You’ve heard the deal about Thailand, the lowdown on Cambodia, the razzle and hum of Vietnam…but what do you know about Laos?
Here’s what you need to know: when it comes to winding things down and easing into a pure state of stress free holiday splendour, there really is only one place in South East Asia that’ll truly and uncompromisingly satiate your hungry, wandering soul.
Laos is a travellers’ utopia. Unburdened by the stresses of the modern world (and other, more bustling South East Asian destinations), peppered with mystical temples, river adventures and incredible natural wonders, Laos is ultra conducive to some fairly potent wanderlust.
Too many tantalising things about Laos to sum up here, but to get your juices flowing (and that ticket booked, already) we’re going to give it a shot—Geckos devotees, here’s a cheeky missive on why Laos ought to be your next South East Asian escapade.
Vientiane – The Cosy Capital
Whether soaring in from abroad, crossing the border on foot or easing north through Thailand on a slow boat, Vientiane is likely to be your first Laotian port of call. Situated plum on the Mekong, this city’s golden stupas and laid-back charm will provide the perfect opener for your grand Laos adventure.
A stately if not cosy capital, Vientiane was once a French outpost, so expect a solid dose of colonial influence (especially in the bakeries and restaurants). Vientiane’s food options are sensational, offering everything from traditional Lao to classic French, Spanish tapas to juicy, mouth-watering steaks.
Vang Vieng – Laos Vegas
Coddled by resplendent limestone peaks, verdant forest and hidden lagoons, Vang Vieng, four bus hours north of Vientiane, is a magical haven – particularly for those who like to party. Though feelings are mixed about the backpacker influx (and discerning folk might find the ‘Neverland’ hedonism a little racy) no one can question the magnetism of Vang Vieng’s stunning hinterland surrounds, a neat respite from the karaoke bus on the dusty beaten track north.
Luang Prabang – The Humble Showstopper
Did you know the commonly spouted ‘backronym’ for Lao PDR is ‘Lao: Please Don’t Rush’? Nowhere more apt is the local mantra than in Luang Prabang. Here, at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, golden Buddhist temples shimmer in verdant foothills, orange-clad Monks wander the morning streets, and colonial architecture fuses with Zen heritage.
One-time capital of the Laotian Kingdom, Luang Prabang is today a UNESCO World Heritage city; at night, steamy air balms under the gentle lamps of the central market, where craft and food stalls serve up local delicacies, including BBQ frog, fried Mekong River moss, and live ant salad (bite before they bite you). If Luang Prabang doesn’t instantly lull you into a state of complete ease (unlikely) then book yourself into a decadent day spa for a transcendental massage, meditation, or as I did once, an all out princess facial package (it was delightful).
Just outside town you’ll find Kuang Si Falls, a stunning nook of waterfalls and lagoons perfect for a jump and dip, not far from Pak Ou Caves, a mystical hideaway featuring remarkable Buddha statues—all effortlessly accessible by moto or tuk-tuk.
Phonsavan (Plain of Jars) – An Ancient Mystery
The massive area around the green hills and forests of Phonsavan is best known for its vast plain sprinkled with thousands of mysterious stone ‘jars’. These ancient granite megaliths are scattered in clusters and date back as far as 2,500 years, the height of the Bronze Age. No one has a clue why they’re there, nor much about the people who put them there. A bonafide mystery, and pretty darn cool.
4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don) – Heaven on Earth
Possibly the most tranquil place on earth to chill out for a few days (or few years) Si Phan Don, aka Four Thousand Islands, is a riverine archipelago situated deep in southern Laos’s Mekong, right on the Cambodian border. Idyllic, romantic, incredibly cheap (bungalows for $3, beers for $1), islands like Dong Khong, Dong Khon and Don Dhet (as well as, presumably, the other 3,997) provide an unforgettable respite from the goings on in the rest of the planet.
Spend your carefree moments indulging in endless river swims, casual canoeing and kayaking and general sun-cooked glory. Come the night, nosh into delicious local fare by the riverside as the local water buffalo roam under ethereal amber sunsets. Bliss.
Northern Laos and Nong Khiaw – Off the Beaten
Northern Laos is a vast, lush tropical hinterland of tigers and gibbons, homestays and serpentine rivers; the place is so rich with scenes of gobsmacking natural beauty it’s ridiculous. The town of Nong Khiaw is a fine exemplar; a sultry, somnolent hamlet surrounded by dense forest, limestone mountains, gently rolling streams, caves and river inlets.
Spend your mornings trekking and caving at Tham Pha Thok; afternoons kayaking, or perhaps a day trip on the 100 waterfalls trail; come evening time, cold bottles of Beer Lao by the water’s edge, traditional meals by the waterline, exotic sounds and lush smells of the natural world, your slice of peaceful Laos life humming to its own tune.