Little Laos is often overshadowed by its big hitting neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. But with lush countryside, winding rivers and peaceful temples, it’s a destination that demands attention. Lose yourself in Luang Prabang, mooch around ancient palaces in Vientiane and discover Si Phan Don, possibly the most relaxing place in Asia.
Time moves slowly in Laos. Buses between Vientiane and Luang Prabang take their own sweet time, but if you’re in a hurry, domestic flights are possible. Within larger towns, jumbos, similar to tuk–tuks, offer a convenient way to cover large distances. Vientiane has a number of metered cabs available for hire.
The slow pace of life in Laos makes it the ultimate destination for watching the world go by. Luang Prabang, in the north of the country, hugs the banks of the Mekong river. Monks dressed in orange robes pour out of the town’s 33 monasteries each morning to collect alms from locals and visitors. At night, the town’s streets buzz with a pretty night market selling trinkets, clothes and street food to visitors.
Hire bikes here and you can easily ride out into rolling hills and lush paddy fields around town, the perfect way to see another side of this popular destination.
Once a hedonists’ paradise, Vang Vieng has become a hotspot for outdoor types, who come to enjoy the excellent kayaking on the Nam Song river and world class climbing in the limestone peaks nearby.
The capital Vientiane has a laid back charm all of its own. Unlike any other major city in South East Asia, its palaces and temples are quiet and easily reached on foot. A stroll along the Mekong at night is a must.
Further south is Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands, an inland archipelago on the Mekong that’s home to stunning wildlife, including freshwater dolphins.
The caves around Vang Vieng were long overlooked by the party crowds who flocked to this town until 2012. But with the focus shifting to adventure travel, the underground networks are a great way to explore a whole other side of the country.
Pakse, in southern Laos, is easily skipped on the way to Si Phan Don. But take some time here to see the stunning Wat Luang temple before heading to the spectacular Tad Lo waterfalls on the Bolaven Plateau. It’s also possible to visit ethnic villages here and see another side of life in Laos.
The ubiquitous Beerlao is impossible to miss and is best drunk straight from the fridge while watching the sun go down over the Mekong in one of Luang Prabang’s myriad riverside bars.
Luang Prabang’s night market also has a dedicated food section where you can try Laos–style food, largely based on the steaming noodle soups found across the border in Vietnam.
In Vientiane, step back from the riverside and you’ll find a series of shophouses selling sensational Tom Yam soup. Be sure to have a glass of water to hand, as the Laos take on this Thai classic can be seriously fiery.