Traveling to Laos is like stepping out of time itself, into a place where even the capital city maintains a sleepy, rural vibe, and everything from the rice fields to the waterfalls looks like a scene from an exotic movie. It’s a destination that is truly off the beaten path, and travelers will love what they find in Laos.
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The Mekong River is home to the 4,000 Islands, also called the Si Phan Don, which vary in size from that of a large town to being no bigger than an impressively sized boulder. The islands of Don Dhet and Don Khong, at the southern end of the archipelago near the border of Cambodia, are two of the most popular islands for visitors and contain several bars and restaurants. The waters of the Mekong River are the habitat of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, which is easily identified by its bulging head and can often be spotted around the 4,000 Islands. Some of the islands in this archipelago are completely uninhabited and have been untouched by humans for decades.
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Bokeo is the smallest province in Laos and borders both Thailand and Myanmar. It is a very diverse but sparsely populated province, and is well known for its position in the gold and gem mining industry. Visitors to Bokeo can stay in Huay Xai, the capital city of the province, where they will find old temples and quaint villages, but Bokeo also offers a fantastic peek at some stunning natural rainforests, which visitors can see from the unique treehouses located above the green canopies. From here, tourists can spend a night in the wilderness, zipline through the trees, or walk the swinging rope bridges that connect the houses.
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The Bolaven Plateau is a beautiful part of Laos, with an elevation of over 3,300 feet above sea level. Located in southern Laos, the Bolaven Plateau has a very mild climate compared to the rest of the country and is a center for agriculture, with lots of large farms that produce tea and coffee, two of Laos’ largest exports. The Bolaven Plateau is also home to some stunning nature, including some of the most magnificent waterfalls in Laos. Tad Fane marks the convergence of two rivers with a spectacular drop of almost 400 feet and is one of the most dramatic and beautiful waterfalls in southeast Asia.
4.Kuang Si Waterfalls
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The Kuang Si Falls are a popular destination for tourists visiting nearby Luang Prabang, which is about 20 miles north of the jungle where this beautiful waterfall complex is located. A rental car or a local guide can bring visitors to the falls, which cascade down three tiers of rocks and small pools before once again becoming part of the jungle river below. Near the bottom of the falls, the pools become larger and are a great spot for a swim or just for dipping the feet as a relief from the oppressive jungle heat.
5.Lao National Museum
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The Lao National Museum in Vientiane is located within an old French colonial building that is as much part of history as the exhibits inside it. Visitors will find a wide and varied collection of artifacts from Laos throughout history, from Khmer sculptures to dinosaur bones that have been found within the region. The ground floor is dedicated to more ancient items and contains an eclectic mix, whereas the upper floor is more detailed, focused on the French colonial period, the presence of American troops during the Vietnam War, and the onset of revolution and communism in the 20th century.
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Luang-Prabang has a history of human civilization dating back thousands of years, and this small town, surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, and rivers, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the most popular destination in the city for tourists, and compared to the rest of the country, Luang-Prabang is very affluent and thriving. Until the 16th century, Luang-Prabang was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lan Xang. The ancient temples, the French architecture, and the stunning beauty of the surrounding nature mark Luang-Prabang as one of the premier destinations for experiencing and learning about Laotian culture and history.
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Rising over 300 feet above the town of Luang-Prabang, Mount Phou Si is a large hill that creates a distinctive part of the skyline in the center of this city. Reaching the top is a matter of climbing 355 steps, but they are gentle enough that this journey can be undertaken by anyone who is reasonably fit, or willing to take lots of breaks. At the top, visitors will be greeted by a stunning 360-degree view of Luang-Prabang and the surrounding natural countryside, especially at sunrise or sunset. Several vendors at the top sell flowers and caged birds, and a legend tells that releasing a bird at the top of the hill will bring good luck and happiness.
8.Organic Silk Farm
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The Xieng Khouang province has been famous for the creation of fine Laotian silk for centuries. Mulberries Organic Silk Farm is a nonprofit fair trade company that works hard to preserve the disappearing art of traditional Laotian silk weaving, while creating jobs and income for local families in the area. Visitors to the farm can take a tour to learn all about the organic mulberry trees, the leaves of which are then used as food for silkworms. Spinning, reeling, dyeing, and weaving are all done on the farm property and by villagers in their own homes, and the final results are some truly beautiful silks, dyed with natural ingredients like indigo and jackfruit, which are sold in the farm’s gift shop.
9.Pak Ou Caves
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The Mekong River is one of the longest rivers in the world, and it runs through Laos surrounded by tall limestone cliffs. Near the ancient town of Luang-Prabang, the Pak Ou Caves are accessible by a short ferry ride. Visitors to the caves will find a long white staircase that zigzags from the water’s edge into the cavern, and inside, a collection of thousands of Buddha statues. The statues come in all different sizes and all different conditions, some with missing hands or facial features, some made of stone and others made of various metals. The result is an eerie and fascinating collection of figures. A visit to the Pak Ou Caves can be easily combined with a visit to the Lao Lao whiskey village, and several ferries will take visitors to both destinations.
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Located in southern Laos, at the point of convergence of the Mekong and Xe Don rivers, the city of Pakse is the capital of the Champasak province and contains lots of beautiful French colonial architecture. Visitors to Pakse can visit several lavish Buddhist temples and explore the history of the region at the Champasak Historical Heritage Museum, where they will find examples of jewelry, musical instruments, clothing, and other pieces of Laotian cultural history. Mount Phou Asa, which rises near the city, provides beautiful sights of the surrounding valleys and is accessible by way of an elephant ride.
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In the center of the capital city of Vientiane, along the road to the Presidential Palace, the Patuxai Monument memorializes the lives of those who died in Laotian wars. The word Patuxai means “victory gate”, and the monument built to commemorate those victories is a large stone arch that was built during the 1960s. It’s very reminiscent of the famous French Arc de Triomphe, but with a Laotian touch, such as the images and depictions of Hindu gods on the ceiling. Visitors to the Patuxai Monument can climb seven flights of stairs to reach the flowers at the top, where an observation deck provides a lovely view of the capital city of Laos.
12.Pha That Luang
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The vast golden stupa of Pha That Luang as we see it today was built in 1566, but it has been an established center of the Buddhist religion for much longer, with some historians dating it back to the 3rd century. The beautiful temple, with its pointed towers that are literally covered in gold, is an iconic symbol of the city of Vientiane. The outdoor area of the stupa, which contains gardens, statues, and monuments, is free to explore. The three levels of the stupa are very symbolic, and respectively represent the underworld, the 30 perfections of the Buddhist religion, and the kingdom of heaven, with each level being much narrower than the one prior.
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13.Plain of Jars
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On the plains of the Xiangkhoang Plateau there are thousands of huge round stones with hollowed out centers. According to local legend, these jars were created by an ancient giant named Khun Cheung, who brewed an enormous amount of rice wine in the jars to celebrate his victory in a long and bloody battle. Historians believe the jars were used as far back as 2,000 years ago, and although their exact use is unknown, speculative understanding guesses them to have been used for food storage, rainwater collection, or maybe even as funerary urns. Whatever they were for, the Plain of Jars is a truly fascinating site.
14.Riverside Night Market
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The red-roofed stalls of the Vientiane Night Market open each evening around sunset, turning this site on the banks of the Mekong River, alive with lights, music, and noise each night. Tourists can shop at the Riverside Night Market for Buddhist-inspired paintings and trinkets, souvenir t-shirts, and other great goodies to bring home from Laos. There is also a wide selection of clothing, mostly catered to backpackers and travelers, and accessories like jewelry, purses, and sunglasses. The Riverside Night Market does not have much of a selection of food, however the entire Riverside area is rife with bars, restaurants, and food carts, where visitors are sure to find something delicious to sate their appetites.
15.Royal Palace Museum
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This early 20th century palace was built for King Sisavang Vong and the royal family in 1904, after his previous palace was destroyed. Like many other buildings built during the French colonial period, the architectural style of the Royal Palace Museum comprises both French and Laotian components. Inside, visitors will find the Laotian crown jewels, the former apartments of the Laotian royal family, and many murals, paintings, and works of art that depict life for Laotians in the early 20th century. In the garage, there are several classic cars that once belonged to the Laotian king, and several other fascinating exhibits display jewelry, weapons, statues, and other artifacts that once belonged to the royal family.
16.Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre
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The Asian black bear, sometimes known as the moon bear, is an endangered species that is poached for the bile from its gall bladder. This bile is traditionally used in Chinese medicinal practices, and so the bears are highly sought after on the black market. The bears at Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre were rescued from this life, and they spend the rest of their days happy and healthy in the spacious open enclosures of the rescue center. Visitors to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre can learn all about these fascinating creatures and the unfortunate plight they face in the wild, and watch the bears eat, play, and enjoy their lives at the center.
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17.That Ing Hang Stupa
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This 30-foot thâat is one of the holiest places in Laos and is said to be the home of a relic of the Buddha’s spine. Built of stone in the 16th century, the stupa marks the place where the Buddha once stopped to rest while he was sick. He leaned against a hang tree, and so the stupa was named Ing Hang. Visitors to the stupa can visit a hollow section in its base, where they will find a collection of images of the Buddha. By tradition, however, women are not permitted to enter the temple, and respectful dress is required of all who wish to visit.
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The small town of Vang Vieng in central Laos is one of the most beautiful places in Southeast Asia. It is surrounded on all sides by beautiful nature, including mountains, rice fields, and the Nam Song River, which winds through the town. Visitors can enjoy a peaceful meal on the banks of the river or take a relaxing float down its waters on an inflatable tube. The nearby Blue Lagoon, located in Tham Poukham Cave, is a great spot for a swim, and also nearby is Tham Norn, one of the largest caves in the region. The caves, cliffs, waters, and stunning beauty of this small town make it a perfect destination for travelers seeking adventure.
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The ruins of this Khmer Hindu temple complex date back to the 5th century, and the newest parts were built in the 15th century. Located in the Champasak Province, about 4 miles from the banks of the Mekong River, Vat Phou sits at the base of Mount Phu Kao, and contains over 6 square miles of temples, shrines, and the remains of landscaping that was once incredibly well curated. Vat Phou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that shows visitors and historians a lot about ancient culture in Southeast Asia. Although much of it is ruined, the temple is still home to some stunning architecture and art that really strengthens the beauty of the nature around it.
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20.Wat Dane Soung Jungle Temple
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There are many stone shrines scattered around the Dang Doung Plateau, near Vientiane. The exact period when the Wat Dane Soung Jungle Temple was first built is unknown, but it was believed to have been over 1,000 years ago. This small but significant temple is carved from rock beneath an overhang, and features many images of the Buddha, also carved from the walls of stone. Nearby there are several short trails where visitors can explore the surrounding area and find even more small temples on the plateau. The Wat Dane Soung Jungle Temple is a perfect destination for travelers who wish to customize their trip from the norm and visit places that are off the beaten path.
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21.Ock Pop Tok
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Ock Pop Tok is a unique textile and handcrafting center in Laos, founded in 2000 as a marriage of Eastern and Western culture by British immigrant Jo Smith and local Laos residents Veo Douangdala. The company, whose name translates to "East Meets West" in English, emphasizes principles of fair trade and sustainability and has grown to become one of Southeast Asia's most prominent artisanal textile companies. Visitors can explore its Living Crafts Center as part of free half-hour public tours daily, with workshops and classes with master weavers available to teach textile weaving principles. The company also sells goods at its Flagship Shop and offers delicious Eastern-Western fusion cuisine at its Silk Road Café.
Ban Saylom, Luang Prabang, Laos, Phone: +856 71 212 597
22.Wat Si Saket
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Wat Si Saket, in Vientiane, is an active Buddhist temple surrounded by tropical fruit trees, with a five-tiered roof, a beautiful veranda, and some ornate decor. Each morning, worshippers visit the temple to show respect and make offerings of food to the monks in a lovely daily ceremony that is available to witness. Inside this temple, there are thousands of tiny statues of the seated Buddha – statues made of wood, stone, clay, and metal, some of which date back to the 16th century. These statues, which number almost 7,000, take up an entire wall of the cloister and are the most famous feature of Wat Si Saket.
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23.Wat Xieng Thong
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Located at the northern end of the Luang-Prabang Peninsula, Wat Xieng Thong is a stunning example of a beautiful Buddhist temple in a city that is already renowned for containing many beautiful Buddhist temples. Inside, there is a beautifully detailed mosaic depicting the Tree of Life, spectacularly carved walls, depictions of Buddhist deities, and a massive funeral carriage. This 16th century temple is sometimes known as the Gateway to Luang-Prabang due to its location at the tip of the peninsula and is open daily to visitors, who should take care to dress respectfully or purchase traditional garb outside the temple.
24.Xieng Khuan Park
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Xieng Khuan is also called Buddha Park, and it is a sculpture park located on the banks of the Mekong River about 15 miles away from Vientiane. The park was first opened in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a priest and an artist who was forced to flee the country during the 1970s. His park still stands today, home to over 200 statues created by Sulilat and his students, all untrained artists. All of the Buddhas are completely unique, some large, some small, but all created in different styles and with different materials, and the result is absolutely surreal.
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25.Wat Ho Phra Keo
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Wat Ho Phra Keo is located in Vientiane and is one of the most impressive and important religious sites in Laos. Originally built to be the personal chapel of the Laotian royal family during the 16th century, Wat Ho Phra Keo was once also the home of the Emerald Buddha, a famous Buddhist relic that now lies in Bangkok, Thailand. Despite this, the temple’s name means “Temple of the Emerald Buddha,” and even without this famous jewel of its collection, it’s still a stunning place to visit. Beautiful carvings on the doors and architecture, Buddha statues, and images of dragons embellish this lavish place, while the peaceful gardens outside are shady and quiet.
25 Best Things to Do in Laos
- 4,000 Islands, Photo: Courtesy of Vincent - Fotolia.com
- Bokeo, Photo: Courtesy of ligados - Fotolia.com
- Bolaven Plateau, Photo: Courtesy of andrii_lutsyk - Fotolia.com
- Kuang Si Waterfalls, Photo: Courtesy of Elena Ermakova - Fotolia.com
- Lao National Museum, Photo: Courtesy of panithi33 - Fotolia.com
- Luang-Prabang, Photo: Courtesy of qojoo - Fotolia.com
- Mount Phousi, Photo: Courtesy of Arnaud - Fotolia.com
- Organic Silk Farm, Photo: Courtesy of Banana Republic - Fotolia.com
- Pak Ou Caves, Photo: Courtesy of tella0303 - Fotolia.com
- Pakse, Photo: Courtesy of svglass - Fotolia.com
- Patuxai Monument, Photo: Courtesy of Alexander - Fotolia.com
- Pha That Luang, Photo: Courtesy of nengredeye - Fotolia.com
- Plain of Jars, Photo: Courtesy of Lamoo - Fotolia.com
- Riverside Night Market, Photo: Courtesy of tarnrit - Fotolia.com
- Royal Palace Museum, Photo: Courtesy of robnaw - Fotolia.com
- Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, Photo: Courtesy of franck - Fotolia.com
- That Ing Hang Stupa, Photo: Courtesy of thanavut - Fotolia.com
- Vang Vieng, Photo: Courtesy of chanatiptravel - Fotolia.com
- Vat Phou, Photo: Courtesy of Peera - Fotolia.com
- Wat Dane Soung Jungle Temple, Photo: Courtesy of Ariane Citron - Fotolia.com
- Ock Pop Tok, Photo: Ock Pop Tok
- Wat Si Saket, Photo: Courtesy of weerayut - Fotolia.com
- Wat Xieng Thong, Photo: Courtesy of f11photo - Fotolia.com
- Xieng Khuan Park, Photo: Courtesy of charnsitr - Fotolia.com
- Wat Ho Phra Keo, Photo: Courtesy of topntp - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Digitalpress - Fotolia.com