Located in Southeast Asia, Laos is a landlocked country bordering Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) and China. In recent times, Laos has become a popular tourist destination and it is easy to see why, with friendly locals, a warm climate and a beautiful landscape, as well as its comparative cheapness.
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is relatively small compared to other Southeast Asian capitals, with only 500,000 citizens. It is a quiet city too, offering little to do other than visit the city’s temples and markets. Nightlife in Vientiane is the most vibrant in the country; however, if you are coming in from Bangkok, then you will likely be disappointed.
Luang Prabang in the north receives the largest number of tourist visitors per year.It offers tourists both a historical insight into the Laos country as well as some of the most beautiful scenery in the region. The Kuang Si Falls and the Pak Ou Caves are amongst the highlights for those who like to immerse themselves in beautiful natural surroundings. For the history lovers, the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum and the Wat Xieng Thong temple are must sees.
Vang Vieng is the other main town in Laos worth a mention; in recent years it has become a real haven for backpackers.Made famous for its ‘tubing’ down the river, it also has some wonderful scenery and it is easy to see why it has become a popular hang-out.
Hotels in Laos
Luang Prabang and Vientiane offer the most variety in terms of places to stay, catering to everyone from backpackers to high-end tourists.Luang Prabang, now a World Heritage site, is home to the most expensive hotels and restaurants in the country, with some hotels charging several hundred dollars per night. Hotels in Vang Vieng are all backpacker digs, with the most expensive accommodation still in the budget price bracket.
Wattay International Airport and Luang Prabang International Airport serve a number of Southeast Asian countries, so if you want to arrive from further afield then you will need to change planes at one of the regional hubs. You can also take the boat along the Mekhong River from China, Thailand, Burma or Vietnam. You can also access Laos by road from Thailand, crossing over from Nong Khai. Once in Laos, buses connect all the major cities and are the easiest mode of transport.
Activities when traveling to Laos
If your children are into outdoor activities or ancient ruins, they will find plenty of fun excursions to go on in Laos. Elephant rides, rafting trips, golden temples, exotic wildlife, and some of the friendliest people on earth make Laos a welcoming place for youngsters. Most establishments are child-friendly, and you will find plenty of locals keen to play with your kids.
Laos is blessed with some of Asia’s nicest rivers, and many of them are mellow enough to support the thriving business of taking tourists on short boat rides. Luang Prabang is perhaps the best base for taking one or more of these fun and fascinating river trips along the mighty Mekong or one of the smaller rivers in the north. Kids enjoy these boating adventures as much as adults.
The northern town of Vang Vieng is also one of the best spots in Laos to do some easy cave exploration. The limestone cliffs which provide the dramatic scenery of this tiny town are riddled with caves, a few of which have been developed into tourist spots where it’s safe to explore with a torch. For those kids who aren’t afraid of the dark, exploring Vang Vieng’s caves can be an exciting adventure.
There aren’t many countries where you can readily find elephants waiting to carry you up and down slopes and into the jungle. Don’t miss this once in a lifetime chance to put the kids atop one of these gentle giants. The area around Luang Prabang, Muang Sing and Pakse are all ideal places to sign up for a ride.
Near the Mekong River town of Huay Say is this impressive eco-conscious gibbon preserve. The ambitious folks who created this resort/wildlife preserve have built treetop viewing platforms where kids can see these amazing monkeys up close in a thrilling environment. Tree house-style bungalows provide the accommodation, adding to the unique experience.
Kuang Si Waterfall
If you are staying in Luang Prabang, one of the best day excursions is a trip to the most beautiful waterfall in Laos. Located about 30 minutes from town by tuk-tuk or minivan, the clean and clear falls drop into a series of deep pools where people come to swim and jump into the water.
One of the best towns for entertaining the kids at is Vang Vieng because this is where some of Laos’ best tubing is offered. This mellow town surrounded by limestone cliffs has the equally mellow Nam Song River running right through it. Floating in an inflatable tire from one point to another is the best way to stay cool during the hot months.
Wat Phu Temple
For the ultimate Indiana Jones experience, take the kids down south to Champasak, where the venerable Wat Phu is located. This massive complex dates back to the Angkor era and is so large it can take a couple of days to see it all. The ruined temples are amazing and the feeling timeless.
Kids will have a great time running rampant on these backwater islands, swimming in the Mekong, taking boat rides around the deserted islands and playing with the local kids. This is also the only place in Laos where you can view endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins.
Cultural Activities Luang Prabang
The religious and cultural center of Laos is the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. Nestled at the junction of the Khan and Mekong rivers, this charming town is one of Southeast Asia’s most magical places. Buddhist temples are everywhere, and there is an active novice monk community rivaling anything in the region. Timeless and full of sights, this ancient capital of northern Laos should not be missed.
Pak Ou Caves
If you make the trip to Luang Prabang, don’t miss catching the hour-long boat ride on the Mekong to these famous Buddhist caves, which rise dramatically out of the river. Over hundreds of years, Buddhists have come to Tham Ting and Tham Phun to place damaged images of the Buddha deep within the caves. It’s one of the more popular excursions in the north and well worth the half-day excursion.
Royal Palace Museum
Originally a royal palace until the Pathet Lao took control of Laos in 1975, this stately building in the capital Vientiane has a small but interesting collection of Buddhist relics, royal possessions and other pieces of Laos history. Phone: +856 71 212470.
Si Phan Don (4000 Islands)
Also known as the 4000 Islands, this cluster of tiny islands in the middle of the Mekong marks the southern borders of Laos. Three of the islands have basic tourist services like bungalows but are wonderfully lacking in vehicles, electricity and other modern comforts. Laos is a relaxed country, and Si Phan Don is no exception.
The capital of Laos is one of the sleepiest and most relaxed cities you’ll find anywhere in the world. Situated along the banks of the Mekong River in the central part of the country, the capital is worth a couple of days of exploration. The crumbling French colonial mansions and ancient Buddhist temples are highlights of the quiet capital.
In the south of Laos along the banks of the Mekong in this UNESCO World Heritage site, which is the most impressive ancient temple complex in the country. Wat Phu was built by the Khmer Hindus who later established Angkor Wat in the 9th century. Today it is a stunning and romantic place, filled with crumbling ruins to explore and views all the way to Thailand.
One of the country’s most venerable Buddhist temples was constructed in 1512 to house the famous Pra Bang Buddha, a huge golden image standing six meters tall. The image rested here for nearly 400 years. If you visit Luang Prabang, don’t miss checking out this unique and important temple.
Dining & Shopping
Lao cuisine resembles the food of neighboring countries, with Indochinese presentation and Thai components occasionally overlapped by French influences. Sticky rice is the nation’s staple, closely followed by noodle soup served with shredded beef or pork, known as pho. Other traditional Lao favorites include laap, minced meat or fish tossed with lime juice and herbs, and tam maal hung, spicy papaya salad. As with most dishes, sticky rice is always served with these two favorites.
Much of the cuisine here is very spicy, using liberal amounts of local herbs, vegetables, and spices to create some truly unique dishes not found in other countries. Every town has a fresh food market, which is the best place to sample some of the more traditional Lao snacks and foods. Western restaurants can be found in the largest cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and offer fairly basic menu items with the exception of some exclusive French restaurants.
The French certainly left their mark on the nation’s cuisine during their colonial rule. Fresh baguettes appear daily in even the most remote towns, and French restaurants of high quality can be found in Luang Prabang and the capital.
Outside of the main towns, you’ll have to settle for the simplest of Lao meals, as the locals are limited by what they can grow, catch or collect in neighboring jungles.
To wash the spicy food down, there is Beer Laos, produced by a state-run brewery which arguably makes the tastiest brew in Southeast Asia. For the more adventurous drinkers, check out the locally-crafted rice whiskey called lao-lao.
Shopping in Laos offers more variety than the dining options. Many villages specialize in a particular craft, and a visit to one of these rustic hamlets is an interesting and rewarding cultural experience. The silk weaving in Laos is considered by many to be the finest in Asia, despite what the Thais and Chinese contend. Cotton and hemp textiles are also good buys. Pottery, basketry, wood carvings, soapstone boxes, and a wide variety of art make up the bulk of handicrafts readily found in every region of the country.
The northern parts of Laos offer some of the best shopping options, with hundreds of small ethnic villages producing different products. Many of these artisans converge on Luang Prabang every evening for the quaint night market. Each day at 17:00 or so, the main road through the town is closed to traffic and hundreds of individual vendors set up mats on the pavement selling a bewildering variety of beautiful pieces of art alongside Beer Laos t-shirts and other souvenirs. Another great place to shop is Vientiane’s Morning Market, which bursts into life every day at dawn.
There are a growing number of boutique shops in Luang Prabang and Vientiane, where visitors can find the same products as in the markets, but at a higher quality and cost. The prices are staggeringly cheap, even for a beautiful hand-woven silk scarf or sarong. Bartering is an acceptable part of the social scene, but most visitors will find the asking prices an incredible deal. Nearly every shop and restaurant in the country accepts Lao kip, Thai baht and US dollars, but kip will serve you best in remote towns and for small purchases.
Laos has the potential to become one of Asia’s greatest outdoor recreation destinations, thanks to an endless sweep of mountains and rivers which flow through every valley. From kayaking and rafting to trekking and rock climbing, there are all kinds of things to do if you’re into adventure tourism. Outfitters are opening up the hinterlands for single and multi-day excursions, with Luang Prabang being a great place to base yourself.
Even though there aren’t a million elephants left in Laos, these amazing pachyderms are still used in the jungles for logging. The growing tourism niche of elephant rides helps save these enslaved elephants from grueling work and allows visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Luang Prabang, Pakse, and the Bolaven Plateau are all big areas for riding an elephant.
Laos has more rivers than its neighbors, and most of them are wonderfully clean and natural, passing through the untouched jungle and remote villages. Several outdoor outfitters run rafting and kayaking trips along the more exciting rivers, especially in the north. The Nam Ha, Nam Ou and Nam Than Rivers are all popular places to raft, offering everything from white water thrills to gentle cruises through the backcountry.
A great way to beat the heat is to make a trip out to one of the country’s many waterfalls, which often have excellent swimming pools at the bottom. If you are in the north around Luang Prabang, don’t miss a visit to the turquoise waters of Kuang Si, where locals and foreigners alike indulge in the idyllic pools. In the south, the waterfalls at Tad Lo are perfect for a swim or just sitting in the shallow pools watching the kids splash around.
The trekking options in Laos are excellent, and trekking can be arranged in nearly every part of the country. The northern regions are the most popular for treks because of the mountains and number of remote ethnic hill tribes which live in them. Typical treks involve walking along single-track trails through the jungle to natural highlights or isolated villages. Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha and Muang Sing are the three main hubs for arranging a trek. In the south, most of the action is organised out of Pakse.