An Insider’s Guide to Laos – Top 10 Things to Do
Our picks of the top things to do in Laos!
10 Must-do Highlights in Laos
Often overlooked by travellers distracted by Thailand’s islands and Cambodia’s temples, Laos is a hidden gem in Southeast Asia. Long beloved by backpackers, other types of tourism are only just taking off, which means the nation still retains a relaxed quality that is rare in modern travel.
It is still possible to amble sleepy streets and hike to villages almost unchanged in 50 years. The country offers much for the intrepid visitor but it is also ideal for those looking to relax and unwind.
Nam Et-Phou Louey in the northeast is a protected area where lush jungle meets mystical mountain. It’s far off-the-beaten-path and has been set aside to protect indigenous wildlife, including the endangered Indochinese tiger, leopards, Asian black bears, and gibbons. Laos has long struggled to battle poachers and wildlife traffickers, often serving foreign demand for ivory, tiger parts, or endangered species, but at Mount Forever (Phou Louey), the Wildlife Conservation Society is making inroads against the illegal animal trade. In the dry season only (October to March), they offer a range of two, three or five day treks, where travellers get to traverse the remarkable landscape of the region, while helping the initiative in its mission to track and protect the rare animals that make the region home. This is probably one of the last places on earth you might – ethically – get to glimpse a tiger in the wild, and so is well worth the expense and effort.
In the 20th century it was celebrated as the “Land of a Million Elephants” — today less than 1,000 remain in the wild. The population has been repeatedly decimated by poaching and illegal logging, as well as trafficking. Laos has a multitude of ‘sanctuaries’ but any that offer elephant riding or highlight performances, where they are expected to perform tricks or dances, should be avoided.
The ethical traveller should seek out the MandaLao camp, close to Luang Prabang, which offers an array of options to suit a mix of abilities and needs.
The half-day “Into the Wild” hike, where you can walk into the jungle with the pachyderms is highly recommended. What sets MandaLao apart is they make clear that the elephants are not there to entertain humans, instead, people are encouraged to simply observe these animals act almost as they would in the wild.
Tours can be arranged online or through their office Luang Prabang
More than a thousand stone jars are sprinkled across the Xieng Khouang plateau, some in clusters of around one hundred while others sit solo, of up to 3 metres in height. Dating back as far as 500 BC, not much is known of the origin or purpose of the jars – theories range from them being funeral urns for an ancient people, to the rainwater collection pots of traders traversing Asia – but they are a breathtaking sight.
According to the UN, Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world due to the ‘Secret War’ of the 1960s and 1970s when the US effectively carpet bombed the nation. This area, in particular, remains dangerous to travel unguided. It is estimated that undetonated bombs and mines affect around a quarter of the province – only three of some 40 ‘jar sites’ are open to the public.
Visitors must travel to Phonsavan and then organise a jeep, taxi, or motorcycle to the jars. Keep in mind it is vital to have a guide if you are visiting site 2 or 3, which are furthest from town.
Luang Prabang, once the royal heart of Laos, is also the nation’s culinary capital. So what better place to explore the dishes that delighted kings and queens? Sebastien Rubis, culinary director at Rosewood Luang Prabang, has made it his mission to seek out long-forgotten dishes from the royal era, and now offers guests the opportunity to experience a Royal Laotian feast at the stylish restaurant The Great House.
The dishes are based on the recipes of the royal chef to the kings of Laos, as well as Rubis’ discussions with elders about traditional ‘Royal Cuisine’ in the villages nearby.
His efforts to rediscover and preserve this forgotten part of the nation’s history has earned him recognition by the UN as a cultural ambassador for Laos.
Diners are treated to a delicious array of delicacies, including beautifully cooked river fish and powerful minced water buffalo. Every effort is made to source ingredients locally and seasonally – this is an unmissable part of any Laos itinerary.
Tham Khoun Xe, which is often called the Xe Bang Fai River Cave, is one of the largest of its kind and offers adventurers a chance to kayak for miles underground. Home to one of the world’s largest spiders – the giant huntsman – which at 30cm is around the size of a large dinner plate, the cave is rarely visited by foreign tourists.
But this means the intrepid can enjoy the eerie experience almost untroubled by another soul, beyond your own party and a guide. You can hire wooden kayaks from locals at Nong Ping, which is the closest village to the cave entrance but it is worth contacting Green Discovery if you wish to navigate the full passage and the underground rapids – as they have inflatable kayaks that can traverse them.
Another great option is Kong Lor, also in the Khammouane Province, which was is a challenging but invigorating underground kayak adventure. Seek out the pool of beautiful emerald water, which many locals believe is sacred. You’ll need to hire a kayak and an experienced boatman as there are areas where the cave is narrow and the currents unpredictable.
Close by the Cambodia border is a secret world of wonder, where the Mekong is arguably at its most picturesque. Si Phan Don, which literally means “4,000 Islands” in Laotian, is an unexpected and very welcome surprise for a landlocked country.
The islets – some no more than rocky outcrops, others large enough to be home to a thriving backpacker scene – offer a sublime experience. The already slow pace of Laotian life grinds almost to a halt, even with the recent arrival of reliable electricity and even WIFI. As with most islands in the region, there are different options depending on your needs, Don Det is the most visited, and a favourite with party goers. But it is possible to get completely off the grid and just enjoy a taste of rural life – simply hire a bike and cycle over the rustic bridges to Don Kon, where little happens and little needs to. The islands can be explored by kayak or local wooden boat tours.
Trips are best organised either in Nakasong, the jumping off point to reach this hidden enclave, or on Don Det.
This conservation project offers treks into the jungles of the Nam Kan National Park, complete with tree houses for guests to stay high up in the jungle, and zip lines for the more adventurous to navigate the jungle from a completely different angle.
Staying in treetop huts gives a far greater range of chances to see the animal life across the day, and allows visitors to visit, and view, with a relatively light touch.
These guys have put a lot of effort into ensuring their work is sustainable and ethical, and offer a range of treks for all abilities.
They all almost always result in seeing the gibbons. Take note that during the rainy season the treks may take longer and be more physically demanding.
Luang Prabang already feels like a town from another era, still sleepy, still relatively peaceful, its UNESCO heritage status protecting it from the ravages of time and modernity. But if you take a stroll across the bamboo bridge that traverses the Nam Khan river, it is like walking back in time. Head up the small hill to Dyen Sabai restaurant and dine on cuisine that has been served up this way for decades. It’s an entry into a forgotten kingdom and will make wanderlusters want to head further on to the villages that dot this side of the river. Take a day to explore this untouched part of Laos – it’s a world that is fading fast.
From touristy Kuang Si to striking Tad Fane, Laos is full of waterfalls. But this expedition run by Tiger Trail, offers a chance to see something different. It starts with a boat ride to reach a traditional village before trekkers head through fields, streams, and rice paddies to reach the 100 waterfalls base. The trip is effectively a chance to explore a system of waterfalls nestled in the depths of rarely visited jungle. The water is clear, cool, and free of the pitfalls of a traditional tourist spot so savour the peace and beauty of it all. It’s a straight forward day hike and can be organised online in advance.
Luang Prabang, once an ancient capital, is often hailed at South East Asia’s most romantic city, a beautiful marriage of rolling hills, lush fields, bright sky, and vibrant river.
Nestled in the hills just outside is the Rosewood Luang Prabang, which is styled as a luxury jungle camp evocative of a bygone era of travel. The aim is for guests to remain intertwined both with the local landscape and the local culture.
A river runs through the resort, which has its own waterfall and hiking trail into the hills, while the rooms are designed to celebrate and showcase Laotian design and materials, and every effort is made to include cultural details, such as the traditional baths, or historic photographs.
Staff are friendly and eager to help – and for travelling parents – it’s great to see how much they love children, but overall service, communication, and attention to detail can be hit and miss.
For special occasions the majestic Hilltop Tribal Tents, beloved by honeymooners, babymooners, or just those seeking to rekindle the magic, are a must. Here you can live like intrepid travellers while having all the creature comforts you desire, and there’s little chance of any unwanted interruptions.
The riverside villas and suites – the former come with their own infinity pools.
The Great House serves up a wonderful breakfast – offering guests the chance to sample local classics as well as travellers’ favourites. Seek out chef and culinary director Sebastien Rubis, who is a well of knowledge on Laotian cuisine and culture. He oversees a hugely popular cookery class for guests keen to take home a taste of the nation.
The spa offers historic and culturally significant treatments that rely on knowledge passed through generations of Laotians on how to use herbs, flowers, and vegetables to treat all manner of physical and mental ailments.
Guests can laze in nets set over the river in the Rosewood’s deliciously styled Elephant Bridge Bar, where mixologists deliver a vivid range of cocktails and enjoy making the most of locally sourced ingredients.
The concierge is able to set up unique trips such as meeting with traditional healers or private river cruises complete with butler. But the resort is also a nice place to relax – there’s a large riverside swimming pool, a forest to explore and marshmallows to roast, and it’s easy to commandeer the Rosewood tuk-tuks for a jaunt into town.
For more musings on travel, food, and parenting from LTThomas visit www.mylittleshopoftreasures.com