NORTHERN LAOS (APPROXIMATELY 750 KM FROM VIENTIANE)
Highlights of a visit to this mountainous region are the colourful markets and villages of more than 30 different ethnic groups. The Hmong, Iko, Khmu, Lanten, Mien, Samtao, Thai Daeng, Thai Lu, and Thai Dam all make their homes in this region. Since the late 16th century, the small town of Muang Sing has served as a cultural nexus as well as an important trading hub. To this day it attracts a large variety of hill tribes who come to buy and sell their goods. Beyond cultural attractions, Luang Nam Tha province features protected forests and stunning natural landscapes. It is home to the sprawling Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area and the UNESCO Lao Nam Ha Eco-tourism Project.
LUANG PRABANG (390 KM FROM VIENTIANE)
The crown jewel of Laos, Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of the Nam Kham and Mekong Rivers. It is perhaps the best-preserved traditional city in Southeast Asia. Magical and charming, it has maintained its long-standing reputation as a stronghold of Lao culture. In 1995, UNESCO named Luang Prabang a World Heritage City, a title it most certainly deserved. The sleepy city is surrounded by green mountains, a perfect backdrop for visits to the Royal Palace and more than 30 centuries-old temples. Do not miss Vat Xieng Thong, Vat Visoun, Vat Mai, and Vat Sene. Nearby, the sacred Pak Ou Caves house thousands of statues of Lord Buddha. Another interesting place to visit is Nong Khio, which you can reach by boat from the Nam Ou River. From Nong Khio, you can explore the natural cave in Muang Ngoy.
NORTHERN MEKONG (APPROXIMATELY 450 KM FROM VIENTIANE))
In northwestern Laos, near the famous Golden Triangle, the bustling trading port of Houei Xay connects Laos with Yunnan and Thailand. The region is famous for its precious stones (sapphires and rubies) and gold mining. From here, you can visit various hilltribe villages, including the colourful Lahu, Mien, and Lanten. Houei Xay is a major entry point for visitors who want to take the slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Travellers usually stop at Pak Beng for the night. This rustic village sits on a steep hill, offering spectacular views of the mighty river; if you are lucky, you can see elephants bathing in the river in the morning. Instead of stopping at Pak Beng, travellers can continue their cruise to the small port of Tha Suang and travel overland to Hongsa, where Thai Lu villagers breed elephants and local women weave luxurious Lao textiles. You can also organise elephant safaris to Thai Lu villages and the pristine White Elephant Forest.
VANG VIENG (160 KM FROM VIENTIANE)
This small provincial town along the gentle Nam Song River boasts incredible scenery. Wild limestone formations, known as karst, rise out of the horizon like wild mushrooms. The verdant cliffs hide long, snaking caves and caverns, including the famous Tham Xang Cave, which was used as a bunker when Yunnan troops invaded the area in the 19th century. This is an area of unbridled nature brought to life with blue lagoons, red earth, and green valleys.
VIENTIANE CAPITAL & VIENTIANE PROVINCE
The capital of Laos lies on the banks of the Mekong River. The city has maintained its timeless charm through the years: tree-lined avenues, brightly painted temples, and quaint French architecture stand as symbols of this sleepy capital. Vientiane’s major attractions are the serene Buddhist monasteries in the centre of town. Among the most interesting of them are Vat Sisaket, Ho Phra Keo, Vat Ongteu, and Vat Si Muang. That Luang Stupa, a symbol of Buddhism as well as Lao sovereignty, is perhaps the most important site in the country. Vientiane also boasts a lively morning market, where you can find some of the best Lao handicrafts. Finally, the area surrounding Vientiane offer great opportunities for eco-tourism, such as boat trips on the Nam Ngum River or trekking in Dane Soung, where you can discover Mon-Khmer sanctuaries and visit small villages. The National park (Phou Khao Khouay), popularly known as the mountain of the buffalo horn, sits about 40 kilometres northeast of Vientiane. From there, you can trek through thick jungle to the top of a tower and watch wild elephants roam in the fields below.
PLAIN OF JARS (APPROXIMATELY 378 KM FROM VIENTIANE)
Among the most enigmatic sites in Laos is the Plain of Jars. Hundreds of huge jars of unknown origin are scattered in a field near Phonesavanh. The jars, carved from solid stone, vary in shape and size; the biggest one weighs six tons. The area, which was heavily bombed during the wars in Indochina and Vietnam, is home to a large Hmong community. Xieng Khouang province is also known for its trekking tours and home stays in remote minority villages.
KHAMMOUANE PROVINCE (350 KM FROM VIENTIANE)
Three of the country’s most important protected areas -- Phou Hin Poun, Nakai Namtheun and Hin Nam No -- cover much of the province. Visitors can now go on treks in the Phou Hin Poun protected area, exploring limestone forests, caves, ethnic villages, and the sapphire water of Khun Kong Leng lake. The huge, labyrinthine Kong Lor Cave is accessible by locally operated boats; a trip there can be arranged in Ban Kong Lor or Ban Natan. Ban Nahin is the gateway to Konglor Cave, but it has even more to offer. Nearby are two waterfalls, Tad Nasanam and Tad Mouane. Visitors can reach them on one-day nature treks that lead through forests that are home to herds of wild elephants and monkeys. The Nakai Namtheun protected area is said to be one of the most important sites for biodiversity in Southeast Asia, but you can see for yourself. It was here that the Saola, a large deer-like mammal, was discovered in the 1990’s.
SAVANNAKHET (470 KM FROM VIENTIANE)
The most populated province of Laos, Savannakhet is known as the most traditionally Lao region in the country. Beautiful traditional villages dot the surrounding area, especially in Kengkok. Since the French colonial era, this lively port on the Mekong River has been a major trading hub for Thailand and Vietnam. The city still has some good examples of French colonial and Sino-Vietnamese architecture. Major attractions include That Ing Hang Stupa, one of the holiest structures in Laos; Vat Sayaphoum, with its renowned Pali school; That Phon Stupa; and the Khmer ruins of Heuan Hin. Savannakhet is also a base for excursions to the Ho Chi Minh Trail and jungle treks to the Phu Xang Hae NBCA and Dong Phuvieng NBCA, which are home to rare bird species, wild elephants, giant muntjac, and tigers.
PAKSE – CHAMPASSAK (APPROXIMATELY 700 KM FROM VIENTIANE)
Pakse, the capital of Champasak province, is located at the confluence of the Mekong and Sedone Rivers. It is the perfect gateway to the southern region and the Boloven Plateau. It is also an excellent starting point for excursions to the former royal capital of Champasak, situated 38 kilometres from Pakse along the Mekong River. The pre-Angkor Vat Phu Temple (6th-13th centuries), near Champasak, was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2002, and the Vat Phu Archeological Museum, with more than 150 artifacts, opened its doors in 2003. Several Khmer sites associated with Vat Phu Temple can be found in the surrounding area, including Oum Moung Temple (9th century) on the opposite bank of the Mekong River. Nearby is Ban Khiat Ngong village. This serene village is home to the enigmatic Phu Asa temple, which lies amidst the dense jungle of Xe Pien NBCA. We recommend going for an elephant ride through the forest to observe the abundant wildlife.
CENTRAL & EASTERN LAOS
KHONG ISLAND (815 KM FROM VIENTIANE)
Located at the southernmost point of Laos, next to the Cambodian border, the Siphandone region (Four Thousand Islands) is the most scenic section of the Mekong River, blessed with impressive rapids, including the magnificent Khone Phapheng Waterfall. Khong Island, with its lovely fishing villages, serene monasteries, and lush vegetation, offers a unique opportunity to experience the peaceful Lao way of life. In the dry season, when the river recedes, Irrawaddy dolphins, one of the world’s rarest large mammal species, congregate at the base of rapids to hunt the fish that survive in the deep pools.
BOLOVEN PLATEAU , SARAVAN , SEKONG, ATTAPEU (APPROXIMATELY 800 KM FROM VIENTIANE)
The Boloven Plateau straddles Saravan, Sekong, Champasak, and Attapeu provinces. This fertile volcanic plateau is one of the country’s most important agricultural areas, with coffee, tea, and spice plantations and a bunch of fruit orchards. Neighbouring Vietnam, the Boloven Plateau was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War and the flotsam of the Ho Chi Minh Trail can be seen in several locations. More than 13 ethnic groups of the Mon-Khmer family inhabit this remote region: for example, Lavai, Laven, Alak, Nge, Katu, and Katang. They still maintain their timeless lifestyles. Several families live in longhouses, and they practice a combination of animism and shamanism. Excursions to Tadlo or Tadfane Waterfalls offer visitors a glimpse into these ancestral ways of life. The area also boasts 50% natural forest cover. So far, only Phu Xieng Thong NBCA (about 40 kilometres from Pakse) has received protected status. Nevertheless, the rugged and scenic Southeastern part of the plateau features pristine primary rainforests in which a whole world of exotic wildlife thrives, including rare species of birds and deer, tigers, elephants, leopards, and monkeys -- the rare Sumatran rhino might even live here.