Surely, there is a lot to see in Laos. If you have a month or so, go around the country, explore and enjoy. Bring along a waterproof bag and a waterproof head-torch (to explore the caves), a waterproof cover for your phone or camera, trekking shoes, a sunscreen, sunglasses, a water-bottle, a mosquito repellent, your passport, money, and your international driving licence.
Thakhek Loop and Bolaven Plateau Loop
You might get on a scooter (with a car it gets more complicated on the Laotian roads, and basically impossible in the rain season) and go road tripping on The Thakhek Loop (also called Kong Lor Loop) in the middle of Laos. Beautiful scenery, few people, waterfalls and caves, among them one of the most famous caves in Asia – the 7 km long Kong Lor.
Rent your scooter in Thakhek (you need to leave a deposit or your passport in most renting places) and set out for either the small loop or the big loop. The small loop will take you about four days and certainly do not miss out on the giant Buddha statues (along a scenic stretch of Route 1E, just north of the Nam Theun 2 Reservoir) carved in the cliffs on the side of the road. Feel free to bring your offerings and park as far to the side of the road as possible if you decide to stop for a closer look. If you do the grand loop, give it at least three more days and go down south to Bolaven Plateau. You will never forget the scenery of the place.
You can also make your way deep down the southernmost part of Laos, to Si Phan Don, the – as some say – mythical 4,000 Islands. This is a narrow section of the country where it can feel like there is more river than land. It is a section of the Mekong River that fans out into a 10 kilometre-wide labyrinth of shallow waterways and islands. Some of them are small and can even be submerged during the rain season, some of them contain villages, forests, mountains.
Just like when visiting the islands near Sihanoukville in Cambodia, you want to make sure you choose the right island for you, so if you don´t like very touristy destinations and party islands, avoid Don Dhet. Do some proper research on the individual islands you might be interested in seeing before you go so that you can enjoy your experience to the maximum and avoid disappointments.
If you like cities, give a go to the capital of Viantiane. It has a relaxing atmosphere, a cool riverside and sunset views over the Mekong. There are French-style villas dating back to colonial times, plenty of Buddhist temples and some places worth your visit.
One of them certainly is Pha That Luang, a sacred monument and one of Laos’ most impressive religious structures. Its foundation dates back to the 3rd century, but the current structure was built in 1566 after Vientiane became the capital of Laos.
The Patuxai Victory Gate is a massive concrete arch on Lang Xang Avenue. Reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it features Buddhist symbols and Hindu deities, with 5 ornate towers built in traditional Laotian style. The monument is surrounded by Patuxai Park, which is a pleasant place for an evening stroll. For 5,000 Kip you can climb a spiral stairway to the tower’s observation deck to get some views over the city and of sunset.
Wat Si Muang is a 16th century Khmer temple with a fascinating legend that still holds great significance among the Laotian community. The temple’s name comes from a young woman, Si Muang, who sacrificed herself over 400 years ago to appease angry spirits.
Wat Si Saket is the only temple in Laos that survived the Siamese occupation, which destroyed much of the capital in 1828. It features over 10,000 Buddha sculptures of varying sizes and styles. The sim (ordination hall) holds 7,000 images and a wooden serpent-shaped trough that’s used during the Lao New Year.
Viantiane is also popular for its Night Market, and so is Luang Prabang, in the north, mostly famous for the Kuang Si waterfall, a three-storey cascade of waterfalls falling into small lakes accessible by footpaths and footbridges.
Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located 700 metres above sea level in northern Laos, it’s encircled by mountains at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. The ancient town is considered by many the heart of Laotian culture. You can see traditional wooden houses, royal structures, colonial architecture, and over 30 vat (Buddhist shrines).
Another place you should not miss is Vang Vieng (about 4 hours away from Luang Prabang on a van – but there are two roads, make sure to go on the faster one). Don´t believe the stories that it is a party town. Whatever the reality was in the past, a lot has changed here since the sad incidents in 2011 when 27 tourists died while partying on the river. The local authorities shut down many of the tubing bars, put restrictions on the volume of bar’s music, and removed riverside swings and ‘death slides’. As of July 2015, only five bars operate each day along the river on a two day rotation.
I have been living here for almost a month now and never ended up in bed later than 10 pm, and the only thing bothering my sleep would be a loud storm or the morning crow of a rooster.
Yes, there are still the beach bars, karaoke bars, a Happy restaurant (yes, the one where you can get mild drugs), an Irish bar and the infamous as well as renowned Sakura Bar where most people get wasted on free beers and whiskeys.
But really, you can avoid all this. What I like to do at nights here is to take at stroll in the man Walking street which becomes a night market after 5 pm and where you can get a kilo of mangosteen for 20,000 Kip, go to a local restaurant for dinner (I am personally not keen on the fancy tourist restaurants here), and take a swim or a dip in the river while getting a coconut shake in a beach bar.
Though the town itself isn’t much more than a few streets, it offers stunning scenery of the river and rock formations that will keep you dreaming of Laos long after you’ve settled back into real life. If you come off-season (May to September), you’ll have this place almost entirely to yourself.
The town is known for its outdoor-oriented activities that are easily available such as mountain biking, trekking, water tubing, kayaking, caving, and rock climbing. For me, these are the reasons while I am here. And my yoga teaching at the Silver Naga Hotel, of course…
There are many Blue lagoons in the area as well as caves and viewpoints. If you don’t mind being active at temperatures reaching up to 37 or even 40 degrees Celsius and at high humidity of around 90%, you´re going to love this place.
I will write more on Vang Vieng in a separate article – coming soon.