There are places in the world that are quite wonderful but that somehow manage to elude most travelers. Laos is one of those places. Most visitors to Southeast Asia – especially first time visitors – focus on more well-known destinations such as Thailand and Vietnam. But, Laos has a lot to offer – not only for travelers who have a limited amount of time to spend, but also for travelers who want to delve more deeply into the country.

Laos is famous for its myriad of spectacular waterfalls, forested mountains and other breathtaking scenery. It offers a variety of outdoor activities and cultural experiences. Though it’s temples are more low-key than those in Cambodia or Thailand, they’re intricate, colorful and well worth a visit. Here’s a breakdown of what to see and do in Laos, based on how much time you have to spend.

  • A minimum visit to Laos would consist of three days & two nights in the charming riverside town of Luang Prabang. Start with an overview of the town including some of the most important temples, a visit to a monastery, a climb up Phou Sii hill and possibly visits to a couple of outlying villages.  You might travel by road and boat to the Pak Ou Caves which boast roughly 1,000 Buddha images. Wake up early to participate in giving alms to the local monks. Time permitting, visit Kuang Sii Waterfalls for a quick swim before heading back to the airport. (By the way, instead of arriving in Luang Prabang by air, consider an overnight river trip from northern Thailand to Luang Prabang.)
  • If you have another day or two to spend in Luang Prabang, take a cooking class at a local restaurant, a mountain bike ride in the countryside, an elephant ride or elephant mahout training, or a jungle trek to Kuang Sii with a stop to see the Bear Rescue Centre. If you’re artistically inclined you might want to consider a natural dyes class or a weaving class. Or, you can visit the Living Land Project to learn about the process of planting and harvesting rice.
  • Do you have a couple more days to spend? If so, you can add a visit to the capital of Vientiane. After seeing the sights of the city, take a full day trekking excursion to Phou Khaokhuay National Park with its waterfalls, bamboo forests, evergreen forests and rainforest. Look for wild orchids and wildlife.
  • Of course, before heading to Vientiane you could travel overland from Luang Prabang to the mysterious Plain of Jars. Along the way you could make a side trip to go on a safari at Nam Nern. Then, after a couple of nights at the Plain of Jars, you can travel overland to Vang Vieng to visit the amazing Tham Chang (Frozen Cave) on the banks of the Nam Song River. You can also go kayaking on, or bicycling alongside, the river. After a couple of nights at Vang Vieng, travel overland to Vientiane. Or, when leaving the Plain of Jars you can travel to Nam Teun via an area of incredible limestone (karst) landscape. On arrival at Nam Teun you’ll be able to see how the local people have turned US B-52 bomber drop fuel tanks into “Bomb-boats”. If the weather permits you can take a short ride on one of the boats.
  • Now that you’re all-in with full immersion into Laos, head north for several days of hiking, heavy-duty ziplining, picnicking by the river, swimming and spending a night in a Tree House at Nam Kan National Park.
  • Next it’s time to head to southern Laos to spend a few days in the 4,000 Islands region. Visit a number of majestic and powerful waterfalls and the Boloven Plateau with its coffee and tea plantations, passing through an area of hill tribe villages. Take a boat ride on the Mekong River to an area near the Cambodian border to look for the rare and endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. Overnight cruises in the 4,000 Islands region are also available.

There’s even more to see and do in Laos than what’s listed above. But, you get the idea by now. Not only can Laos can be a quick side-trip when visiting other Southeast Asia countries, but it’s also a fantastic destination in and of itself.

Diane Embree
June 13, 2018