Laos may be a landlocked country without a tropical coastline, but it makes up for it with stunning mountain scenery, lush rice paddies and the mighty Mekong River which runs through its terrain. Still wild and largely untouched, it offers a fascinating array of cultural attractions, outdoor experiences and timeless charm.
With its mix of Buddhist temples, colonial architecture and jungle fauna, Luang Prabang is one of the overlooked jewels of southeast Asia. First inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, its heritage has been preserved in time and its traditions remain an enduring attraction. Its still common to see locals give alms to monks each morning around 6am: sticky rice, crackers or cookies given as an act of charity to monks who rely on these expressions of good will.
Orange Robe Tours, one of many social enterprises in town, hires former Novices and Monks to lead tours around Luang Prabang. These culturally-immersive experiences provide unique insight into the life of a Buddhist monk, and help ease the transition from temple life to layperson life.
The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) is another entity helping to preserve and share Laotian traditions with the public. Through its museum exhibits, education activities and livelihoods development programme, the TAEC educates visitors on the main ethnic groups of Laos, and empowers local communities to actively manage their own cultural heritage.
The center currently supports over 600 handicraft producers across 20 different ethnic groups by shedding a light on their intricately crafted textiles, jewelry and musical instruments. TAEC’s boutique also sells a range of gifts and accessories with 50% of proceeds going back to the artisans.
Cultural heritage is a recurring theme in Luang Prabang, and the past few years have seen a number of new boutique hotels take over historic structures in the ancient city. Located right in the heart of town, a stone’s throw from the bustling night market and Phousi Hill, lies the Avani+ Luang Prabang.
A contemporary hotel set within a French colonial building that dates back to 1914, it features local architecture with modern flourishes, like bright teak wood and modish furnishings. Set on two floors, its an intimate hotel with 53 rooms boasting private balconies, and an eye-catching swimming pool in the central courtyard.
The Main Street Bar and Grill offers all day dining in a bright, cheerful space overlooking the main thoroughfare in town. Taste revisited Laotian classics like turmeric tilapia in banana leaf or roasted duck curry with local vegetables and lychee. The town and the hotel can also arrange a number of experiences for guests, including day cruises through its partner Mekong Kingdom.
Hop on a longboat to explore the emerald-colored Kuang Si Waterfall or sail towards the Pak Ou Cave, lined with Buddha statues. The Laos Buffalo Dairy, a sustainable farm aimed at improving the welfare and nutrition of Luang Prabang’s rural population, is the perfect place to stop for a scoop of gelato to cool down after a day of adventures.
The new Lao-China Railway has made traveling through Laos much quicker than before. In just one hour, you can depart Luang Prabang and reach the little mountain town of Vang Vieng. Surrounded by limestone mountains, stalactite-lined caves and sparkling lagoons, the town feels otherworldly and offers a plethora of outdoor activities: hiking, kayaking and zip-lining are just a few.
The town is somewhat notorious for its backpacker culture, but the railway promises to bring more investment to the town in the coming years. Needless to say, where you stay in Vang Vieng can make or break your visit, so be sure to book a room at the Riverside Boutique Resort for a relaxing escape immersed in nature.
Set along the banks of the Nam Song River, this intimate oasis has 34 rooms that overlook an incredibly photogenic swimming pool which reflects the dramatic mountains in the distance. The hotel’s charming Restaurant du Crabe d’Or offers excellent interpretations of Laotian cuisine through its 5-course tasting menus.
You can expect to taste spicy minced meat salad with fresh herbs, chilled salmon salad with lemongrass and mint, and steamed vegetables seasoned with ginger, sesame seeds and chili. The Riverside Boutique Resort also has a fabulous open-air spa where you can enjoy traditional massages immersed in your surroundings.
The hotel can arrange activities like sunset boat rides along the river (where you may encounter some bathing buffalos!), hot air balloon rides over the valley and hikes to some of Vang Vieng’s most beautiful viewpoints. The Pha Ngern and Nam Xay hikes may be a little steep but you’ll be well-rewarded with unforgettable views of the Laotian countryside.
It takes just one more hour to get from Vang Vieng to Vientiane on the same high-speed rail, and the two destinations couldn’t feel more different. Home to 1 million people, Vientiane is the capital of Laos and has a cosmopolitan feel. The city has hundreds of international restaurants and triumphant memorials like the Patuxai war monument, erected to mark its independence from France. Incidentally, it was inspired by the Arc de Triomphe.
A short drive from town, the gilded That Dam Stupa rises 150 ft and is arguably the most important religious attraction in the country. It is worth a quick stop on the way to the Buddha Park, an hour drive east from the capital. Established by a shaman in the 1950s, the sculpture park features over 200 Hindu and Buddhist concrete statues nestled among lush trees and flowers. The 130 ft long reclining Buddha is a main attraction.
In town, Vientiane has many small galleries and social enterprises that promote local communities and traditions. The Laos Textile Museum has informative displays and loom demonstrations to explain how silk and other textiles are produced. T’Shop Lai Gallery, an art gallery and boutique, is a great place to pick up coffee scrubs, organic shampoos with butterfly pea flower and lemongrass-laced creams crafted by local communities.
Vientiane is also a great value place to eat and drink. Overlooking a 19th century stupa, the That Dam Wine House serves Laotian and western dishes paired with an ample selection of French wines. Cage du Coq, a quirky French bistro, has a relaxed ambiance and comfort food — look out for duck confit, cassoulet and blue cheese spinach quiche with honey on the menu. It also serves brunch.
The undisputed best place to stay in the city is the Crowne Plaza Vientiane, a contemporary hotel with top-notch services including an endless breakfast buffet, intimate spa and outdoor cocktail bar. Its 198 rooms and suites are styled with soothing neutral tones and are outfitted for both leisure and business travelers: you’ll find pillow menus and free-standing bath tubs along with fast Wifi and a dedicated work station in each room. The dining options are excellent, from an abundant array of sweet and savory dishes at the market-style Mosaic, to the more formal southeast Asian cuisine at the elegant 3 Merchants restaurant.
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