rural areas – this is both a privilege and a unique opportunity to experience Lao local life. Although a predominantly Buddhist country, Laos still encompasses a vast array of different ethnic groups; appearance is important to the Lao people, and visitors are advised to err on the conservative side with their attire, as dressing too casually (e.g. men appearing shirtless, women wearing short shorts) can be construed as offensive.