Northern Laos

Northern Laos

Northern Laos
Northern Laos

With lush forests, high plateaus, sparkling waterfalls, caves, mountains and rice fields, northern Laos is intensely beautiful. This area of Laos is very diverse and offers travellers a range of different experiences. Although travelling through this region is challenging, the rewards are significant and a warm welcome awaits those who venture off the tourist trail to explore the villages and small towns scattered throughout northern Laos.

This is where you will find the mysterious Plain of Jars, the enormous stone containers that cover the landscape. This is the perfect place to go trekking, especially around Luang Namtha and Phongsaly, while the Gibbon Experience offers visitors a rare opportunity to view these magnificent creatures in their natural environment.
This region of Laos is home to many of the hilltop tribes, each with their own unique styles of dress, culture and belief systems. Exploring northern Laos provides to opportunity to get to know a little about this interesting people and discover traditional village life.

Although this area has only been open to tourist for around 10 years, there are already a number of vibrant tourist hangouts in northern Laos. Top of the list is Vang Vieng, where travellers can indulge on Western food, explore the caves and float down the river in a large rubber tube. The nearby temple town of Luang Prabang is also particularly tourist friendly and there is plenty to see and do here.

Adventure sports are popular in northern Laos and this is a good place for white water rafting, hiking, cycling, rock climbing and a number of other activities. Simply walking through the countryside is a great way to spend a day or two as the scenery is always striking and many surprises await the adventurous.

The mighty Mekong River flows through northern Laos and into Thailand. A good way to continue exploring is to take a slow boat from Luang Prabang along the river into Thailand. The journey offers spectacular views of Laos and the chance to stay in the pretty village of Pakbeng along the way.

Saravane, Laos

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Not many travellers make it to Saravane, which is located on the Bolaven Plateau in south eastern Laos. Although they are certainly missing out, this perhaps makes the experience even more exceptional for those who do take the trouble to step off the tourist trail and explore this striking region.

Also known as Salavan, this pretty province is full of sparkling waterfalls, dense jungle, tiny tribe villages and caves to explore. This is also home to one of Lao’s best preserved prehistoric sites, and trekking to this area is rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding countryside and a nearby waterfall.

Those who do venture this far usually come to experience the stunning beauty of the Phu Xieng Thong National Biodiversity Conservation Area. This immense area of pristine jungle is home to a diverse collection of animals such as the Asiatic black bear, clouded leopard, Douc langur, elephant, gibbon, banteng, Siamese crocodile and even a tiger or two. It is a good idea to take a guide with you as the sheer size of the area makes it easy to get lost.

Another interesting feature of this province is a cave containing a number of huge stone caskets. These caskets are all piled on top of each other and although there are many theories about the reasons behind it, nobody really has the answers about how and why they got there.

Saravane’s large market is a great place to sample the region’s food and watch local life unfold. Local life revolves around the market as people turn up to sell produce, swap gossip and shop for goods. Take a break beside the river and watch this colourful street drama.

Despite its remoteness, there are a few good places to stay around Saravane. The people who live here are warm and welcoming and it is not unusual to be invited to share a meal with one of the families or even spend the night in their home.

Attapeu, Laos

Attapeu, Laos
Attapeu, Laos
Attapeu, Laos

Situated on the southeast tip of Laos, this small and sleepy town doesn’t receive much attention from travellers and is a great place to get a real feel for Laos. Attapeu’s relaxed pace of life is enchanting and urges visitors to slow down a little and enjoy the fresh mountain air.

Attapeu is seated in a large valley and surrounded by picturesque mountains. The town is brushed by the Sekong and Sekhamane Rivers, which provide a source of fresh fish and a pretty place to relax in the evening with a beer or two.

Several sites of stunning natural beauty are located just a short distance from Attapeu and both the Dong Ampham Forest and Xepiane Forest are worth the journey. Visitors can also trek along part of the Ho Chi Minh trail and discover the villages of the tribes who follow a traditional way of life that has changes very little over the years.

Attapeu is populated by nine different tribes, namely the Alak, Katang, Kaleum, Katou, Suay, Nge, Lave, Tahoy, Nyajeung. Each of these tribes has their own traditional style of dress and customs and staying a while in Attapeu provides the perfect opportunity to get to learn about these interesting people and their alternative life styles.

There is little traffic in Attapeu and a good way to see all that the area has to offer is simply to walk through the town and surrounding countryside, stopping to talk to the friendly people you pass on the way. There are also tour companies located in the town where you can hire a hire to show you around if you prefer.

The nearby village of Ban Sekhaman is a good place to explore and there is a regular ferry that runs from the pier to the south of Attapeu to take you there. Explore the crumbling wat in this picturesque village and picnic beside the river before heading back to Attapeu.

A good place to indulge in a little retail therapy and pick up a bargain is the traditional local market, and this is also a great place to find a tasty evening meal.

Sayabouri, Laos

Sayabouri, Laos
Sayabouri, Laos
Sayabouri, Laos
Sayabouri, Laos

Also known as Sainyabuli, this pretty province is situated in the northwest of Laos, to the west of the Mekong River. Surrounded by limestone mountains, rice fields and forests, this is a great place to explore the countryside and experience the traditional Lao way of life.

Most travellers overlook Sayabouri on their way to nearby Luang Prabang and Vientiane, but peaceful Sayabouri is a great place to relax and discover the natural beauty of the areas such and waterfalls, caves and forests.

As you wander around Sayabouri you will discover a large number of pretty temples to explore, and Wat Ban Thin, Wat Ban Phapoun and Wat Ban Natonoy are probably the largest and most popular.

A great day trip destination is the Nam Phoun National Biodiversity Conservation Area. This enormous forest contains a large number of high peaks and climbing to the top provides excellent views of the region. The conservation area is also home to a large number of animals such as the Asiatic black bear, elephant, gibbon, Malayan sun bear and Sumatran rhino.

The people of Laos have been using elephants in the forestry industry for centuries and Sayabouri is one of the few places where you can still see this practice in action, which makes a refreshing change from viewing the mighty beast from behind bars.

A good time to visit Sayabouri is during the annual elephant festival, which is held over two or three days in the middle of February by the Lao PDR National Tourism Authority to encourage the use of elephants in tourism-related activities. There are around 200 elephants in Sayabouri and during  the festival more than fifty of them take part in a procession through the town. The festival is a vibrant affair with much drinking, dancing, fireworks and boat races.

More than 10,000 people travel from all over Laos to take part in the elephant festival and this is a great time to see Laos people at their best as they dress in traditional costumes, share food and drink.

Although Sayabouri is much quieter the rest of the year you will find a warm welcome whenever you arrive and there are some interesting places to sleep and eat.

Xieng Khouang, Laos

Xieng Khouang, Laos
Xieng Khouang, Laos
Xieng Khouang, Laos

Situated in the northeast of Laos, the enchanting province of Xieng Khouang is a popular stop on the trail through Laos. This is a great place to go trekking as the landscape is infinitely interesting; with broad ochre hills, and the eucalypts and pine plantations, the mountains of Hua Phah and lush valleys. The climate is quite cool and this is also a good place to escape the heat of southern Laos.

Most people come to Xieng Khouang province to visit the Plain of Jars, where hundreds of stone jars are scattered across the landscape. Carved from solid rock, these enormous jars are more than 2500 years old, and are an impressive sight. Although legends tell that the jars were used to ferment wine in the sixth century, nobody is really certain of their origins and another theory is that they were tombs for the people who died in battle. The Plain of Jars is also known as Thong Hai Hin and one of the highlights of Laos as it is entirely unique.
After a hard day of exploring, soothe aching muscles with a dip in the hot springs. There are two hot springs in the area, Bo Noi and Bo Yai, which reach temperatures of around 60?C, are set in a beautiful forest and the perfect place to relax and unwind.

The capital of Xieng Khouang is Muang Khun, and this is a great place to spend the night and explore. Here you will find some interesting temple ruins as well as the complete Wat Pia Wat. As you wander around the city you will find a number of good restaurants and places to stay.

The town of Muang Khun features both night a day markets, which are large and lively. People travel to the market from all over the province to sell their wares, swap stories and do some shopping. This is a good place to buy a cheap meal and indulge in some people watching as you witness Lao life unfold around you.

Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane feels more like a large village than a capital city. Pigs and cattle ramble aimlessly beside the slowly flowing river, watched over by women chatting and washing clothes. Pavements are a futuristic concept as are cinemas, shopping malls, fast food and most other types of entertainment.

Yet for many travellers this is the perfect Asian city; there is plenty to see and do here and yet the city has an approachable, unassuming feel.

Pha That Luang is the symbol of Laos and this huge, unusually shaped gold stupa is definitely worth a visit. In the Laotian language, Pha That Luang means Great Scared Stupa. The most prominent part of the temple is a 45 meter tall central tower, surrounded by 30 smaller stupas. The stupas are covered with gold leaf and shimmer brilliantly in the sunlight.

Nearby the temple is the Sok Pa Luang Forest Temple. Here you will find a sauna and massage room in a traditional wooden two-story house, where robed monks relieve your my weary muscles as you relax and listen to the gentle sounds of wind chimes, birds, cicada beetles and breath in the scent of jasmine and lemongrass.

On the way to Pha That Luang you will probably pass the Patuxai, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Climb to the top of this 7th century gateway for a great view of the city. 

Not to be missed is the very unusual Buddha Park or Xieng Khuan, which is situated on the outskirts of the city. Here you will find a large garden full of weird and wonderful Hindu and Buddhist sculptures which need to be seen to be believed.

Vientiane has a huge collection of interesting buildings and temples in a range of styles and a great way to explore is simply by walking. Take a stroll along the river and you will view a interesting collection of buildings from across the road, then simply follow the shining golden roves to find the elaborately decorated temples.

This is a great place to satisfy your craving for Western food as there are a large number of excellent restaurants offering a range of international food, especially in the area near the river. You will even find restaurants serving gourmet French food, and this is the perfect time to indulge. For those looking for cheap traditional food, a number of small carts set up trade on the bank of the river in the evening.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng, Laos

The chilled out traveller’s hot spot of Vang Vieng is situated 120 miles from Vientiane. The journey takes just three of four hours by bus, while it is 150 miles to Luang Prabang. The best way to get around this picturesque village is to walk or hire a bicycle, but mopeds are also available for rent.

The tranquil atmosphere of Vang Vieng is very addictive. The landscape is incredibly serene and picturesque; beyond the sparkling river sheer limestone cliffs rise from a plateau of paddy fields. The river is spanned by a number of wooden bridges, which despite their flimsy appearance compliment the scenery perfectly.

Vang Vieng is a real haven for travellers and you will find a great assortment of cheap guesthouses dotted around the village. Many westerners arrive here and never leave, setting up their own bars and guesthouses alongside the many others owned by Lao people.

Chilling out is the main activity in Vang Vieng. Restaurants show Friends reruns throughout the day and night and there is plenty of good food and drink to go with it. International food is popular here and most restaurants offer a selection of backpack favourites such as pizza, pasta and spicy curry.

Walking through the scenic landscape is also popular and there are some other beautiful caves to explore on the far side of the river. Alternatively, if you fancy something a bit more energetic, why not hire an inner tube and float away down the river? Other popular activities in and around 
Vang Vieng include rafting, trekking and bicycle and motorbike trips.

Many of the families that live in Vang Vieng are self-sufficient and have chickens clucking in the garden in front of the house. As you explore the picturesque dusty lanes you will find puppies running around and fluffy yellow chicks cheep in the long grass, watched over by their clucking mother.

If you are feeling adventurous, take a walk through the village to the Vang Vieng Resort which is a large, picturesque garden with a large cable bridge spanning the river. At the far end of the park is the impressive cave of Tham Jang. Climb the 147 steps for enchanting views of the surrounding countryside and sparkling rocks inside. In the evening, sit beside the river and watch the sun slip behind the horizon with a beer or two.

Oudomsay, Laos

Oudomsay, Laos
Oudomsay, Laos
Oudomsay, Laos

Also known as Oudomxay or Oudômxa, this pretty province in the northwest of Laos was created in 1976 and is a good place to stop for a break if you are travelling between the temple town of Luang Prabang and Phonsaly or Sayabouri.

This is an area of intense natural beauty and the ideal place for trekking and to explore the neighbouring ethnic villages. Adventure sports such as rock climbing and rafting are popular here, while this is also a good place for cycling and bird watching.

Oudomsay is located close to the Chinese border and you will find an interesting mix of cultures as you wander through the province. There are 23 different ethnic minority groups living within the province, all with their own unique belief systems, customs, food and styles of dress.

A great way to spend a day is by trekking the 8 miles to the very pretty waterfall of Tad Lak Sip Et. Explore the Muong La District of Oudomsay and you will find an interesting range of temples, villages and hot spring located deep in the jungle.

One of Oudomsay’s main attractions is the Saymoungkhoune Rattana Stupa. This towering white stupa is a sacred spot and a great place to visit if you’re walking through the surrounding countryside. For spectacular views of the countryside, climb to the top of Phouxay Mountain. Gaze out at a rich vista of paddy fields, jungle, farmland and tiny villages before exploring the rest of the area.

A great place to try traditional Lao food is the Muang Xai market. People travel from all over the province to this large and vibrant market to sell their wares and this is a good place to stop eat and pick up and bargain or two.

An interesting way to travel through this region of Laos is to trek to Muang Say, then take a short bus or pickup truck ride to the picturesque village of Pakbeng. The mighty Mekong River flows from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang and the journey by large, wooden boat takes around five hours. As you sail slowly down the river you will pass limestone cliffs, mangroves and fishing villages.

Phongsaly, Laos

Phongsaly, LaosSituated in north Laos, not too many people venture into the town of Phonsaly. However, those who do take the time and trouble will find an area rich in traditional culture and natural beauty. With more than twenty ethnic tribes living in the area, this is a good place to discover the diverse life styles, dress styles and religious practices that make these tribes unique. (more…)

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang was formerly the capital of Laos and is situated at the meeting point of the Mekong and Mae Kok rivers in northern Laos. Most travellers in Laos make it to this large and inviting city at some point during their journey and this is a great place to spend a few days.

Luang Prabang Province is considered by many to be Laos’ cultural and heritage centre and here you will find a large collection of Buddhist monasteries, temples and monuments. The town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site and offers some stunning examples of French architecture and traditional temple art.

Surrounded by dense jungle and sparkling rivers, Luang Prabang Province is extremely beautiful. The earth is a rich brown colour and to the north rocky mountains make an impressive backdrop. Trekking is popular here and there are a good range of activities available such as rock climbing and boat trips.

Among the largest and most impressive of Luang Prabang’s temples are Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Visoun and Wat Ou Tay, while the 24-metre high stupa of That Chomsi is an impressive sight. For spectacular views over the city climb to the top of Phu Si, which is also one of the best places to watch the sun set over the city.

There are plenty to see and do around the province. 30 miles north of Luang Prabang city is the cave of Tham Ting, which is filled with large Buddha images and is a prominent place of worship for the local people. The cave is situated right on the river and combined with the two hour boat trip to get there this is a great way to spend a day.

Another good day trip destination pretty the Tad Sae waterfall and Kuang Si waterfall, while the National Museum is a good place to learn more about the local culture and history. Topped by an impressive golden-spired stupa, Luang Prabang’s former royal palace has been transformed into the Palace Museum, and here you will find an impressive collection of regal artefacts and royal portraits

There are a large number of cheap guesthouses available in Luang Prabang and plenty of restaurants serving international food. A great time to visit is during one of the country’s festivals, when the streets are filled with colourful and noisy processions.   

Getting around Luang Prabang is easy and this is a great place to take it easy before venturing into the more remote areas of Laos.