Landlocked Laos is one of Asia’s most enchanting destinations. Stunning natural beauty—think mist-shrouded mountain peaks flanked by jungle-clad valleys—combine with a fascinating Buddhist culture to make Laos a superb destination for backpackers and independent travellers, while luxury tourists are also well-catered for.
Communist Laos flung open its doors to tourism in the early 1990s and the decades since have witnessed a steady growth in traveller numbers. The country is changing fast, but pockets remain well off-the-beaten-track, ready to be explored by the adventurous few who are willing to forego the usual tourist luxuries. Those who want to experience a real taste of rural Southeast Asian life will be delighted. Our Laos travel guide is here to help you get the most out of each and every one of your trips to Laos, beginning with the simple guidelines below aimed at first-time travellers to the country.
People tend to make a beeline straight for Luang Prabang when they talk about the highlights of Laos. While it’s true that the northern reaches of the country have more of the top-shelf attractions, the slow pace of travel in the south can also be very endearing. Most first-time travellers head to north Laos first, south second.
Luang Prabang: The charming city of Luang Prabang, once the capital of Laos and still considered to be its spiritual heart, breathes a rich meld of French Indochinese architecture, Theravada Buddhist temples and a magical atmosphere.
Vang Vieng: Natural wonder, backpacker mecca, party central, Lima Site 6: Vang Vieng, 155 kilometres north of Vientiane on the road to Luang Prabang, has been given many labels. The small town’s striking river landscape lined with towering karst has lured travellers right from the get-go and remains stunning despite being well-visited.
Vientiane: For many years a sleepy backwater capital of an equally backwater state, as Laos has slowly opened up to foreign investment and tourism Vientiane has undergone vast changes and continues to expand. It’s a small city with an easy charm, and it harbours growing ambitions.
4,000 Islands: We’re not sure if anyone has ever actually totalled up these islands at the far southern reaches of Laos, but there are at least three worth your attention: Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Dhon.
Nong Kiaow: A small town on the banks of the Nam Ou River, Nong Kiaow boasts a gorgeous backdrop of imposing limestone mountains, picturesque river views and genuine local colour.
Pakse: While it doesn’t measure up to the low-key splendour of Luang Prabang, Pakse has a definite charm, some beautiful wats and two gorgeous rivers—great for enjoying some eats and drinks by the waterside and watching the sun smoulder into the horizon.
Don Dhet: Referred to by some as Khao San Road on the river, Don Dhet is a classic backpacker hub with just a fraction of the shenanigans that take place on Khao San Road.
Luang Nam Tha: Nestled in mountainous northern Laos just a hop, skip and a jump from the Chinese border, Luang Nam Tha is an excellent base for trekking and other outdoor activities, particularly in and around the Nam Ha National Protected Area.
Phonsavan: Xieng Khuang province is the site of the mysterious Plain of Jars, the origins of which is unclear, inciting international debate. The best place to explore the Plain from is Phonsavan.
Muang Ngoi: A gorgeous, sleepy town, Muang Ngoi gets our vote as one of the friendliest places in all of Laos. Simple as that.
Champasak: Set on the banks of the Mekong in one of its wider sections, Champasak is the kind of town where you can end up staying a few days just reading a book and recharging. It is also the leaping off point for spectacular Wat Phu.
Don Khong: The largest island in the Si Phan Don area, the interior of Don Khong is almost entirely given over to rice cultivation and a forested mountainous area, while just about all the accommodation is crammed into and around the sleepy town of Muang Khong, on the island’s east coast. Chill out here.
Vieng Xai: About an hour by songthaew from Sam Neua is the neat and tidy town of Vieng Xai, set among beautiful karst limestone mountains rising dramatically out of rice fields. During the Secret War this area was the seat of command for the most powerful members of the Pathet Lao; the caves they inhabited are the major reason for visiting Vieng Xai.
Tha Khaek: Across the Mekong River from the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom you’ll find Tha Khaek—the biggest, most tourist-friendly town in the province—and also the base for the best scooter loop in the country.