From admiring sacred Buddhist monuments to visiting hill tribes, cruising on lazy rivers and exploring riverine islands, Laos boasts a multitude of attractions. It’s a landlocked nation swathed in coffee plantations, jungles, mountains, rice fields and the meandering Mekong River. Off limits to tourism until 1988, today Laos’ antiquated charm, friendly people, thriving indigenous cultures and wild landscapes present the best of Southeast Asia in one single destination.
Spend a day visiting the colonial landmarks, markets and open-air cafes in the sleepy riverside capital, Vientiane. Marvel at magnificent Buddha statues in nearby Xieng Khuan and dabble in adventure sports at Vang Vieng. Wander between golden shrines and age-old shops in Luang Prabang, a gateway to the grottos of Pak Ou Caves. Sayaboury is good for spotting elephants while Houayxay is among several great starting points for a Mekong River cruise.
Be astounded by the Plain of Jars, a magical landscape of undulating plains decorated with stone jars that are said to be remnants of an old civilization. Head to the country’s northern reaches and go trekking and kayaking in picture-perfect Nong Khiaw. Join hikes to tribal villages from Muang Sing and Luang Namtha. See the rare clouded leopard in Nam Ha National Protected Area and gibbons in Phou Hin Poun National Biodiversity Conservation Area.
Southern Laos sits sandwiched between the Mekong River and Annamite Mountains. Arrange a tour from Thakek to the Mahaxai Caves, which are sheltered by the huge limestone peaks of Khammouane Protected Area. Canoe on the Tham Lot Kong subterranean river. Discover coffee plantations, tribal communities and waterfalls around the Bolaven Plateau. Examine the remains of fallen empires at Vat Phou.
Consider a side trip to Si Phan Don, an archipelago of 4,000 islands at the country’s southernmost tip. Experience indigenous fishing traditions, kayak along twisting waterways and look for pods of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin.
Reach Laos by flying to the international airports in Luang Prabang, Pakse and Vientiane. Expect warm, tropical weather year-round with frequent downpours from May to October. Get around by bike or boat, as the locals do.