Nobody who takes a trip to Laos ever forgets it. One of the most rugged, unspoiled countries on earth, Laos is like a lost world that has breath-taking mountain vistas, colorful mountain tribes, and majestic Buddhist temples around every corner. And yet even with its isolation and challenging terrain, it has also inherited a rich, tragic history as the most bombed country in the world.
Whatever you’re looking for on your trip to Southeast Asia, you can find it in Laos – but where to start? Let’s take a stab at identifying the most beautiful places to visit in Laos…
1. Luang Prabang
A trip to Laos is simply not complete without a visit to one of the most well-preserved cities in all of Asia and a visit to the beautiful Luang Prabang is like stepping into another century. A treasure trove of old Buddhist temples and lush landscapes the city is elegantly nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers in the Northern Laos mountains.
The real draw – however – is the overall feel and the pace of life. Stroll through the town just soaking it in, as villagers transport goods on bicycles, or rise to the early morning bells and watch processions of saffron-robed monks collecting alms.
2. Si Phan Don
Otherwise known as 4000 islands, this huge riverine archipelago is located at the southernmost point of Laos before the Mekong River flows over the Khone Falls and into Cambodia. The watery terrain provides a great landscape to explore on four-wheelers, bicycles or kayaks as you take in a land seemingly cut off from civilization. Go off in search of the nearly extinct Irrawaddy Dolphins (some of the last pink dolphins in the world) or just hang around your bungalow, swinging in a hammock while enjoying the peace and quiet with a ‘Beer Laos’ in your hand.
3. Bokeo Nature Reserve
By far the best way to see Bokeo Nature Reserve is by participating in the increasingly popular Gibbon Experience, a conservation project meant to raise awareness and preserve this magnificent wilderness and the animals who reside there. The Gibbon Experience brings you right into the rainforest canopy where treehouses, footbridges, and zip-lines all come together to create an adventurous stay in the trees you’ll never forget.
4. Tham Kong Lo
Float through another world at Tham Kong Lo Cave, where the Nam Hin Bun River flows for 7 kilometers underground and the ceilings rise to over three hundred feet. Boats can be hired at the river villages in the Phu Hin Bun wilderness. They load you up and you tour the cave by flashlight, stopping from time to time to get out of the boats and walk around in the pitch darkness. Not for the faint-hearted.
5. Kuang Si Waterfall
A day trip from beautiful Luang Prabang, the Kuang Si Falls is one of the most stunning water displays in water-soaked Laos and indeed one of the most beautiful collections of waterfalls you’ll see anywhere on Earth. A large 50 metre fall drops from the mountainside and is a sight to behold. What really sets this fall apart are the series of smaller falls and pools that continue on downstream – ideal for swimming. A surreal and magical collection of waterholes that gleam a turquoise-blue colour – you have to see with your own eyes to appreciate.
6. Vang Vieng
Most people know of Vang Vieng as a backpacker destination where young twenty-somethings from all over the world congregate to drink happy shakes or float down the river on tubes in a drunken stupor. For the kind of traveler who avoids Khao San Road when slipping through Bangkok, the madhouse of Vang Vieng might be tempting to skip.
But as annoying as the crowds that populates this little riverside town can be, its backdrop is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Laos. The limestone karsts and amazing different shades of green that creep up to the water’s edge are the gateway into a wilderness well worth exploring.
Get a guesthouse at the edge of town, take a motorbike across the river, and cruise the dirt roads to find ample opportunities for caving and riding through quaint mountain villages. Vang Vieng is as much a heaven to the outdoorsman as the party-hard backpacker, so suck it up, combine the two, and enjoy it for what it’s worth.
7. Muang Ngoi Neua
Quite a bit more on the map than it was in the past, Muang Ngoi Nuea has embraced its place on the Southeast Asian traveling circuit. But it’s still well worth a look for its natural beauty and isolation. Muang Ngoi Nuea is an hour up the river north of Luang Prabang.
You won’t find much to do here besides hiking through the mountains or just laying back with a book, but if you’re looking to get away, you won’t find a more peaceful place to do it. There are no vehicles or even bicycles, and the only electricity is provided by generators for a short time after dark.
8. Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang is the most important monument in all of Laos and a source of great pride for the Lao people. A large golden stupa that presents a glistening sight from a distance as you make your way across Vientiane, the quiet capital city, Pha That Luang is steeped in history and is definitely worth a visit.
This large, golden stupa was first erected over the remains of an old Khmer temple during the 16th century but was later destroyed in the 1800s after the Siamese invaded and overtook the city. It was rebuilt by the French in 1900, but due to popular disapproval was redesigned and rebuilt again in 1931. Aside from the history, Pha That Luang is just a beautiful landmark. Take a quiet stroll within its surrounding walls, and be sure to check out the temples off to its left to study the colourful, intricate pictographs on the walls and ceilings.
9. The Mekong River
Too large to be a single destination, the Mekong River is nonetheless one of the country’s most beautiful and awe-inspiring attributes. It is the largest river in Southeast Asia, stretching for 2,703 miles, and cuts through some of the most rugged, untouched terrain in the world. While overlooking the muddy Mekong is a great way to enjoy a meal in town, many say it is best enjoyed by taking the boat trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang.
I highly recommend, however, renting a motorbike and driving off into the countryside and detouring to the river through a quaint country road. There’s nothing like the sight of the empty Mekong River cutting through the forest on the quiet off-beaten track to make you appreciate its raw power.
10. Vieng Xai
Want to set your eyes on a different kind of beauty? Catch a glimpse of the human spirit on a trip to Vieng Xai, where the Communists hid underground to escape bombs dropped by the US military during the Vietnam War. An elaborate hidden city built beneath the Earth, the caves were home to 23,000 people during the war and boasted military barracks, a movie theatre, a hospital, shops, and more. If this doesn’t strike you with wonder, I don’t know what will.
So those are some of the most amazing and beautiful sights to behold in Laos. But don’t restrict your trip to just these because there truly is something breath-taking to find around just about any corner. Be adventurous and get off the beaten track. Laos is a place of adventure – embrace it!
Written by Kimberly Juchnowski – After falling in love with Southeast Asia five years ago Kimberly Juchnowski knew was meant for life on the road. She has since relocated to Thailand and started her blog Tikikiki.com where you can read about anything from tips on where to go, to reasons why learning Thai is helpful if you plan on visiting the Land of Smiles.