From otherworldly waterfalls to Laotian food, find out the best places to visit in Laos — including the top things to do in Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
Perhaps because it’s landlocked in a region brimming with beautiful beaches, Laos can sometimes be overlooked by travellers as a destination. But this scenic, laid-back land has something to offer everyone, and deserves to be added to your must-visit list, pronto. Some might say the country is sleepier, calmer and less developed than its neighbour Thailand — qualities which make it the perfect place to visit.
Laos is also known as the Land of a Million Elephants, a name stemming from the 1300s, when the country’s capital was full of grazing elephants. Travellers-in-the-know also approvingly call the country Asia’s sleeping beauty, further testament to its quiet aura, lush nature and traditional way of life.
The Best Time to Visit Laos
The weather can become rather hot and sticky between February and April. Most people agree that November to January is the perfect period to visit Laos, as daytime temperatures are warm but not overly so, and the monsoon abates. This period also allows you to partake in a unique yearly ritual — if the dry season is dry enough, the Mekong river recedes, and locals quickly set up picnics or ad hoc stalls, allowing you to frolic on what is essentially the border between Laos and Thailand. The wet season is typically from May to September.
Thai food may have become a foodie hit around the globe, but what some don’t know is that many Thai dishes are actually derived from Laotian food, which is known for its spicy, bold approach. No local meal is complete without a heaping helping of sticky rice, which acts not just as a nourishing starch but as a handy way to scoop up other parts of your meal when eating with your hands. And what might you be scooping up? Skewered river fish roasted with kaffir lime leaf, hearty pork sausages stuffed with chili, crisp green papaya salad — yum.
Where to Go in Laos
For a first-time visitor, Laos’s capital Vientiane is the perfect entry point, as the main airport lies here. Pair that trip with Luang Prabang — a place so beautiful and brimming with heritage architecture that the entire city has been crowned a UNESCO World Heritage site — and you’ve got an unforgettable holiday. These cities also make great jumping-off points for day trips and exploration into the countryside.
That Luang: Monumental Beauty
Also known as the Great Stupa, this temple complex is covered with gold leaf that shimmers in the morning sun, and glows with reflected light in the night. In short — it’s a gorgeous opportunity for a photo op whenever you visit. In early November, this monument becomes a key site of the Buddhist festival Boun That Luang, and hosts parades and live music.
Explore the stupa during the later hours of the afternoon and you can pair your visit with a walk through That Luang Lane Walking Street, one of the newest night markets to pop up in the city. There are some 200 stalls showing off smoky pork skewers, handicrafts and clothes here, so you can eat, stroll, ogle and shop until they close at 10pm.
Buddha Park: A Mystical Stroll
Wander this intriguing site of 200 imposing religious statues, and you’d be forgiven for wondering how many thousands of years old they are. In fact, the entire site was built in 1958 by a Hindu-Buddhist mystic.
While the park is a good 40-minute drive from town, it’s still a worthwhile Vientiane attraction if you want to get out of the city centre and explore a garden you’ll not soon forget. Want a memorable high-altitude shot of the area? Climb the three-storey dome through the mouth of a giant demon statue (gulp), and you’ll be faced with an uninterrupted vista of the park when you emerge. Flushed with your achievement — and the cardio workout — you can then enjoy a well-earned meal at the park’s small restaurant.
Patuxai Monument: Top of the City
You can’t miss this eye-catching monument to the country’s struggle against French colonialism. Perhaps that’s why this “victory gate” ostentatiously pips the Arc de Triomphe. At 55 metres high, it’s five metres taller than its Parisian cousin. Again, it’s well worth climbing to the top of the monument, as you’ll be rewarded by an unbeatable panorama of Vientiane’s avenues, temples, and the Mekong River.
Lao Kitchen: Hearty Local Fare
True to its name, the unpretentious Lao Kitchen serves up a fine range of authentic cuisine. With its menu of chicken served in fiery chilli sauce, grilled Mekong fish and rich stews, this is one of the best restaurants in Vientiane. As a bonus for any vegetarians, they also offer some meat-free versions of their dishes. Best of all, it’s a five-minute walk from the Lao National Museum, so you can feed your stomach after you’ve feasted your eyes on local history.
Kuang Si Falls: Daytrip of a Lifetime
Also known as the “Luang Prabang waterfalls”, this natural wonder is a favourite day trip for visitors to Laos, and it’s not hard to see why. Lines of shockingly turquoise water tumble into limestone pools so beautiful they seem unreal, so don’t forget your camera. As one awestruck blogger put it: “Kuang Si’s pools are basically like swimming in the sky on a warm summer’s day.” Note that while many of the pools are open for a dip, some are considered sacred by locals, and should not be swum in. For those who want to enjoy a great view of the surrounding countryside, there is a path you can hike up in about 15 minutes.
As a visit to the falls can become an all-day affair, make sure you bring comfy shoes, mosquito spray, swim gear and towels. You might want to pack your own lunch if you’re a picnic lover. If not, grab some street food at the market stalls near the parking area.
Luang Prabang Night Market: Hunt for Bargains
Nibble on hot, fresh baguettes — or crepes, or spring rolls, or mango smoothies — as you peruse silk scarves, colourful elephant-print shorts, paintings and more. As you can imagine, there’s everything a foodie or shopper might want under the sun. Yet despite its range of offerings, this haggler’s haven exudes a far calmer vibe than many other Southeast Asian night markets.
Royal Palace: Royal Splendour (and Classic Cars)
Call it Haw Kham like the locals do, or the Golden Palace as the tourists do — either way, this oasis on the bank of the Mekong is gorgeous. Although it hasn’t fulfilled its original purpose as a seat of the monarchy since 1975, it now houses the National Museum, the theatre of the royal palace, and the Haw Pha Bang temple. As such, it’s the perfect way to spend more than a few hours.
The theatre in particular is a great way to soak up living Laotian culture, as it regularly hosts traditional dance performances. No less beautiful is the collection of cars the royals drove between the 1950s and the 1970s. Don’t forget to feed the fish in the pond before you leave — you can buy a bag of fish food for 5,000 kip (about US$0.60).
L’elephant: the Best Restaurant in Luang Prabang
A quaint open-air vibe. A setting flush with 1960s colonial splendour. Its own organic garden. The lovely l’Elephant (or as some call it “the elephant restaurant”) has it all — is it any wonder this French-Laotian fusion hotspot remains one of the top eateries in town? And as you’d expect, the wine list will have you murmuring ooh la la under your breath.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang
Excited to awaken your wanderlust in Asia’s sleeping beauty? You’ve learned what to see in Laos — now you just need to find the perfect hotel. Whether you want to stay in a place that was once the French Governor’s residence, or a comfortable base for exploration in the heart of the city, there is a hotel for you. Start exploring now.