With very little by way of global commercialisation (you won’t find a Starbucks or McDonald’s in the entire country), visiting Laos can feel like you’ve been transported to another universe or gone back in time. Check out these 21 experiences you can only have in this Southeast Asian nation.
The Gibbon Experience is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Hike through the jungle of the most northwestern province of Laos and sleep in the treetops in the world’s tallest tree houses accessible by zip line. Listen to and look for the elusive and endangered gibbons in the forest.
Tiger Trails offers an epic 17-day assisted bike tour loop from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and back again. Stops in Vang Vieng and Xayaboury Province are included on the route as well. See the rice paddies, vistas, villages and local people from your bike saddle. If 17 days seem daunting, they have other packages for day trips and short overnights.
If you’re entering Laos from the Lao-Thai border in the north, Nagi of Mekong offers a two-day river cruise on a 118 foot (36m) traditional Lao river boat. Start in Houay Xai, stay overnight in a guest house, and arrive in Luang Prabang the next day. Cruises are available upstream from Luang Prabang to Houay Xai as well.
Thousands of mysterious megalithic jars are scattered throughout the Xiangkhoang Plateau in northeastern Laos. Dating from the iron age, the oldest jars go back to 500 BC. The leading theory suggests these stone vessels were used in burial rituals. Nine of the 90 sites containing jars have been cleared of UXOs, so stick to the established routes and bring a guide out trekking with you.
Kong Lor Cave is located in Khammouane Province in central Laos. It’s an impressive 4.5 miles long (7.5 km) and was carved by the Hinboun River that runs through it. Take a boat ride through the cave and marvel at the glowing emerald pool and rocky ceilings over 300 feet (91m) tall.
Green Climbers Home in Khammouane Province, just outside of Thakhek, is run by a German couple Tanja and Uli. Over 300 routes are mapped on the limestone karst and attract climbers of all abilities from all over the world. Plan a day trip or stay overnight in a bungalow or tent. Climbing classes are available for newbies and rental equipment is available at the on-site restaurant.
Boun That Luang takes place every November, over three days around the full moon. The stupa in Vientiane is the national symbol of Laos and is said to house a piece of Buddha’s breastbone. Thousands of pilgrims gather at That Luang to give offerings to the monks who come from all over Laos. Processions, parties, and a trade show follow.
Every December, hundreds of blue plastic chairs are set up in the northern Lao city of Luang Prabang for a free outdoor festival celebrating Southeast Asian films in the UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition to showing feature-length films, the festival shows short films and hosts talks with directors and actors.
Si Phan Don means ‘4,000 islands’ in Lao language and is literally a group of thousands of rock outcroppings as well as a few habitable islands in the far south of Laos on the Cambodian border. Go for a bike ride, look for the elusive irrawaddy river dolphin, and take in the rapids at Khone Phapheng falls, the largest waterfall by volume in Southeast Asia.
Tad Lo is an impressive three-tiered waterfall in Salavan Province. Several guest houses and restaurants around the falls make it an ideal lunch spot or stopover for trekking, swimming, and tubing. Tad Lo is accessible by bus, motorbike or as part of a group tour package of the Bolaven Plateau.
Several tour operators run overnight trekking trips where visitors stay with an ethnic minority family. White Elephant Adventures does this while supporting rural children with educational supplies. These tours provide a livelihood for locals, while allowing visitors to partake in the life of a totally different culture. Laos is home to 49 tribal groups which give rise to 160 ethnicities and 82 different languages. Many of these people live in very remote parts of the country.
Every April, Laos shuts down for three days to celebrate the Lao New Year. Buddha statues, houses and villages are cleaned for the new year. Huge water fights take place on the streets. Beauty pageants, dancing and parties are all part of the fun.
The Khmer ruins of Wat Phou lie in Champasak Province in Southern Laos. Oriented toward the east, the ruins have two large reservoirs on either side of a long column-lined road, leading toward the mountains. Past the palace ruins, up a steep staircase, you’ll find the sanctuary with a modern Buddhist shrine and a natural spring considered to be sacred.
Lao Hai is traditional Lao whiskey distilled from rice and stored in clay jars. It is often sipped through long bamboo straws in communal fashion. Women are often the ones who make and sell the alcohol. While clear, distilled Lao-Lao is commercially available, Lao Hai is usually found in small batches by home brewers.
The war museum in Ban Don in Savannakhet Province has information and relics about the CIA’s secret war in Laos. Several tanks, a plane, munitions and other items are on display. The Ho Chi Minh Trail passed through Laos to supply the Viet Cong in southern Vietnam. The attempts to cut off the supplies led to Laos being the most heavily bombed country relative to its population.
Laos Buffalo Dairy, the first commercial dairy in the country, is located on the road from Luang Prabang to Kuang Si Falls. The dairy produces include yogurt, ice cream, and cheeses from the milk of a buffalo. Tours for the public are slated to begin by the end of 2017, but visitors are welcome to pop in.
The Xe Pian National Protected Area is home to an incredible variety of plant and animal species. Covering parts of Champasak and Attapeu provinces in southern Laos, the park is home to tigers, elephants, many bird species and monkeys. Visit for the day or hire a guide to do an overnight trek.
Vang Vieng, a town 3.5 hours north of the capital of Vientiane, is famous for tubing. Rent a big tractor inner tube and get a tuk tuk to take you up stream. Float down the river, stopping at the riverside bars to play drinking games and volleyball, and sip a Beer Lao before getting back in your tube and heading downstream again.
Glutinous sticky rice, or Khao Niao, is a staple of the Lao diet. It’s consumed at all meals and served in big bamboo baskets where it’s eaten by hand. Grab a wad and smash it into a little ball to dip into sauces or scoop up vegetables or meat. Instead of boiled, sticky rice is steamed in a bamboo basket over a pot of boiling water traditionally over a charcoal stove or open flame.
For three days every February in Sayaboury Province, upwards of 70 elephants and their trainers gather for the Lao Elephant Festival. The festival increases awareness about elephant training and welfare, and offers attendees the opportunity to bathe and feed these endangered animals.
Lao cooking classes are available in Vientiane (check out the Lao Experience) as well as Luang Prabang (look into Tamarind’s offerings.) Learn about the flavour profile of Lao cuisine including lemongrass, garlic, chilis and padek, or Lao fish sauce. Cook fish wrapped in banana leaves, then make laap and mango sticky rice for dessert.