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Luang Prabang is perhaps the first place Lao people and tourists alike think of when asked: “What is the most beautiful place in Laos?” The former Royal Capital is situated on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, preserving its many elaborately decorated wats and architecture that fuses colonial French style with traditional Lao wooden building techniques. Outside the city are stunning waterfalls, calves, temples and mountains.
The southwestern most province in Laos, Champasak is brimming with cultural and natural wonders. Fly into the former French fort town of Pakse and check out Wat Phou 40 km south on the western side of the Mekong. Further down stream are the slow-paced 4,000 Islands on the Cambodian border. Check out the largest waterfall in southeast Asia, watch the Irrawaddy dolphins playing in the river and sip a drink from the comfort of a hammock.
Take a bus to central Laos to see the limestone karst vistas on the Thkhek loop. Khammouane stretches the width of Laos from the Mekong River border with Thailand to the Annamite Mountain border with Vietnam. Check out Kong Lor cave via motor boat, swim at Tha Falang or go on a waterfall trek. Organized tours can be booked in Thakhek through Green Discovery. Alternatively there are several motorbike rental outfits for those who want to see the loop on two wheels.
Luang Namtha, the provincial capital of the province with the same name, is located in northwestern Laos and borders Myanmar and China. The town is a jumping off point for lots of ecotourism trips in the area. Check out the Nam Ha National Protected area which has four rivers running through it and is home to species such as the clouded leopard, first growth forests, birds and insects. Trekking, cycling and kayaking tours are available.
Houaphan Province is on the Vietnamese border. The capital city is Sam Neua, which lies in a foggy valley and produces detailed textiles that can be purchased at the market or from weavers’ homes. Visit Vieng Xai cave where President Kaysone Phomvihane (whose likeness can been seen on the Lao Kip) hid during the Vietnam War. The royal family was incarcerated in prison camps in the area. Rent bikes or trek through the pristine valley in this beautiful area rarely visited by tourists.
Bokeo province is the smallest in Laos and part of the infamous golden triangle between Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Home to the Bokeo Nature Reserve and The Gibbon Experience multi-day zip lining and trekking adventure. Bokeo is known for its gem mining and beautiful mountain ranges. Over 30 ethnic groups call Bokeo home and homestays or visits to ethnic villages can be arranged.
With an average altitude of over 1,000 meters above sea level, this northern-most province of Laos is much cooler than the rest of the country and often chilly at night. Sharing a border with China and Vietnam, the province contains Ban Komaen, home to a 400-year-old tea tree and the Phu Den Din National Protected area with incredible hiking and mountain views. The capital city of Phongsali is accessible via a 10-hour drive from Udomxai, a two-day boat ride or a flight from Vientiane.
Phonsavan is the capital of the northern Lao province of Xieng Kuang, which borders Vietnam. The city itself is home to the Lao-run Mulberry Silk Farm and workshop and several UXO organizations. Further afield in the province are natural hot springs, caves where Pathet Lao leaders hid during the Vietnam War and the Plain of Jars. Hundreds of megalithic vessels which were used in Bronze Age funerary traditions litter the rolling hills. Some of the sites are cleared of bombs and welcome tourists freely. Some require a trekking guide to access safely and others are off limits entirely.
Attapeu Province is in the southeastern corner of Laos bordering Vietnam and Cambodia. Said to be the last untouched frontier of Laos, a large part of the province is covered by the Dong Ampham National Biodiversity Conservation Area. Check out noted waterfalls sans tourists such as Tad Saephe, Tad Samongphak, Tad Phok, and Tad Phaphong. Visit the volcanic crater that is Nong Fa lake, said to be haunted by a snake-pig creature who eats those who swim in its depths. Visit during the dry season as Attapeu is not yet set up for tourism and many roads wash out in the rain.
Sainyabuli Province lies west of the Mekong, bordering Thailand in northern Laos. Nam Phouy National Biodiversity Conservation Area is home to herds of Asian elephants. The Lao Elephant Conservation Center is located in the province and has a heard of 30, including several that were born through breeding programs at the center. Gibbons and sun and moon bears also call the conservation area home.
Salavan Province, like Savannakhet and Khammouane to the north, spans the width of Laos from Thailand to Vietnam. Salavan has a large coffee growing region as part of the Bolevan Plateau, which is part of a three-day small loop or seven-day big loop around Champasak, Attapeau, Sekong and Salavan provinces. Visit the charming town of Tad Lo and hike and swim in the falls. Several biodiversity areas include Xe Bang Nouan, Xe Xap National Biodiversity Conservation Area, and The Phou Xiang Thong Important Bird Area.