As Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country, Laos has a rich history spanning 10,000 years, yet it has remained largely undeveloped as a tourist destination. Its magical yet unexpected charm has lured many travelers passing through on a Southeast Asian sojourn who ended up staying years later and now call it home. It’s easy to see why they haven’t left after being touched by the genuine warmth and hospitality of the Laotians with a lush natural landscape defined by mountains, waterfalls, jungles, and scenic rivers.
Start your trip in Luang Prabang, a beautifully preserved UNESCO World Heritage City that was once the historic capital of Northern Laos. This spiritual center has more than 30 gilded Buddhist temples, including Wat Xieng Thong dating back to the sixteenth century. These temples are nestled between historic French colonial architecture in narrow winding streets.
Stroll the colorful night market to discover Laotian street food where vendors prepare local delights in front of you. Pick up some beautiful local handicrafts, clothing and artwork and experience Laotian culture. Enjoy the slow pace of the town and the idyllic scenery at a riverfront café, or enjoy the sunset from a long boat ride on the Mekong as you bathe in the beauty of nature. At dawn, watch the saffron-robed monks line the streets to collect alms from local businesses. This daily ritual is a beautiful and powerful symbol of Buddhist culture and demonstrates the spirituality of the Laotian culture.
For delicious authentic Lao cuisine, dine at the Three Nagas Restaurant located in the boutique hotel of the same name managed by M Gallery Sofitel. Bathe in the soft moonlight as you listen to the gentle sounds of traditional folk music in this stylish and intimate indoor and alfresco restaurant that epitomizes the colonial charm of this beautiful city.
About 45 minutes outside of Luang Prabang is the famous Kuang Si Waterfalls, which are best explored in the early morning before the throngs of visitors. Feel one with nature as you experience these cascading aquamarine pools nestled amongst a bamboo forest, and hike through the lush jungle to discover pools that are more beautiful than the last. Admire the serene beauty of the environment, and pack a picnic breakfast while overlooking the gentle falls with the sounds of nature. Within this park is the bear sanctuary that is home to 25 Asiatic black bears that have been rescued from poachers who hunt the bears for their bile, which is used in Chinese medicine. On the way back to town, stop by the Lao Buffalo Dairy Farm—the only buffalo dairy farm in Laos. It was started by two expat families who wanted to give back to the community. Through sustainable farming, they support the renting of the buffalo, which gives Lao families an extra income stream, while providing proper veterinary care, and producing a wide variety of buffalo cheeses and ice cream to sustain the farm’s economic activities.
Get up close with wildlife at the Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary in the traditional village of Xieng Lom where elephants are treated with respect and care without rides or elephant “tricks.” Learn about ways to bond with these gentle giants and why you should never ride an elephant, as it damages its internal reproductive organs that are located on the top of their backs. Enjoy a peaceful half-day morning trek alongside the elephants through the rice fields and forested jungle. Cross through cool waters while the elephants bathe. After the trip, you will get a deeper understanding and respect for these amazing creatures.
Halfway between Luang Prabang and the capital of Laos is Vang Vieng. Long regarded as a backpackers paradise loaded with outdoor adventure activities is the picturesque Vang Vieng, which is divided by the Nam Song River with a misty mountain range in the background. Enjoy adrenaline-induced water activities such as tubing, rafting or kayaking, or trek up the mountains for panoramic views of the valley. One of the most peaceful and exciting ways to enjoy beautiful views of Vang Vieng is on a hot air balloon ride, reaching up to 3,000 feet above ground. The hour-long rides are done during sunrise or sunset as you slowly glide upwards like a slow elevator in the open air above Nathong with vistas of the dramatic Karst cliffs. While there are numerous hot air balloon operators to choose from, the best one by far is Above Laos. The pilots hold international licenses, and their safety practices are held to the highest standards with French ballooning equipment.
How to Get Around
One of the best ways to discover Laos is with Audley Travel who caters to the discerning guests. Experts who have years of experience in the destination will create a tailor made itinerary for each of their guests needs surrounding their individual tastes, interests, and budget which will showcase the destination through a local’s eyes. Audley Travel also vets all its attractions to avoid the tourist traps and only works with businesses that are motivated to preserve the culture and promote sustainability for the most authentic experience for each client.
For our trip to Laos, our Laotian guide gave us an insider’s view of Laos with its rich history and evolution since its independence. A former monk with a colorful past, he gave us an introduction to the local culture and knew the best times to visit popular destinations to avoid long lines or throngs of tourists. From the time we arrived in Laos until we departed, Audley Travel took care of our needs and gave us an enriching experience we will never forget as we had a chance to get up close and personal with the land and the people.