Just like Thailand and Bali in Indonesia before it, Laos was hot long before ordinary travelers knew where it was. Backpackers have included this landlocked Southeast Asian country in their itineraries for years, droves of them having checked off Vang Vieng, Vientiane and Luang Prabang from their bucket lists.
Years of war and Communist administration have hampered tourists planning to visit Laos, but that's slowly changing. Luang Prabang's accession as a major UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Vang Vieng's remarkable transformation from alcohol-soaked tubing hellhole to family-friendly ecotourism destination, among others, have shifted Laos decisively into the tourist mainstream.
Easy land access from Thailand and Vietnam; all the charm of the region's Buddhist culture without the touristy crowds of Phuket and Siem Reap; and endless opportunity for nature-based adventure: these only scratch the surface of what you'll find when you explore Laos for yourself.
- Before launching your Laos trip, read about the Laos visa on arrival and other travel essentials for the first-time Laos visitor.
Travel Back in Time in Luang Prabang
Vestiges of Laos' history – both as a kingdom and as a colony of France – can be easily seen around the former royal capital of Luang Prabang. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its royal palace and thirty-odd temples, Luang Prabang bears Lao culture like a badge of honor.
Every morning, robed monks queue on the streets, receiving alms from devotees in an age-old ceremony called tak bat. The setting fits the ceremony to a T: the sedate streets of Luang Prabang shelter ancient townhouses built in a French Indochinese style, with Buddhist pagodas and the occasional former palace thrown in for good measure. It's like the past never quite left.
Continue your trip back in time at Luang Prabang's key landmarks, among them the former Royal Palace, now Laos' National Museum; the graceful Wat Xieng Thong, a former royal temple that now entrances modern visitors with its detailed artwork; and your choice of hotels – many of which were repurposed from former colonial officials' mansions or royal palaces.
or authentic local shopping finds, the Night Market obliges, ceramics and fabrics mixed higgledy-piggledy with “Beerlao” shirts and beer cozies. An alleyway just off the market serves all-you-can-eat Lao food for no more than two US dollars a pop.
Laze About on Vang Vieng's River (and Around It)
The reformed Vang Vieng experience is massively different from its previous, unreformed state before the government shut it down in 2012. Prior to that, Vang Vieng was home to a horde of hard-drinking backpackers who spent their days floating on tubes down the Nam Song River and frequenting the riverside bars. Getting drunk and illegal drugs were all just part of the scene.
Today, Vang Vieng's worst excesses are a thing of the past. The government has shut down all but four riverside bars in Vang Vieng, and the drug scene has been mostly eliminated. The clientele has shifted, from young backpackers to Korean tour groups.
Tubing still goes on as usual, but other facilities have received major upgrades, from new boutique hotels serving travelers with bigger budgets to a premium zip-line adventure over a waterfall.
Beyond all this, Vang Vieng has never lost what brought the backpackers here in the first place. The Nam Song River meanders slowly past some of the most beautiful mountain panoramas you'll ever see in the region. Not far from the town center, travelers can still enjoy swimming in the Blue Lagoon, exploring the Four Caves, and climbing up Sunset Hill for a spectacular end-of-day view.
For more on the essential local experience, read about tubing in Vang Vieng.
Crack the Mystery of the Plain of Jars
The thousands of stone-carved jars that litter the plain around Xieng Khouang Province in northern Laos present one of the country's last remaining historical riddles. Reliably dated between 500 BC to 200 AD, the stone receptacles that give the Plain of Jars its name do not give up their secrets easily.
Urns of various sizes lie scattered over hundreds of square miles, with the lot grouped roughly into three sets. The closest group to civilization, Site 1, can be reached easily from the provincial capital Phonsavanh, while two other groups stand further out, nestled amidst farmland and rice fields.
The further from the city you go, the more dangerous the Plain of Jars gets: Laos was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, and unexploded ordnance still maims dozens of unsuspecting Laotians every year.
For more on the Jars' mystery origins, read our introduction to the Plain of Jars.
Soak Up the Island Life on Si Phan Don
Laos may be landlocked, sure, but laid-back islands can still be found within its borders. Just make your way to Si Phan Don on the Mekong River, valued by backpackers for its laid-back lifestyle and its access to some of Laos' most spectacular natural wonders.
The name literally translates to “Four Thousand Islands”, but you really only need to remember three: Don Det, whose proximity to the Cambodia border crossing makes it the most popular island, judging from its proliferation of budget hotels, restaurants and tour businesses; Don Khon, the quieter, less touristy alternative to Don Det; and Don Khong (mind the g at the end), the largest island in the group with a good selection of boutique hotels.
After you've had your fill of eating Lao food at one of the islands' many stilt-mounted restaurants, rent a bike to explore the island roads, or go kayaking among the more navigable stretches of the Mekong River nearby.
You'll find more when you go further out. Not far from Si Phan Don, you'll find the Khone Phapheng Waterfalls, a mighty set of cataracts that constitute Southeast Asia’s largest waterfalls; and Vat Phou, an Angkor-era ruin that was almost lost in the Champasak jungle.
Decompress in the Capital Vientiane
If they gave out awards for sleepiest capital in Southeast Asia, Vientiane would win it hands down. No wonder most tourists decide to give it a miss: it has neither the cultural cachet of Luang Prabang nor the natural wonders of Vang Vieng.
But Vientiane has some hidden charms beyond its role as a transport hub for travelers coming in by air or overland from Thailand. Look beyond its iconic structures – the blocky golden spire of Bun That Luang; the multitude of Buddhas in Wat Sisaket; and the incongruous bulky mass of Patuxai – and you'll find a quiet cultural ferment going on around its broad boulevards.
After dark, Vientiane offers Laos' best bar scene, with cocktail lounges and beerhouses alike jostling for patronage. Stalls serving Lao street food compete alongside restaurants serving international fare. All throughout, you'll enjoy the slow, laid-back lifestyle of Vientiane, a massive departure from the hurly-burly of Bangkok or Siem Reap.
Stay awhile before hopping off to your next adventure in Laos or across the border: you'll be better off for it.
Get Lost in Tham Kong Lo Cave
The longest cave in Laos can be found a few hours' south of the capital Vientiane. Tham Kong Lo was carved out of Khammouane Province's limestone mountains a few million years ago; the Nam Hin Bun River that flows through the cave now serves as both a tourist attraction and as a mode of transportation for villagers living at the caves' opposite openings.
The underground stretch of the river goes on for about four miles; from Ban Kong Lo village, you can hire a motorized boat to enter the cave, where you'll gape at the show provided by colored floodlights bouncing off the intricate cave interiors.
Partway through, you'll disembark and explore Tham Kong Lo on foot, marveling at the 300-foot-high cave chamber and the stalactites and stalagmites cutting through the emptiness.
For more on the cave experience, read our introduction to Tham Kong Lo Cave.
Cruise down the Mekong River
For a land-locked country, Laos offers a surprising amount of water-based adventures, with its river cruises topping the list.
The Mekong and Nam Ou Rivers – the two Lao rivers capable of accommodating large boats – support a thriving river cruise network that extends from Luang Prabang in the north to Pakse in the south. From either riverside settlement, travelers can see some of Laos' top cultural stops, while sailing past the country's most scenic mountains and villages.
Starting at Luang Prabang, you can cruise up to where Nam Ou River meets the Mekong, where the Pak Ou Caves hold a multitude of Buddha statues placed there by devotees. As you cross further upstream of Nam Ou, you'll stop at Nong Khiew Village, where you can trek through the area's “hundred waterfalls”; and the laid-back town of Muang Ngoi, a stepping-stone to the area's many caves and rural villages.
Starting from Pakse, your cruise takes upward of three days wandering through Laos' Mekong-side marvels in the country's south and center, among them the Vat Phou Angkorian ruins; the “four thousand islands” of Si Phan Don; and the majestic Khone Phapheng Waterfall, the largest in Southeast Asia.
Cruise boats range in size and luxury level, ranging from noisy motorized speed demons that court disaster while speeding upriver, to stately retro-style steamers with cushy cabins and butler service.