Laos remains one of the most pristine and culturally rich countries in SE Asia which means you get to explore the area’s unspoiled natural beauty. This landlocked country is famous for its jungle terrain, colorful temples, French colonial architecture, and its mountainous scenery with mist-covered peaks. The relaxing and laidback atmosphere of Laos provides the perfect setting if you are looking to get away from it all.
Despite its range of unique destinations to explore, Laos is often overshadowed by other Southeast Asian countries. If you are seeking a more authentic tourism experience untouched by over-tourism, consider a visit to this underrated country.
The tropical climate and range of landscapes create a perfect setting for adventure sports and outdoor activities. You can stay in the largest treehouses in the world for ziplining and magical jungle views. And explore the vibrant culture of the cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Those seeking a truly unique historic experience should visit the Plain of Jars and the Vieng Xai Caves. Or check out the 4,000 islands where you can go kayaking, biking, and trekking.
Laos truly has something to offer everyone and these 6 highlights of Laos are guaranteed to make you want to add this hidden gem of Southeast Asia to your travel itinerary!
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- The 6 Best Thing to Do in Laos
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Getting to Laos
The most common way to get to Laos is a flight into either the capital city of Vientiane or the tourist hotspot of Luang Prabang. While some people choose to arrive by bus from Northern Thailand or Northern Vietnam, the bus ride is rather long. With so many inexpensive airlines in Southeast Asia, there is little reason to choose an international bus trip to Laos.
Getting Around Laos
As previously mentioned, Laos has long been overlooked as a travel destination and sees far fewer tourists than its neighboring countries of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. While the quiet, laidback nature of Laos is one of it’s biggest draws, this lack of visitors also means less tourism infrastructure than other countries in the region.
Many of the best places to visit in Laos, such as Huay Xai and Vang Vieng are mainly accessible by bus or, in some circumstances, by slow boat on the Mekong River. The best site for checking bus routes in Southeast Asia and purchasing bus tickets online is Bookaway.
The 6 Best Thing to Do in Laos
1. Stay in the World’s Highest Treehouses near the Bokeo Nature Reserve
In Northwestern Laos, the Bokeo Nature Reserve was created to protect the area’s fragile ecosystem. Near the town of Huay Xai, where dense forest shelters rare wildlife, you can experience the natural beauty of Laos firsthand.
The biggest draw to the area, and a highlight of any trip to Laos, is the world-famous Gibbon Experience. This incredible ecotourism project was created in the late 90s to protect the black-crested gibbons, once thought to be extinct. After a trek through the lush jungle, you’ll reach the world’s highest treehouses with views of the jungle canopy right outside your window. Connected via ziplines and suspension bridges, staying in these treehouses is a true bucket list experience.
Depending on your fitness level, the Gibbon Experience has a variety of different treks to choose from. The easiest trek requires just 1 hour of walking and allows for plenty of free time for relaxing in your incredible treehouse while spotting gibbons. For the more adventurous, the multi-day trip takes you further into the National Park, where you’ll swim in natural pools and refreshing waterfalls before spending the night in your treehouse, deep in the jungle.
In addition to the rare black-crested gibbons, visitors of the Bokeo Nature Reserve regularly see other wild animals such as elephants, bears, and wild buffalo. With mountains that reach nearly 5,000 feet in altitude, the reserve also is a perfect place for bird watchers. If you love the outdoors, the Bokeo Nature Reserve is one of the best places to visit in Laos!
2. Learn about Buddhism in Luang Prabang
In Northern Laos lies Luang Prabang, a charming city with a small-town feel that is featured on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Luang Prabang is a favorite among tourists when visiting Laos and it’s easy to see why. There’s no shortage of things to do – from taking a local cooking class, learning a local skill, or shopping at the lively night markets.
One of the best things you can do in Luang Prabang is to wake up early in the morning to see the hundreds of monks collecting their daily alms throughout the city. And if you’re interested in a deeper understanding of Buddhism, book a tour with Orange Robe Tours. You’ll learn all about Buddhism in Laos from a former monk. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and part of the profits are donated to the Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang.
While in Luang Prabang make sure you visit the Royal Palace and the meticulously decorated Wat Xieng Thong temple. There are many temples on the palace grounds full of elaborate mosaics, decorative wall carvings, gold leaf gilding and beautiful lacquering.
And for a great view of the city at sunset, consider a hike up Mount Phousi. Found in the center of Luang Prabang, this is a somewhat strenuous hike but the panoramic views at the top are the ultimate reward. Enjoy the panoramic city and river views while resting in a shady spot and then explore the temples at the top of Mount Phousi before heading back down.
Finally, no trip to Luang Prabang would be complete without a visit to Kuang Si Falls. Located about 20 miles from the city center, this stunning waterfall is one of the largest in Laos. The picturesque multi-tiered falls are hues of turquoise that cascade into larger pools of water – perfect for swimming! Once the day starts to warm up, the pools provide a much-needed respite to cool off from the tropical humid climate. You can reach the falls on your own by motorbike or you can book a round trip transfer for as little as $6.
3. Unlock the Mysteries of Eastern Laos
If offbeat attractions are of interest, you should visit the Plain of Jars or the Vieng Xai Caves, as both attractions are shrouded in mystery. The two destinations are remarkable historic sites and definitely highlights of a trip to Laos.
The Plain of Jars is located in the eastern highlands of Laos where thousands of huge jars carved from rock are scattered among the grasslands. Archaeologists have different hypotheses on their origin, how they were created, and what they were used for. Some experts think the ancient stone jars either stored rice wine or were used for burial sites. Whatever their purpose, the placement of jars dotted across the fields creates a unique and eerie landscape.
Part of the intrigue of the Vieng Xai Caves is the adventure it takes to get there. Few travelers visit this remote region of northeastern Laos, but those that make the journey will discover a fascinating chapter of the history of the country. Among the beautiful karst limestone formations is a once-hidden city and during the Secret War, roughly 20,000 Laos citizens survived intense bombing by living underground in these caves.
For nine years of war, routine daily life continued in the caves in almost total darkness. Schools, hospitals, markets, military bases, and even a theater and radio station were all built discreetly in the caves. Opened to the public in 2007, visitors can now tour the caves. Tours come with excellent audio guides with actual interviews of those that lived in the hidden city. For history buffs or anyone looking to explore an off-the-beaten-path corner of Laos, the Vang Xai caves are a must-visit!
4. Get Outdoors in Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is known for being a backpacker’s party paradise. It was once famous for drunken tubing trips down the Nam Song River which was lined with makeshift bars offering free shots of rice wine, cheap beer, and rope swings and waterslides of questionable safety standards. A number of backpacker deaths in 2012 put an end to some of the wilder times in Vang Vieng, but there is so much more to this area then floating down a river completely inebriated.
Located near the central part of Laos, Vang Vieng remains popular among tourists for its water sports, hiking, and outdoor activities like dune buggying. The surrounding natural area is truly stunning, with caves for exploring and crystal clear blue lagoons for swimming.
There’s so much to do here, you could easily spend a week in Vang Vieng. Consider visiting the Tham Phu Kham Cave, a sacred place for Buddhists with a nearby blue lagoon that’s perfect for swimming on a hot day. Or book a ride in a hot air balloon over the limestone karst hills that form a backdrop to the city.
If outdoor activities aren’t your thing, just spend the day exploring the city. It’s full of cafes, street food vendors, and restaurants serving western fare if you are craving a taste of home.
5. Relax in the Sleepy Capital of Vientiane
Further south is Vientiane, Laos’ sleepy capital city with a mixture of French-colonial architecture, ornate Buddhist temples, and modern amenities. Patuxai, the most well-known monument in the city, honors Laotian independence and is built in a similar style to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
During the day, plan on visiting Buddha Park, an unusual sculpture park about a 45-minute motorbike ride from the city center. There you will find a mixture of buddha statues, deities, and other structures that you can climb to get a view of the eclectic park. If you don’t drive a motorbike, there is also a public bus that routinely visits the park from the main bus station.
While in Vientiane make sure to visit Wat Si Saket, a temple that displays thousands of Buddha images. It was once home to the famous Emerald Buddha Statue that now resides in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The COPE Visitors Center is also an intriguing place to visit. COPE provides free prosthetic and orthotic devices to survivors of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) in Laos. During the Second Indochina War, known in America as the Vietnam War, over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos by the USA. Approximately 80 million unexploded bombs remained after the war and dozens of people are still killed or maimed every year in explosions. At the COPE Visitors Center, you’ll find exhibits showing what is being done to clear the land of UXOs in Laos and how victims are being helped by this nonprofit.
Vientiane is definitely one of the more relaxing and unique capitals that I’ve been to in my travels. And while there aren’t as many activities to experience compared to other capital cities, Vientiane is worth a visit for a night or two!
6. Cruise Around the Si Phan Don Islands
The Si Phan Don Islands, also known as the 4,000 islands, are found in Southern Laos. The three most popular islands to visit are Don Det, Don Khon, and Don Kong.
You’ll definitely want to rent a bicycle and spend a leisurely day exploring the islands. There are also boat tours of the Mekong River and, if you’re up for a real adventure, you can try a full-day kayaking tour. You might even spot an Irrawaddy Dolphin. These critically endangered dolphins are making a comeback thanks to the local environmental efforts.
A visit to the Khone Phapheng Falls is an absolute must while in the 4,000 islands. These falls border Cambodia and make up the widest waterfall in the world. In the rainy season, the Khone Phapheng Falls can stretch nearly 6 miles or more across the Mekong River!
Most accommodations in Si Phan Don Islands are in rustic family-run bungalows, which are pretty basic and lack air-conditioning. But if you can go without your usual comforts for 2 or 3 days, the 4,000 islands are definitely worth adding to your Laos itinerary.
Wherever you go during your visit to Laos, you will find a welcoming country that blends outdoor adventures with diverse cultures and dramatic scenery. Don’t miss it during your trip to SE Asia!
That’s it – 6 of the best places to visit in Laos. Did we miss any of the highlights? Let us know below!
Planning a trip to Laos? Check out our favorite books and travel guides.
Carrie Back – About the Author:
Carrie is a part-time travel writer and full-time globetrotter based in Southeast Asia. Her most recent adventures include working in the Bolivian Amazon jungle, surfing in Sri Lanka, and exploring Laos via a slow boat up the Mekong River. She’s a slow travel enthusiast and loves to write about her experiences abroad.