Laos (Lao PDR officially) is one of Asia’s travel destination underdogs. It wasn’t on our original itinerary, but as we researched things to do in Laos it became obvious there was more to see than we had time for in 7-days. Here are the shimmering highlights of what we managed to squeeze in, including Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.
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We arrived in Laos from Thailand via a blissful two-day float cruise down the Mekong River. We had options to make our way by road or plane, but we chose the boat to mix things up a bit and see some great scenery along the way. Vegging out on the rooftop of a medium-sized boat for almost two full days as we floated down the mighty Mekong was an excellent decision. The trip was a divine rest in our hectic itinerary and the vistas were incredible. The overnight stay in the Luang Say Lodge at Pakbeng was very comfortable and our first taste of Laotian food? Delicious!
There were two sightseeing stops along the way. One, a traditional local village called Ban Houy Phalam, which produces stunning silk scarves. The other was Pak Ou Caves, which have been a significant religious site for Theravada Buddhists in Laos since the 15th Century. The Caves are like a Buddha orphanage – they contain thousands of Buddha images that can no longer be venerated in a temple because they are old, damaged or their home temple was destroyed.
Luang Prabang, a former ancient capital and current cultural centre at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, is a French-colonial architecture hotspot. The city is surrounded by beautiful landscapes and is the central marketplace of ethnic minority groups that produce beautiful textiles and jewellery. No wonder it is UNESCO World Heritage listed!? From the vibrant silks and ethnic minority handicrafts to the gilded wats and nearby milky jade cascades, Luang Prabang is one colourful destination.
Crossing into Laos from Thailand, it was immediately clear that the opportunists that gather in many highly touristed areas all over the world hadn’t made it to Luang Prabang yet. It was refreshing to walk through a market and look without being harassed by shop owners or hear the incessant “Massage? Suit? iPhone?” experienced in other locations. Given that many imitation products can make their way from China to Luang Prabang, it was lovely to see members of the Luang Prabang Handicraft Association (LPHA) displaying their ‘Handmade in Luang Prabang’ labels which makes purchasing soulful souvenirs that much easier!
Vang Vieng, once known as the countries hedonistic capital has been reformed into a place of quiet tranquillity with endless opportunities to enjoy nature. The town has taken it back to basics with its karst mountain landscape and lazy river that can be experienced by kayak, caving, hiking and hot air balloon ride. Thank goodness Vang Vieng has passed its time of tubing bar to bar for pail size drinks concocted of unknown substances. I would hate to have had to skip this natural beauty and one of my all-time favourite hotels – Riverside Boutique Resort.
Vientiane, the modern capital, has its own architectural gems both French-colonial and Buddhist wats. I’m not going to lie, by the time we arrived in Vientiane we were exhausted after three weeks of travelling through Myanmar, Thailand and Laos in top gear. We were ready for a rest day or ten and were getting harder to impress. Still, the Laotian capital pulled a few punches and won us over with the 1930s built That Luang stupa and midcentury Patuxay, Laos’ unexpected war memorial also known as the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane. Not to mention the rebuilt home of the Emerald Buddha, which is now a religious art museum and Wat Sisaket’s curious cloister wall housing over 6000 Buddha images.