Laos destinations

about A land of the lotus eaters amid the bloated development of its neighbours, Laos brings together the best of Southeast Asia in one bite-sized destination.

An Authentic Asia

Laos retains many of the traditions that have disappeared in a frenzy of development elsewhere in the region. It's hard to believe somnolent Vientiane is an Asian capital, and there's a timeless quality to rural life, where stilt houses and paddy fields look like they are straight out of a movie set. Magical Luang Prabang bears witness to hundreds of saffron-robed monks gliding through the streets every morning in a call to alms, one of the region’s iconic images. Intrepid travellers will discover a country untainted by mass tourism and Asia in slow motion – this is Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), or ‘please don’t rush’ as the locals like to joke.

A Kaleidoscope of People

Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region, reflecting its geographic location as a crossroads of Asia. The hardy Hmong people live off the land in remote mountain communities of the north, remote Kahu and Alak communities of the south have the last remaining traditional face tattoos, and the Katang villages of central Laos sleep with the spirits of the forest. Whether it is the cities of the lowlands or the remote villages of the highlands, Laos offers some wonderful opportunities for local interaction.

Fifty Shades of Green

With its dark and brooding jungle, glowing emerald rice fields, and the glistening tea leaves that blanket the mountains, the landscape in Laos changes shades of green like a chameleon. But it's not just the luscious landscapes that are green: when it comes to ecotourism, Laos is leading the way in Southeast Asia. Protected areas predominate in remote areas of the country, and community-based trekking combines these spectacular natural attractions with the chance to experience the 'real Laos' with a village homestay.

Eclectic Asia

Travellers rave about Laos for a reason. Adventure seekers can lose themselves in underground river caves, on jungle zip lines or while climbing karsts. Nature enthusiasts can take a walk on the wild side and spot exotic animals such as gibbons or elephants. Culture lovers can explore ancient temples and immerse themselves in Lao spiritual life. Foodies can spice up their lives with a Lao cooking class or go gourmand in the French-accented cities. And if all this sounds a little too strenuous, then unwind with a spa session or yoga class. Laos has something for everyone.

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From its sleepy tuk-tuk drivers to its cafe society and affordable spas, this former French trading post is languid to say the least. Eminently walkable, the historic old quarter of Vientiane (ວຽງຈັນ) beguiles with glittering temples, lunging naga (river serpent) statues, wandering Buddhist monks, and boulevards lined with frangipani and tamarind.

Meanwhile, with most of its old French villas now stylishly reincarnated into restaurants and small hotels, Vientiane is achieving an unprecedented level of panache with a distinctly Gallic flavour. For the well-heeled traveller and backpacker the city acquits itself equally well, be it with low-cost digs and street markets, or upscale boutique accommodation and gastronomic eateries.

Whether you spend your time in Vientiane lounging over a novel in an old-fashioned bakery, shopping in silk shops or swigging Beerlao while drinking up the fiery sunset over the Mekong, once you leave you’ll miss this place more than you expected.

Sights

The Legend of Wat Si Muang

Legend has it that a group of sages selected the site for Wat Si Muang in 1563, when King Setthathirat moved his capital to Vientiane. Once the spot was chosen, a large hole was dug to receive the heavy stone pillar (probably taken from an ancient Khmer site nearby) that would become the lák méuang (city pillar). When the pillar arrived it was suspended over the hole with ropes. Drums and gongs were sounded to summon the townspeople to the area and everyone waited for a volunteer to jump into the hole as a sacrifice to the spirit.

Depending on who's relating it, the legend has several conclusions. What is common to all of them is that a pregnant woman named Sao Si leaped in and the ropes were released, killing her and in the process establishing the town guardianship. Variations include her leaping in upon a horse, and/or with a diminutive monk.

However, Lao scholars think that if there is any truth to this story it is likely to have occurred much earlier than Setthathirat's time, in the pre-Buddhist Mon or Khmer periods when human sacrifice was ritually practised…and that Sao Si's legendary leap might not have been her choice at all.

Viewing Pha That Luang

Each level of Pha That Luang has different architectural features in which Buddhist doctrine is encoded; visitors are supposed to contemplate the meaning of these features as they walk around. The first level is an approximately square base measuring 68m by 69m that supports 323 sĕe máh (ordination stones). It represents the material world, and also features four arched hŏr wái (prayer halls), one on each side, with short stairways leading to them and beyond to the second level.

The second level is 48m by 48m and is surrounded by 120 lotus petals. There are 288 sĕe máh on this level, as well as 30 small stupas symbolising the 30 Buddhist perfections (báhlamée săhm-síp tat), beginning with alms-giving and ending with equanimity.

Arched gates again lead to the next level, a 30m by 30m square. The tall central stupa, which has a brick core that has been stuccoed over, is supported here by a bowl-shaped base reminiscent of India's first Buddhist stupa at Sanchi. At the top of this mound the superstructure, surrounded by lotus petals, begins.

The curvilinear, four-sided spire resembles an elongated lotus bud and is said to symbolise the growth of a lotus from a seed in a muddy lake bottom to a bloom over the lake's surface, a metaphor for human advancement from ignorance to enlightenment in Buddhism. The entire tâht was regilded in 1995 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR), and is crowned by a stylised banana flower and parasol. From ground to pinnacle, Pha That Luang is 45m tall.

Around Vientiane

There are several places worth seeing that are an easy trip from Vientiane; some make good day trips while others could detain you for much longer. Popular places include the jungle and homestays of Phu Khao Khuay NPA and the islands and bays of Ang Nam Ngum.

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Sleeping

Vientiane is bursting with a wide range of accommodation, from cheap backpacker digs to beautiful boutique hotels and huge monolithic corporate hotels. Budget-wise, for shoestringers it's easy to stretch your cash and hole up in a dorm for a few dollars, while you can pay hundreds of dollars a night in a top-end hotel. In the middle of these two extremes are some clean, intimate guesthouses for around $US20 per night (for a double room).

Eating

For such a small capital city, Vientiane boasts a range of culinary options and is an exceptional spot for fine dining on a budget.

Global Cuisine

The city has a wide range of global cuisine, including everything from falafel at an authentic Turkish restaurant to upscale Japanese and Korean barbecue. The streets that radiate off Th Setthathirath are vivid with smells and steam as old-school restaurants serve up fine Italian and French fare in the choicest of surroundings.

Lao food has in recent years enjoyed a real contemporary makeover with well-executed traditional dishes given a modern twist in 21st-century-style restaurants. If it's comfort food you seek, look no further than the bakeries left by the French footprint, for the city is famous for its fresh-baked baguettes and crispy croissants, with full-bodied coffee that could make the Seine glow green with envy.

For all its Gallic refinement Vientiane is equally informal; cheap food on the hop can be grabbed from street vendors dotted around the old quarter, and the impromptu braziers that fire up grilled chicken and Mekong fish on skewers. And don't miss the chance to wander through the redolent witch's broth that is Chinatown on Th Hengboun.

Oodles of Noodles

Noodles of all kinds are popular in Laos, and Vientiane has the country's greatest variety. The most popular noodle of all is undoubtedly fĕr, the local version of Vietnamese pho, served with beef or pork and accompanied, Lao-style, by a huge plate of fresh herbs and vegetables and a ridiculous amount of condiments. Also popular are kòw Ъûn, the thin rice noodles known as kànǒm jeen in Thailand, taken in Laos with a spicy curry-like broth or sometimes in a clear pork broth (kòw Ъûn nâm jąaou). There's also kòw Ъęeak sèn, thick rice- and tapioca-flour noodles served in a slightly viscous broth with crispy deep-fried pork belly or chicken.

Other popular noodles include mii (traditional Chinese egg noodle), particularly prevalent in the unofficial Chinatown area bounded by Th Hengboun, Th Chao Anou, Th Khounboulom and the western end of Th Samsènethai, and bǎn kǔan (Lao for bánh cuôn), a freshly steamed rice noodle filled with minced pork, mushrooms and carrots, a Vietnamese speciality that is popular in Laos. Look for it in the mornings near the intersection of Th Chao Anou and Th Hengboun.

Drinking & Nightlife

Vientiane is no longer the illicit pleasure palace it once was. Beerlao has replaced opium as the drug of choice and brothels are strictly prohibited, though predatory ladyboys can still be found lurking like noisy vampires on Th Setthathirath come nightfall.

Most bars close by midnight, apart from a few late-night stragglers. Karaoke is popular, as are live-music performances.

Entertainment

Like everything else, Vientiane's entertainment scene is picking up as money and politics allows, though the range remains fairly limited. By law, entertainment venues must close by 11.30pm, though most push it to about midnight.

Shopping

Just about anything made in Laos is available for purchase in Vientiane, including hill-tribe crafts, jewellery, traditional textiles and carvings. The main shopping area in town is along Th Setthathirath and the streets radiating from it.

Activities

Popular activities in the city centre include enjoying a rub down in a spa and some cultural experiences with local hosts via the Backstreet Academy.

Swimming

There are several places in Vientiane where you can work on your stroke or simply take a cooling dip. You could try Sengdara Fitness, where a day pass costs 90,000K, including the pool. Several hotels welcome non-guests, including the beautiful Settha Palace Hotel, with its decadent pool and surrounding bar.

Beyond Vientiane City Centre

There are several activities located beyond the Vientiane city centre that can be combined together in a rewarding day trip. If planning a visit to Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), then include stops at the Lao Disabled Women's Development Centre and the Sinouk Coffee Pavilion, both located along the way. This can be done as a long bicycle ride, an easy motorbike trip or by public bus using the number 14 from Talat Sao Bus Station.

Travel with Children

Small by the standards of Asian megacities, Vientiane is not such a daunting prospect for families. Many midrange hotels now have swimming pools and there is even the Ocean Park water park in town. Vientiane's sights are not particularly noteworthy for children, but they should appreciate the surreal sculptures of Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park) and clambering around the larger monuments.

LGBT Travellers

While Lao culture is very tolerant of homosexuality, it’s a pretty low-key scene compared to neighbouring Thailand. Vientiane is the most liberal city in the country, but it’s also the political capital, and there are only a handful of gay venues in the city. Visit www.utopia-asia.com/laosvien.htm for Vientiane services and venues.

What to do in Vientiane

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Luang Prabang (ຫລວງພະບາງ) slows your pulse and awakens your imagination with its combination of world-class comfort and spiritual nourishment. Sitting at the sacred confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan (Khan River), nowhere else can lay claim to this Unesco-protected gem's romance of 33 gilded wats, saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas and exquisite Gallic cuisine. Over the last 20 years Luang Prabang has seen a flood of investment, with once-leprous French villas being revived as fabulous – though affordable – boutique hotels, and some of the best chefs in Southeast Asia moving in. The population has swollen, and yet still the peninsula remains as sleepy and friendly as a village, as if time has stood still here. Beyond the evident history and heritage of the old French town are aquamarine waterfalls, top trekking opportunities, meandering mountain-bike trails, kayaking trips, river cruises and outstanding natural beauty, the whole ensemble encircled by hazy green mountains.

Sights

Xieng Mouane Area

A series of lanes and narrow linking passages run down to the enchanting Mekong riverfront with its shuttered colonial-era house-fronts, river-facing terrace cafes and curio shops.

The Upper Peninsula

The northern tip of the peninsula formed by the Mekong River and the Nam Khan is jam-packed with glittering palm-fronded monasteries. Well before dawn they resonate mysteriously with drumbeats and as the morning mists swirl they disgorge a silent procession of saffron-clad monks. The most celebrated monastery is Wat Xieng Thong, but several others are quieter, less touristy, and intriguing in their own right.

A fine viewpoint overlooks the river junction from outside Hotel Mekong Riverside. At the peninsula's far tip, a bamboo bridge (toll 5000K return) that's rebuilt each dry season crosses the Nam Khan, allowing access to a 'beach' and basic sunset-watching bar and offering a shortcut to Ban Xang Khong, 1km northeast.

Wat Wisunarat (Wat Visoun) Area Two of Luang Prabang's most historically important temples lie amid palms in pleasant if traffic-buzzed grounds offering glimpses towards Phu Si.

South of the Centre

A short bike ride south of the city brings you to quiet streets peppered with wats, of which the oldest is Wat Manorom. Here you'll also find the edifying UXO Laos Information Centre and brilliant Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre.

Across the Mekong River

For a very different 'village' atmosphere, cross the Mekong to Muang Chomphet. To get there, take a cross-river boat (local/foreigner 2000/5000K) from the navigation office behind the Royal Palace. Boats depart once they have a handful of passengers. Alternatively, boatmen at various other points on the Luang Prabang waterfront will run you across to virtually any point on the north bank for around 20,000K per boat. If water levels allow, a good excursion idea is to hire such a boat to the Wat Longkhun jetty then walk back via Ban Xieng Maen to the main crossing point. However, reaching Wat Longkhun by boat isn't always practicable due to seasonally changing sandbanks.

Above the ferry landing on the other side, a branch of Jewel Travel Laos rents mountain bikes (per day 50,000K). However, you'll need neither bike nor map to visit the series of attractive monasteries that are scattered east along the riverbank from the traffic-free village of Ban Xieng Maen.

Across the Nam Khan River

In the dry season, once water levels have dropped significantly, a pair of bamboo footbridges (2000K) are constructed, making for easy access to the Nam Khan's east bank and its semi-rural neighbourhoods. When the river is high (June to November), the bridges disappear.

Crossing the southern bamboo bridge, climb steps past the highly recommended garden cafe Dyen Sabai, emerging beside Wat Punluang. The road to the left leads to Watpakha Xaingaram with its ruined shell of a temple, and Wat Xiengleck, in an Angkorian-style state of atmospheric dilapidation. Half a kilometre beyond, Ban Xang Khong has a 400m-strip of old houses and craft boutiques where you can watch weavers and papermakers at work and buy their work. The most striking gallery-workshop is Artisans du Mekong, behind a giant 'tusk' gateway, with its pleasant cafe.

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Sleeping

For sybarites looking to recapture the comforts of old Indochine, there are more world-class hotels and stunning boutique belles here than you can shake a copy of Hip Hotels at! For the traveller who is vigilant with their dollars there are mid-scale bargains to be had in clean simple guesthouses, while for those on a strict budget, there are loads of hostels and super simple digs. In high season, prices rocket and it's hard to get a room anywhere. Old town peninsular accommodation generally comes at a premium but is more peaceful.

Some impressive ecolodges and resorts can be found in the lush countryside beyond Luang Prabang.

Eating

After the privations of the more remote areas in Laos your stomach will be turning cartwheels at the sheer choice and fine execution of what's on offer here. Aside from some very fine Lao restaurants, the gastro scene is largely French. Luang Prabang also has a terrific cafe scene, with bakeries at every turn.

Drinking & Nightlife

The main stretch of Th Sisavangvong northeast of the palace has plenty of drinking places, including some appealing wine bars. Two of the city's best bars, Chez Matt and the delectable Icon Klub, are yards from one another on a nameless road connecting the two river banks (but much closer to the Nam Khan). The main hub for drinkers is just south of Phu Si on Th Kingkitsarat around Lao Lao Garden. Legal closing time is 11.30pm and this is fairly strictly enforced.

Activities

Some of the most popular activities in Luang Prabang are based in the countryside beyond, including trekking, cycling, motocross, kayaking and rafting tours. A new destination is the forest attraction Green Jungle Flight, with its flowering gardens, waterfalls, natural pools, cafe and ziplines. In Luang Prabang itself, it's all about temple-hopping, cookery classes and cycling.

Shopping

The best areas for shopping are Th Sisavangvong and the Mekong waterfront, where characterful boutiques selling local art, gilded buddhas, handmade paper products and all manner of tempting souvenirs abound. Silver shops are attached to several houses in Ban Ho Xieng, the traditional royal silversmiths' district. And don't forget the night market where you'll find a cornucopia of handicrafts.

Travel with Children

While wats and museums may not seem a recipe for excited children, there are now plenty of attractions in and around Luang Prabang that will get their attention. Children of all ages will love Tat Kuang Si and Tat Sae for the natural swimming pools and ziplines; the former also offers a fascinating glimpse of Asiatic Wild Moon bears in their impressive enclosure. New to Kuang Si is the Kuang Si Butterfly Park and Green Jungle Flight. Boat trips on the Mekong, such as to Pak Ou Caves, are a nice diversion for budding explorers.

Older children will enjoy the activities on offer around town like cycling or kayaking. The younger ones can spend some time on the playground and ziplines at the ABC School. There are plenty of family-friendly cafes around town, but if it's a swimming pool they crave, then it's probably better to consider accommodation beyond the old town or make for the chilled out La Pistoche during the day.

LGBT Travellers

Though it's not advisable to be outwardly amorous with your partner, there are many gay-owned restaurants and bars where you'll be made to feel welcome. For a list of these visit www.utopia-asia.com.

What to do in Luang Prabang

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Like a rural scene from an old Asian silk painting, Vang Vieng (ວັງວຽງ) crouches low over the Nam Song (Song River) with a backdrop of serene cliffs and a tapestry of vivid green paddy fields. Thanks to the Lao government closing the river rave bars in 2012, the increasingly toxic party scene has been driven to the fringes and the community is rebooting itself as an adrenaline-fuelled adventure destination with some impressive accommodation options on tap. The town itself is no gem, as concrete hotels build ever higher in search of the quintessential view, but across the Nam Song lies a rural idyll.

Spend a few days here – rent a scooter, take a motorcycle tour, go tubing or trekking – and soak up one of Laos' most stunningly picturesque spots. But explore with care and enjoy it sober, as the river and mountains around Vang Vieng have claimed too many travellers' lives already.

Sights

Vang Vieng towards Luang Prabang

The road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang winds its way up over some stunningly beautiful mountains and back down to the Mekong at Luang Prabang. If you suffer from motion sickness, take precautions before you begin.

Roughly 20km north of Vang Vieng, Ban Pha Tang is a pretty riverside village named after Pha Tang, a towering limestone cliff. The town's bridge offers a very photogenic view of its namesake.

In the middle of a fertile valley filled with rice fields, Kasi, 56km north of Vang Vieng, is a lunch stop for bus passengers and truck drivers travelling on this route. The surrounding area is full of interesting minority villages, and there are allegedly a few big caves in the area, but few people bother to stop as there isn't much in the way of tourist infrastructure.

Uncle Tom's Trail Bike Tours in Kasi is a reputable operator with decent 125cc hybrid motocross bikes on which to learn to ride off-road (an essential skill for motorcycle travel in Laos).

If you've got trailblazing on your mind, you can base yourself at Somchit Guesthouse, an expansive and tidy hotel about 1km north of the city. Another option is to book a basic room at Vanphisith Guest House, conveniently located near the bus-stop restaurants.

While Kasi town isn't memorable, the road on towards Luang Prabang certainly is, despite the ravages of slash-and-burn agriculture. For around 50km to Phu Khoun you'll ascend through some of the most spectacular limestone mountains to be found anywhere in Laos.

The Tham Sang Triangle

A popular half-day trip that's easy to do on your own takes in Tham Sang plus Tham Hoi, Tham Loup and Tham Nam, all within a short walk. Begin this caving odyssey by riding a motorcycle or taking a jumbo 13km north along Rte 13, turning left a few hundred metres beyond the barely readable Km 169 stone.

A rough road leads to the river, where you cross a toll bridge (5000K), or during the wet season, a boatman will ferry you across to Ban Tham Sang (20,000K return). Tham Sang itself is right here, as is a small restaurant.

Tham Sang, meaning 'Elephant Cave', is a small cavern containing a few Buddha images and a Buddha 'footprint', plus the (vaguely) elephant-shaped stalactite that gives the cave its name. It's best visited in the morning when light enters the cave.

From Tham Sang a path takes you about 1km northwest through rice fields to the entrances of Tham Hoi and Tham Loup. The path isn't entirely clear, but the local kids are happy to show you the way for a small fee. The entrance to Tham Hoi is guarded by a large Buddha figure; reportedly the cave continues about 3km into the limestone and an underground lake. Tham Loup is a large and delightfully untouched cavern with some impressive stalactites.

About 400m south of Tham Hoi, along a well-used path, is the highlight of this trip, Tham Nam. The cave is about 500m long, and a tributary of the Nam Song (Song River) flows out of its low entrance. In the dry season you can wade into the cave, but when the water is higher you need to take a tube from the friendly woman near the entrance; the tube and headlamp are included in the entrance fee. Dragging yourself through the tunnel on the fixed rope is fun.

If you've still got the energy, a path leads about 2km south from Tham Nam along a stream to Tham Pha Thao, a cave said to be a couple of kilometres long with a pool in the middle. Otherwise, it's an easy 1km walk back to Ban Tham Sang. This loop is usually included in the kayaking/trekking/tubing combo trip run by most Vang Vieng tour operators.

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Sleeping

Since the 24-hour party was officially extinguished in 2012, there are now too many guesthouses (100-plus) for the reduced footfall. And while many of the midrange and top-end hotels are enjoying good business with the wealthier Asian demographic, it's the Western backpacker joints that are languishing. Increasingly boutique hotels are moving in as Vang Vieng ditches its dreads in favour of stylish threads.

Eating

Vang Vieng isn't exactly Luang Prabang, but there are a few decent restaurants dotted around town. Unfortunately, many long-time favourites have been run out of town in recent years due to skyrocketing rents.

Local Vendors

For Lao food, a string of breakfast vendors sets up shop every morning across from the Organic Mulberry Farm Cafe. In the evenings, hit the strip of Th Luang Prabang near Chillao where you'll find popular Mitta Pharp, serving seen dàat (Korean-style barbeque), and a grilled-meat vendor, the wooden shack adjacent to Chillao.

Drinking & Nightlife

The new and improved Vang Vieng has ditched all-night parties in favour of a more chilled scene. However, there are still some late-night shenanigans at places like Sakura Bar and the weekly 'Jungle' parties.

Getting Around

Vang Vieng is easily negotiated on foot. Renting a bicycle (15,000K per day) or mountain bike (30,000K per day) is also popular; they're available almost everywhere. Most of the same places also rent motorcycles from about 50,000K per day (automatics cost 80,000K). For cave sites out of town you can charter sŏrngtăaou near the old market site: expect to pay around US$10 per trip up to 20km north or south of town.

Travel with Children

Like many places in Southeast Asia, travelling with children in Laos can be a lot of fun as long as you come prepared with the right attitude. The Lao people adore children and in many instances will shower attention on your offspring, who will readily find playmates among their Lao peers and a temporary nanny service at practically every stop.

LGBT Travellers

For the most part Lao culture is pretty tolerant of homosexuality, although lesbianism is often either denied completely or misunderstood. In any case, public displays of affection, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are frowned upon.

While there are no laws criminalising homosexuality, the gay and lesbian scene is certainly more hidden these days and not nearly as prominent as in neighbouring Thailand. Authorities recently shut down drag shows in Vientiane and banned gay-friendly establishments from marketing themselves as such with rainbow flags. That doesn't mean they've disappeared!

Use these helpful resources to find the latest on Laos' gay scene:

Sticky Rice (www.stickyrice.ws) Gay travel guide covering Laos and Asia.

Utopia (www.utopia-asia.com) Gay travel information and contacts, including some local gay terminology.

What to do in Vang Vieng

Best attractions, Tours & Excursions for you, check it out!

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