Great Things to Do in Laos
In previous decades, travel to Laos was just for the truly intrepid and truly adventurous. Today, the country is much more accessible and visitor friendly. With dense, rich jungles, friendly locals, and plenty to do and see—especially for those looking to get off the beaten path—Laos is a great option for any traveler.
Today, many of the people who choose Laos for their vacations are backpackers. The dirt roads, mountains, jungles, and welcoming plains all seem to be designed specifically for backpackers. Many come from China or Vietnam, crossing the border into this country. I crossed from the North of Thailand, Chiang Mai region after visiting the white temple. It was a trip via slow boat to Luang Prabang with one overnight stay during the trip. Once inside the country, the options are almost endless.
Explore the City of Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang was once the capital of Laos, and though it has since been moved to Vientiane, it is still home to some of the most beautiful and culturally significant sites in the country.
A river cuts through the center of the city and it is bordered by rolling hills and jungle that sweeps down the roads and also overtakes the city. From the hilltops, you can look down and see the red roofs, golden temples, and city streets just barely through the canopy of trees.
It is one of Laos’s most modern cities, but it hasn’t lost its charm. This is a great place for anyone who is new to the country to start, not just because it has plenty of activities to offer, but also because it is a great introduction to Lao culture, architecture, and people.
French Colonial Style City
The city itself has plenty to offer. If you only had a few days in Laos, you might want to make this the center of your adventure. It’s an old colonial style city with a great atmosphere, where you can find sites like Haw Kham, Phou Si, Vat Xieng Toung, and Kuang Si.
Haw Kham, for those who are new to the country, should be your first stop. Under previous governments, this was the royal palace. Today, it is a museum that details Laos’s history. It is the perfect place to start learning about the country and to get an introduction to the truly unique and beautiful Laotian architecture.
This is a hill in the middle of the city which, when climbed, gives you a great view of the entire city and the surrounding area. You’ll be able to spot Vat Xieng Toung out from the trees and houses.
Wat Xieng Toung
Wat Xieng Toung is one of the oldest monasteries in the country and one of the most beautiful in the world. It is gilded and has a very unique construction. As with all Buddhist monasteries, when you visit Vat Xieng Toung (also called Wat Xieng Thong), in order to be allowed inside, your knees and shoulders must be covered and you will be asked to remove your shoes.
Markets & Street Food
Anyone who has visited this city will tell you that it is the most touristy and commercial of all places in Laos. That doesn’t make it not worth your time, even if you are trying to avoid the very touristy places in the country. Look for night markets and street markets if you want to pick up a unique souvenir from your time in the country, and take a walk around to get a look at the temples that dot the streets and communities. There’s street food, shopping, and great people—don’t miss it. It’s also close to many of Laos’s other attractions, so if you’re looking for a home base for your adventure, this is probably a good one.
Trek Into the Laotian Forest
When you think of trekking through the jungle, you might think you need a machete and that you’ll be forging wild rivers and fighting of tigers. While you won’t have to cut your own path or face vicious beasts, you’ll still get the experience of trekking through a beautiful dense, rich jungle. Laos gives you the opportunity to go on a multi-day trek through the forest. While you will occasionally run into villages and locals, you will truly get to be alone with nature, experiencing it in all of its majesty.
The abundance of jungle in this country is amazing, especially for visitors who come from very modernized countries. Instead of there being city and then country, the jungle is often integrated into the cities. It almost swallows them up, as if it simply cannot be beaten back long enough to build a city completely clear of trees. The green that surrounds you is truly amazing.
If you are going to trek into the jungle, it’s very important that you take a map or hire a guide. The jungle is dense and for someone who is not familiar with it, it is easy to get turned around. Getting lost in a city is stressful—getting lost in the forest can be dangerous. While there are clearly defined and frequented trails, you’ll probably still want to keep a map with you so you know where you are and how to get back to a major city, should you so need.
Trekking can be fun—but make sure that you are properly prepared for the adventure. The right equipment, the right map (long treks with guides), and the right attitude can make a world of difference.
As you plan your trek through the jungle, make sure to note some of the waterfalls along the route. Laos has a stunning number of incredible, picturesque waterfalls.
Visit 4000 Islands
4000 Islands, or Si Phan Don, is a spot in the Mekong River where a waterfall cuts an intricate path through a series of islands. The steps of the waterfalls are truly amazing and you can even spot a few trees and shrubs growing on some of the larger steps, despite the coursing water around them. While the area is very beautiful, most people come here because, especially when compared to the large cities, the archipelago offers a wide variety of very inexpensive accommodations and if you take a motorbike, you can see the entire island area very quickly.
Another draw of the area is the markets and street food. Like in most of Southeastern Asia, some of the best food that the country has to offer is sold on the street, near markets that are brimming with art and crafts and other unique and beautiful items. If you are looking for gifts to take back to people at home, you’ll find plenty of great options in the markets at 4000 islands, and they’ll be cheaper than what you’ll find at Luang Prabang.
The dark stone caves that are nestled into the hillsides are often shrouded by jungle vines and bushes, but if you know where they are (and you can probably ask a local to tell you or even show you the way), going spelunking is a great way to get out of the heat and to do something that is even more off the beaten path.
As with any off-the-beaten-path adventure, take the necessary precautions before just diving in with both feet. Tell someone where you’re going and make sure that you pay attention to the path and have enough water and snacks so that you stay hydrated and energized throughout the adventure.
The best caves in the city are in the Phu Hin Bun National park, and they’re also the easiest to get to. These huge caves were once filled with water, but today the level of water has lowered to the point that you can take a kayak out to explore them. There are some amazing rock formations, and even the entrance to the cave is a spectacular site. There’s also some local hiking in the area if you want to get up and about after boating into the cave.
Another cave that you shouldn’t miss, especially on your first trip to Laos, are the Buddha or Pak Ou caves. Nestled along the Mekong River and only accessible by boat (that doesn’t mean they’re inaccessible—it just means you’ll need to rent an inexpensive boat), you’ll be wowed by the white steps and the vast array of Buddha statues. Like most religious sites in Laos, showing proper respect and wearing the appropriate clothing is appreciated.
You'll also find some caves in Nong Khiaw. It's a nice laidback region with some nice places to visit and excellent to catch up on some reading.
Cool Off in the Waterfalls of Laos
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Laos has the most beautiful waterfalls in the world. There’s something about the natural majesty of the falls, the dark stone, and the foliage that surroundings them that makes them an almost haunting experience. There are simply too many beautiful waterfalls to count or to mention here. As the local visitor center or a local about what waterfalls are close to you and you’re sure to be directed to an incredible sight.
Visit the Plain of Jars, Laos
The Plain of Jars is a unique experience, with nothing like it anywhere else in the country and probably in the world. These giant stone jars are prehistoric in origin and are one of the most impressive archaeological locations in the country. There are several clusters, across a wide, flat plain, and were believed to be used in burial ceremonies of ancient inhabitants, perhaps to leave gifts of food or clothes for the dead.
What exactly their purpose was and what exactly was done with them is not known, but it is clear, just from their size and the sheer number of them, that they were quiet important. The place has a reverent atmosphere and the size of the plains usually require an entire day to explore.
Laos is truly a beautiful country with lots to offer to those who are adventurous enough to visit it. The friendly culture, dense jungles, beautiful waterfalls, and unique historical sites are all worth a trip. Because this country is still developing, prices for accommodations like hostels and food are cheap and there are lots of other adventurous travelers on the road you can connect with!
What to Know About Crossing Into Laos
Be wary if you are crossing the border into Laos, as in most countries, the border patrol officials will often ask for bribes outright. They call them “stamp fees,” but they are unofficial and the fees themselves often go right into the official’s pocket. In my experience, there are two ways to get around this fee. First of all, you can ask for a receipt. If you say that you need a receipt to show your employer (or something similar), you may find the fee to be magically waived. Also, try to have dollars and the local currency in small bills. People often can't return on larger bills at very inconvenient times.
The other way to avoid this fee is to say that you don’t have any cash on you. This probably works only half the time. Some officials will let you through. Others will tell you that if you can’t pay the fee, you won’t be allowed into Laos. Either way, the fee is usually a very small sum and while you ultimately might not feel great about paying a bribe to get past the Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Chinese officials, once you are in the country, you’ll be grateful that you made it through.
Don’t let this color your view of the country. Every country has its corruption and it is particularly prevalent at the borders, where there is little regulation and where you can either pay or stay in the country, leaving the traveler few options, and only one that allows them to cross. Laos itself is universally regarded as one of the friendliest and safest places and getting across the border is just part of the adventure!
© 2016 Sam Shepards