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11 Things to Do in Laos

Charlotte Boswell

One of South East Asia's most untouched and welcoming destinations, Laos combines spectacular natural beauty with great cultural sites. Home to vibrant cities including the French colonial capital of Vientiane and the sleepy riverside UNESCO site of Luang Prabang as well as the mighty Mekong River, stunning countryside and remote hill tribe villages there is a lot on offer. Here is a list of our favourite things to do in Laos.

1. Soak in the pools of Kuang Si Falls

Nestled in the jungle close to Luang Prabang, the cascading tiers of the mesmerising Kuang Si Falls tumble over limestone rocks creating a series of cool, swimmable crystal blue pools. Located on a tributary of the Mekong, these beautiful pools offer a little bit of serenity, and escape from the heat, in the midst of the jungle’s cacophony. Ask your driver - or rent a tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang - to take you to Kuang Si Falls and after a gentle walk through the lush vegetation arrive at the sheltered turquoise pools which are ideal for swimming and relaxing in nature.

Kuang Si Falls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Photo credit: Steven dosRemedios

2. Visit local hill tribes in Muang La

Located in some of Laos’s most beautiful countryside, the remote village of Muang La is a key commercial centre for local hill tribes including the Khmu and Ikhos. The Ikhos are some of the most reclusive communities in Laos and it is believed that the inhabitants originate from the Chinese province as Yunnan as well at remote Tibet. Their mountainside villages are characterised by houses made of bamboo and wood and their belief in the spirit world is fundamental to their identity and everyday life. Spend a day exploring these villages to get an authentic insight into daily life and meeting local hill tribes. It is also recommended to end the day with panoramic views over the Nam Pak River, rice terraces and local salt mines.

Muang La Rice Terraces Laos

3. Get lost in Luang Prabang’s temples

Perched on the banks of the Mekong River framed by the jagged mountains of northern Laos, the former Royal capital of Luang Prabang is an eclectic mix of French colonial architecture and glistening Buddhist temples. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to an abundance of temples and museums – spend the day exploring the city’s treasure trove of historic and religious ‘wats’. The beautiful Wat Xieng Thong built in the 1500s is an important Buddhist temple that features ornately decorated shrines, manicured gardens and regal prayer halls. Other highlights include That Makmo, known locally as the ‘Watermelon Stupa’, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham which houses gold Buddha statues and wooden carvings and the king’s former mansion – the Royal Palace Museum.

Wat Xieng Luang Prabang in Laos

4. Tour through the historic Vieng Xai Caves

Vieng Xai is a valley of verdant hills, glistening lakes and quaint houses, and despite the heavy bombing from the USA, it is still an area of outstanding beauty. The district is home to hundreds of caves which acted as shelter for royalty, politicians and civilians during the nine years of war. Take a tour through Vieng Xai’s seven open war shelter cave complexes which are set in breathtaking gardens framed by limestone karsts. Visit Tham Than Kaysone where the Prime Minister lived between 1975-1992 and houses busts of Che Guevara and Lenin; explore a lair fit for royalty with its wooden floors, bedrooms and artillery storage areas at Tham Than Souphanouvong; and discover Tham Xieng Muang, one of the deepest caverns which acted as a hospital.

Vieng Xai Caves in Laos

Photo credit: Andrew K. Smith

5. Take a river cruise on the mighty Mekong

Less visited than the Vietnamese and Cambodian Lower Mekong, the Upper Mekong in Laos is an untouched and beautiful part of the world. Home to spectacular scenery, slow river life and wonderful people, cruising the Upper Mekong offers a real sense of exploration and adventure. As well as visiting major cities and landmarks such as vibrant Vientiane, romantic Luang Prabang and the dramatic Pak Ou Caves, explore the beautiful Laotian countryside and discover remote riverside villages and communities. We recommend the pioneering river cruise company Pandaw for an 11 day intrepid journey up the mighty Mekong.

Pandaw Mekong River Cruise

6. Kayak down the Nam Song River

The beautiful and rugged town of Vang Vieng is nestled between dramatic limestone karsts, emerald jungle and the flowing Nam Song River. Once a backpacker party town known for tubing, drinking and a bad reputation, Vang Vieng dramatically cleaned its act up and is now a haven for eco-tourism and adventure activities along the Nam Song. One of the best ways to enjoy the spectacular scenery of this region is to take a kayak trip down the river and experience some of the white-water along the way. Continue to the turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon and relax on the hammocks that line the riverbanks. Alternatively enjoy an active cave tour through Vang Vieng’s underground cave system exploring caves such as Elephant Cave which is home to ancient Buddha statues and an elephant-shaped stalactite.

Nam Song River Vang Vieng

7. Explore Vientiane’s famous landmarks

Laos’s capital city Vientiane, set on the banks of the Mekong River, has retained much of its charm with well-preserved French colonial buildings, wide tree-lined boulevards and traditional Buddhist monasteries. Spend a day or two exploring Vientiane’s landmarks including the iconic golden temple of Pha That Luang, the imposing victory war memorial of Patuxai which features a European-style arch and Laotian carvings and the ancient bell-shaped stupa of That Dam. Other notable shrines within the city include Wat Si Muang which is built atop a Hindu shrine and Wat Si Saket, home to thousands of Buddha images and statues and the oldest religious complex in Vientiane.

Wat Phra That Luang in Vientiane

8. Discover the intriguing Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars – a UNESCO World Heritage Site - near Phonsavan in northern Laos is a mysterious plateau that is scattered with hundreds of ancient stone jars. The origin of these is still unknown, however archaeologists believe that they may date back almost 2000 years. There has been much speculation over the years as to the origin of the jars with local legend suggesting they were used to brew rice wine. It is more likely however that the jars, mostly made of sedimentary rock, were ancient funeral urns used for human remains – a theory backed up by high value ornaments found in the vicinity. Take a trip to the 1000m high Plain of Jars to explore these enigmatic stone structures that range from three to ten feet in height.

Plain of Jars in Laos

9. Visit the remarkable temple complex of Vat Phou

Sitting in the shadow of the sacred mountain of Linga Parvata, Vat Phou is an ancient temple complex located near Dong Daeng Island in southern Laos. One of the finest temple complexes anywhere in Southeast Asia, Vat Phou was re-discovered by a French explorer in the mid-19th century. Originally a Hindu shrine, the site became a centre of Buddhist worship, which it remains today. Spend the afternoon exploring the crumbling ruins that pre-date those at Angkor Wat by almost 200 years and are equally as mesmerising and beautiful.

Vat Phou in Dong Daeng, Laos

10. Climb Mount Phu Si for sunset views

Mount Phu Si is a 100m-high hill located in the centre of the Old Town in romantic and beautiful Luang Prabang. Straddling the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Phu Si dominates the city skyline. The climb to the top of the hill consists of 329 steep steps but the pretty temples and shrines dotted on the way up, as well as the saffron-clad monks, will keep you distracted. Be inspired as you reach the peak and admire the spectacular 360-degree panorama of Luang Prabang and the surrounding valley scattered with jungle-clad mountains and remote villages. The viewpoint is even more beautiful as the sun sets and the sky changes from blue to vibrant purples and fiery oranges.

Mount Phu Si Luang Prabang

11. Explore the bizarre Buddha Park

Located some 25km southeast of Vientiane, magnificent Buddha Park, locally known as Xieng Khuan, is an eccentric park filled with more than 200 Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. Built in 1958 by priest-shaman Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, the park merges both Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, iconography and mythology where the statues are mesmerising, if not a little bizarre. Some of the strange highlights include a giant pumpkin with a demon head, skeleton thin Buddhas as well as a colossal 40-metre long reclining Buddha.

Buddha Park in Vientiane

 

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