Vivid nature, voluptuous landscapes and a vibrant culture collide with a painful past and optimistic future to make Laos an enigmatic experience for the adventurous.
An Authentic Asia
Laos cherishes many of the traditions that have disappeared in a frenzy of development elsewhere in the region. It's hard to believe somnolent Vientiane is an Asian capital, and there's a timeless quality to rural life, where stilt houses and paddy fields look like they are straight out of a movie set. Magical Luang Prabang bears witness to hundreds of saffron-robed monks gliding through the streets every morning in a call to alms, one of the region’s iconic images. Intrepid travelers will discover a country untainted by mass tourism and Asia in slow motion.
A Kaleidoscope of People
Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region, reflecting its geographic location as a crossroads of Asia. The hardy Hmong people live off the land in the remote mountains of the north, Kahu and Alak elders in the south still have traditional face tattoos, and the Katang villagers of central Laos sleep with forest spirits.
Fifty Shades of Green
With its dark and brooding forests, glowing emerald rice fields, and glistening tea leaves that blanket the mountains, the landscape in Laos changes shades of green like a chameleon. But it's not just the landscapes that are green: when it comes to ecotourism, Laos is leading the way in Southeast Asia. Protected areas blanket the landscape in many of the more remote areas of the country, and community-based trekking and cultural initiatives contribute to the local community and preserve the environment.
Travelers rave about Laos for a reason. Adventure seekers can lose themselves in underground river caves, on jungle ziplines or while climbing karsts. Nature enthusiasts can take a walk on the wild side and spot gibbons or elephants. Culture lovers can explore ancient temples and learn about Lao spiritual life. Foodies can spice up their lives with a Lao cooking class or go gourmand in the French-accented cities. And if all this sounds a little too strenuous, then unwind with a spa session or yoga class. Laos has something for everyone.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Laos.
Luang Prabang's best-known monastery is centred on a 1560 sǐm (ordination hall). Its roofs sweep low to the ground and there's a stunning 'tree of life' mosaic set on its western exterior wall. Close by are several stupas and three compact little chapel halls called hŏr. Hŏr Ɖąi, shaped like a tall tomb, houses a standing Buddha. The Hŏr Ɖąi Pha Sai-nyàat, dubbed La Chapelle Rouge – the Red Chapel – by the French, contains a rare reclining Buddha. Fronted in lavish gilt work, the Hóhng Kép Mîen stores a ceremonial carriage, festooned with red-tongued naga (river serpents) designed to carry the golden funeral urns of Lao royalty.
Joining a truly fascinating 18-point tour is the only way to see Vieng Xai's seven most important war-shelter cave complexes, set in beautiful gardens backed by fabulous karst scenery. A local guide unlocks each site while an audio guide gives a wealth of first-hand background information and historical context. The Kaysone Phomvihane Cave still has its air-circulation pump in working order and is the most memorable of the caves. Tours leave from the cave office at 9am and 1pm. If you want a tour outside of these two times, you'll have to pay a 50,000K surcharge per group.
Bucolic Wat Phu sits in graceful decrepitude, and while it lacks the arresting enormity of Angkor in Cambodia, given its few visitors and more dramatic natural setting, these small Khmer ruins evoke a more soulful response. While some buildings are more than 1000 years old, most date from the 11th to 13th centuries. The site is divided into six terraces on three levels joined by a frangipani-bordered stairway ascending the mountain to the main shrine at the top. Visit in the early morning for cooler temperatures (it gets really hot during the day, and on the lower levels there isn't any shade) and to capture the ruins in the best light. Make sure to grab a map at the entrance as there is little to no signage here. Lower Level The electric cart takes you past the great baray (ceremonial pond; nŏrng sá in Lao) and delivers you to the large sandstone base of the ancient main entrance to Wat Phu. Here begins a causeway-style ceremonial promenade lined by stone lotus buds and flanked by two much smaller baray that still fill with water, lotus flowers and the odd buffalo during the wet season. Middle Level Wat Pu's middle section features two exquisitely carved quadrangular pavilions built of sandstone and laterite that are believed to date from the mid-10th or early 11th century. The buildings consist of four galleries and a central open courtyard. Wat Phu was converted into a Buddhist site in later centuries but much of the original Hindu sculpture remains in the lintels, which feature various forms of Vishnu and Shiva. A good example is the eastern pediment of the north pavilion, which is a relief of Shiva and Parvati sitting on Nandi, Shiva's bull mount. Next to the southern pavilion stands the much smaller Nandi Hall (dedicated to Shiva's mount). It was from here that an ancient royal road once led over 200km to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In front is a smaller version of the initial causeway, this one flanked by two collapsed galleries, leading to a pair of steep staircases. At the base of a second stairway is an impressive and now very holy dvarapala (sentinel figure) standing ramrod straight with sword held at the ready. Most Thai and Lao visitors make an offering to his spirit before continuing up the mountain. If you step down off the walkway and onto the grassy area just north of here you'll come to the remains of a yoni pedestal, the cosmic vagina-womb symbol associated with Shaivism, and two unusually large, headless and armless dvarapala statues half-buried in the grass. These are the largest dvarapala found anywhere in the former Angkorian kingdom. After the dvarapala a rough sandstone path ascends quickly to another steep stairway, atop which is a small terrace holding six ruined brick shrines – only one retains some of its original form. From here two final staircases, the second marked by crouching guardians also sans heads and arms, take you to the top, passing through the large terraces you saw clearly from the bottom of the mountain. Shade is provided along much of this entire middle-level route from dork jąmpąh (plumeria or frangipani), the Lao national tree. Upper Level On the uppermost level of Wat Phu is the sanctuary itself. It has many carvings, notably two guardians and two apsara (celestial dancers), and it once enclosed a Shiva lingam that was bathed, via a system of sandstone pipes, with waters from the sacred spring that still flows behind the complex. The sanctuary now contains a set of very old, distinctive Buddha images on an altar. The brick rear section, which might have been built in the 9th century, is a cella (cell), where the holy lingam was kept. Sculpted into a large boulder behind the sanctuary is a Khmer-style Trimurti, the Hindu holy trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Further back, beyond some terracing to the south of the Trimurti, is the cave from which the holy spring flowed into the sanctuary. Up a rough path to the north of the Trimurti, a Buddha footprint and an elephant are carved into a rock wall. Just north of the Shiva lingam sanctuary, amid a mess of rocks and rubble, look around for two unique stone carvings known as the elephant stone and the crocodile stone. Crocodiles were semi-divine figures in Khmer culture, but despite much speculation that the stone was used for human sacrifices, its function – if there was one – remains unknown. The crocodile is believed to date from the Angkor period, while the elephant is thought to date from the 16th century. Also look out for an interesting chunk of staircase framed by two snakes and some small caves that were probably used for meditation in ancient days. When you've seen everything here, just sitting and soaking up the wide-angle view of the baray, the plains and the Mekong is fantastic. A small shop sells snacks and cool drinks.
Dominating the old city centre and a favourite with sunset junkies, the 100m-tall Phu Si (prepare your legs for a steep 329-step ascent) is crowned by a 24m gilded stupa called That Chomsi. Viewed from a distance, especially when floodlit at night, the structure seems to float in the hazy air like a chandelier. From the summit, however, the main attraction is the city views. Beside a flagpole on the same summit there's a small remnant anti-aircraft cannon left from the war years. Ascending Phu Si from the northern side, stop at Wat Pa Huak. The gilded, carved front doors are usually locked, but an attendant will open them for a tip. Inside, the original 19th-century murals show historic scenes along the Mekong River, including visits by Chinese diplomats and warriors arriving by river, and horse caravans. Reaching That Chomsi is also possible from the southern and eastern sides. Two such paths climb through large Wat Siphoutthabat Thippharam to a curious miniature shrine that protects a Buddha Footprint. If this really is his rocky imprint, then the Buddha must have been the size of a brontosaurus. Directly southwest of here a series of gilded Buddhas are nestled into rocky clefts and niches around Wat Thammothayalan; this monastery is free to visit if you don't climb beyond to That Chomsi.
Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country on earth, and although the American War in neighbouring Vietnam ended more than 40 years ago, unexploded ordnance (UXO) continues to wound and kill people. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. Its excellent Visitor Centre, part of the organisation's National Rehabilitation Centre, offers myriad interesting and informative multimedia exhibits about prosthetics and the UXO that sadly makes them necessary. Several powerful documentaries are shown on a rolling basis in a theatre, and there's a gift shop and cafe, 100% of the proceeds of which go to supporting COPE's projects in Laos.
Svelte and golden Pha That Luang, located about 4km northeast of the city centre, is the most important national monument in Laos – a symbol of Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty. Legend has it that Ashokan missionaries from India erected a tâht (stupa) here to enclose a piece of Buddha's breastbone as early as the 3rd century BC. A high-walled cloister with tiny windows surrounds the 45m-high stupa. The cloister measures 85m on each side and contains various Buddha images, including a serene statue of Jayavarman VII, the great Angkor-era king who converted the state religion of the Khmer empire to Buddhism.
More a glorified set of rapids than a waterfall, but oh, how glorious it is. The largest and by far the most awesome waterfall anywhere along the Mekong, Khon Phapheng is pure, unrestrained aggression, as millions of litres of water crash over the rocks. While pricier than the similar Tat Somphamit, this place, with its gardens and walking paths, is more attractive. You can also get down closer to the rapids. There are several viewpoints in resort-like grounds, plus many restaurants and snack shops. With luck you can catch some rainbows in the early-morning mist. And like all the waterfalls in this area, there's a shaky network of bamboo scaffolds on the rocks next to the falls used by daring fishers. A free shuttle runs continuously between both ends of the park – a 500m trip. Be sure to check out the pavilion for the legendary Manikhote tree, which is 150m or so in from the entrance. You can't miss it, actually. Khon Phapheng is on the eastern shore of the Mekong near Ban Thakho. From Ban Nakasang it's 3km out to Rte 13, then 8.5km southeast to the turn-off and another 1.5km to the falls. A tuk-tuk from Nakasang costs about 50,000K return with an hour's wait time. You can also easily motorcycle down from Don Khong. The falls are included in kayak tours out of Don Det and Don Khon. Since amateurs can't kayak anywhere near these falls, you'll be taken there by vehicle as your kayaks are driven up to Ban Nakasang.
Located 25km southeast of central Vientiane, eccentric Xieng Khuan, aka Buddha Park, thrills with other-worldly Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, and was designed and built in 1958 by Luang Pu, a yogi-priest-shaman who merged Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, mythology and iconography into a cryptic whole. It's a bizarre, delightfully dilapidated compound that's great for a wander and a photo op. Bus 14 (8000K, one hour) leaves Talat Sao Bus Station every 20 minutes for Xieng Khuan. Alternatively, charter a tuk-tuk (250,000K return).
The former home of Kaysone Phomvihane, the first leader of an independent Laos, has been made into this quirky but worthwhile museum. The house is inside the former USAID/CIA compound, known as 'Six Klicks City' because of its location 6km from central Vientiane. It once featured bars, restaurants, tennis courts, swimming pools, a commissary and assorted offices from where the Secret War was orchestrated. During the 1975 takeover of Vientiane, Pathet Lao forces ejected the Americans and occupied the compound. Kaysone lived here until his death in 1992. Today, the house includes Kaysone's half-empty bottles of scotch, tacky souvenirs from the Eastern bloc, running shoes, notepads and original Kelvinator air-conditioners. Even the winter coats he wore on visits to Moscow remain neatly hanging in the wardrobe. A Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) guide will show you through the house, making for a remarkably good-value experience. Kaysone's house can be tricky to find, so it's easiest to backtrack from the nearby Kaysone Phomvihane Museum. Head back towards the city centre and turn right at the first set of traffic lights, continuing about 1km until you see the sign on your right that says 'Mémorial du Président Kaysone Phomvihane'. Alternatively, a tuk-tuk will cost around 40,000K from the centre.