Laos was a surprise to us as we’ve said before. We didn’t expect to enjoy this place so much and to, somehow, get attached to this lovely country. A month visa passed far too quickly and we sometimes regret not having the time to do more. Despite this, we’ve put together a list of our favourite activities in Laos per towns. Easily accessible, they will most likely make your adventure worth it and might give you a chance to discover the beauty of Laos. If you are not convinced head over to our photo-essay of Laos the forgotten. While there are a few activities to do in the South too or in towns like Vang Vieng, we’ve focused on the North (since we were crossing into China from there) to give you a list of things to do in Laos.
1. Visit Luang Prabang, a UNESCO site itself.
The town of Luang Prabang hasn’t been designated a Unesco site for nothing. With its history as a French colony in the time of Indochine, it kept a certain colonial charm, that is topped by the numerous Wat that surround the place. By day or by night, this town is peaceful and also offers some lovely landscapes. The shiny gold of the local temples resonate with the yellow facade of the nearby buildings, underlined by the wood of their roofs and the few palm trees that ornate the streets.
Nestled between two rivers, Luang Prabang is one of the most beautiful towns in South-East Asia and the best part is: many activities are available in its surroundings, probably enough to spend a week or two there.
2. Discover the Kuang Si Waterfalls.
Outside of Luang Prabang, one of people’s favourite spots to visit has to be the Kuang Si Waterfalls. With water of an emerald colour, it feels almost far too beautiful to go for a swim. With many pools in the area, you’ll get to choose which one appeals to you the most. Paradise for nature lovers and photographers alike, this place is almost always busy and full of tourists and locals, so be patient for the perfect shot of a waterfall you’ve been hoping for.
The first tier of the fall you will visit will most likely be empty, get shooting there before heading for the next tiers!
Around Kuang Si you will also find a bear sanctuary as well as a butterfly park. Donations to the bear sanctuary are more than welcomed.
3. Observe Tak Bak.
Still in Luang Prabang (I know… more? Really?), you might get the chance to observe the ceremony of Tak Bak early in the morning.
Tak Bak is consists of alms giving. People prepare themselves in the street, on their knees, to give rice to the monks during their procession around town.
This ceremony is, sadly, getting some bad press since a lot of tour guides and a lot of people are using it as a chance to get a selfie with a monk and to chase them around. Our best advice: pick a street, take some distance, wait and observe. Do not interfere with the ceremony. Limit yourself to only a few shots (I, myself, only took 3 before putting the camera away and simply observing). While this seems like common sense, it is still necessary to remind people to not touch the monks and give them plenty of space.
4. Step on the Bamboo bridge.
For 6 months of the year, the town of Luang Prabang has an unusual bamboo bridge spanning the river to link the old town to the newest area. This bridge is made entirely out of bamboo by local families and is completely dismantled and rebuilt again each year to avoid it’s destruction during the rainy season. Chances might be higher to see the bridge if you visit around the Summer.
Another reason to cross this bridge: not only you’ll get some great sunset views on the river but on the other side is a little pizzeria that makes some of the best pizzas we’ve had in a while (granted you don’t really go to Laos for the pizza…)
5. Take a Slow Boat to Luang Prabang.
If you are looking for a way to get into Laos, the slow boat from Thailand has to be a crowd favourite. While 2 days on a boat might seem long (and believe us, it is), this gives you a chance to get a rare glimpse of the country, its landscapes, its wildlife and a view of the villagers living from what the Mekong gives them.
You’ll find plenty of boats offering this opportunity and we’d advise you to give it a try. This is far from a luxury cruise however, facilities on board are rudimentary and comfort is minimal, but no worse than the buses are in this area.
6. Solve the mystery of the Plain of Jars.
If there is one big mystery in Laos it’s the plain of Jars. An expansive grassland littered with thousands of colossal stone jars. Nobody knows who built them or why, but we do know that they are over 3000 years old and many are large enough to hold ten men at a time.
Perhaps one of the reasons that no serious study of these artefacts has been undertaken lately is that the whole area is a vast minefield. Various NGOs have made inroads to clearing the area over the last few years but there are still estimated to be several million unexploded mines and bombs buried in the ground here, so whatever you do, stay within the marked pathways and don’t go wandering off alone.
7. Understand the extent of the bombing by visiting Ban Tajok.
The area surrounding Phonsavan (including the Plain of Jars) is the most heavily bombed area in the world. It’s hard to not feel the distress of the people and villagers around town who cannot plough a field or hammer in a fence post without the very real danger of encountering unexploded ordnance.
The MAG office in Phonsavan is a great place to stop by to get a view at the situation. If you want to see how locals make the best of their lot then visit the village of Ban Tajok. People there have taken the ‘swords to ploughshares’ idea and run with it. You’ll encounter herb gardens, flowers and crops being grown inside old bomb casings, and craftsmen converting the metal from these salvaged weapons in to everything from jewellery to useful implements like farming tools and cooking utensils.
8. Stop at the Russian tank to see a glimpse of the past.
If you are on your way to the third site of the Plain of Jars then stop by the Russian tank. It has now been dismantled and the gun has been taken to the local museum but you can observe this vestige of the past being slowly taken over by nature and also by the farmers nearby.
9. Stay with a local hill tribe.
One of my favourite things in Laos was in the North, in the town of Muang Sing near Luang Namtha. Around this small town live many local tribes, mainly the Yao and the Akha. Villages are numerous but tourism is fairly limited.
You’ll get the option to go on a trek from Luang Namtha and stay with an Akha family. If you push to Muang Sing, go and experience the Yao way of life. A tight community working hard in the rubber plantations and deeply caring for each other.
10. Enjoy a bit of luxury in the capital.
There are quite a few things to recommend around Vientiane but this town for us was just the perfect place to relax and splurge for a bit.
You’ll find great restaurants and hotels in town, it’s the perfect occasion to take care of yourself for a while after a few long bus journeys or stays in hotels with no hot water. A bit of luxury once in a while is an acceptable expense and Vientiane will give you a run for your money. Get a French breakfast, relax in a nice bath in a great hotel and go for a spa before heading home or to your next adventure.
What would we do if going back in Laos? Probably spend more time exploring the far North of the country and taking some time to follow the backpacker trails in the South to discover the 4 thousand islands and the caves. Laos will, most likely, take you by surprise. Don’t let the history of this country stop you and don’t consider it as a simple layover in between countries like we did.
What about you? Have you visited Laos and what were your favourite sites? Which one would you recommend? If you haven’t been yet, will you add it to your visit in South-East Asia?
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