If you have at least one week to explore Laos, you should make sure to cover 3 main areas:
Once we completed our tour of Siem Reap, we flew into Laos on a late evening flight into Pakse airport. To be frank, we were not super impressed by the Pakse city area. It seemed to be a hub for Chinese and Vietnamese businessmen but without much to offer for tourists. We only stayed one night in Pakse and woke up early to begin our tour of the agricultural region of Champasak.
We spent 3 days exploring Champasak and the south of Laos including Khong Island, Khone Island, Ban Nakasang, Done Daeng, Wat Phu (Vat Phou), and the province of Salavan. Needless to say, we saw it ALL and we really enjoyed this change of pace from Cambodia and Vietnam. The South of Laos consists of farms, villages, islands and it’s definitely much more mellow and low key.
On the first day, we sailed to 2 islands and visited 2 waterfalls: Liphi Waterfall and Khone Phapheng Falls. Neither of the waterfalls knocked our socks off, though they are the nicest we’ve seen so far in southeast Asia. Our favorite part of the day was renting bicycles and cycling around Khong Island (Don Khong) with our tour guide, who is a local in the area. It was great to see how the locals live and to enjoy the beautiful weather. Of course, we also loved the local Lao cuisine and discovering how Lao farmers and villagers live.
We had the opportunity to stay on Done Daeng island for 2 nights, at La Folie Lodge. It was way out in the middle of nowhere along the Mekong River; but, we really enjoyed our time there. To get there, we drove 1.5 hours by car, then took a 25 minute boat ride and a 10 minute tractor ride just to reach the lodge. Talk about rustic and remote! The lodge features 28 guest cabins, a friendly staff and excellent food! But the best thing about La Folie lodge is where its located. Done Daeng island is a true gem and La Folie offers free bicycles so that you can explore the island freely.
On day 2, we started our day with a boat ride across the Mekong River, to the pre-Ankgorian ruins of Wat Phu (Vat Phou), which is a glorious Khmer temple. The grounds are massive and it takes about 2 hours to complete the tour from top to bottom. The temple has been partially restored but not to the degree of the temples in Ankgor Wat Cambodia. What is so beautiful and unique about Wat Phu is its position nestled within the mountain. The tour includes a climb up the mountain (about 100 steps) and many places to admire the ancient stupas, sculptures and natural surrounding beauty. Don’t forget to wear a hat, comfortable shoes and bring plenty of water because the weather is hot and the tour is a bit long. We enjoyed learning about the history of the Khmer people and how many people would go on pilgrimage every year just to pray at the Wat Phu temple. As far as temples go, it’s a memorable one due to it’s position in and on the mountain. From the top of the stairs, you can see lovely views of the countryside and experience the breeze and the holy mountain spring water.
In the afternoon, we returned to Done Daeng island and took bicycles out for a 10km ride around the island. We followed the sandy path around the island, which is pretty well shaded by trees. Along the way, we stopped to say hello to villagers and pedaled by numerous farms, riding alongside cow, buffalo, chickens, roosters, pigs, dogs and cats. The ride took about 2 hours and gave us a real feel for life in the 5 villages on the island. It’s a slow-paced lifestyle with farming at its core and it was so charming. Our time in Champasak made us realize how undeveloped the south of Loas really is, especially as compared to Cambodia and Vietnam. It’s purely a farming culture with core crops being rice, peanuts and coffee. You must try all 3 while in Laos, as you won’t be disappointed! Definitely try the Mekong Lap fish with sticky rice. As the locals would say, it’s YumYum!
On our 3rd and final day in Champasak, we traveled to the Salavan Province via Tateng Village. We stopped 10 different times along the way to check out coffee farms and to taste different coffee varietals. We stopped in a number of villages, each of which specializes in particular products. First, we saw a basket-weaving village. Then, we stopped in a textiles village and finally we learned how they make knives and axes in a blacksmith village. It was very eye-opening to see how these villagers make a living and to get a better understanding of their crafts. As you can imagine, the villagers are quite poor for the most part; but, seem to live a simple and content lifestyle.
We also had the opportunity to visit the Tad Lo lodge for an AMAZING lunch and view of the Tad Hang waterfalls which lead to the Bolaven Plateau. You can see the locals swimming and bathing in the water or even join them yourself. They offer hiking as well. It’s a great area for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.
Our last and most spectacular stop of the day was at Tad Fane waterfall which sit at an elevation of 1,300 meters above sea level. Tad Fane falls thunder over 100 meters down a steep cliff into a gorge with lush rainforest all around. For those thrill seekers, you can even zipline across the gorge.
From Pakse airport in South Laos, we flew 1 hour to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We were not overly impressed with what the city has to offer. Some of the main sights are the Pha That Luang, Patuxai and Wat Si Saket. Pha That Luang is a huge historic gold stupa. Patuxai is a replica of the Arc Du Triumphe in Paris and was built in the mid 1900s to honor those who fought for independence from France. And finally, Wat Si Saket is a temple with thousands of Buddha figurines. Honestly, none of it was super amazing.
By far, the coolest, most interesting place we visited is the Buddha Park, also known as Xieng Khuan. It is a sculpture park with over 200 outdoor religious statues including an enormous reclining Buddha. The most striking sculpture looks like a giant pumpkin with 3 floors, each floor symbolizing Hell, Earth and Heaven. A narrow staircase leads to the top, where you can see a gorgeous view of the park. Each and every sculpture has a meaning and story; so, if you are interested in Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, hire a guide to explain the significance of the sculptures.
Bottom line, if you are going to visit Vientiane, the best attraction is the Buddha Park. Otherwise, it’s all a little bit lack luster. After one full day in Vientiane, we were ready to move on.
If you can only visit 1 area of Laos, we highly recommend the NORTHERN part. don't miss a chance to spend 2-3 days in Vang Vieng and 3-4 days in Luang Prabang. Here are some highlights from our experience!
From Vientiane, it’s a 3.5 hour drive, due North to the lovely town of Vang Vieng located on the Nam Song River. On the way, we stopped at an area known for its natural salt springs and we learned how the locals make cooking salt. There are a few food markets along the way as well which are fun for a quick stop to see the local fares which include water buffalo jerky, water buffalo skin, a variety of sun dried fish, and river weed! If you are an adventurous foodie, these items are definitely worth a try!
Upon arrival in Vang Vieng, we realized that the Nam Song River is the main attraction. You can kayak or go tubing/floating down the river for 3-4 hours or take a 25 minute speed boat ride to see the entire town. The area has traditionally been known as a party town for backpackers. There are western tourists everywhere and it is definitely a fun and safe place to walk around, explore, eat and drink!
We enjoyed the bars and restaurants lining the river where you sit on pillows at candlelit tables and drink cheap Beer Laos with other tourists from all over the world. Overall, the value for the money is VERY good in Laos and especially in backpacker areas. The currency in Laos is called KIP and the conversion is about 8,000 KIP for $1 USD.
We stayed at a small 4-star hotel called Riverside Boutique Hotel right alongside the river. It had a nice view of the surrounding town and river and it is a great place to spend a relaxing, cozy vacation. But, if you want something a little more reasonably priced, most tourists stay in local guest houses for $10-30 per night.
The town itself is an attraction and offers a lot of bars, restaurants, shops and markets. We found 2 nights was plenty of time to see it all; so, we decided to head to Luang Prabang, which is 4.5 hours driving North from Vang Vieng.
On the way, just a short stop outside of town, we toured Tham Poukham, which is a cave with a blue-green lagoon and a reclining Buddha statue. We also stopped at Tham Nam Cave and Tham Xang Cave, which has a stalactite resembling an elephant inside. Tham Xang Cave requires a steep hike up mountain stairs and I was nervous climbing down in flip flops as the stones were quite slippery. I recommend wearing sneakers for the hike up to this cave, especially if you want to wander around inside too.
Don’t be too excited about the “blue lagoon” either. It is such an overrated tourist attraction. We found it to be more like a wild rivers swim park than a “blue lagoon.” It is extremely crowded and only really appealing for families with kids. If you like the idea of zip-lining, they offer that too. You only really need 1 or 2 hours to see the caves and experience the blue lagoon before you hit the road and head to Luang Prabang!
The drive from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was long and mountainous. After 5 hours on the road, we were so happy to check in at the 5-star Luang Prabang View Hotel which was perfection. The rooms are like mini apartments with balconies and a lot of privacy. The hotel is perched on a hill top with beautiful sunrise and moonrise views. The infinity pool is a nice touch as well.
I think it’s important to note that due to the ancient and historical nature of this town, the entire city of Luang Prabang is named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are over 30 temples in this town so you can expect to see a lot of loyal Buddhists as well as a lot of monks.
At 6am each morning, locals and tourists can participate in the alms giving ritual on main street. In order to partake, you must bring sticky rice, cookies, money, or food items for the monks. Locals line up, barefooted on the sidewalks and kneel down with their offerings ready. As the monks walk by, you drop your offerings into their alms bowls. This is how the monks are fed, by the donations of their community members. At the end of the alms giving ritual, the monks say a prayer and bless those who have contributed that day. It was quite moving for us and something unforgettable to experience. It was certainly worth the 4:30am wake up call.
And of course, after the sun comes up, it’s the perfect time to visit the Morning Market filled with home grown food and traditional Lao dishes from river weed and fried frog to water buffalo jerky and cashews. The morning market is where all the locals shop for their groceries. It’s hustling and bustling and a fun experience for any tourist.
After we walked the morning market, we commenced the Luang Prabang City tour which is done on foot. As I mentioned previously, there are a lot of temples here but they are easily covered in a couple of hours along with the Royal Palace Museum (home to the final king of Luang Prabang). The main temples are Wat Sene and Wat Xieng Thong. Wat Sene is a Buddhist temple built in 1718 from 100,000+ stones pulled from the Mekong River. Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most important Lao monasteries and has over twenty structures on the grounds including shrines, pavilions, gardens and monk residences.
After the city tour, we drove the 1 hour drive to the Kuang Si Waterfalls which are the most beautiful and glorious falls we’ve seen. You can swim in 2 different areas too! On the way, you visit the Hmung village to see how these indigenous people live and have a chance to purchase their textile handicrafts. While at Kuang Si Waterfalls, we recommend going off the beaten bath and braving a hike up the mountain. Unfortunately, we were with a guide and were on a schedule so we didn’t have the opportunity to do this; however, our friends went off on their own and had an amazing experience. You can actually walk for 1.5 miles up a mountain trail and swim in completely private, natural pools and lagoons. Plus, if you are interested in snapping an amazing photo, this is definitely the spot! We wish we had been able to explore the surrounding area to discover some of the rich natural beauty that is not swarming with tourists.
After our swim in the falls, we weren’t quite ready to head back to town. Luckily, we had an amazing guide who invited us to a local birthday party on a farm. So, we accepted his kind invitation and went to hung out with a group of wonderful people Lao-style. They even showed us how they cook chicken lemongrass soup from scratch…literally. We chased a chicken down and made it for dinner. Talk about organic! It was a great time and an unforgettable experience.
At night, Luang Prabang has a robust night market which is great for finding souvenirs, clothing and street food. You can easily get around by tuk tuk for very cheap. There are a lot of young back packers and hippies in Luang Prabang which makes it a fun, tourist-friendly town. With only 60k residents in the city, it’s quaint, safe and easy to navigate.
Definitely try out a river view bar at night. There are a lot of westernized yet Lao-style places that are cozy, lively and welcoming for westerners. Plenty of western food is available as well!
The 2nd day, we explored a beautiful section of the Mekong river on a large and comfy river boat. The 2-hour ride was breathtaking with calm, clear waters, mountains and wildlife all around. We headed to the Pak Ou Cave which is home to 4,000 buddha statues. It was a spiritual experience walking around in the cave where Lao people have been worshiping since the 16th century.
We also had the BEST lunch in Laos at a riverside restaurant near the Pak Ou Cave called Nap Tip. If you have the opportunity to go, the food is just as amazing as the view. When we were back on land, we also enjoyed drinks at the Mekong View Restaurant, famous for hosting president Obama several years ago. It has a great view and great food too!
After a week in Laos, Mike and I started to notice that we were putting on the pounds and we were confused because we didn’t feel like we were going crazy on the food and drinks. We asked a few locals and they enlightened us as to why we were growing Buddha bellies. It turns out, the beer in Lao and SE Asia is made from rice so don’t be surprised if you start to grow a BeerLao belly pretty quickly!! And don’t get too attached to the sticky rice either. It’s called STICKY RICE for a reason…it sticks to your bones!
Overall, when planning a trip to Lao, you don’t want to miss the chance to see Luang Prabang. This town has so much history, charm and culture that it really made a lasting impression on us. We loved the Lao people, the food and our entire experience there. And what is more, if you enjoy nature, it is a wonderful place to experience mountains, hiking, kayaking and waterfall hunting! We found that Lao in general is extremely underrated as it was one of our favorite places in South East Asia. And don’t worry that it’s a land-locked country because there are so many rivers and so much immense natural beauty to take in.
Speed Boat ride in Vang Vieng enjoying the gorgeous scenery and watching the backpackers as they tube down the river! GOOD TIMES!
Kuang Si Waterfall near Luang Prabang. Such a gorgeous place with areas for swimming too.