Between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam is the landlocked country of Laos. Home to just under 7 million people this culture-packed country is far less visited than its neighbouring nations.
The country boasts cities full of temples and a strong French influence, yet also smaller villages and the ever-present Mekong River. By morning you can be totally immersed in culture, and by lunch find yourself way out in the jungle.
The people are incredibly warm and the food is full of delicious surprises. So, feast on sticky rice, fresh fruit smoothies, French-style baguettes and the great local beer, Beerlao. Then get exploring.
In some parts of Laos, the road quality might mean that you can travel faster by tubing down the river. Nevertheless, the landscape is just as amazing and slow travel lets your eyes linger a little longer.
Here, we will travel from the banks of the mighty Mekong River, work our way north through lush rural landscapes, discover some of Asia’s most incredible waterfalls, and have the chance to experience age-old traditional lifestyles.
Located along the banks of the Mekong River, Vientiane is perhaps one of the most relaxed capital cities in the world.
Here the influence of the former French occupation is evident. Streets are “Rues”, French architecture is scatted throughout the city and there is no lack of ‘French Hot Bread’ around.
During the summer, the days can be hot so you’ll want to start exploring early. Choose from some of the most popular attractions in the city such as the Patuxai Victory Monument (which resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris), the That Luang Grand Stupa, or Wat Si Saket, the only temple in the city which has survived the invasions from ancient Thailand.
Also try squeeze in a visit to COPE Visitor Centre – the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. Although upsetting at times (thanks to the country’s history as the most heavily bombed in the world), it’s a small but worthwhile stop.
In the late afternoon, the city comes to life along the Mekong River. Head down to the wide riverside promenade around sunset where you’ll find plenty of stalls offering snack foods and souvenirs.
When you’re done with shopping simply sit back and watch the sun set over Thailand just on the opposite side of the river.
The first major stop heading north of Vientiane is Viang Vieng. Once famous for tubing and raging parties along the river, this place has almost returned to its former glory. A chilled out, relaxing village nestled between the mountains.
One option here is to go tubing in the Tham Nam Water Cave. Unlike tubing gently down the river, this is more of a challenging experience. Here you pull yourself along a rope against a strong current only inches from the roof of the cave.
From the outside the entrance to the cave is almost invisible. However once underground and getting around the slightly claustrophobic feeling it is quite a rewarding experience.
If you prefer staying outdoors and above ground then be sure to head 8km east of Vang Vieng to the beautiful Kaeng Nyui Waterfall. Hire a bicycle in town and cycle over to enjoy tranquil jungle surroundings along the way.
At the waterfall you will be able to hike along a short trail consisting of thatched together wooden boardwalks. Make your way to the top level where you can enjoy a cool shower in the waterfall, just as nature intended.
And if you’re with Intrepid Travel and are looking to relax or learn more about a local industry, you can visit an organic mulberry farm just outside town and enjoy a meal there.
The next stop north of Vang Vieng is Luang Prabang, the city of temples. In fact this city is home to more than 30 temples in total.
With so many temples, it can be difficult choosing somewhere to start. Be sure to include the following on your list: Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Souvanna Khili and Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham. On your walk be sure to drop into the Royal Museum Palace where you will learn a bit more about Lao history.
One sight not to miss in Luang Prabang is the early morning alms giving ceremony.
Each morning hundreds of monks living and studying in Luang Prabang walk the streets carrying their alms to accept food offers. Locals and tourists make offerings of sticky rice and fruit. For the real story behind this ceremony, check out this fascinating interview.
Later in the morning head 29km outside of Luang Prabang to the Kuang Si Falls. This three tiered, emerald stream forms one of the most amazing waterfalls in all of Southeast Asia. As soon as you enter it feels like you’ve just walked into a magical world.
First you will pass a great swimming hole. The water here is so cloudy with dissolved limestone that you cannot see to the bottom. Continue upstream where you will reach a beautiful 60-meter waterfall pouring over the mountains edge.
Back in town be sure to head over to Utopia Bar in the afternoon. Enjoy a cold drink while taking in the sunset views over the Nam Khan River. This place pretty much sums up afternoons in Luang Prabang.
Want to head further north still? The next major town is Luang Namtha, however there is a small gem called Nong Khiaw located around halfway up.
Nong Khiaw is a beautiful little village nestled between the towering limestone mountains and thick jungle. Guesthouses are perched high up along the steep banks overlooking the Nam Ou River.
Explore just 15 minutes out of town to find small farming communities, elderly women hand weaving garments and young children happily running around the countryside.
Nong Khiaw is one of those more off-the-beaten-path destinations, however a visit here will not disappoint.
And really, neither will the country as a whole. It’s beautiful, peaceful and somewhere you should visit sooner rather than later.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Rebecca Shapiro, Intrepid Travel, Josh Shephard, Josh Shephard, Josh Shephard, Josh Shephard, Josh Shephard, Josh Shephard. For more of Josh’s guides and photos, head to thelostpassport.com.)