21 Life-Changing Experiences You Can Only Have in Laos

4000 islands at Champasak, Laos | © By Niti Kantarote / Shutterstock
4000 islands at Champasak, Laos | © By Niti Kantarote / Shutterstock | Niti Kantarote / Shutterstock
Photo of Regina Beach
4 January 2018

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.

Bokeo Gibbon experience

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.

Cycle Vientiane to Luang Prabang

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.

Tiger Trails Outdoor Adventures Laos, Sisavangvong Rd, Luang Prabang +071 252 655

Slow boat from the border to Luang Prabang

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.

Slow boat on the Mekong | © Dan Searle/Flickr

Plain of jars

Archaeological site
Plain of Jars - Site One
Plain of Jars - Site 1 | © James Antrobus / Flickr
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.

Boat through Cave Kong Lor

Natural Feature
Cave Kong Lor
Cave Kong Lor | Regina Beach
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.

Rock climb in Thakhek

Thakek Green Climbers
Thakek Green Climbers | Regina Beach
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.

That Luang Festival

Buddhist Temple
Pha That Luang, Vientiane Laos
Pha That Luang, Vientiane Laos | © Jialiang Gao / Wikicommons
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.

Luang Prabang Film Festival

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.

Luang Prabang Film Festival | © Courtesy of Featured Organization

Si Phan Don

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.

Si Phan Don, Champasak Province, Lao PDR

Homestay with a Hmong or Khmu Family

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.

Hmong Girls | © Garry Jenkin/Flickr

Pi Mai

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 New Year | © Darren On The Road/WikiCommons

Visit Wat Phou

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.

Drink Lao Hai

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.

Lao Hai | © BigBrotherMouse/WikiCommons

Experience the Ho Chi Minh Trail

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.

Field Visit | © Lao PDR Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) Media Trip/Flickr

Eat Buffalo ice cream

Cheesemonger, Ice Cream, Dessert
Laos Buffalo Dairy
Laos Buffalo Dairy | © Regina Beach
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.

Go tubing down the Nam Song

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.

Tubing | © Chris Feser/Flickr

Eat your fill of sticky rice

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.

Sticky Rice | © mattjkelley/Flickr

Elephant Festival

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.

Elephant | © Sasint/Pixabay

Take a Lao cooking class

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.

Lao Cooking Class | © Amy Zirkle/Flickr

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