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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.