It has been a few years since I returned from my trip to Southeast Asia and Laos. The latter remains one of the countries that have impressed me the most due to its authenticity, its simplicity and the beauty of its landscapes. I remember crossing the border from eastern Thailand (in Isan) and into Laos as if it were yesterday. I had the impression that I was going back in time by at least 50 years as I passed between the two countries, and it was a really lovely experience. Laos is a country that I recommend to anyone looking for authenticity. There are much fewer tourists than in the neighboring Asian countries, probably because it’s not surrounded by sea and is completely landlocked. The country is well worth a visit! Are you wondering what are the things to do in Laos during your stay? In this article I’ll tell you everything!
Even though the country remains relatively off the tourist trail, there are still a few places of interest for the tourists (as there are everywhere). These are certainly worth visiting during your stay but there is plenty more to see during your time in to this beautiful country. Here I will give you a list of the places of interest in Laos as well as several other ideas to help you get the most out of your stay. Very few people know Laos and have no real idea what to see or where to go. I hope by giving you some information about the country I will also give you the desire to go. If you are already planning your trip, don’t hesitate to read my article on the best time to go to Laos.
So, let’s have a look at the things you must see in Laos, from the south to the north of the country. In order to make it easier for you, I have divided the country into four different regions.
For those who prefer to plan their activities before setting off, I suggest you to look at this site, which compares activities and looks for the best prices.
The southern region of Laos has some beautiful areas with its natural surroundings, temple visits and places for rest and relaxation.
A real institution within Laos, the 4000 islands are known to be a destination for many tourists. Depending on your taste and what you’re looking for you’ll find some of these more attractive places to visit than others. These islands, on the border of Cambodia, stretch over the Mekong River and are at the same rhythm as Laos, i.e. very slowly…
Most tourists come here to rest, enjoy the surroundings and swim in the waterfalls or the Mekong River. There are 3 main islands: Don Khon Island, Don Det and Don Khong.
Visiting Laos: we had a good time on the 4000 islands, right?
Don Det is the most touristic and “developed” of the archipelago. If you are looking for authenticity and not pizzerias, it is better to choose Don Khong (where I stayed) or Don Khon.
So what to do over a few days: rent a kayak for travelling along the Mekong, visit some of the temples (Wat Chom Thong, Wat Phu Khao Laew), bike ride around the islands, ride an inflatable on the river (“Tubing”), visit the waterfalls, take a boat ride to see the Irrawaddy dolphins or simply take a stroll around the local villages. In short, you won’t be stuck for something to do if you are in the area for 4 or 5 days. Leave your watch behind and simply enjoy the leisurely pace you’ll find there…
Also known as the “Little Angkor of Laos”, the temple of Wat Phou, not far from the city of Champassak, is a very nice stopover for all those who love precious stones and history. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (would you believe?!) and it is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area. It belonged to the Khmer empire, the same as those of the Angkor temples in Cambodia. The tour of the temple is very enjoyable and is one of the only “cultural” areas in Laos.
The Bolaven plateau, unmissable in Laos
If you are still wondering what to do in Laos, this is something you will enjoy, whether alone, with friends or in a couple. I had the opportunity to go with my wife and a couple of travellers we’d met over there and I have wonderful memories of it. So, what to do? Rent a motorcycle from the city of Pakse, and take a road trip over a few days around the Laotian countryside, see the coffee fields, the smiling faces of the local children, the wildlife and, of course, see the breathtaking natural waterfalls. Be warned, depending on the season, temperatures can be cool as Laos is in high altitude. If you love nature, this is definitely the place for you and one that is not to be missed, even though it is quite a touristic attraction.
The center of Laos is, on the whole, less visited than the South and the North of the country, with fewer touristic areas. Many people simply pass through while travelling between Paksé and Vientiane by night bus.
Much less known than the famous Bolaven loop, the Thakhek Loop runs through the middle of the Laotian countryside and one which takes you away from the classic circuits of Laos. In hindsight, I am really disappointed with myself for not taking the time to go there during my one-month stay in Laos. I really should have. After reading the Bloup Trotters’ travel stories, I can thoroughly recommend going there.
For all those who are looking for authenticity when travelling to Laos, you should be very happy. On the agenda: rough roads, meeting the locals, wonderful waterfalls, swimming in turquoise waters… So, are you convinced yet?!
By Northwest, I mean the region between Vientiane and Vang Vieng. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to spend a few days in the capital city of Laos, Vientiane.
While I was there, I didn’t find myself in the best of situations (I almost had to have a tooth pulled out…). I must say that compared to other Asian capitals, I wasn’t too excited at being there. However, there are a few places to visit in this city that you don’t want to miss. Here are the main ones:
- The Pha That Luang: emblematic temple of Laos. Covered with gold, it is the largest monument in the country,
- Wat Phra Keo: another temple in the city known to have sheltered the emerald Buddha
- Vat Sisakhet: simply the oldest monument in the city,
- Le Boudha Park: located outside Vientiane, this is one of the craziest places to visit in Asia…,
- Putuxai: the Laotian triumphal arch, located in the park of the same name, this monument is well worth a visit while you are in the area.
I personally recommend renting bicycles and getting out of the city’s touristy areas. There are lots of places to lose yourself, meet new people and have great adventures.
Located on the road between the Laotian capital and the beautiful city of Luang Prabang, further north, the city of Vang Vieng is one of those little known places in Laos where you can party (but there is more to it than just that). A few years ago, the Laotian government decided to clamp down and take action, many bars and clubs were closed down in the fight against the drug dealers. The city had become too much of a party town with stories of tourists drowning in the Mekong River (due to the combination of tubing and alcohol) and this had tarnished the reputation of the area. Fortunately, it seems that things have calmed down a lot since then.
Here you will enter into a magnificent mountainous region. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful area in Laos with its incredibly diverse landscapes, breathtaking walks along the Mekong River and above all it’s opportunities to get off the beaten track. If I have any regrets about my visit to Laos, it would be that I didn’t rent a motorcycle for a week in order to explore this northern region. Exploring the northern and northwestern parts of the country remains, in my opinion, one of the best things to do if you are looking for authenticity and want to avoid tourists. Generally, people do not go much further than Luang Prabang. I continued up to the north of the country, crossing the Vietnamese border at the famous city of Dien Bien Phu. A memorable occasion….
Laos is one of those countries where the capital is not the best-known city. Luang Prabang, is known at least by name, by many people. This city, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, has everything to please its visitors even though there are lots of tourists. I was there for almost a week so I know it well. There is plenty to do in and around Luang Prabang. Here are the most famous:
Visit the temples
Luang Prabang is full of beautiful temples and a visit to Wat Xiang Thong will not leave you indifferent. It is known as the most beautiful Buddhist temple in the country and I must admit that the gold decorations adorning the temple are really beautiful. From a cultural point of view, you may also decide to climb the sacred mountain of Phu Si, which after a 300-step stairway, offers a magnificent view of the city. Both places are very nice to visit if you have time.
Activities in and around Luang Prabang
The city and its surroundings have plenty of activities and lots of things to see and do. Honestly, you can easily spend a week here without getting bored! Here are just a few of the activities and fun things to do:
- The waterfalls of Tat Si Kuang: one of the classics, the waterfalls are a real must during your stay in Laos. Even though it’s a real tourist spot it really is worth seeing. Imagine a series of colourful lagoon waterfalls in lush vegetation. You are imagining it now aren’t you?! Preferably visit in the morning as I think that it is the best time.
- The night market: a real institution, it is surely the most charming South-East Asian market I have ever seen. It is also very touristy, but you can find beautiful things at reduced prices as well as dirt cheap but delicious food for your meals…
- Walking around the city: it might seem silly to say it, but if you really want to discover an area you won’t go far wrong if you simply go for a walk. Here you can lose yourself in the alleys, which run through the city and even go and meet some of the locals. In the early morning, you can attend the monks’ alms, a very lovely moment to be a part of… Take the opportunity to walk along the Mekong River and enjoy the beautiful scenes of everyday life. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to visit the Bamboo Bridge, a wooden bridge that gets destroyed by flooding and then rebuilt every year…
- Outside the city, the caves of Pak Ou are also a nice stopping point if you have time. So, what’s on the agenda? Visits to several caves, boat trips, and all of that in a magnificent jungle setting,
- Finally, if you love animals, don’t hesitate to visit the “L’éléphant Conservation Centre“, a kind of retirement centre for elephants. There are no elephant rides here, just the chance to immerse yourself with the pachyderms.
And if you are still in the process of planning your trip, I invite you to look at this site to find the best prices for flights from where you live to Laos.
I had the opportunity to go on several walks in the north of Laos, which wasn’t enough for my liking. You won’t find much information in Lonely Planet or Routard on Northern Laos as, according to the travel guides, there is nothing to do beyond Luang Prabang. However, I advise anyone looking for authenticity to go and lose themselves in northwestern and northern Laos. Rent a motorcycle and discover the regions around Oudomxay or Luang Namtha. Here you are on the border of China and Myanmar. The region is famous for its splendid landscapes and hikers will be delighted to discover the ethnic minorities in the villages at the end of the world, the ones lost in the jungle… I really regret not having gone up into the north and I hope to be able to do so when I return to Laos.
Among the things I would have liked to have done in Laos, but which I didn’t have the opportunity to do, is make a visit to Bokeo Nature Reserve. I had heard a lot about the reserve as it’s apparently one of ‘the’ things to do in Laos. For wildlife lovers, you will be delighted by the tigers, elephants, buffalo and especially the gibbons (very funny little monkeys). The famous “Gibbon experience” allows you to enhance your experience of the reserve by staying in one of the superb huts set high in the trees…
Among the wonderful things to do in Laos, a trip on the Mekong River is one of the most enjoyable. I’m reminded of it while talking about northern Laos as there are a number of beautiful places here where you can cruise along the Mekong River. So, don’t forget to take a trip along the river whether you’re in the South of Laos, on the 4000 islands, or in one of several other places along the river.
I personally had the opportunity to take three superb trips on different parts of the river:
- Luang Prabang in Pakbeng: this was a wonderful day on the Mekong River where I was able to observe fabulous landscapes and scenes of everyday life along the river. Magic.
- Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoy: a very beautiful route for going up the Nam Ou River to the Vietnamese border in a splendid setting. Making a stop in Muang Ngoy for a few days is great…
- Muang Ngoy to Muang Khua: the last section going up to Vietnam. From here you have access to a superb road that leads to the border post of Dien Bien Phu.
If you are planning a trip to Laos, I have written a complete article on the travel budget for a trip to Laos, which I hope will help you.
If you have just arrived in Luang Prabang and are looking for a good place to stay, I invite you to check out the promotions on Booking.com.
I hope that this article has helped you to visualize your perfect stay in Laos. Which activities and places to visit have tempted you the most?
See you soon,