Southern Laos is equally enchanting, from the Bolaven Plateau’s majestic waterfalls, lush coffee plantations and the ancient Khmer temple ruins of Vat Phou to Si Phan Don’s extraordinary web of riverine islands scattered across a broad stretch of the Mekong.
Here, you can view the rare Irrawaddy dolphins at their playful best and immerse yourself in the most authentic and laid-back rural encounters. One of the least populated countries in the world, Laos has remained blissfully off-the-beaten-track compared to its popular and fast-developing neighbours including Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and it truly epitomises the joys of slow travel.
Where is Laos located and how to get there?
Located in Southeast Asia and bordering Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, China and Vietnam, landlocked Laos was part of the former French Indochina territory until 1953. For foreign travellers, Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the primary gateways, as both are well-connected with popular travel hubs in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia.
There aren’t any direct international flights into Laos, and most travellers visit the country as part of a longer itinerary combining Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand. For those planning to travel on the upper Mekong, it is possible to enter Laos from Thailand via the border between Chiang Khong in Thailand and Huay Xai in Laos. A visa on arrival is available at all of the above entry points making it a very convenient travel destination.
Where are the top places and experiences in Laos?
A real feast for the senses, Laos is understated yet incredibly serene and profound. It is one of those rare places where you can embrace the local way of life without much effort. Luang Prabang is undoubtedly the crown jewel that for many serves as the primary introduction to the country.
But for those with a sense of wonder and adventure, extraordinary and truly off-the-beaten-track experiences await beyond the ancient capital. Featured below are some of our favourite highlights across Laos:
Northern hill country - Laos’s northern provinces are home to the largest number of hill tribes in the region. A hiker’s dream-come-true, this region including places like Luang Nam Tha, Muang La and Nong Khiaw is one of the most untouched and beautiful regions in the country and offers wonderful opportunities for walking, boat trips and kayaking on the river, as well as engaging with remote communities that have remained completely unaffected by the modern developments.
Located in Oudom Xay Province, Muang La Lodge is one of our favourite bases, as it offers an ideal balance between luxury and rustic adventures. This region is home to about 130 different ethnic groups including the Ikhos, Akha and Hmong. You can spend your time taking 4x4 and hiking excursions along the mountain trails, discovering remote villages, mountain biking, and exploring the beautiful Nam Ou River by boat.
Luang Prabang - Rise early to join the locals in offering alms to passing by Buddhist monks – a tradition that goes back to time immemorial. In the early morning light, the sight of monks dressed in saffron-coloured robes walking against a backdrop of white and wooden buildings is reminiscent of the first rays of the golden sun brightening up the pale sky.
Meander through the narrow lanes filled with beautifully ornate temples, monasteries and French colonial buildings to gain an insight into the city’s rich history, Buddhist culture as well as some of its prominent UNESCO World Heritage sites. Take a gentle boat ride on the Mekong to the beguiling Pak Ou Caves, or venture into the rainforest for a thrilling waterfall hike and a refreshing dip in a natural pool; Luang Prabang will entice and enthral you to no end.
Plain of Jars - Similar to the Stonehenge in England, the origins of the Plain of Jars remains shrouded in mystery. Located in Central Laos in Xieng Khuang province, the plains are filled with hundreds of stone jars that are believed to be over 2,000 years old. The locals and experts alike have come up with various theories to explain the purpose of these jars.
Some believe they were used for brewing and others claim that they are enormous burial urns. It is a fascinating sight and a must-visit for those interested in history. This area also serves as a stark reminder of the devastating effects of the Vietnam War that the poor people of Laos continue to suffer from even today.
During the Vietnam War, between 1964 and 1973, American planes dropped more than two million tons of cluster bombs over Laos as part of a covert operation to disrupt the communist supply chains and Pathet Lao positions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This figure exceeded all the bombs dropped during the Second World War combined and has made Laos the most heavily bombed country in history. Xieng Khuang province was one of the worst affected areas in Laos and the scars of this tragic past can still be seen today.
Champasak - If you are a nature lover, you will find southern Laos truly rewarding. Located close to the Cambodian border and meaning ‘4,000 islands’, Si Phan Don is made up of thousands of riverine islands dotted across the Mekong. Many of the bigger islands are home to quaint villages where life has remained sublimely unhurried, and you can spend your time walking or cycling across the villages and taking leisurely boat rides on the river in search of the playful Irrawaddy dolphins.
Away from the river, the fertile plain of the Bolaven Plateau is renowned for its coffee plantations and dramatic waterfalls including Tat Lo and Tat Fan. There are plenty of interesting nature trails for hiking and walking. Another highlight of this region is the pre-Angkorian temple of Vat Phou – a UNESCO World Heritage site.
When is the best time to visit Laos?
The best time to visit Laos is between October and April, when the weather is warm and dry throughout the country. The water level in the river is usually high between November and January, which makes it an ideal period for travelling on the river. The wet season runs typically between the months of May and late September with July to September being the peak monsoon season. Luang Prabang can be enjoyed all-year-round.
How can you help protect and nurture Laos’s local environment and communities?
Despite abundant natural wealth, Laos remains incredibly poor and underdeveloped. Farming is still the primary source of sustenance and interior parts of the country remain devoid of adequate education, healthcare and hygiene, and economic opportunities. In the central part of the country, unexploded ordnance continues to play havoc on the vulnerable local communities injuring and killing many every year. These are some of the key areas that are in dire need of financial and expert aid, and we have identified excellent local organisations that are making a real positive impact on the ground.
MAG Laos - More than four decades since the Vietnam War, the deadly unexploded ordnance remains a persistent threat and a cruel daily reality for thousands of communities across Laos. With farming and forestry being the principal source of revenue for rural communities, a large proportion of unexploded bomb accidents happen when the villagers are working the fields. Since 1994, MAG has been working in Laos to clear the community land from unexploded ordnance and to train the locals on ways to prevent such accidents. Their training programmes are masterfully designed to deal with both literate and illiterate participants, and innovative approaches including songs and games are used to make it more engaging and relevant for children.
Laos Friends Hospital for Children - Lao Friends Hospital for Children was established in 2015 with the intent of having a locally sustainable hospital by and for the people of Laos. It is currently the only hospital in northern Laos to offer neonatal services, providing life-saving care for new-born babies who otherwise have no access to proper healthcare facilities for essential development. Persistent poverty and poor infrastructure constantly deprive underprivileged and rural communities of quality healthcare. With widespread malnutrition and lack of timely treatment, it is estimated that almost 49 of every 1,000 children in Laos die within the first five years. LFHC provides treatment to more than 20,000 children annually and the staffs also focuses on educating parents on a wide range of issues including nutrition, vaccinations, family planning and disease-prevention. It attracts experienced doctors and nurses as volunteers from all over the world who also provide training to the local doctors and nurses.