Laos is no longer the undiscovered country that it once was. Sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, the Southeast Asian nation has benefited from tremendous growth in the region’s tourism sector. Visitors come here to experience a more relaxed pace of life – whether it be in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luangprabang, the laidback capital of Vientiane or in the ancient ruins of Champasak or the Plain of Jars.
Here is an itinerary for Laos that can be easily done in as little as 5 days to 1 week, depending on your pace.
Vientiane (1 to 2 days)
The sleepiest capital in Southeast Asia (perhaps second only to Dili, East Timor) is a laidback town of wide boulevards, inexpensive French restaurants and historic temples. The city is small enough to explored even without a car – except perhaps for the Buddha Park and to an extent, Pha That Luang. Vientiane is best explored in an unhurried pace – you’d be troubled to find a similarly laidback capital in the continent.
- Pha That Luang – A gold colored stupa that shimmers in the fierce Lao sunlight, this monument is considered a national symbol. It is best visited at noon when the Pha That Luang is at its most golden in terms of shade.
- Patuxai – Vientiane’s own version of the Arc de Triomphe, this structure actually trumps its French inspiration slightly in height. The monument looks quite pleasant from afar especially when it is lit up in the evening but is quite drab and gray when viewed up close. You can climb to the top for views of the park around the monument and the buildings close by.
- Wat Si Saket – Perhaps the most beautiful temple in the city, the structure originates from the 19th century and is known for its several Buddha images within its walls.
- Wat Si Muang – Another notable and picturesque temple in Vientiane – a worthwhile visit with its bright yellow exterior.
- Haw Phra Kaew – Before the famous Emerald Buddha was taken to Bangkok, it actually resided here. The structure, which used to be the personal temple of the King, dates back from the 1500s. It has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times with the most recent look being a reconstruction by the French during the 1930s.
- Presidential Palace – It is not a tourist attraction that you can enter but you’ll undoubtedly pass by this place as you walk from the downtown to the Patuxai. Built in French colonial style, the structure is well-maintained and is currently being used by the president.
- Buddha Park – One of the strangest attractions in Laos itself, the Buddha Park or Xieng Khuan is situated almost 45 minutes by car from Vientiane. The place is a collection of seemingly randomly placed Buddha statues in various positions. If you are planning to cross the border to Nong Khai, Thailand you might want to stop here as it’s on the way.
Luangprabang (2 to 3 days)
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the small town of Luangprabang has experienced a lot of change in recent years with the charming shophouses given a face lift and plenty of new hotels and restaurants opening to make Luangprabang as much of a foodie’s paradise as it is a cultural destination.
- Walking around the old town – Luangprabang is small and walkable that you don’t really need a detailed itinerary. There are not that many tourist attractions even though the town itself is one. Whiling away the afternoon in a cafe or trying out a cooking class are usual means of spending the time in this town that’s even more laidback than Vientiane.
- Alms ceremony at dawn – Wake up before sunrise to catch the monks going about collecting alms as part of a daily tradition. It starts at 5:30AM and if you’d like to participate, it’s advisable to source for the food yourself to give to the monks.
- Night market – A lively market comes alive in the main street from as early as 5PM daily. You’ll find plenty of handicrafts, apparel and other souvenirs while walking here – a good way of burning the calories after dinner at one of the roadside eateries.
- Phou Si Hill – climb up here in late afternoon for a panoramic view of the town. The entrance is just across Haw Kham.
- Haw Kham (former royal palace) – As of this writing, visitors can no longer take photos inside. The palace is nice enough for a look. The former king’s residence has been restored to its former glory and replete with golden doors, intricate artwork and a well-manicured garden.
- Wat Xieng Thong – One of the most beautiful temples in Laos, the Wat Xieng Thong is well-known for its “tree of life” mosaic at the back. If you can only visit one temple in Luangprabang, let this be it.
- Kuang Si Falls – Around an hour’s journey from Luangprabang, these series of waterfalls are among the most impressive in Southeast Asia. Certain tiers have a dreamy, fairy-tale like effect. It is possible to swim in certain levels. Make sure to climb to the highest tier for a complete overview.
- Pak Ou Cave – The best way to get here is by boat, where you’ll cruise through some stunning views of limestone rock formations before you reach the cave itself. Pak Ou Cave is filled with plenty of Buddha images – and is ok (but not a must) for a day trip if you have extra time in Luangprabang.
Pakse & Champasak (1 to 3 days)
The town of Pakse is the largest in the southern part of Laos. There’s not much here to interest travellers but it’s a good jumping point to places such as the Bolaven Plateau, Vat Phou and Si Phan Don.
- Vat Phou Champasak – An Angkorian temple in the southern part of Laos, Vat Phou Champasak is situated in a hill with a number of levels that culminate with a sanctuary at the top. Views from the top are sublime even though much of the complex is in ruins. From Pakse, the temple is situated around 50km away. Allow for a 1 hour journey time by car.
- Bolaven Plateau – Known for its many scenic waterfalls, most people venture here to stay overnight.
- Si Phan Don – A series of 4,000+ plus islands situated where the Mekong River is at its widest, providing a bit of the languid island life in a landlocked country such as Laos.
Stay: The River Resort Champasak is probably the best lodging you can find in Laos south of Vientiane. Offering some well-appointed rooms and fantastic cuisine, this is one of my favorite places to stay in Laos.