Seeing the real Laos with Asia Paradise Vietnam
Thank you for choosing Asia Paradise Vietnam (AP) to organize your travel arrangements in the Laos People’s Democratic Republic (PDR). This document will give you some more information about the country, the different destinations within Laos, useful information for travelers, and a listing of the AP preferred hotels.
Our dedicated team at AP Laos are experts at what they do. Knowledgeable, passionate, and enthusiastic, there is no request too big or too small for our staff. Since opening our first office in Laos in 2001, our team has learned all of the hot spots, hidden gems, and everything in between. We will of course show you the highlights of this spectacular country but also are pleased to show you lesser known sites.
Where to go in Laos?
Most visitors travel to the capital city Vientiane and then head north to enchanting Luang Prabang. With plenty of sightseeing, activities, and traveler facilities it is no wonder that these two cities continue to draw the most visitors. However, the rest of the country should not be left unnoticed!
The size of Laos and the poor quality of roads in the rural areas mean travel time is long, but those who venture out will be well rewarded! Not only is the landscape beautiful at the destination, but there is not a single stretch of road in rural Laos that does not have stunning views.
The country is best described by its geographic divisions: the mountainous north, the flat plains in the center, and the water-filled south.
Northern Laos is home to the majority of Laos’ ethnic minorities and is a trekker’s paradise. The town of Luang Nam Tha is a popular starting point for adventure travel. In the southern part of the country, a wealth of natural wonders await - the cool highlands of the Bolavan Plateau, the 4000 Islands of the Siphandon region, and magnificent waterfalls.
Spending a few weeks in the laid-back atmosphere of Laos is sure create a lifetime of memories. Our staff have an in-depth knowledge of the country, the hotels, and activities on offer and are more than happy to plan a journey perfectly suited to your needs. Likewise, our guides are enthusiastic about their home and will stop at no length to ensure that you have a fantastic holiday.
When to go to Laos?
From November to February the weather in Laos is cool and dry while March to June sees temperatures soaring in to the high 30s (Celsius). July to October tend to be very rainy, washing out some roads thus making rural areas inaccessible. The Lao are very sociable and if you happen to be in the country during one of their festivals, you are sure to get caught up in the lively atmosphere!
Pii Mai, Lao New Year, is in April and the celebrations include parades and water fights. The magnificent That Luang Festival falls in November and thousands of people and monks travel from remote villages to participate in the religious celebration. Several times a year Vientiane has boat racing competitions, where long wooden boats are raced up and down the Mekong River.
This is a guide to the best of the best of Laos. Ideas for travel, sightseeing and accommodation with a few insider tips along the way
Laos’ capital city is one of the smallest capital cities in the world, and its sleepy vibe is the perfect introduction to Laos life. Although slightly disheveled with dusty, potholed streets the city offers many pleasant surprises for travelers. Situated on the Mekong River, directly across from Thailand, the city warrants two or three full days for traveling.
Where to stay in Vientiane?
Vientiane does not have nearly the selection of accommodation as say Bangkok, but there are some solid choices and hotels that we highly recommend.
One of our favorite hotels in Asia is The Green Park Boutique Hotel. Both historic and modern, this chic hotel features elegant interiors, superior service, and a tranquil setting. Our favorite rooms are the ‘Executive Suites’, whose spacious interiors and double balconies truly enhance your stay in the capital. Another option is The Settha Palace, which stands as a testament to the elegance and gracious service of the French colonial era.
What to see in Vientiane?
A full day city tour by bicycle or car exposes the main sites of the city and walks you through the historic periods of Lao culture. The tranquil Wat Sisaket was the only temple to survive the Siamese (Thai) invasion of 1827 and the beautiful wood-covered hallways are filled with thousands of Buddha statues. Directly across the street is Wat Phra Kaew which once held the Emerald Buddha now revered in Bangkok. The interior museum is a great place to learn about Buddhist culture and history.
A walk along Lane Xang Avenue might bring visions of Paris. Designed to resemble the Champs Elysees, this tree lined street in the centre of town even has its very own ‘Arc de Triomphe’. Slightly quirky, climbing to the top of Patuxay offers fantastic views of the city. Continuing out of town on Lane Xang Avenue, you reach That Luang. This magnificent gold-leaf covered stupa is the national symbol of Laos and one of its most important religious sights. Each fall, a massive festival is held in the grounds around the stupa and people from all over the country descend upon Vientiane to partake in the religious celebrations.
The capital is located on the banks of the Mekong River which forms the border between Laos and Thailand. In the late afternoon, the banks of the Mekong fill up with local stalls selling cold beers and fresh local food. Sitting by the river, you can watch the fishermen and catch a beautiful sunset view.
In Vientiane, you have the opportunity to discover one of delicious Laos Coffee. Laos produces one of the most famous coffees in the world that grown, often referred to as the ‘Champagne of Coffee’. Grown in Southern Laos on the Boloven Plateau, the beans are sought after for their delicious taste. A visit to the coffee centre will teach you more about the process of roasting and blending of the beans, and is concluded with a cupping tasting session.
For those interested in traditional crafts and textiles, a visit to Carol Cassidy should not be missed. Housed in a colonial mansion, Ms Cassidy has set up a series of looms and here traditional methods of dying and weaving are practiced resulting in beautiful, high quality silks. The charity shop Les Artisans Laos is a fascinating visit to watch recycled and renewable materials such as bamboo, palm, and mulberry leaves being turned in to quality notebooks, stationary and printer paper.
Learn about the tragic recent history of Laos at COPE, the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world and COPE provides prosthetic limbs for those who cannot afford it. COPE has a great display of information and exhibitions on the problems and work being done to help the victims.
If you have more than a day in Vientiane, it is worth it to take an excursion outside of the city where there are many delights to be had.
On the way toward the Thai border lies the bizarre Buddha Park. Built by an eccentric former shaman priest in the 1950s, this park has hundreds of stone Hindu and Buddhist sculptures. The Phou Khao Kway National Park is just an hour away from the capital. Here you can trek through dense forests, swim in cool waterfalls, and experience the diversity of Laos’ flora and fauna. A special Orchid Trek can be arranged, a unique experience where a local guide takes you on a journey through the park to try and spot some of the beautiful orchid species in the park.
North of the city is Nam Ngum Lake, the largest lake in Laos, and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Take a boat cruise on the lake and enjoy the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, hills and forests. With an abundance of fish in the waters, Nam Ngum Lake is a favorite fishing area for the locals and you will see the fishermen using hoop nets, regular nets and lines. Ban Pako, located 55km from the capital, is the perfect place to chill out and escape Vientiane. Set along the banks of the Nam Ngum River and surrounded by jungle, Ban Pako offers a glimpse in to the real rural Laos. A small eco-lodge, Ban Pako Lodge, is located there for those wishing to stay over night.
Shopping and Dining
Thanks to its French legacy and large ex-patriot population, Vientiane has a great variety of dining options. For local cuisine, try Makphet, a charity-run restaurant that supports underprivileged youth in the area. Their cuisine is authentic Laos, prepared with the highest in hygienic conditions, served fresh and with friendly service.
Dinner at Phatoke Laoderm is a unique evening. Housed in an old cinema, the restaurant serves delicious food whilst you are being entertained by a traditional Laos dance performance. Another unique, but typically Lao, dining experience is Poysian. Here guests barbeque their own array of meats in an al fresco setting, accompanied by soupy broth and cold Beer Lao. This style of dining is locally called sin dat and it is a truly local (and delicious!) experience.
For a special experience, check out Le Nadao which serves up fine French and Laos fare or our favorite, New Amphone. This hidden gem is tucked down a small laneway and features subtle lighting, jazzy music, and luscious wooden décor. The food is to die for (as are the cocktails!) including traditional Lao dishes such as barbequed Mekong fish, beef laap, and the ubiquitous sticky rice.
Where to stay?
Several traditional colonial villas have been painstakingly restored in to boutique accommodation. These hotels are charming places to stay, integrating modern conveniences in to elegant, traditional settings. Some of our favorites include Villa Maly, a 33-room residence situated amidst tranquil gardens, and The Grand, a stylish property on the banks of the Mekong River. The Apsara is another top choice. This slightly funky hotel in the heart of the city has stylish rooms with fabulous views over the Nam Khan River.
Luang Prabang features two top luxury hotels. La Residence Phou Vao is a stunning property with indulgent rooms, sweeping mountain views, and an elegant spa. Likewise Maison Souvannaphoum is a luxurious retreat with top end accommodation and services, and recently named a favorite hotel of Conde Nast magazine. Opening in 2009, the Amantaka is sure to top our luxe list. From the same hotel group that has designed luxury properties in Phuket, Thailand and Siem Reap, Cambodia, Amantaka is sure to be nothing less than spectacular.
What to do and see in Luang Prabang?
Exploring Luang Prabang is easily done on foot or by bicycle, or you can opt to take a local tuk-tuk or an air conditioned car. The main sites of the city lie along its peninsula, formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. In the centre of this peninsula is a massive hill, called Mount Phousi. Climb the 328 stairs to the top for sweeping views of the city and surrounding hills. Descend and visit the former Royal Palace, now the National Museum, to explore the history of Laos. Continue to Wat Mai, a temple renowned for its golden bas-relief, and Wat Sensoukarahm, which features a beautiful dazzling golden façade. You should not miss the spectacular Wat Xieng Thong, the most revered temple in Luang Prabang which is located at the end of the peninsula, close to the Mekong.
Feeling templed-out? There are many other things to do in Luang Prabang. Visit the Heritage Information Center. Here you will learn about the methods being used to preserve the unique heritage and culture of Luang Prabang as well as gain further understanding in to the importance of developing sustainable and community-based preservation projects. The Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre is dedicated to exploring the rich diversity of Laos’ ethnic minorities. Traditional costumes, tools, and artifacts are on display alongside in-depth descriptions and written histories. It is a great opportunity to gain insight in to the Lao people (note: closed on Monday).
Stop at Ock Pop Top, a non-profit organization seeking to preserve traditional weaving techniques. You can spend an afternoon there learning about the process of silk weaving from the creation of dyes to the final process of loom weaving.
In the evening, attend the Royal Ballet Theater. The spectacular performance includes scenes from the Lao-Ramayana, traditional folk dances and tribal dances. Or spend the evening hours wandering through the night market. Every evening stalls set up on the peaceful streets with vendors from various hill tribes selling their wares.
For early risers, there is a very special dawn visit to watch the monks collecting the alms. As the sun begins to rise, long lines of orange-robed monks leave their pagodas and walk barefoot down the streets collecting offerings from Luang Prabang residents. It is a beautiful, serene ceremony that highlights the spiritualism of the Laos people.
Although it’s easy to get swept up in the slow pace of life of Luang Prabang, there are many interesting excursions in the area.
Take a boat ride along the Mekong River to Pak Ou Caves, locally called Tam Ting, contains thousands of gold lacquered Buddha statues crammed into two caves carved out of a towering limestone cliff.
Head 32 km out of town to the Kuangsi Waterfall. These waterfalls cascade down a multilevel limestone formation creating a series of turquoise blue pools perfect for swimming in on a hot day. The jungle and dense woods surrounding the falls is filled with wildlife and pleasant walks can be taken along the natural footpaths.
Travel to the surrounding wilderness areas where you can ride an elephant from the jungles to the waterfalls. This breathtaking experience is a great way to get up close to one of Asia’s favourite animals.
For an incredible overnight journey, travel up the Mekong River to Kamu Lodge. This eco-lodge was built and operated by the local villagers, members of the Kamu people. Guests are not only treated to an overnight stay in a spectacular setting, but there are many activities on offer designed to incorporate you with the local culture and way of life.
Shopping and Dining
Traditional Laos textiles, unique hand made paper, locally grown tea and coffee, hand crafted silver, and beautiful arts are all on sale at the Luang Prabang Night Market. Every evening around 5 pm, local vendors as well as those from surrounding villages converge on the main road for the evening market. Lit by soft lighting, with the crickets chirping in the background, the friendly vendors and relaxed setting create a serene atmosphere in which to browse and bargain (although the gentle smiles of the vendors make bargaining a tough chore!)
For day time shopping, Kopnoi on the backside of Mount Phousi offers a diverse selection of local jewelry and clothing while promoting the exportation of Lao handicrafts. Caruso is an interesting collection of house wares and furnishings and Naga Creations on the main road sells eclectic jewelry.
We highly recommend Ock Pop Tok, a textile gallery and weaving centre dedicated to preserving traditional techniques and patterns used in Laos weaving. Not only does the shop sell fantastic products, but there are also textile tours, weaving and dying classes, and special talks and seminars.
Dining in Luang Prabang is a real treat. From traditional barbeque stands and sin dat to high end cuisine, this charming town has it all. For a taste of traditional Lao cuisine, dine at Tamarind. Run by an Australian woman and her Lao husband, they have created a fresh menu of Lao dishes and are dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of the cuisine. As you order and dine, the friendly owners will explain the ingredients and customs of the cuisine.
Without a doubt, you must try a meal at l’Elephant. From Lao to Western cuisine, this creative restaurant is an AP favorite. Relying on local vegetables and herbs from their village farm, l’Elephant never fails to please even the most discerning of diners. Housed in a colonial-style house, the cozy, casual atmosphere is great for pre-dinner drinks or a romantic dinner on the alfresco terrace.
Northern Laos is a mountainous region and fed by the waters of the Nam Ou and the Mekong Rivers. Traveling this region is filled with stunning scenery, as well as a way to observe the lifestyles of the locals who reside on the river banks and make their livelihood fishing and foraging in the area. Northern Laos is inhabited by several ethnic minority groups such as Khamu, Hmong and Akha. Although seemingly similar, these groups still retain certain traditions, way of dress, and dialects that delineate them from each other.
Northern Laos also features some of Southeast Asia’s most famous ecotourism destination such as at the Nam Ha Protected Area in Luang Nam Tha Province.
Heading north from Luang Prabang on the Mekong River, you reach Nong Khiaw. Set amongst dozens of limestone karsts, the town is full of stunning scenery. Within walking distance of Nong Khiaw are some Hmong villages where you can learn more about this ethnic minority.
Luang Nam Tha village is the gateway to the Nam Ha Protected Area, where trekking and outdoor activities abound. The town is a quiet and peaceful place to relax before or after a trek or bike tour in the region. Surrounded by ethnic villages and ricefields, Luang Nam Tha reveals plenty of hidden charms in its tribal museum, local market, pagodas, and friendly locals. In Luang Nam Tha, Boat Landing Guesthouse is a unique eco resort set amongst the fields on a river bank. Not only is the accommodation spectacular, but the restaurant serves up the best northern Lao cuisine we have ever tasted!
Located in a fertile valley in the mountainous north, Muang Sing is a very charming town that served as a garrison during the French era. Muang Sing is very famous for its local ethnic hilltribe market. Here, the area’s various hill tribes such as Akha, Lanten, and Hmong, gather to trade and barter their various wares. Also in Muang Sing, take your time to enjoy the local architecture consisting of traditional Thai Lü, Thai Neua and Yunnanese styles as well as the informative tribal museum.
Nam Ha protected area is the most famous and well-known ecotourism destination in Laos. Covered by primitive rainforests, valleys and mountainous areas, the park has a significant level of plant and animal biodiversity. In addition, this is the home of many hilltribes such as Akha, Lanten, and Khamu and one can learn about the unique cultures of these native people.
In the far northeast of the country, near the Vietnam border lies the town of Viengxay, the headquarters of the former revolutionary Pathet Lao. The town is surrounded by limestone karsts in which there are about 102 caves and during the American bombing campaign (1964-1973) some of these caves were occupied by villagers and politicians who were seeking shelter from the raids. For the truly adventurous, traveling from Viengxay in to Vietnam is a journey of a lifetime- mountainous roads, various ethnic minorities, and stunning scenery!
CENTRAL AND EASTERN LAOS
Central Laos is home to the capital of Vientiane. About three hours north of Vientiane on the drive to Luang Prabang is the small town of Vang Vieng. This small village is surrounded by limestone karsts and the beautiful Nam Song River. Its position between the country’s two main destinations means that Vang Vieng has emerged as a popular stop-over for tourists wishing to kayak or go caving.
To the Northeast of Vientiane, lies The Plain of Jars. The areas plains are covered by scores of mysterious stone jars estimated to be 2000 years old. Although their origin remains a mystery, wandering amongst the site is an incredible experience. Spend time wandering amongst the jars, enjoying an overnight stay at Auberge de la Plaine des Jarres, which is perched on a peaceful rural hillside. Another worthy stop in the area is at LMAG - Mine Action Group, a charity focused on clearing the area of landmines and other unexploded ordinances.
Southern Laos is one of Asia’s hidden gems, where the people maintain their traditional ways of life and the scenery is unparalleled. The main town, Pakse, is a great starting point for travelers. It is serviced by an international airport and is not far from the Thai border. Although an interesting town, most travelers do not choose to spend much time there as there is not a lot to see.
Heading east from Pakse, you enter the Boloven Platueau. Here, in the cool highlands, Laos’ delicious coffee and tea is grown and harvested. The area is also filled with great waterfalls and is an ideal trekking destination for light day hikes.
South of Pakse is the town of Champassak, situated on the Mekong River. Champassak is a blend of English and French colonial buildings and traditional Lao houses. This tranquil area is also home to the splendid Wat Phou. Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Wat Phou is a spectacular pre-Angkorian temple that sits amidst the rice fields and waterways of southern Laos.
Starting in Champassak lies the 4000 Islands, called ‘Siphandon’ in the Lao language. This area is one of the jewels of the Mekong, where the river stretches over 14km wide and has thousands of islands between the river banks. The water flows around the islands and forms rapids as it runs down to the Cambodian border. Siphandon is a unique and breathtaking place with a laidback atmosphere.
Spending a night or two on Don Daeng Island at La Folie Lodge is a real treat. The lodge is in a spectacular location: facing the hills of Wat Phou and surrounded by the Mekong River.
The 4000 Islands are one of the remaining homes of the Irrawaddy Dolphin, a freshwater dolphin on the verge of extinction. Staying on the islands of Don Khone, Don Khong, or Don Det one is likely to spot these elusive animals.
Also in this area, on the way to the Cambodian border, there are the Lippi and Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Phapheng falls are the largest falls in Laos and also the only section of the Mekong that is not navigable by boat. Lippi falls hold a sort of mysticism for the Lao people who believe they capture evil spirits.
We think the best way to explore this region is by traveling along the Mekong by boat. Our Wat Phou Cruise is a spectacular journey through the Siphandon region. Enjoy the tranquility of the steady pace of boat travel as you venture along the Mekong on this 3 day- 2 night cruise.
Laos is nature’s ultimate playground. Whether you are seeking hard core adventure or are just a ‘weekend warrior’, there is something for you.
In the southern provinces, Xe Pian is an area filled with wetlands and pristine forests and stretches down to the Cambodian border. Ecotourism experts have worked with the local villagers of Xe Pian to develop sustainable tourism activities such as trekking, bird watching, and elephant riding.
For cyclists, bikes are readily available in the main cities for an eco-friendly way to site see or for day trips out to remote destinations. A spectacular journey is to bike from Laos in to Cambodia along the Mekong River. This route is filled with great wildlife, ancient temples, rural villages, and great scenery. For a serious challenge, cycle the remote north east, across the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in to Vietnam. Steep climbs and breezy descents are rewarded with fascinating scenery and unique hill tribe villages.
Although Laos is a landlocked country, several rivers meander through the country providing ample opportunity for kayaking and rafting. Paddle from Vang Vieng to Vientiane in a great day trip or turn it in to an overnight journey. Or, take a more relaxing journey with a boat trip from Thailand to Luang Prabang. A popular trip amongst travelers, this 2 day / 1 night journey is a great opportunity to view the natural scenery of Laos from the vantage point of the Mekong River.
EATING & DRINKING
Although not as well known as Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, Lao food is a delicious mix of fresh flavors such as galangal, lime, lemongrass, basil, coriander, and mint. Meals are generally shared communally with a soup, grilled or steamed meat, a variety of green leafy vegetables, dipping sauces, and sticky rice. Rarely do the Lao eat with utensils, instead they form small balls of sticky rice in their fingers and used as an aid to pick up the food. Chopsticks are only used in the case of noodle soups, but fear not! Utensils are commonly available for foreign tourists.
The national dish of Laos is laap, a delicious dish made of finely minced meat, lemongrass, and herbs. Spicy salads such as tam mak houng are also popular. This particular dish is made from green (unripened) papaya, tomatoes, lime juice, peanuts, chilies, and fish sauce. Grilled meats, especially chicken and fish, are extremely popular and walking down the street the smell is mouth watering! Mok pa fork is a steamed fish in banana leaf dish, accompanied by a mild coconut sauce. A similar version of this is found in neighboring Cambodia and Thailand.
Most locals enjoy jaews with their meal. These are salsa-like dipping sauces, made from tomatoes, eggplant, or other vegetables. Traditionally jaews have accompanied meals in poor villages to break the monotony of eating endless amounts of plain sticky rice, but nowadays are being enjoyed by more and more tourists.
For celebrations, a pun pa is a festive meal meant to be shared. A whole steam fish, marinated in local herbs and stuffed with lemongrass, is served with a variety of fresh vegetables, herbs, and sauces. Diners create their own individual parcels of lettuce wraps seasoned to taste!
If laap is the national dish of Laos, then Beer Lao is certainly the national drink of Laos! This delicious beer was, up until recently, the only type of beer available in the country and regardless of how remote in the jungle you were, the villagers always seem to have a bottle ready to share. For something a bit stronger, lao lao is the traditional rice wine. Made in the villages, this strong alcohol is made by fermenting rice and is often consumed at weddings and other celebrations.
In the southern Boloven Plateau, Laos grows fantastic tea and coffee. The locals drink their coffee strong, often with a hefty dollop of sweetened condensed milk. Green, loose-leaf tea is served as an accompaniment although higher-end teas are beginning to appear.