The Top 5 Cities to Visit in Laos
Laos is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and friendly countries in Southeast Asia; steeped in food, history, culture, and nature. Even though it lacks the beaches of its flashier neighbors, Laos is immensely beautiful and thanks to its mountain and riverways, an adventure-seekers paradise. The country offers a relaxed and outdoor-orientated experience of a lifetime with many incredible places to visit. From one week to one month, you can easily fill your time here traveling along the Mekong’s cities from north to south (or vice versa) enjoy ziplining, kayaking, hiking, spelunking and tubing along the way. From the stunning waterfalls of Luang Prabang to the epic mountain sunsets in Vang Vieng and bustling night markets of Vientiene, there is always something to discover. This travel guide to Laos will cover the best five cities to visit, including how to get there and things to do. So, without further ado, let’s help you plan the best trip ever to Laos!
1] Luang Namtha
We start our journey in the far north, in the province of Luang Namtha, and the city of the same name (the largest in northwest Laos). Surround by Myanmar, China, and Oudomxay and Bokeo provinces. A whopping 85% of this region is mountainous and it’s more commonly known as the ‘Golden Triangle’. That is basically why people come here, to take advantage of the resplendent countryside, studded with ethnic villages and waterfalls. There is the best place in the country for hiking, mountain bike riding, motorbike touring, and zip-lining. And, like many places in Laos, also offers great boating and caving adventures to boot. The town itself should also not be overlooked, it’s packed with eateries, markets, and temples. *From Luang Namtha to our next stop, Nong Khiaw, 230km away to the southeast; you can fly (2 hours, 50 minutes; 1 stop) or take the bus (5.5 hours)
4] Nong Khiaw
A small town on the banks of the Nam Ou River, Nong Kiaw boasts a gorgeous backdrop of imposing limestone mountains, picturesque river views, and genuine local flavor. This picturesque “off-the-grid” town is located on the banks of the serene Ou River, close to jagged limestone. While it’s true that most people use this small town as a stop-over en route to Van Vieng and Muang Ngoi, it’s worth a visit in its own right. For boating, bamboo rafting, kayaking, and spelunking, this is the place to be. The lush jungle setting affords a wealth of opportunity to convene with nature in caves and waterways. Of course, being Laos, there is also zip-lining, mountain bike riding, trekking, and waterfall swimming to be found. To get from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang is a breeze, it takes only 3-4hrs by bus or 6-7 hours by boat to cover the 140km.
2] Luang Prabang
The charming city of Luang Prabang, inhabited for thousands of years and once the capital of Laos (up until 1975), lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is still considered to be the country’s spiritual heart. It’s an eclectic mix of Buddhist temples, Indochina architecture and food, and a magical nature. You’ll want to spend time immersing yourself in the old town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO protected site, housing 33 gilded wats (temples). Not to be missed is the striking Wat Xieng Thong, Royal Palace, and Phu Si (great sunset views). At night, be sure to check out the Handicraft Night Market and by day all the amazing street food. Further afield, Kuang Si Waterfall is a must-see. *From Luang Prabang it’s an easy 340km hop, skip and a jump to Vientiane. You can either do this by airplane (50 minutes), bus (11-13 hours) or river boat (11 hours).
Long regarded as a sleepy backwater, Vientiane has come a long way in the last two decades. In many ways, this charming city on a wide bend of the Mekong is more akin to a loose collection of villages than a thriving capital city. Like many other cities in Laos, it mixes French-colonial architecture with Buddhist temples, dotted around the city in every boulevard and tree-line street. The most notable ones are the 16th-century Pha That Luang, best viewed at sundown with its golden surface glistens; Wat Si Saket, the city’s oldest temple which features thousands of Buddha images; and Wat Si Muang, the city’s most popular with worshippers. Aside from temples, the socialist-era Lao National Museum and museum of religious art, housed in Ho Phra Keo, a former Buddhist shrine dating back to 156,5 are also worth a visit. Further afield there are a few places worth checking out, including Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), home to over 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues, and Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir, which offers numerous hiking, camping and boating opportunities. *To get from Vientiane to Savannakhet you’re going to need to travel a fair distance – 460km. You can travel there in 1 hour by flying or 8-10 hours by road.
Savannakhet (‘Golden Land’) is the capital of Lao’s most southerly province. This leisurely and languid city sits on the Mekong River, just 6km from the border with Thailand. Once a thriving French trading outpost, you can still see many vintage colonial buildings in the downtown area. Wandering the old historical quarter and marveling at the decaying early-20th-centure buildings is a must. You can either do this by foot or bicycle. Other sites to explore in the city include Xayaphoum Temple, Friendship Bridge (great for sunsets), Dinosaur Museum, and St Teresa’s Church. If you’re feeling active, head northeast out of town to the centuries old That Ing Hang, a scared stupa that is supposedly the burial site for one of Buddha’s bones. Also in a northeast direction is Dong Natad, a national protected forest area offering great trekking opportunities. And last, but not least, head south to Ban Dong, a 1,000-year old outpost of the Khmer civilization. *And lastly, to travel onwards from Savannakhet you have a few options, you can drive 1 hour south to Mukdahan in Thailand, 8-9 hours north back to Vientiane or 5+ hours to several cities in Vietnam (Dong Ha, Quang Tri, Hue, Danang, and Hanoi). Alternatively, you can fly back to Vientiane (1 hour) and then catch and onward to flight to your next destination.