Laos is located in Southeast Asia and has Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and China as neighbors. It is a poor country that suffered greatly during the Vietnam War. It was a French colony and is now a people’s republic. Vientiane is the capital and other tourist attractions include 4000 islands, the Bolaven plateau, the Kong Lor cave, the elephant festival in Xayaburi, Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, Vang Vieng and Phonsavan.
In the fourteenth century, Fa Ngum founded the kingdom of Lan Xang, the kingdom of a million elephants and the white parasol. This kingdom divided into three parts in 1707, the Kingdom of Luang Prabang, the Kingdom of Vientiane and the Kingdom of Champassak. All three kingdoms faced regular raids from neighboring countries Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. In 1893, Laos was colonized by the French and during the Second World War it was under Japanese occupation. Laos became independent in 1954, but in 1960 the right-wing government was overthrown by a military coup. The right-wing general, Phoumi Novasan, counterattacked the communist guerrilla. He received military support from the United States. This was the start of the Vietnam War. Laos became the most bombed country in the world during this terrible war. Shortly after the war, in 1975, communist and neutral groups seized power and proclaimed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Since 1997, Laos has been a member of ASEAN, an organization of 10 countries in Southeast Asia with the aim of promoting economic, cultural and political cooperation. The current president (in 2016) is Choummaly Sayasone, he has been in power since 2006.
Si Phan Don (4000 islands)
Si Phan Don is a group of islands in the Mekong River in southern Laos, close to the border with Cambodia. During the rainy season the river is up to 14 km wide in some places, during the dry season the water level drops and thousands of small islands emerge. Three of these islands have facilities for tourists. Don Khong is the largest island and also the quietest, with rice plantations in the interior and accommodation concentrated along the coast. Much more tourism can be found on Don Khon and Don Det, Don Khon is more aimed at families and has some luxurious resorts. Don Det is popular with backpackers and low budget travelers. You can cycle around the island, sail a boat between the different islands, kayak and spot dolphins. Another popular activity on these islands is lying quietly in the hammock with a good book, it is a place where you can relax and do nothing.
The Bolaven plateau
Further north, east of the city of Pakse, the Bolaven plateau extends. It covers an area of 50 km and is located in an ancient volcano that erupted millions of years ago. There are many beautiful waterfalls in this area, the Tad Lo waterfalls are the best known and most spectacular. There are also numerous mountain villages, jungle and coffee plantations. Paksong is a small town in the middle of the Bolaven plateau where you can enjoy delicious coffee and beautiful nature, away from mass tourism. The best way to explore the area is by moped, along the way you can stay at people’s homes in a homestay or a guesthouse. There you can take a trip through the jungle with a local guide.
The town of Tha Khaek is very popular with backpackers who use Tha Khaek as the starting and ending point of The Loop, a 500 km long moped ride past various caves. Along the way you can admire spectacular landscapes of limestone rocks and you will come across several small villages. The Loop is usually ridden in three to five days, depending on how much time you have and how much you want to ride per day. In recent years, more and more roads on the route have been paved, which reduces the chance of a flat tire and allows you to complete the route more quickly. The main attraction is the Kong Lor cave. This cave is 7.5 km long and is carved out by the Hin Boun river, which runs right through it. You can sail through the cave in a boat, but be prepared for wet feet. During the dry season, in some places you have to get out of the boat and walk a bit because the water is shallow. There are numerous guesthouses and homestays along the route where you can chat with other travelers who are driving The Loop.
Vientiane is the capital of Laos and is located on the Mekong River, it is the place where many people arrive from Thailand. The very first friendship bridge between Thailand and Laos was built here. With a population of 850,000, it is the smallest capital in Southeast Asia. The French have had a major influence on the architecture and layout of the city, the boulevards form a block pattern and don’t be shocked if you suddenly see the Arc de Triomphe. The Laotian version is called Patuxai, which means gate to triumph. The monument was created in honor of those who died in 1949 during the fighting to liberate Laos from the French. There are also numerous museums and temples to visit in Vientiane, the most important being the That Luang temple. This temple is said to contain a hair and a bone of Buddha.
But Vientiane renews and modernizes every day, in 2015 the Vientiane Center opened, the very first shopping center in Laos. There are many facilities for tourists, hotels and guesthouses in every price range and both Lao and international restaurants. The city is small and can easily be explored by bike or even on foot, but if you don’t want to tire yourself out in the tropical temperatures, you can of course take a tuk tuk.
Xayaburi is a town in the northwest of Laos, far off the tourist trail, but for three days in February the annual elephant festival takes place. This festival has been organized since 2006 to put the endangered Asian elephants in the spotlight and make people aware of the problem. There is a procession of elephants with colorful accessories and people dressed in traditional clothing. After the procession you can also watch the elephants take a bath in the river. There are also numerous peripheral activities such as markets, food stalls, music, dancing and fireworks.
In 2012, construction began on a dam on the Mekong River about 30 km east of Xayaburi. Scheduled to open in 2020, the dam is the first of eleven planned dams on the Mekong to power a hydroelectric power station. There is a lot of controversy about this dam and its impact on the environment and local people.
The city of Luang Prabang is the provincial capital of the province of the same name, and the former capital of Laos. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. The city is located between the Mekong River and the Khan River and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The architecture is a beautiful mix of the French colonial past and Buddhist temples. A walk along the charming streets, a meal in one of the many restaurants along the river and getting up early to offer rice to the monks during their daily begging round, it all adds to the magic of the city. There are also thirty-four beautiful temples to admire, Wat Xieng Thong is the most important and Wat Mai is the largest, Wat Wisunarat dates from 1513 and is therefore the oldest temple in the city.
About 30 km from Luang Prabang are the Kuang Si waterfalls, which are definitely worth a visit. Anyone standing below immediately sees the turquoise water falling over a series of limestone terraces. The journey up is rewarded with a spectacular waterfall that ends in a beautiful lagoon. Before you reach the falls you can admire black bears at the Asiatic Black Bear Rescue Center. It is a good idea to share a tuk tuk with other people who want to visit the waterfalls, you can agree with the driver how long you want to stay who will then wait to take you back to town.
Back in the city you can visit some museums, such as TAEC, where the culture of the mountain peoples in northern Laos can be seen. Those who want to learn more about the Vietnam War and how much Laos suffered from the bombings can visit the UXO Lao Visitor Center. Every evening there is a night market where you can buy nice, handmade souvenirs. Look for the handmade in Luang Prabang label to find real, authentic items. Be sure to walk through the side street where the food is prepared for an extensive buffet for a low price.
About a three-hour drive from Luang Prabang, the village of Nong Khiaw is located on the banks of the Nam Ou River. This spot is a must for nature lovers, it is beautifully situated on the river with limestone mountains in the background. Here you can go hiking in the jungle, visit caves, climb on rocks, sail on the river in a boat or take a beautiful bike ride. But above all, this charming village exudes culture and tranquility. An hour’s boat trip further north takes you to Muang Ngoi, an even smaller village away from mass tourism.
Another popular backpacker destination is Vang Vieng, 155 km north of Vientiane. This place has a lot to offer, such as the natural beauty of the mountains, caves and lagoons. A few kilometers outside the village there is an organic farm, the workers and volunteers enjoyed jumping into the river after a hard day’s work and floating down the river with a large rescue tube. This is how tubing was born, which became very popular with tourists. As a result, Vang Vieng became known for its wild parties, an abundance of alcohol and happy pizzas. In 2012, two young Australians died while tubing and their families discovered that twenty-two deaths had occurred in 2011. The government closed most of the bars, banned the sale of drugs and imposed a curfew. Since then it has been much quieter, tubing is still done, but it has become much safer. Vang Vieng is and remains a beautiful place, where the long-term traveler can take a break and watch a marathon of Friends or Family Guy in one of the many restaurants.
One of the strangest places in Laos is Phonsavan, it is located far away from the tourist routes. You have to spend seven hours on the bus to get there. Phonsavan is located in eastern Laos, about halfway between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. This city is known for its sad past. During the Vietnam War it was the most bombed place in the country and it is a good base from which to visit The Plain of Jars’. There are three sites where one can view the mysterious jars. These large and small stone jars are scattered throughout the landscape. The largest is more than 3 meters high and weighs 6000 kilos, they are said to be between 2500 and 3000 years old. It is still unclear how they got there or what their purpose was. Some believe they were urns to store the ashes of the deceased, others think they were used to ferment rice wine. Other theories are that gold was stored in the jars or that visitors from space placed them there. The first site is the largest and easiest to access, a tuk tuk will take you there and back. If you want to visit all the sites, it is better to rent a moped. When visiting ‘The Plain of Jars’, caution is advised, as there are still bombs or unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the Vietnam War everywhere. We have been working hard to clean up this UXO, but be sure to stay on the walking paths. Back in Phonsavan you can visit the UXO information Center where you can watch a film about the consequences of UXO on daily life. Every day there are still victims from these bombs, mainly children who are playing or looking for metal to earn some money.
- Backpacking in Southeast Asia
- Apply for a visa for Thailand in Vientiane, Laos
- A journey through Malaysia
- A journey through Cambodia
- A journey through Thailand