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Laos is a country in recovery. Its beautiful landscapes are home to some 80 million unexploded bombs. This is the horrific aftermath of the Vietnam War. The U.S. dropped some two million tons of bombs throughout Laos between 1964 and 1973, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. These bombs still haunt Laos’s countrysides, with about 50 people being killed every year by these cluster bombs, or “bombies.”
This certainly takes a toll on the country, especially as it’s one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. But with many things so seemingly tragic, there is a silver lining.
Laos is one of the most beautiful countries in Southeast Asia. Rolling rice fields grace its countrysides. The Mekong River weaves in and out of cities and villages that are authentic and have yet to be modernized or transformed by the tourism industry, unlike many other Southeast Asian countries. Historical sites, gripping museums, and jaw-dropping nature can be found throughout the land. Laos is beautiful, authentic, and definitely worth a visit. So, why not take a look at our 10-day itinerary for those visiting Laos?
Start your trip to Laos by flying into Luang Prabang, the most northern city on our itinerary. From here, we’ll travel south to Vang Vieng, Vientiane and finally to Si Phan Don, which means Four Thousand Islands.
One your first day in the city, wake up early to make the hour drive to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Southeast Asia: Tat Kuang Si. Legend has it that the Tat Kuang Si waterfall was formed when a wise old man revealed the waters of the Nam Si by digging deep into the earth. After the waters flowed through Tat Kuang Si, a beautiful deer made its home under a big rock that protruded from the falls. The water falling onto the rock created a loud, echoing chant. This echo was so loud, it drew people to the waterfall, some even as far away as China. This is how it got the name Tat Kuang Si. Tat means waterfall, kuang means deer, and si means to dig. The large rock the story refers to, however, is no longer there. It was destroyed in December 2011 by a small earthquake.
Spend a day exploring and swimming in these historic falls before heading to Luang Prabang’s seemingly never-ending night market. You can pick up some great souvenirs here, including Laos coffee and Laos liquor. It’s here you’ll find scorpion and snake-filled bottles of Laos whiskey. Many of the stands will let you try a shot or two. Visiting this market is a great way to support the locals in this city, as well.
The next city you’ll visit is about five hours south of Luang Prabang, called Vang Vieng. The city, at first, may seem like a haven for backpackers, but there’s so much more the city has to offer other than drunken tubing down the Mekong River, which lures them in the first place.
Vang Vieng has a wide variety of food that will please even the pickiest of eaters. With a plethora of Laos, Thai and Western cuisine, your taste buds won’t be disappointed as you meander from restaurant to food vendor in search of the perfect meal. They also have many vegetarian options.
The highlight of Vang Vieng is its beautiful landscapes. The city has everything from caves to rivers to jungles. The sunset will have you floored until the minute it sets over the mountains. You can take the time to explore the Mekong River with either a full or half-day tour, which can be found all over the city. While the lure of the city itself is its party scene, you can spend an entire day kayaking, tubing through caves, and zip lining through Laos’s beautiful, scenic countryside for about 250,000 kip ($31).
The Blue Lagoon is another, naturist haven you cannot miss while traveling through Vang Vieng. There is a 10,000 kip entrance fee to get into the park (about $1.25). You’ll find locals gathering here and enjoying Laos cuisine while soaking up the sun on the banks of some of the bluest water you have ever seen. There’s also a rope swing you can plunge into the water with, as well as a makeshift tree house for those of you who are brave enough to jump into the icy water. If you grow tired of swimming, make your way to the Phu Kham Cave. It offers tourists both some exercise (the hike itself it quite the trek) as well as a look at its golden, reclining Buddha once inside. The entrance is free, but you can rent a headlight for 10,000 kip if you don’t have a phone or flashlight, which we highly recommend.
From Vang Vieng, you can travel about four more hours south to Vientiane. This quaint capitol city is scattered with temples and statues, making it possible to spend a day exploring the city by foot and getting your bearings. Afterwards, venture to the COPE Visitor Centre to learn more about Laos’s tragic history and relationship with the millions of bombies that have yet to be found or gone off throughout the country.
COPE Visitor Centre is free to enter, but donations are accepted. Visitors are able to explore the small museum and see an abundance of displays focusing on the aftermath of the “secret war” that is still claiming victims in Laos. The secret war was a CIA-led mission during the Vietnam War, which dropped millions of bombs in hopes of blocking Vietnam’s supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. COPE Visitor Centre also has an air-conditioned theater with a plethora of documentaries to choose from, all tragically moving, eye-opening, and informative. Once you’ve finished one, you can have someone at the front desk start a new one for you.
After visiting COPE Visitor Centre, make your way via tuk tuk or motorbike to Buddha Park, also known as Wat Xieng Khuang. You can rent a motorbike for 75,000 kip ($9.30) for the day. Just a mere forty minutes from the city center, or about 25 kilometres southeast of Vientiane, Buddha Park is a beautiful, patchy area of scattered shrines. The entrance is a mere 10,000 kip ($1.25).
Four Thousand Islands will be the last stop of your trip. You can either fly or take a bus into Pakse, and from there you will take about a bus ride that’ll take about two hours to get to the shore of the islands.
You can visit and stay on one of two islands. Don Det is catered to the young, backpacker generation, with bars and party locations lining the Mekong River. If you’re looking for somewhere quieter, you must look to stay further from the main pier where most of the bungalows are located. If you want to avoid the party scene altogether, you should stay on Don Khon. It’s more local, and there are not as many foreigners and bungalows found here.
Spend one day exploring the island via bicycle. After having kayaked in Vang Vieng, it’s nice to get some exercise and see the island on land. You’ll pass everything from rice fields to herds of cattle blocking your path. Bicycles cost about 10,000 kip ($1.25) for the entire day. Be sure to pack plenty of water and sunscreen though, as the brutal Laos heat can really take a toll on you. Be warned that most of the bicycles don’t have gears, so navigating some of the hills will be challenging, yet a rewarding way to see the island.
While the waterfall in Luang Prabang is beautiful, the Khone Phapheng Falls certainly gives it a run for its money. These falls run rapidly all the way into Cambodia. The Khon Phapeng Falls are incredibly powerful, with water pounding off rocks as it navigates its way down the falls. There are also many activities you can book on the island, including Irrawaddy dolphin spotting, kayaking, and tubing. In the evening, sit on the shores of the islands for dinner to catch an amazing sunset over the Mekong River. Nothing is more rewarding after a long day of bicycling than a good meal and fantastic views.