Things to Do in Laos
The Mekong River, the 12th-longest river in the world at 2,700 miles (4,345 kilometers), is the main artery of Southeast Asia. Its flowing waters are the beating pulse for a region that includes the fertile Mekong Delta around Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City, the scenic hills of Laos, and the jungle-lined waterways of Thailand and Cambodia.
Tumbling through the jungle about 18 miles (29 kilometers) from Luang Prabang, the Kuang Si Falls (Tat Kuang Si) are among the area’s most attractive waterfalls, combining a dramatic drop and pools. In addition to swimming in the cool water, swinging on ropes, and enjoying snacks from on-site eateries, you can visit a bear-rescue sanctuary and a butterfly park.
With a history that likely dates back to the third century AD, the 148-foot-high (45-meter-high) golden stupa of Pha That Luang is Laos’ most important religious monument. Locals believe it contains a hair and bone from Buddha, and it’s the site of the country’s most important festival, Boun That Luang.
Vientiane’s answer to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, Patuxai (Victory Gate) towers above this low-rise city in a spectacular mixture of architectural styles: part brutalist, part Napoleonic, part Lao. Besides the elaborate artworks in the monument itself and the views from the top of the structure, it’s home to a wealth of souvenir stalls.
Set about 15 miles (25 kilometers) southeast of Vientiane, Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) is a quirky giant sculpture garden devoted to Buddhist and Hindu mythology. Enormous cement statues, from reclining Buddhas to a giant pumpkin with a demon’s-head entrance, pay tribute to the outsider aesthetic of its creator, a Thai mystic.
Mt. Phousi (also written Phu Si or Phou Si) dominates the heart of Luang Prabang, rising around 330 feet (100 meters) above the city. Several temples and shrines adorn the slopes, with That Chomsi stupa at the summit. But the main attractions here are the city and river views, which can extend to the surrounding mountains on a clear day.
The Plain of Jars is a collection of huge enigmatic jar-shaped stones scattered across the landscape near the town of Phonsavan in the northeast of Laos. Arranged in clusters of between one and several hundred, the origins of the Plain of Jars is still unknown, although it’s thought that the site dates back to the Iron Age some 2000 years ago.
The jars vary in height and diameter but their shapes are all cylindrical with the bottom bases wider than the top. These mysterious stone urns are spread out across hundreds of square-kilometers and have been divided into sections, with sites 1, 2, and 3 forming the basis of most tours.
Various theories about how the jars came to be and what purpose they served (if any) have emerged over the years. However, one thing we know of is this area’s more recent history; because of its proximity to the Vietnamese border, the region was heavily bombed by the US during the Vietnam War. Some say it’s remarkable that so many of the jars survived at all.
Also known as the National Museum, the Royal Palace Museum was the home of Lao royalty from the early 20th century until 1975. An attractive combination of classic Lao and beaux arts architecture, it houses collections including state gifts and royal cars. The sacred Pha Bang golden Buddha is preserved in Wat Ho Pha Bang.
A shot (or several) oflao-lao, the national rice whiskey, is a Laotian rite of passage. The Whiskey Village (Ban Xang Hai), just 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) from the Pak Ou Caves on the Mekong River, specializes in churning out this potent stuff. You can watch lao-lao being produced, taste it, and buy it.
The UNESCO World Heritage list identifies no fewer than 34 Luang Prabang temples. If you have to pick just one, opt for 16th-century Golden City Temple (Wat Xieng Thong), the largest and best-known Buddhist monastery in all of Laos. Highlights include a tree of life mosaic, a royal funeral chariot, and the stunning ordination hall (sim).
More Things to Do in Laos
The spiritual center of Vientiane, thanks to its sacred pillar, Wat Si Muang is the city’s busiest temple. Laos come from far and wide to pray for good luck and eliminate bad luck. Around November Wat Si Muang is also the starting point for the candle-lit procession that begins the nation’s biggest religious event, the That Luang Festival.
Vientiane’s Presidential Palace would do the president of any country proud: a grand building with a colonial-era Beaux-Arts feel that belies its relatively recent 1986 construction. While the president’s official working residence is elsewhere, the palace still remains closed to the public.
Opened in 2016, Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden is Laos’ first botanical garden. Just down the Mekong from Luang Prabang, the 99-acre (40-hectare) site features orchids, palms, bamboos, gingers, ferns, a cave, a permaculture farm, and more. The ethnobotanical garden showcases local herbal medicine traditions.
Built in 1818, Wat Sisaket (Wat Si Saket), a Buddhist temple in Vientiane, is a surprising nod to Siamese-style architecture in a city where traditional Laotian design reigns supreme. The ancient wat’s cloister walls, which hold thousands of tiny wood, stone and bronze Buddahs from the 16th and 19th centuries, is one of the most unique spots on the temple grounds.
Early morning visitors will find locals gathering to pray and offer alms at the feet of a hand-carved wooden naga—the serpent deity—as well as amid the more than 6,000 statues of Buddha.
Set where the Ou River (Nam Ou) meets the Mekong, about 19 miles (30 kilometers) from Luang Prabang, the Pak Ou Caves are one of the most popular sights accessible from the city. A place of worship for over 1,000 years, they are home to thousands of Buddhas left by grateful pilgrims. The lower cave has both more light and more visitors than the upper cave.
Cool temperatures, fertile soil, stunning waterfalls and coffee plantations blanketing its hills — this is the Bolaven Plateau. This higher altitude region of Southern Laos has long been used as a center of agriculture, starting with midland hill tribes who practiced rotational farming on the plateau. During the early twentieth century, French colonists began cultivating coffee, tea, fruit and cardamom in the area.
Well off the beaten path, the Bolaven Plateau attracts adventurous travelers with blissfully cool temperatures, stellar scenery (including Tat Fan, one of the most impressive waterfalls in the country), hill tribe villages and sense of isolation. Travelers can tour coffee plantations, swim at the base of waterfalls, zip line through the trees and learn about the region’s ethnic minorities in one of several villages welcoming to tourists.
Along with the Kuang Si Falls, the Tad Sae Waterfall is one of Luang Prabang’s best-known falls and a popular attraction to visit during the wet season. A series of jade-bright travertine pools and shallow cascades, Tad Sae sits close to the Nam Khan River outside Luang Prabang. Other attractions include ziplines and an elephant camp.
Vat Phou (Wat Phu) is an ancient Khmer temple site situated on a hillside in the Champasak province in southern Laos. The complex consists of temple pillars, walls, and doorways, along with the remains of palaces, courtyards, and a library. Vat Phou offers stunning views across the Mekong River, and there is also a natural spring that the locals believe produces holy water.
The ancient ruins of Vat Phou are even older than those of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, and the site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. One temple in the complex is said to have been built as far back as the 5th century, although most of the structures are from the 11th to the 13th centuries. The exquisite workmanship can still been seen today, with numerous Hindu carvings decorating the site. Because Buddhism replaced Hinduism in Laos in the 13th century, there are also various Buddha images to be found among the ruins, and the site remains an active Buddhist place of worship to this day.
COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) works with victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO) from American bombing during the Vietnam War, as well as other disabled people. The COPE Visitor Centre introduces the charity’s work and educates visitors about the war. Besides documentaries and an exhibition, there’s a gift shop and café.
A former temple, Haw Phra Kaew (Ho Phra Keo) is Laos’ leading museum of religious art. It takes its name from the Phra Keo (Emerald Buddha), a statue carved from a single piece of jade that is now preserved in Bangkok. The grounds of the former temple, originally built in 1565, are also beautiful.
Set in the heart of Luang Prabang, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre is a small museum dedicated to four of Laos’ main ethnic minority groups. Displays include traditional costumes, religious artifacts, and crafts, while exhibits feature signage in French, English, and Lao. The shop is a great source of ethical artisan souvenirs.
Once a traditional market, Vientiane Morning Market (Talat Sao) now comprises two malls and a market. It remains a good place to shop for fabrics and traditional Lao skirts, as well as souvenirs such as snake whiskey and wooden boxes. Imported goods here are expensive due to Laos’ high duty charges, while fakes are common.
At Lao Textiles, American designer Carol Cassidy oversees 40 Lao artisans working to translate the nation’s rich weaving heritage into contemporary designs. Handcrafted using brocade, ikat, and tapestry techniques, products include wall hangings, scarves, shawls, pouches, and cushion covers. It’s also possible to tour the studio.
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