From visiting cute rescued Moon Bears to staying in a treehouse that can only be reached by zipline, we have curated the essential experiences to include in your visit to Laos.
Laos has a reputation as one of Asia’s most relaxed countries–take a slow boat on the Mekong, one of Asia’s mightiest rivers, or spend a week exploring its small, quiet cities, and you will see why. A landlocked country, nestled between Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, Laos is deliciously slow in moving into modernity. It has somehow managed to avoid the incessant busloads of tourists descending on its neighbor, Thailand, while retaining century-old traditions and rural ways of life. The practice of Buddhism pervades and strengthens each and every aspect of daily life here, and is manifested in the beautiful temples and pagodas that dot even the smallest of hilltops. Like their golden ornaments and turrets, Laos shines with mystic beauty. These are the 25 must-do experiences that will help you see the best of this incredible destination.
Soak in the Old Town in Savannaketh
Low rise, empty, and decaying colonial shophouses line the tiny lanes of central Savannaketh, only a short stroll from the charming Mekong’s riverside. White-washed St. Theresa’s Church, built in 1920, dominates the upper end of Talat Yen Plaza, the Old Town’s center, lined by irresistibly hip old-style cafes. Make a stop at Lin’s Cafe and visit their permanent photography exhibition upstairs to see just how little has changed over time here.
The square really comes alive at night, when it fills up with an interesting food and souvenir market that attracts both locals and visitors.
Witness a Sunrise Alms-Giving Ceremony in Luang Prabang
Rise with the sun to witness a quintessential Lao experience as rows of silent monks wrapped in bright orange robes exit their temples to congregate on the main road where Luang Prabang’s citizens (and a growing number of tourists) reverently place gifts of homemade food into their bowls to bless the start of the day. The exchange of alms and prayers has been conducted for hundreds of years, although these days it can get quite crowded with photographers and tourists. For a less crowded vantage point, wait for the monks on the outskirts of town on Photisalath Road, at the street corner in front of the Vietnamese consulate (from where Wat Manorom, a temple with the largest number of resident monks, is only a short walk past the excellent boutique hotel Satri House.)
Climb to the Top of Phou Si Hill in Luang Prabang
Rising like a verdant green camel hump between the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, Phu Si Hill dominates this quiet UNESCO-designated town. On the top of the hill, the grounds of a Buddhist shrine topped by the That Chomsi Pagoda offer a perfect vantage point to observe Luang Prabang’s urban limits blending into northern Laos’ rolling hills.
Float Down the Mekong
The Mekong River, which spans the length of the country from its northern jungles to the volcanic coffee-growing plains around Pakse, has been Laos’ lifeline for centuries. And even if some of it is no longer navigable because of recently built hydroelectric dams, the stretch from the Thai border at Huay Xai down to Luang Prabang remains the most popular way to experience the slow lifestyle of local river communities. The trip takes two days, with an overnight stop in the village of Pak Beng, before boats moor at Luang Prabang’s jetty. If coming from northern Thailand, you can buy tickets and board the slow boat in the border town of Houay Xai. In Laos, book your tickets in Luang Prabang: Shompoo Cruise offers luxurious river explorations on charming wooden schooners that ply the route between Luang Prabang, Pakbeng, and the Thai border, stopping at popular sites like the Pak Ou Caves along the way.
INSIDER TIPSpeedboats may seem a better option compared to the slow, uncomfortable wooden boats, but be careful: they drive too fast and there have been several lethal accidents. For an authentic—slow—experience, take the slow boat.
Hike Among the Hill Tribes in the Nam Ha Reserve
The northern town of Luang Nam Tha is close to the Chinese border and the perfect gateway to hike through pristine rainforest and meet Laos’ hill tribe communities in the protected Nam Ha Reserve. Several local tour operators, including well-known Green Discovery Laos, organize eco-friendly and culturally sensitive treks into the reserve. An overnight trip is not enough time to get deep into the jungle and to truly experience the local ways of life. Be sure to allow for a longer visit if you are interested in staying with the villagers, who often double as guides for trekking in the reserve, and offer community-based tourism in the form of homestays.
Go Spelunking by Day and Partying by Night in Vang Vieng
The riverside village of Vang Vieng was once infamous as a haven for backpackers and for river tubing and the drug and alcohol-fueled parties that claimed many young tourists’ lives. Things have changed for the better, and now Vang Vieng is a full-fledged tourist resort town set a short distance from a series of scenic limestone rocks where you can find caves and swimming holes. One of the best ways to explore the area is to rent a bicycle or, if you can drive it, a dune buggy, and strike off beyond the Nam Song River in search of Vang Vieng’s famous caves. Every cave has an entrance fee of about 10,000 Kip, and some boast ziplines and other attractions. The Tham Chang cave is famous for its cool chamber filled with stalactites and stalagmites, while Tham Nam is a 500-meter-long cave, best explored on a tube (that you can rent at the entrance) in the wet season. Tham Phu Kham is popular for the blue lagoon at the end of the trek to the cave, a popular swimming spot. And Tham Sam, meaning “Elephant Cave”, shelters a big stalactite that resemble the shape of a standing elephant. After a full day of exploration, relax and enjoy Vang Vieng’s nightlife on its main strip: flanked by numerous hotels and guesthouses—consider staying at the excellent Riverside Boutique Resort and Inthira Vang Vieng—it fills up with tourists, and it’s still the place to be for a party… just without its former dangerous excesses.
Put Your Feet Up and Relax by the River in Muang Khua
Laos is a notoriously sleepy country, and so to fully experience it, you need to stop a while and get off the grid and away from your itinerary and just soak it all in. Choose a quiet spot like The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant perched on the banks of the Nam Tha river, just outside Luang Nam Tha. This eco-friendly guesthouse offers a truly relaxed retreat with wooden bungalows set in lush tropical gardens and authentic local cuisine. Spend a few days here, just lingering on the veranda and taking in the river or exploring nearby Lao villages and Nam Ha National Park.
Glide on a Longtail Boat Across Majestic Kong Lo Cave
Tham Kong Lo, in Khammouane Province, is Laos’ spelunking marvel: a seven kilometer-long cave crossed by the fast-flowing Nam Hin Bun River. Longtail boats shuttle visitors between the two ends of the cave, braving stalactites and stalagmites, cold water showers, and rising water levels in the rainy season. Boat transfers are included in Kong Lo’s entry ticket (100,000 kip per person) for a maximum of three people per longtail boat. Beside floating, visitors are also left at the bottom of a hiking trail, where it is possible to gape at the incredible rock formations. Outside, you can also rent tubes to float on the river around the cave’s entrance.
Motorbike the Thakek Loop
The 450-kilometer-long Thakek loop starts on the south end of the southern Lao town of Thakek and takes you north, following the Lao-Vietnam border, past sleepy villages, waterfalls, and a series of caves—including magnificent Tham Kong Lo. Once a very adventurous ride on barely passable muddy roads, the Thakek Loop is now completely sealed and well signposted. The upgrades may have taken away some of its raw charm, but they have also added a layer of security and the ability to explore in all seasons.
Rent a motorbike from any of the several rental shops in Thakek’s main square. You don’t need a license to rent the ubiquitous 90cc Yamaha motorbikes, but you’ll have to leave your passport as a security deposit.
Gorge on Khao Piak Sen, Laos’ Noodle Soup
Every traveler should try one of Laos’ simplest but tastiest foods, khao piak sen. This savory tapioca noodle soup served in chicken broth is sold at every restaurant, stall, and bus station, and served in every home across the country. Be sure to make use of the fresh herbs, soy sauce, and bean sprouts that every seller will add on your table next to your steaming bowl. But be cautious with the chilies, as they really burn. A popular place to eat khao piak sen in Vientiane is the Phim Phone Noodle shop in Dongpalane Road, just south of the Morning Market.
Drink a Beer Lao
Laos’ namesake beer is as popular and widespread as water. In fact, sometimes it is easier to find than bottled water as you really can find it anywhere …including in the middle of nowhere. Look for it at remote street stalls catering to locals and in the packed touristy bars of Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Beer Lao is a smooth, savory, and light brew, and it goes down well with any meal. It is somewhat of a national obsession, so feel free to sample it at every opportunity.
Explore the Khmer Ruins of Wat Phu
Set against a beautiful mountainous slope in the rolling countryside south of Champasak village, Wat Phu is Laos’ prime archaeological find. One of the ancient Khmer Kingdom’s main shrines on the way to Angkor Wat, Wat Phu has two pavilions set at the base of the mountain. Beyond them, a steep staircase leads visitors to the temple proper–a small shrine sitting atop the hill.
INSIDER TIPDon’t skip the interesting museum included in the ticket price. The exhibits clearly explain the importance of Wat Phu in the context of the larger Khmer Kingdom that once encompassed Laos and stretched to modern-day Cambodia.
Marvel at the Enigmatic Plain of Jars
An inexplicable marvel, Phonsavan’s Plain of Jars is as enigmatic as it is attractive. Nowhere else in the world can you find human-size stone urns scattered on a high-altitude plateau. Who brought the urns to the hill, so far away from any source of water, and why? These giant ancient vessels are swathed in mystery and surrounded by countryside that is scarred by the “Secret War.” You are guaranteed to leave the site scratching your head.
Admire Majestic Waterfalls
Laos is graced with a staggering number of impressive waterfalls, but there are a few you shouldn’t miss. The Kuang Si falls near Luang Prabang are a hotspot on the tourist trail, and rightly so: shallow pools filled with turquoise water lead visitors up a steep hill, after which there’s the main fall with an impressive 195-foot drop. In the south of the country near Pakse, the Bolaven Plateau is home to some of the country’s most impressive waterfalls. Tad Fane is the most famous, with twin falls that gush out of a forest-covered rock-face, tumbling down through majestic jungle foliage. Further north in Salavan province is Tad Lo village with its three waterfalls. Tad Suong, Tad Lo, and Tad Hang are all reachable with short hikes from the village.
INSIDER TIPThe best time to see the falls is during the rainy season, when they are stronger. You may not be able to swim in all the water holes though, as many have jagged rocks on the bottom. Pay attention before diving in.
Plough a Paddy Field
If you like to give back to local communities as a way to interact with locals while offsetting your vacation imprint, you will appreciate efforts by Luang Prabang’s locals, who have found ways to sustain their agriculture and rice farming activities through tourism. Living Land Lao organizes an interesting half-day rice experience in which guests experience all the stages of rice production, from ploughing the paddy field behind a buffalo knee-deep in mud, to cleaning raw grains of rice from their shells using local tools.
Not far away, Laos Buffalo Dairy creates exquisite dairy products—think juicy mozzarellas and Italian-style ice creams—produced with fresh buffalo milk.
Soak in the Relaxed Atmosphere of Vientiane
Compared to other Southeast Asian capitals, Vientiane defies all stereotypes: it is quiet instead of bustling, has fewer cars than Bangkok, fewer people than Phnom Penh, and a skyline that can’t even compare to Kuala Lumpur. Vientiane is itself and full of mellow charm: the Mekong Riverfront is lined with green parks and a variety of international restaurants and cafes. Try L’Opera for Italian food, Kualao for a taste of traditional Lao food, or La Signature for a little French fine dining. The main road, where you’ll find most of the city’s hotels (stay at Settha Palace for a luxurious experience, or Ansara Hotel, a quiet boutique property near the Mekong) runs parallel to the river and is within walking distance of most of the city’s striking temples and monuments, such as the Patuxay and Pha That Luang. Vientiane life may happen at a slow pace, but “slow” does not mean boring.
Chase Coffee Beans in the Bolevan Plateau
To the east of Pakse is the Bolaven Plateau, a volcanic area where most of Laos’ tasty coffee is grown and produced. Whether you visit for a day or on a longer loop of this interesting region, stop at a coffee plantation like Mr. Vieng Coffee Homestay, where you can take a tour and enjoy a sampler of the local brews, and bunk down surrounded by nature if you don’t feel like leaving. Along the way, you will also find some of Laos’ most scenic waterfalls.
Paddle a Kayak Around a Tropical Island
The Mekong breaks into hundreds of islets near the southern Laos border, called Si Phan Don, or the 4,000 Islands. This beautiful land is inhabited by Irrawaddy Dolphins and tourists come here for the cheap backpacker thrills of Don Det, one of the two main islands, or to bask in the upscale accommodations on offer on Don Khong Island. Pon Arena Hotel is a good choice with large rooms and balconies set right on the river, while Senesothxeune Hotel boasts charming wood-paneled suites in a French-colonial style building as well as a garden and open verandah. In general, beyond dolphin spotting and relaxing, there’s little to do here … but that’s kind of the point.
Zip Over the Country’s Biggest Waterfall
The twin waterfall of Tad Fane in the Bolaven Plateau is breathtaking enough when approached on foot, and even more so when experienced from a zipline perched at more than 320 feet high with a bird’s eye view of the falls and surrounding valleys. Ziplining above Tad Fane costs $50 per person, and tickets can be purchased on-site or in advance from tour operators like Miss Noy in Pakse, which also offers reliable automatic scooter rental from $5 a day.
Bow to the Giant Golden Buddha at Wat Phou Salao
Have you even been to Pakse if you haven’t taken the time to climb the staircase to the top of Wat Phou Salao? Doubtful. A moderate half-hour climb brings you next to the giant golden Buddha that sits at this vantage point. From here, you can look out over the town and the junction between the Mekong and Sedone rivers.
INSIDER TIPTime your ascent a half hour before sunset to enjoy the best views over Pakse, as the sun casts purple shadows over the Mekong and the surrounding hills.
Watch Cute Rescued Moon Bears at Tad Kuang Si Park
A visit to Luang Prabang’s most famous waterfalls, Tad Kuang Si, also offers a chance to see the area’s cutest creature–the elusive Moon Bear, an endangered local species. A small sanctuary set within the Kuang Si Park hosts several animals, who are most active in the early morning and late afternoon—which also happens to be the best time to beat the crowds. Your donations help support the construction of a cub nursery, quarantine house, and additional bear enclosures that are underway and will help provide training and employment opportunities for local villagers.
Eat Traditional Lao Street Food
Laos’ main cities are filled with a plethora of international dining choices and fine cuisine, but to truly enjoy the zesty flavors of Lao cooking, it’s best to hit the street and eat like a local. From tapioca noodle soups to barbecued meats and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, Laotians are masters of street food. You are in for a culinary treat.
INSIDER TIPLaotians rise very early, and the best street food is usually available for breakfast before 8 am. Follow the locals and enjoy the feast.
Adventure by Bike or Foot in the Remote Northern Provinces
Northeast Laos, on the border of China, is home to the province of Phongsaly, a remote, less traveled corner of an already quiet country. It is here that some of Laos’ most pristine mountains and adventurous trails await those who dare stray off the beaten path. There are 15 official minority tribes living in these hills, including the Akha, Yao, Khmou, and Hmong. Amazing Lao Travel, the only trekking outfit in town, organizes day trips into the surrounding hills. Their office is to the west of Phongsaly’s main intersection.
Marvel at the Quirky Buddha Park
On the outskirts of the capital near the Friendship Bridge with Thailand, you will find a unique park filled with quirky sculptures, known as Buddha Park or Xieng Khuan. Started in 1958 by the priest-shaman Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, the park hosts Buddha statues of all sizes, shapes, and styles, including some frankly psychedelic pieces, all set in the grounds of a quiet garden next to the Mekong.
Stay in a Treehouse in a Forest of Gibbons
The Gibbon Experience tourism-based conservation project offers guests a chance to sleep in a 130-foot-high treehouse that can only be reached by gliding along a treetop zipline. With a bit of luck, you may spot one of the 1,300 remaining wild gibbons that still dwell this forest. Set by the Thai border near Huai Xai, this experience is the perfect way to begin or end your Laos visit.