Stepping out of the airport and into the tropical mugginess in Vientiane nine years, I was excited to start my new life abroad in Laos. Since I'd never been to Laos, I had no idea what to expect. Little did I know that I would completely fall in love. Blown away by the gorgeous scenery, welcoming people, and delicious food - how could I not? To help you plan a trip so you can fall in love as well, I'm sharing 6 beautiful places to visit in Laos on your next Southeast Asia holiday.
Why Visit Laos?
Laos is a small, landlocked nation in Southeast Asia surrounded by all the typical stops on a classic tour through Southeast Asia. I've heard many people talk about their trips to the region, including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, even Myanmar. But Laos is often missing from the list.
Perhaps it's because Laos lacks the tropical beaches that its neighbors have. Or, maybe it's because Laos is less-developed and therefore slightly harder to travel around. Regardless of the reason, skipping Laos would be a mistake.
Laos - A Charming Escape
With a total population of less than seven million people and full of vast rugged landscapes, Laos offers an escape from the bustling cities and over-populated tourist sites in neighboring countries.
Be charmed by the mix of historic Buddhist temples and colonial French architecture as you wander the towns. Explore caves, ride a boat on the Mekong, and cycle through villages surrounded by magnificent karsts. Savor a plethora of spicy, sometimes exotic, dishes and sip on a local BeerLao.
When you first arrive, you'll notice the slower pace of things immediately. Let it suck you in and adopt the Lao bor penh nyang (or, no worries) attitude during your visit. Once you're hooked, it might be hard to go back to your fast-paced life!
Best Time to Visit Laos
The best time to visit Laos depends on a few factors and your personal preference. Peak tourist season and the time that the weather is most ideal is during dry season from October to April.
However, visiting during rainy/wet season often means that you can find good deals on hotels and that it will be less crowded. Plus, the scenery is lush and green during rainy season which makes it a gorgeous time to see the countryside.
I've broken the seasons down for you so you can see which time would work best for your trip to Laos.
Seasons in Laos
Similar to other countries in Southeast Asia, Laos has two main seasons - wet (May - late September) and dry (October - late April).
Though especially in the northern regions of Laos, I think it needs to be broken down into three seasons.
Getting to Laos
Traveling to Laos, you'll probably enter the country through one of its four international airports - Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Pakse - or on a bus from a neighboring country.
As of 2019, Laos still only has one train in the entire country which crosses the Mekong from Nong Khai, Thailand on the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge just southeast of Vientiane.
If you're taking the overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai, you can use this train to cross the border, then catch a tuk tuk or sawngteo (large tuk tuk) to the city.
Pro Tip: If you’re traveling from Bangkok to Vientiane, you can save a bit of money by taking a train to Nong Khai or a flight to Udon Thani instead of flying into Vientiane directly. These cities are just across the border so you can take a bus to Vientiane.
Visa for Laos
All visitors to Laos from non-ASEAN countries must have a visa to enter the country. Citizens of several countries are eligible for visa on arrival, including the United States. Be sure to check the visa requirements for your home country before arriving in Laos.
Tip: When I last visited Laos in December 2018, U.S. citizens needed to complete the visa application, provide 2 passport-sized photos, and pay a fee of US $35. Plus, there was a surprise US $1 processing fee per person.
What to Know for Traveling around Laos
As I mentioned earlier, traveling around Laos is not always easy and should be looked at as part of the adventure.
Traveling by Bus in Laos
Traveling by bus within Laos is a budget-friendly way to get around the country. And though buses take much longer than flying, they offer amazing scenery as you travel to your destination.
However, some journeys include mountainous terrain and poor road conditions, which can make the trip slow and nauseating if you're prone to carsickness.
On certain routes, you may find that the "bus" to a place is actually a shared minivan. These vans are generally faster than the buses and may cost slightly more.
Types of Buses in Laos
When choosing which bus to take, you have several options to consider. Here are a few bus guidelines:
Local buses in Laos are by far the cheapest and probably offer the greatest adventure. They are not air-conditioned and no English is spoken, so this is not the tourist-friendly option.
Since these buses do not have a bathroom on board, the bus makes frequent stops (~every 2 hours) on the side of the road. Everyone who needs to go exits the bus. Women go one way, men the other to use the outdoor toilet. Otherwise known as the side of the road. Like I said - adventure!
If peeing on the side of the road isn't your cup of tea perhaps you'd prefer the VIP bus. These buses are usually double-decker buses with air-conditioning and have a toilet on board. Though costlier than the local bus with fewer departure times, it's still a cheap way to travel around Laos.
VIP Overnight Sleeper Bus
Lastly, for some longer routes, you'll want to take the sleeper bus to maximize the time in your itinerary. There are two main types of sleeper buses: 1) normal seats which recline, and 2) no seat just a (small) double bed.
For the type with beds, be sure you book a "seat" next to your travel partner. Otherwise, you might be sharing a bed with a stranger (of the same sex).
As with the regular VIP Bus, these buses have a toilet on board. Plus, they usually stop in the middle of the night at a random night market where you can get out to use the toilet and buy snacks. Drugged up on Tylenol PM so I could sleep, I only vaguely remember making my way through one of these markets at 3am in central Laos.
Key Tips for Riding the Buses
1) Bring warm clothes to layer as once the air-conditioning kicks in, the bus gets cold!
2) Take motion-sickness medicine if you're prone to carsickness because Laos is mountainous so the roads are incredibly windy. Alternatively, bring a plastic bag.
3) Be prepared for unexpected stops and late arrivals. Think you're on a direct route? Don't be surprised if there's an unexpected hour lunch break that you didn't think you'd be taking which makes you arrive at your destination later than scheduled.
Traveling by Plane in Laos
If you're not the adventurous type or are short on time, I recommend flying between cities instead of taking the bus. Though you'll miss the rural villages and mountain scenery along the way, you'll have more time to spend in your destination.
Amazing Places to Visit in Laos
So now that you know how to get around, where should you go? Below is a list of six beautiful places to visit in Laos that I think should give you a taste of what this incredible country has to offer.
These places are easy to get to and are "tourist-friendly". This basically means they're likely to have restaurant, tour, and accommodation options in which at least a basic level of English is spoken. So if it's your first time to Laos, these are good spots to start exploring!
1) Luang Prabang
UNESCO World Heritage site and ancient royal capital city with historic temples and charming colonial architecture
Situated in northern Laos, Luang Prabang's old town has the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This charming town was the capital of Laos until the mid-1500s when the king moved the capital to Vientiane.
Luang Prabang's old town is located on a peninsula between two rivers - the Mekong and Nam Khan - and is full of beautiful, historic temples and French colonial architecture to admire.
Sights to See in Luang Prabang
Royal Palace and Wat Haw Pha Bang
The Royal Palace was built as a home for the Lao monarchs in the early 1900s during French colonial rule. In 1975, it was seized when the Pathet Lao took control. Later the Lao government converted the palace into a museum that visitors can tour.
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong is the oldest temple in Luang Prabang which was used for royal ceremonies.
Climb Mount Phousi in the center of Luang Prabang for beautiful city and sunset views.
Boat Ride on Mekong River
Hire a boat for a trip up the Mekong River to see Pak Ou Cave or just ride along the river. They also have sunset rides that you can take if you want a short boat ride.
Kuang Si Waterfall:
The magnificent Kuang Si Waterfall is located ~45-minutes from Luang Prabang by car. This waterfall with its various cascades and turquoise pools is stunning and shouldn't be missed. Plus, you can go for a dip in the pools!
For more information on visiting Luang Prabang, check out my post 'How to Spend a Relaxing Holiday in Luang Prabang'!
Modern day capital and by far largest city
Vientiane is often overlooked in favor of Luang Prabang as the city to visit in Laos. And while Luang Prabang has small town charm, at times its popularity also makes it feel very touristy.
Since Vientiane is the largest city in Laos, the seat of government, and home to numerous companies, NGOs, and universities, it has the feel of a bustling, lived-in city. Though it's still small enough that you can rent a bike and easily traverse the town.
Sights to See in Vientiane
Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang is the most important monument in Laos. This gold-covered Buddhist stupa was initially established in the 3rd century and is believed to enshrine a breast bone of the Buddha.
In November, thousands flock to Vientiane for the Pha That Luang Festival and pay their respects at the stupa.
Wat Haw Phra Kaew
Wat Haw Phra Kaew was originally constructed in the mid-1500s by King Setthathirath to house the Emerald Buddha statue (which now sits in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok's Grand Palace complex).
Although it's been rebuilt several times, it's a beautiful temple and still worth a visit during your time in Vientiane.
Wat Si Saket
Built in the early 1800s, Wat Si Saket is likely the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. Even though other temples around the city would have been older, most have been rebuilt after being destroyed during foreign invasions.
Built using American funds and cement that were supposed go towards building a new airport. Instead, the royal Lao Government decided to build this monument to commemorate its soldiers that died during WWII and the war for independence from France in 1949.
When the Pathet Lao took over in 1975, they renamed it Patuxay or Victory Gate. Although it looks better from further away, the views from the top of this "monster of concrete" are reason enough to visit.
3) Vang Vieng
Beautiful karsts, caves to explore, plus tubing adventures on the river
About a 3-hour bus ride from Vientiane is the quirky, backpacker-filled town of Vang Vieng. As you stroll through town and notice all of the cafes and restaurants playing re-runs of Family Guy and Friends, you may wonder what you've gotten yourself into.
But, walk towards the river and you'll see the main attraction of Vang Vieng - soaring karsts that jut out of the land like natural skyscrapers. If you can ignore all the weirdness (or don't, if that's your thing!), Vang Vieng is an adventure lover's paradise.
Things to Do in Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng has a several beautiful caves that you can explore during visit.
Rent a tube and float down the river. Years ago, tubing was not highly regulated though that has changed now. Each year, tourists would die through accidents often associated with alcohol.
Be safe while tubing - watch out for rocks when jumping into the river and don't get drunk before or during tubing.
Swimming in Lagoons
Bring your swimsuit and take a dip in one of the beautiful blue lagoons!
Cycling or motorbiking around the countryside
The area surrounding Vang Vieng is beautiful so just rent a bicycle or motorbike and explore!
Check out my post on Luang Prabang for tips about renting a motorbike in Laos.
4) Xieng Khouang
Plain of Jars, UXO awareness
The main attraction in Xieng Khouang province is the Plain of Jars where roughly 2,500 giant stone jars of unknown origin are scattered throughout the hillside. But as you tour this region, you'll also have a sobering view of the UXO remnants that still litter the Lao countryside.
Plain of Jars
It is estimated that the giant stone jars dotting the Xieng Khouang hillside were created in the period between 500 BC to 200 AD and were used for burial rituals. Most tours to see these jars depart from Phonsavan, the provincial capital, and visit three main sites over several hours.
Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) in Xieng Khouang
In addition to viewing the Plain of Jars, visitors will see remnants of the Indochina War, such as trenches and bomb craters. Xieng Khouang province, which borders Vietnam, was heavily bombed during the American-Vietnam War. As a result, the region is still peppered with unexploded ordnance (UXO).
Be careful and mind the warning signs as you walk around the jar sites which remind you to stick to the marked paths.
While you're in Phonsavan, I recommend visiting the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) UXO Information Center to learn more about UXO contamination in Laos and MAG's ongoing clearance efforts since 1994.
5) Bolaven Plateau
Jungles, Waterfalls, Coffee
Located in southern Laos, the Bolaven Plateau is a short trip from Pakse, the country's second largest city. The plateau's elevation makes it an ideal place for tea and coffee plantations, some of which you can visit.
Even though I love coffee, I think the real show-stoppers on the Bolaven Plateau are the beautiful waterfalls nestled in the lush jungle. When we visited towards the end of rainy season, the falls were impressively full.
6) Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands)
Relaxing island getaway and more waterfalls
A couple hours' drive south from Pakse at the edge of the Lao border with Cambodia, Si Phan Don (literally translated '4,000 Islands') is a cluster of islands situated in a wide section of the Mekong river.
It's the perfect place to go when you just want to sit by the river and read a good book. If you thought the pace of life in other parts of Laos was slow, just wait until you get to Si Phan Don!
Most people stay on either Don Det or Don Khon where bungalows and restaurants line the riverfront.
Although you can book your accommodation ahead of time, many of the guest houses on the islands are small and on the rustic side so wouldn't be listed online. For those places, you can just show up and wander the island to find a good deal.
Things to Do in Si Phan Don
Rent a Bicycle
Cycle around the islands and try to spot the monkeys swinging in the trees. You might even find a nice little bar to stop for a drink by the river.
Look for Mekong River Dolphins
Hire a boat to take you out to look for Mekong River dolphins which are frequently spotted in the waters around Si Phan Don.
Khone Pha Pheng Waterfall
Khone Falls and Pha Pheng Falls merge to form the Khone Pha Pheng Waterfall. This massive waterfall is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia and the reason why the Mekong River is unnavigable for ships.
During rainy season, the immense power of the falls is apparent and it's too dangerous to get close to them.
Other Articles on Laos You Might Enjoy
After seeing these beautiful places to visit in Laos, you probably want to start planning your trip right now! Here are more articles on Laos that might help.
Hopefully seeing these beautiful spots in Laos has inspired you to visit this incredible country and given you ideas as you start putting together your Laos itinerary.
Have you visited Laos? What was one of your favorite spots?