Visiting Laos is like stepping back in time to an era where farmers till the field using nothing but their bare hands and wooden yoked buffalo, children ride bicycles down dusty lanes in the shadow of blue and green mountains, and orange robed monks line up in front of wooden shop houses, extending golden alms bowls to be filled by pious townsfolk, offering delicious treats wrapped in banana leaves.
Once an isolated region torn by war, Laos is a country that contains some of Southeast Asia’s last remaining untouched wilderness. Rugged mountains slip into snaking rivers, and lush tropical jungle hides a myriad of caves, wildlife, and traditional villages. Combine that with lovely, friendly people who are about as laid back as it gets, and a rich cultural heritage of centuries old Buddhist temples and ancient kingdoms, and you’ve got a magical mix.
The tiny capital of Vientiene is a picturesque city that sits on the banks of the Mekong River. Old French colonial architecture abounds here, as does modern concrete storefronts and ancient stone stupas. Even in the capital, life is at a much slower pace here than almost anywhere else in the world. Grab a plastic stool on the riverfront and chow down on spicy papaya salad washed down with a cold Beer Lao, while watching the sunset over the distant buildings of Thailand on the other side.
The ancient royal town of Luang Prabang is an atmospheric mix of ancient temples, gently flowing rivers, steep mountains and quaint restaurants and cafes. Boutique hotels are popping up like mushrooms here, as are fine dining and fusion restaurants and artsy cafes serving Italian coffee and French pastries. While some say that the city has lost its charm, there is still plenty to see and do here. Get up at dawn to watch Buddhist monks of all ages collect alms along the main road, visit a riverside cave accessible only by boat, and jam packed with hundreds of Buddha statues, or bargain for colorful sarongs, silver jewelry and hand woven bags at the nightly street market. And of course there are the temples; ornately decorated with glittering tiles and glass, gilded Buddha statues and brightly painted scenes of the life of the Buddha, any one you choose is an awe inspiring and spiritual excursion.
In the far north of Laos lies Phonsavan, a town that has become famous for its mysterious Plain of Jars. Just outside the town lies a large plain that is scattered with hundreds of massive stone jars, varying in size and shape. The jars range from 600kg – 1 ton and vary in height and diameter from 1 to 3 meters. The most intriguing thing about these archaeological remnants is that nobody knows exactly why they were made or what they were used for. Local legend says that the area used to be inhabited by giants and that an ancient king of the giant race used the jars to brew the ubiquitous and potent Laotian rice wine called lao lao. Whatever the jars were used for, they are a fascinating sight to behold. It is highly recommended that visitors use a guide and stay on marked paths, as this area was one of the most heavily bombed during the Secret War, and as such still contains unexploded mines.
Van Vieng is one of Laos’ more touristy towns and a staple stop on the backpacker trail. The town itself is not particularly attractive, as it really is not much more than a collection of concrete guesthouses and backpacker restaurants serving banana pancakes, fruit shakes and an endless loop of movies on the TVs inside. But surrounding the town is a haven of natural beauty, with dramatic limestone karsts rising out of the green hills, deep caves hidden in the countryside and fresh water rivers flowing through dense foliage. Trekkers and kayakers will find the surrounding countryside here a dream. Another popular activity that has become a must do on the backpacker checklist is to rent an inner tube and lazily float down the Song River, occasionally stopping at small shacks to replenish the beer supply. Whether you like partying until the wee hours with like minded travelers or getting out into the great outdoors for some peace and serenity, Vang Vieng has much to offer all types of visitors.
If you’re looking for somewhere laid back and low key, it doesn’t get more relaxed than Si Phan Don, or the Four Thousand Islands region of Laos. Here the mighty Mekong slowly winds its way around thousands of islands and sand bars, creating a labyrinth of small pockets of land. The largest islands of Don Khong and Don Det are where most of the people in this region reside, and it is easy to find inexpensive, rustic wooden guesthouses resting on the banks of the river. Rent a bicycle and ride past smiling school children waving hello, emerald green rice paddies swaying in the breeze, and traditional Buddhist temples guarded by fierce looking snake statues. The Khon Phapheng waterfall is a stunning sight to behold for its gallons of water that cascade over stepped rock shelves. This is also a popular stop for those heading south to Cambodia, as the border is just a short trip away, and accessible by boat and bus.