We remember asking a friend: Is Laos worth visiting? It was just after they’d returned from a two-month jaunt through Southeast Asia more than 10 years back. The reply? OMG yasss! In fact, said friend would wax lyrical about Laos more than any other country from their travels. They spun tales of mysterious Buddhist temples that seemed to rise from the jungles, the murky waters of the Mekong River, and eye-watering karst ranges haloed in mist. We had to go…
Thus, our love affair with this landlocked corner of Southeast Asia was started. We’ve now been there a couple of times and always look forward to a return. And when we’re not traipsing around the temples of Luang Prabang or dreaming of encounters with gibbons in the woods, we’re putting together pieces like this, to share the joys of this amazing country with fellow globetrotters.
Yep, if you’re wondering is Laos worth visiting this year, then be sure to read on. This JTG guide runs through seven of the undisputed highlights of the country, from its UNESCO towns to its great riverways, its long-lost waterfalls to its rustic character. Let’s go…
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It’s one of Southeast Asia’s off the beaten path destinations…
When we first visited Laos back in 2012 (jeez, that long?), the country was often introduced using some version of the mantra, “Thailand but 20 years ago”. It’s been almost 10 years since then but we’re pretty sure that the mantra still rings true. Yes, there are more hostels, hotels, cafés, and backpacker bars now than there were then, but there’s still a feeling that Laos remains far more untrodden and off the beaten path than its near Southeast Asian neighbors.
Just a glimpse at Google Maps is usually enough to prove that theory correct. Compare the proliferation of roads in Laos to the vast network of highways that sprawls across Thailand. Then look at the size of the cities – even the capital of Vientiane (more on that later) covers just a fraction of what Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi do.
As the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, Laos also doesn’t have to deal with the hordes of visitors who come this far east in search of sparkling beaches. What’s more, the government has helped to keep out-of-control tourism in check (the tale of Vang Vieng’s boom and bust is a case in point). And there’s a deep religiosity and attachment to traditions here, meaning the whole place just feels rawer and more authentic overall.
There was a time when just a mention of the name Vang Vieng would conjure images of one of the most booze-soaked and hedonistic towns in Southeast Asia. Yep, this one once went head-to-head with the likes of Kuta, Bali, Ko Phangan, and the Phi Phis. It was famed as the tubing capital of the region, and thousands of backpackers flocked in to guzzle cheap whisky (or was it rum?) while drifting down the bends of the Nam Song River.
But then all that suddenly stopped. A mega crackdown spearheaded by the Laotian government started in 2012 after multiple reports of injuries and even deaths on the tubing river. The bars were closed, while their endless shot deals and rope swings were wound up for good.
In the last decade, Vang Vieng has been reborn as something of adventure tourism hub. With a range of particularly stunning karst mountain peaks on the horizon, not to mention caves and kayaking courses on the doorstep, it’s a major place for climbers and trekkers and water sportsters. The tubing isn’t over, but it’s not the raucous blowout it once was. The upshot? We’d say Vang Vieng is a doozy for the adrenaline junkies, and nowhere near as tacky or in-your-face as before. All good things.
The temple tops of Luang Prabang stand out like a set of jewels amid the lush jungles of north-central Laos. Welcome to one of Asia’s most arresting, most beguiling, and beautiful cities. The whole place is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed for its rich Buddhist traditions and unique blend of colonial and classical architecture.
Most people coming here pull up on longboats fresh off the Mekong. That adds to the mystery – how often do modern globetrotters get to arrive somewhere by boat? The jetties lead to a steep riverbank which tops out in the amazing Historic District. That’s where you’ll encounter the bustle of the Luang Prabang bazaar, a haze of spice stalls and strange souvenir shops selling things like whiskey-preserved snake heads.
Temples are one of the top draws in Luang Prabang. There are a couple to see in the downtown area near the boats, uing the gorgeously whittled Wat Xieng Mouane and the huge Wat May Souvannapoumaram with its elephant-carved buttresses. We’d also recommend taking a trip to the areas up the Nam Khan River to the east, which are filled with vegan eateries and beer bars that have fantastic views of the surrounding jungles and mountains.
Is Laos worth visiting for a trip to the capital of Vientiane alone? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean this buzzy metropolis on the sides of the wide Mekong River should be ignored. It’s still a fascinating place, and the closest the country gets to anything like the sort of megacity you find over in Bangkok and Vietnam.
It’s right on the side of the Thai-Laos border. In fact, look south-west from the main promenades on the Mekong River and you’ll be gazing straight into the Land of Smiles. There are three main districts in the center where the backpackers tend to congregate – Watchan, Xiengyeun Thong, and around Chao Anouvong Park. Together, they offer a mix of Irish pubs (obviously!) and hostels, bakeries with French baguettes and 7/11 shops.
You won’t want to miss the daily Vientiane Night Market. It’s a hubbub of sellers and fairground rides where you can buy tacky souvenirs and meet the locals. The strange Buddha Park of Wat Xieng Khouane Luang is also worth a trip. A touch to the east of the city, it’s filled with haunting religious effigies in a lush botanical garden.
The Mekong River
The Mekong River is one of the defining geographical features of Southeast Asia. It runs all the way from the tail-end of the Himalaya up in the desolate Tibetan Plateau to the sparkling South China Sea in southern Vietnam. After China, Laos is home to more miles of that great waterway than any other country. It goes all the way from the tri-state join of Myanmar and Thailand in the north to border with Cambodia in the south.
Apart from being the lifeblood for many Laotian villages and towns, the river is a real tourist draw. One of the top things to do on the H2O is to ride a longboat through the country. It’s a bucket-list adventure that starts in the Land of Smiles (the boarding docks are at the town of Huay Xai on the Thai border) and ends in the UNESCO city of Luang Prabang, taking two full days of sailing through pristine jungles along the way.
The other great highlight of the Mekong in Laos is the so-called 4,000 Islands. They’re known locally as the Si Phan Don, a mass of tiny rocks and sandbanks that spreads through the river as it gushes over into Cambodia. The backpacker town of Don Det is the hub there, offering access to countless waterfalls, wetlands, and river lookout points, where you might even spot one of the uber-rare Irrawaddy dolphins (yep, dolphins in the river!).
No trip to Southeast Asia would be complete without at least a day spent at a paradise waterfall. Thailand has the Erawan National Park. Cambodia has the cataracts of Ka Choung. Vietnam has the stunning Ban Gioc Waterfalls on the border with China. Don’t worry – Laos also has its own gems, and they’re usually hidden away in the lush jungles where you can find them without too many other people about to spoil the view.
The best of the bunch for us is the Kuang Si Falls. They’re a stone’s throw outside of the temple-topped city of Luang Prabang, dropping over a trio of rock terraces in the middle of the rainforest. The falls form a series of glistening pools of milky-turquoise water. Many are open for swimming and are linked up by well-maintained boardwalk trails. It’s 2,000 LAK ($2) entry.
Some of the more remote waterfalls of Laos reside up in the truly off-radar Champasak Province. That’s the home of the soaring Bolaven Plateau, a highland landscape of humid mountains and gushing riverways. It’s likely that you’ll need to trek to the spots in these parts. The reward will be altogether wilder cataracts, like the dramatic Tad Fane falls, which wisp like angel hairs from the summit of a chiselled gorge.
Although Laos has suffered from pretty bad deforestation in the last half a century, it’s still got some of the most pristine jungles in the world. In fact, a whopping 50% of the country is still covered in forest. That’s compared to just 37.1% in Thailand and 44% in Vietnam. On top of that, the government has passed robust forest protection laws (2007) aimed to preserve the primeval woods for generations to come.
Visitors can now take part in all sorts of eco-tourism activities that should let you experience this part of Laos in a sustainable way. The Gibbon Experience is arguably the most famous of the lot. It’ll whisk you out to the canopies of the forests around Huay Xai in the far north of the country, and involves ziplining from treehouse lookout points in the company of rare and highly intelligent apes.
Alternatively, you could embark on trekking adventures in the southern Bolaven Plateau region. Loads of packages for that leave from the city of Pakse and include stops in famous waterfalls (see above) and trips to coffee plantations.
So, is Laos worth visiting?
Let’s be honest – this guide was never going to end by saying nope, don’t bother visiting Laos. Really, it was more about gushing over the country’s great draws. And there are loads of them, from the gold-tipped temple complexes of Luang Prabang to the lush rainforests of the north where the gibbons reside.
Laos remains the most untouched and untrodden of all the Southeast Asian backpacking destinations. It’s a trip back in time to see a more authentic side of a region that’s all too tainted by mass tourism. There might not be beaches, but you will find deep religious traditions, handsome colonial architecture, earthy villages, and oodles of unspoiled natural landscapes.