Imagine slow-country back lanes, the Mekong delta and a country plagued with a disastrous secret history. Here’s a Laos adventure itinerary and the best places to visit in this small landlocked nation.
If you have watched Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode on Laos, you’ll understand the suffering of the Laotian people in the mountainsides who still face the effects of the Secret War where there are 80 million unexploded bombs.
This certainly paints a dark and gloomy picture of the poorest South East Asian country but with everything said, there is a glimmer of hope and stories of the rural everyday Laotians.
Most Laotians live in the rural areas with approximately 80% working in agriculture growing rice. Since the country is at a crossroads, the Chinese is keen on building mega infrastructures such as a railway project and the hydropower project which will transform the rural areas of Laos and displace many of their communities.
The huge ambitions may change the way Laos is seen in the coming years where a burgeoning sprawl of modern skyscrapers will soon take over this charming town. The best time and places to visit in Laos is now to understand the culture, biodiversity and their everyday stories before they disappear.
I experienced Laos on a bicycle, and I encourage you to see these towns on a two-wheeler, a tuk-tuk or any slow vessel that will take you to these places to seek and observe the communities who live on the fringes through an adventure itinerary in Laos.
1. Luang Prabang
The Mekong river on one side and the slow rustic villages on the other, Luang Prabang is an ancient town encircled by mountains and also tagged as a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is a great place to saunter around and experience the living quarters and see the French colonial architecture followed by rows of artisan shops.
Luang Prabang means the city of the ‘Golden Buddha Phra Bang,’ a 83cm statue of which is believed to be the source of the city’s protection since the 14th century. As you take in the sights and travel back in time, a visit to Wat Mai Palace is necessary to see the largest and most richly decorated of the temples in Luang Prabang. Built in the 18th century, the interiors are aesthetically pleasing and takes you back to the French influence that used to once dominate this little town.
You could also take in the views of the breathtaking Mekong delta atop Mount Phousi, a 100m hill with 300 steps for 20,000 kip. A lot of tourists make their way here for sunset views and the views don’t disappoint except for the crazy crowds.
And when you feel like you’ve done the touristy sights, it makes sense to learn about the history of Laos secret war at the UXO - Unexploded Ordinance Information Centre. The stories are countless and over here you’ll get a compelling insight into the survivor stories and dangerous work being done to clean up the bombs.
Where to stay in Luang Prabang?
2. Kuang Si Waterfalls
There may be many exotic places and waterfalls in the world which gets quite the buzz, but not much has been said about Laos majestic clear turquoise blue waterfall - the Kuang Si Waterfall.
All it takes is some negotiation skills to share a ride on a tuk-tuk, and 40 minutes later you’ll find yourself in a tranquil setting boasting some of the cleanest, and freshest waters with tiny cascades and lush foliage. For just 20,000 kips (the entrance fee), you get a full-fledged spa treatment and access to various trails, pools and secluded spots perfect for swimming and spending 3 to 5 hours.
Where to stay in Kuang Si waterfalls?
3. Khou Ki Cham
While there’s not much to do in Khou Ki Cham, it makes for the perfect getaway for an adventure ride from Luang Prabang on a bicycle to experience the other side of Laos. It might be a challenging ride with ascents up to 15km or 24km, but you get to see the hill tribe villages by the Hmong community, stunning winding roads and beautiful hilltop views.
The cherry on the cake is the basic guest house which has open balcony featuring the breathtaking highlands of Laos. If you don’t mind playing a little game of football with the locals and just being among the hill-tribes, Khou Ki Cham is the perfect stop to experience the back country roads of Laos.
Where to stay in Khou Ki Cham?
Khou Ki Cham Guesthouse (home-stay, walk-in and no booking required)
4. Phou Khoun
The layers and layers of mountain with rolling hills and green forests is what makes Phou Khoun so special. The town is filled with local people bustling about but not far from there situated on a hillside in Samyaekphoukhoun village, you’ll come across the conversatory site and a strawberry farm.
The weather is often cold here all year round and it is the best place to camp and see the stars come alive at night.
Where to stay in Phou Khoun?
5. Muang Kasi
Villages in Muang Kasi makes for a welcome change. On your journey to Muang Kasi, the landscape varies - from flat and fertile lands, you’ll notice the rugged limestone mountains and plantations of rice and cabbage. Muang Kasi is almost like a little oasis away from the hustle and bustle of Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
There’s even a Hot Spring Kasi Resort to rest your weary souls and take a break from the long journeys. While it is not a “resort” of any sorts, it still has a charming vibe with a simple wood bungalow that provides the basic facilities with stunning mountain views for a night’s rest.
Where to stay in Muang Kasi?
6. Vang Vieng
It might be known as an adventure paradise famous for its tubing incidents, but the town has slowly changed and allowed for activities to be more manageable, while keeping the river clean and the noise at moderate levels.
Kayaking, an alternate choice, provides more freedom for individuals looking to experience the Song river in Vang Vieng.
On the western side of the Song river, you can opt to hitch a tuk-tuk ride along dusty roads as you access minority villages, water buffaloes, and the infamous Blue Lagoons, a series of turquoise waterfalls.
That’s not all to the adventures in Vang Vieng, as there are multiple trails for you to explore with one of the most popular one being Pha Ngeun. We got there just before sunset and it takes you approximately 40 minutes to the first viewpoint and another 40 minutes to the second viewpoint.
Where to stay in Vang Vieng?
7. Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi
Before we went to Laos, almost every traveller raved about Nong Khiaw and its neighbouring town, Muang Ngoi. The laidback life, chilled vibes divided by the Nam Ou river is the perfect getaway to sip coconuts by the balcony and lay on a hammock.
The country is best seen by boat and a short boat ride from Nong Khiaw takes you to Muang Ngoi. It might be slightly more touristy and filled with many backpackers, but Muang Ngoi is the starting ground for a lot of hikes and visiting the Pha Noi cave. Many of these caves were used as shelter during the bombing episodes, hence staying to the beaten path is a wise idea in this part of Laos.
Once you’re back in Nong Khiaw, take on the 100 waterfall trek by Tiger Trail, Luang Prabang-based ecotourism company led by German founder Markus Neuer and the same company where we rented our bicycles from earlier. It is a 10km ascent but one can hardly make out if the claim is true due to the series of tumbling waterfalls.
Where to stay in Nong Khiaw?
Once you’re done experiencing Northern Laos, head over to Southern Laos via a rented car and experience Pakse, the capital of Champasak. Perhaps the second most populous city in Laos and famous for its spots like the Bolaven Plateau and Si Phan Don islands.
You can explore the evening streets and saunter along the river promenade facing the Mekong river and have a look at their Ban Tong Night Market, and also visit Wat Luang.
Where to stay in Pakse?
9. Bolaven Plateau
Most people traverse the Bolaven Plateau on a bike or a scooter, and it is perhaps the best way to take in the cascading waterfalls, visit the coffee hills and spend time in the hillsides. For 50,000 Kip, you can rent a bike and travel this region independently.
Tat Fan waterfalls is stunningly beautiful and one of the most popular sights along this stretch where you’ll see the double cascade of water at a height of between 100 and 120 metres. The glorious waterfalls of Laos does not end there as there are other ones like Tat Lo, Tat Hang, and Tat Soung.
Where to stay in Bolaven Plateau?
10. Si Phan Don 4,000 Islands
It almost feels like there’s no end to the natural wonders and myriad of waterfalls in Laos, and with good reason. This allows the country to develop its eco-tourism wonders and raise awareness of the ethnic groups and biological diversity; providing a source of income to conserve, sustain and manage the Lao protected area network and cultural heritage sites.
With that in mind, visiting places like the Si Phan Don which refers to as 4,000 islands, an archipelago of islands in the form of waterfalls where time slows down and picturesque postcard worthy views are met in abundance.
As you mark an end to your trip, take time to savour every moment and just enjoy your surroundings. The delights in one of the world’s most secluded countries are the small discoveries made along the way.
Where to stay in Si Phan Don?
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