When I started telling people about my planned travels through Southeast Asia and – in particular – when I mentioned I’d be visiting Laos, I usually got one of two responses: “Why there?” or “Where?”.
True, Laos is certainly a bit off of the typical western traveler’s radar. There aren’t a lot of efforts undergone by the country to bring in tourism, and average school curricula (at least in America) barely mention it. In fact, the only time I remember learning about it was in a world geography class my freshman year of high school.
So I’ll admit, I didn’t know much about Laos when I planned my trip there. And of the three countries I was tackling (the other two being Thailand and Cambodia), it was probably the one I had the least amount of excitement for.
And whether it had to do with my lack of expectations or not, it ended up being my favorite.
I was privileged enough to spend 7 glorious days in Laos (pronounced lao), beginning in the northwest corner of the country and traveling hundreds of miles via cruisy boat glides and bumpy bus rides. I could’ve spent much, much longer there, but the highlights I saw were an ideal starter pack.
Laos is a warm and welcoming place, embellished in part by its stunning natural beauty. The entire country is scenic; winding mountain roads, verdant tropical forests, thundering seafoam waterfalls, and the jaw-dropping spectacle of the mighty Mekong River.
Let’s talk about that last one for a second – the Mekong is one of the world’s longest rivers, and a crown jewel of Lao geography. Fringed by lush mountains straight out of Jurassic Park, the river stretches so wide at some points you feel as if you’re floating atop a lake. From the Thailand-Laos border just outside of Chiang Rai, you can catch a multi-day ride aboard a traditional Lao boat downstream.
Talk about a serene experience. Each day will have you lazing the hours away, visiting ancient Buddhist caves, spotting elephants and water buffalo along the river’s edge, and watching the world go by as the sun beats gently overhead.
Most likely, you’ll find yourself disembarking at the spirited Luang Prabang, my favorite place I visited in all of Southeast Asia. The charming village nestled amongst mystical green mountains evokes a romance that will have you reeling. Be it the collection of gold-covered temples throughout town, the abundance of vibrant night markets, or the delightful array of ambient eateries (think al fresco dining overlooking the Mekong beneath a smattering of fairy lights, sipping on a Singapore Sling or three), Luang Prabang is a dream.
It’s the type of place where you can jump onto a bike and cruise through endless lazy streets for a while, exploring mosaic-tiled wats and silk factories before being beckoned over to a riverside whiskey stand, where you can throw back a couple shots fermented with snake blood (thought to make you stronger…and actually not that bad).
Once you’ve had your fill of taking in the town on two wheels, hop into a van for a jaunt into the surrounding mountains. Once there, you can ignore TLC’s advice and chase all the waterfalls you want at the vibrant Kuang Si Falls – a series of shallow turquoise pools and thundering cascades that will have you itching to jump right in. Further into the woods, learn about the Free the Bears movement in support of sun bear rehabilitation efforts and sustainable livelihoods.
Looking for something to do past the town’s midnight curfew? Hit up the Luang Prabang Bowling Alley, where the mixture of Beerlao and fumbled strikes (they don’t even make you wear bowling shoes!) will have you belting out karaoke tunes on the tuk-tuk home.
Then it’s onto the adventurous Vang Vieng, a backpacker town of fabled party days’ past that’s as scenic as it is interesting.
Once there, you can laze the days away with a mandarin mojito, or sample some of the incredible made-to-order Lao pancakes. Take in the stunning limestone mountains encircling town as you kayak down the Nam Song River (where you can also lay eyes on the now-defunct ziplines and riverside bars which put Vang Vieng so prominently on the backpacker map), and get adventurous with a cave tubing excursion.
Grab dinner at night markets atop a stretch of land used as a US Army airstrip during the Vietnam War, then polish off the day with a jaunt at some of the best backpacker bars around – my personal favorite is Kangaroo Sunset.
Then there’s Laos’ vibrant capital, Vientiane. To get there, you’ll need to journey by car through some of the windiest roads you’ll experience, traversing over impossible gorges, barreling around hairpin turns, and climbing through the mists like you’re headed for the sky. Though motion sickness is pretty much guaranteed no matter how steel-stomached you are, the scenery you’ll soar past is 100% worth it.
Once in Vientiane, you’ll find yourself marveling at its French colonial influence; clamber up the steps to Patuxai, the city’s own version of the Arc de Triomphe, and take in the beauty of the city as it stretches into the distance.
Next, pay a visit to the COPE Centre, where you can learn about the 80 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos by US forces during the Vietnam War, only 30% of which deployed and millions of which have yet to be cleared away. The unexploded ordinances (or UXOs) have since killed or severely injured more than 50,000 Lao citizens. COPE exists to educate the public on this problem, as well as provide rehabilitative efforts and prosthetic limbs to UXO victims. You’ll leave feeling emotional, enlightened, and perhaps inspired to get involved.
From there, you can venture over to some of the many gilded temples in town, and snap photos of the mesmerizing Golden Reclining Buddha. Top off the day with a foodie venture around the city, ending up at one of Vientiane’s rooftop bars that gazes across the Mekong onto the banks of Thailand. As you polish off a few drinks and socialize with the friendly locals, you’ll find yourself reflecting on the authentic, rich, downright lovely country you’ve just gotten a taste of.
Maybe I’ve sold you on Laos, maybe I haven’t. Hopefully I have. But I’ll sum it up by saying it’s a mesmerizing and magical jewel of a place – and the opportunity to let loose within its borders is an absolute treat.
Laos may be underrated. But it’s without a doubt overqualified.