Northern Laos is mountainous and adventurous in equal measure, a wild part of the country home to most of the country’s ethnic minorities and tough to get around.
Plain of Jars
Scattered across a plain near the provincial capital of Phonsavan are hundreds of huge stone jars and experts cannot agree on why they are here. The Plain of Jars is baffling and enigmatic and an intriguing element of a trip to the north.
Vieng Xai is home to the caves where the Pathet Lao or Lao communists were based during the long war for liberation, a sort of Cu Chi tunnels in limestone, complete with residences and hospitals underground. It is open to visitors, but is in a very remote area.
Gateway to the far north of the country, Luang Namtha is the base to explore the Nam Ha Protected Area. Trek through remote forests and stay with the hardy minority people of this area. Luang Namtha is also home to one of the country’s best known ecolodges, The Boat Landing.
Right in the far north of Laos near the border with China is the village of Muang Sing, a colorful community that draws minorities from all around to its morning market. It is a great base for cycling and trekking trips into unexplored regions.
This small town is a useful rest stop on the river journey along the Mekong between Luang Prabang and Thailand and a base for visiting nearby minority village. Luangsay Cruise operate the rustic Luangsay Lodge here, but the general standard of accommodation is much lower than other parts of Laos.
Something of a Mecca for young travellers, Vang Vieng is a beautiful area of limestone karst formations peppered with caves. River tubing, kayaking, cycling and trekking are all popular activities around Vang Vieng. The town lies on the banks of the Nam Song River about three hours north of Vientiane and makes a relaxing stop on the overland journey to Luang Prabang.
Southern Laos is the most traditionally Lao region of the country and is taking off as a tourist destination. Visas are available on arrival in both Laos and Cambodia, making overland Indochina trips an enticing possibility. Some of the highlights of the region include the stunning Khmer temple of Wat Phu, the natural attractions of the Bolaven Plateau and scenes of tranquil Mekong life around Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands).
The sleepy riverside town to Tha Khaek is the gateway to the Tham Kong Lo Cave, a natural wonder that is part of Phu Hin Bun National Park. The cave is 7km in length and can be explored by boat, although it may be necessary to get out and wade at certain shallow points.
Savannakhet is the capital of the south, an important commercial city for the region with goods flowing back and forth between Thailand and Vietnam or China. It makes a useful base from which to travel by land to Hue in central Vietnam.
Pakse is another bustling city and gateway to the attractions of southern Laos. There are good road links from Pakse west to the Thai border and south to the Cambodian border, making it a principal town on the tourist trail of ancient Khmer temples in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.
This is the holiest temple in southern Laos, a Khmer sanctuary constructed progressively between the 6th and 13th centuries under the shadow of Pasak Mountain. The sandstone and brick sanctaries are built in tiers up the hillside, each level featuring barays, pavillions and sacred ponds. There are fantastic views from the upper terraces.
This huge plateau is well known for its diverse minority groups, its large waterfalls and the excellent coffee grown here. This is the best place for an elephant ride in this part of Laos. Tat Lo Waterfall is a popular spot to relax for a day or two, as there are some inviting swimming pools in the area.
Si Phan Don
As the Mekong approaches the Cambodian border, it widens to 14km in the wet season. In the dry season, the water drops, creating thousands of small islands. Bigger islands such as Don Khong and Don Khon offer a glimpse of southern Lao life and are good for walking and biking, while nearby are some major falls on the Mekong, such as the Phapeng Falls.