Laos is a treasure trove of natural and architectural wonders. With a little patience and some time you can see incredible man-made and natural wonders from north to south in the Lao PDR. Don’t miss these top 10 things to see and do.
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. Even if you don’t make it for the festival, the stupa is a sight to behold any time of year. Join the faithful and place offerings of flowers, candles and incense at the alter, or quietly stroll around the massive enclosed yard.
Along with the Champasak Cultural Landscape, the 5th century Khmer ruins of Wat Phou is the second inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List of Laos. Wat Phou, meaning ‘mountain temple.’ Blended into the surrounding nature, the remains of Wat Phou are dotted all over the mountain face. 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.
Tad Lo is 56 miles (90 kilometers) away from the southern town of Pakse. Soak in the visual and aural splendor of the falls or take a dip and cool off from heat. Three cascades make up the falls: Tad Hang, Tad Lo itself and Tad Suong. Accommodations are available to spend the night and enjoy the surrounding scenery. Tad Lo is an impressive three-tiered waterfall in Salavan Province. Several guesthouses 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.
Don Det has a beach at its northern tip that doubles as a ferry landing. You can also take a dip in the Mekong, the largest river in Southeast Asia, on either of the two beaches on Don Khon–one by Liphi Falls and one farther south. Easy Go Backpackers Hostel on Don Det has a beach area and Don Som Riverside Guesthouse has a swimming spot on Don Som. If river swimming isn’t your thing and you’d rather lounge by the pool, check out the one by Little Eden Guesthouse at the north end of Don Det or the Blue Lagoon Swimming pool at the southern tip of the island.
No trip to Vientiane is complete without checking out the sculptures in Buddha Park. Also called Xieng Kuan, this family-friendly park on the banks of the Mekong is 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) from downtown Vientiane. Over 200 Buddhist statues are on display in the park, including a giant domed structure that visitors can climb inside to view the park from above. The Park is full of sculptures that reflect the religious interests of the founder, Luang Pu Bunleau Sulilat, who began the work on the park in 1958. He was interested in merging the beliefs of Buddhism with those of Hinduism, so you’ll find concrete sculptures of the Hindu gods, demonic figures, zoomorphic creatures, and many of the Buddha, including a 40-meter-long reclining Buddha. There’s also a huge pumpkin sculpture, which can be entered through the mouth of a demon leading to three floors representing earth, heaven and hell.
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 30-40 meters high, which are accessible by zip line. Listen to and look for the elusive and endangered gibbons in the forest. Two and three-day tours are available with children between eight and 12-years-old paying half price. Unplug away from electricity, two-and-a-half hours outside the city of Houayxay in Nam Kan National Park.
Plain of Jars’ thousands of mysterious megalithic jars are scattered throughout Xiang Khuang Province in northeastern Laos. Dating from the iron age, the oldest jars go back to 500 BC. The largest “King Jar” is at Site 1 and the longest jar is at Site 2. It’s possible to hire a guide to take you on a trek from Site 2, which is behind a rice paddy to Site 3, which is in the forest on top of a hill. The leading theory suggests these stone vessels were used in burial rituals. Evidence suggests that bodies were distilled in the jars until only bones remained. The bones were then removed and interred in a ceramic jar or in the ground. 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.
Vang Vieng is on the banks of the Nam Song, and no trip would be complete without experiencing the river first hand. Many tour companies around town offer kayaking, often as part of a day tour that includes lagoons and caves. Tubing can be arranged through a tour company or directly at several tube warehouses around town, and includes a tuk-tuk ride upstream. Head to the Mulberry Farm if you want to bar hop or further up if you just want to lay back and relax. Tubing the “southern Nam Song” is certainly quieter with fewer bars and tourists, but it also doesn’t offer the stunning views of the karst mountains that the northern section does.
In the north of Laos lies Luang Prabang, a portion of the old town which is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. Ride or cycle to Kuang Si or Tad Saw waterfalls, take a boat cruise down the Mekong river, and eat local Lao or fantastic French food at one of the restaurants in town. This former royal capital is home to some of the most elaborate and best preserved temples in the country. Visit the Royal Palace and the watermelon-shaped Wat Wisunarat or hike up Mount Phousi for sunrise or sunset.
Near Ban Tajok is an impressive waterfall with 30 tiers and a well-kept adventurous jungle trail that crosses back and forth through the water. If you arrive on motorbikes, drive to the right at the “waterfall” sign at the fork in the road to park at the top of the trail, and walk or hitchhike down the steep dirt road to the basin. The basin has picnic areas, bathroom and a small shop but is not accessible without four-wheel drive, especially after rain. This off the beaten path adventure gives Kuang Si a run for its money in terms of spectacular views, amazing hikes and the added bonus of no tourists in sight.