This lesser known country, with popular neighbours like Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam is indeed a hidden treasure. While such a country creates intrigue in terms of just the novelty factor, Laos can be called an Also country which also has great culture, also have a scenic beauty, also has a pristine nature, also is a haven for adventure seekers , also is a place for die hard romantics wanting to have a quiet we time and many more. The list is endless. Here are a few must experience in Laos.
ALMS GIVING CEREMONY
At the crack of dawn in Luang Prabang , the roads look bright with an army of ochre colored people walking in a proper queue. More than 200 Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal. The tradition of alms gathering dates back to the 14th century, yet still today locals wake early to prepare the food for the monks and wait quietly by the roadside to give their gifts. Alms giving ceremony is a living tradition from Buddhism which has been retained and preserved well by Laotians.
BAN PHANOM, LUANGPRABANG
Ban Phanom is a village steeped in traditional textile making with all families in the village working their looms to provide goods for sale at the night markets. The woven products were once supplied to the royal family and weavers today use the same techniques and patterns preserving a distinctly old-fashioned look. Some of the families work from their own small workshops with the whole village operating as a co-operative supplying to a handful of manufacturers. In addition to shopping and enjoying a cultural experience, the area around Ban Phanom is a great place to walk around and to explore some ancient temples.
KUANG SI WATERFALL NEAR LUANG PRABANG
Kuang Si Waterfall is the biggest in the Luang Prabang area with three tiers leading to a 50-metre drop into spectacular pools before flowing downstream. The pools also make great swimming holes. The pools also have cascades of up to five metres high with deliciously cold water due to the shade given by the surrounding lush tropical jungle. You can either have a swim or just relax in the shade
MOUNT PHOUSI IN LUANG PRABANG
Situated at the height of 150 metres, Mount Phousi cuts is a great place to watch the sun rise or set over the Mekong River. From the summit one can enjoy a panoramic view of city and its surrounding landscape. There are aound 355 steps, but the climb is moderate. You can pray and make offerings at several temples along the way. Next to Wat Chomsi at the top of the hill you can buy flowers to offer for blessings, as well as caged birds. The Laotians believe that if you set a bird free ( offer freedom) you will enjoy good luck and happiness in the future. Do not forget to click the 7 days Buddha statues
PAK OU CAVES NEAR LUANG PRABANG
Pak ou means mouth of river Ou. Pak Ou Caves have a history dating back thousands of years. Packed with over 4,000 Buddha icons, the caves, a shrine to the river spirit and Lord Buddha, are set in a limestone cliff at the point where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou River. There are two caves, the lower cave called Tham Ting and the upper cave Tham Theung, both boasting miniature Buddhist figures that are mostly made from wood. Positioned about 50 feet above the river, Tham Ting filters in some light but a torch is required for the absolutely pitch black Tham Theung. The statues in the cave are believed to have been left by local people for hundreds of years.
The caves are a very popular pilgrim site for locals and get very busy during April (Lao New Year) with locals washing and attending to the images. The caves are not far from Ban Xang Hai village, famous for its wine production and for the making of Lao wine earthen jars.
Royal Palace Museum near Luang Prabang
Royal Palace Museum, which is also known as Haw Kham is a great place to learn more about Lao history and culture. Although the current main building dates from the early 20th century, the exhibits stretches back several centuries to trace the turbulent past of the Lane Xang kingdom and the colonial era, through to the present day. It used to be the residence of the king previously. When the communists came to power in 1975, they took over the palace. It was converted into a museum in 1995.
Tad Se Waterfall near Luang Prabang
This waterfall is at its best during the rainy season that is August to November. Though it is not as high as Kuang Si waterfall but there are many more streams of water which cascade into the pool. The waterfall pours over limestone formations across a variety of levels into large pools below, which are fantastic to swim in. Tad Sae is only reached by boat, and there are ample opportunities to interact with the locals especially during the weekend. d. If you prefer peace and tranquillity then you’re better off visiting during the week.
Wat Xieng Thong near Luang Prabang
Built in Laotian style architecture, this temple features an elaborate tree of life mosaic, intricately carved walls, rare Buddhist deities and a 12-metre high funeral carriage. Also known as the ‘Golden Tree Monastery’, Wat Xieng Thong acts as a gateway to Luang Prabang as it is strategically situated close to where the Mekong joins the Nam Khan River. This is also the place for the coronation of Lao kings as well as an important gathering place for significant annual festivities. The original temple was created in 1560 under the royal instruction of King Setthathirath and narrowly missed invasion on several occasions. Legend says that the temple was started by two hermits who decided to create the sanctuary next to a large tree where the rivers met. The story continues inside with dharma wheels depicted in gold on the ceiling. Relics include a rare reclining black Buddha dating back to the reign of King Setthathirat displayed in the Red Chapel.
Caving or Spelunking
The best places for Caving in Laos are Konglor caves, Buddha caves in South Laos and caves in Vang Vieng. The 7.5 kilometers long Konglor Cave is one of the longest caves in Laos and can be explored via kayaking. The place is also great for trekking and cycling and not to forget it is a scenic landscape to be captured both in the camera and memory. Trek to Buddha Cave, follows a forested trail to nearby caves and villages. The trek is moderate in nature , but the pathway is best avoided during the rainy season.
Plain of Jars Xienkhouang:
We are talking about an area dotted with stone jars in Laos and the different versions of stories around it. The jars are carved from both sandstone and granite in various sizes from very small to about 3.5 metres high. It is said that they are more than 2,000 years old. The reason for their existence ranges from being a storage urn for rice wine while some believe they were for storing the dead. Until today the function of the jars is still disputed. The three most popular Plain of jars sites in Xienkhouang are site 1, 2 and 3. They are safe from UXO (unexploded ordinance). One of the interesting things are the white coloured lines with the advisory to walk within the area. Laos was heavily bombed during the Vietnam war and some of the bombs did not explode. The clearing work is still underway in Laos.
By the Nam Song (Song River) with a backdrop of serene cliffs and a tapestry of vivid green paddy fields, Vang Vieng looks straight out of a painting. For the adventure junkies Vang Vieng is a must visit place. The Secret Eden trek is a test of endurance and the dark caves add a different dimension to one’s adventurous self. And yes , don’t forget to go tubing in the river
Located in the Champassak province of Laos, Bolaven plateau is a highland formed from an ancient volcano. The place is very scenic with waterfalls, lush jungles, coffee plantations, farmland and ethnic diversity . The largest ethnic group on the plateau is the Laven (Bolaven means ‘Home of the Laven’). Several other Mon-Khmer ethnic groups, including the Alak, Katu, Tahoy and Suay, also live on the plateau and their costumes make the plateau very colourful. The roads are paved which makes it a good choice for the bikers also.
4000 islands (Si Phan Don)
The Mekong becomes the widest here, and if one has to count every islet and sandbar that emerges in the Mekong Delta during the dry months, the story behind the name is clear. This laidback, sleepy hamlet is a place to unwind . But there are certain must dos in Si Phan Don. Kayaking , meeting with the Irrawaddy Dolphins, cycling, fishing and of course generally chilling.
Wat Phou, a 10th Century Khmer Temple in South of Laos
Wat Phou or Vat Phu, which translates to “mountain temple” was built during the late 10th to early 11th century, which makes it older than the Angkor Wat. It was initially a temple dedicated to Shiva, which was converted into a Buddhist monastery in the 13th century. The temple is still a place of worship for local Buddhists. It is located at the base of Phu Kao mountain. In ancient Khmer times the mountain was named Lingaparvata, because of the pillar like stone formation on top that resembles a linga, the representation of the Hindu God Shiva. Because of the natural linga on top of Phu Kao mountain the Khmer considered the mountain as well as the water from the spring originating on it as sacred.
Vientiane: Capital city of Laos. A city which has a mix of French colonial architecture and magnificent Buddhist temples and of course sunset at the promenade is not to be missed. While Vientiane looks little pale in front of the other places, but then Buddha Park in the outskirts of Vientiane is a must visit.
The question that comes to mind is whether one should explore this country via self drive or is it better to go the traditional way. I am neither trying to discourage or encourage anyone here, however, the following info may be of some use while planning for a trip there
Self-Drive in Laos
The road infrastructure is pretty basic in Laos, the positive side is that once you exit the city limits there is hardly any vehicle on the road. Biking is becoming popular with travellers these days. One can check out the relevant information at Golden Triangle Rider (www.gt-rider.com).
Bringing Your Own Vehicle
Getting a vehicle into Laos is easy if you have proof of ownership and all relevant documents . Once you get the documents stamped at any international border there is no extra charge or permit required. Along with this Lao Vehicle insurance has to be obtained. Exiting from Lao and entering into Cambodia or Thailand is also very simple if all the documents are in order. However, the same is not the case if entering the China border. International driving license is a must for self drive in Laos. While they don’t anything for a bike rental, it is advisable to have an international license if one is intending to self-drive inLaos
Fuel & Spare Parts
Fuel for motorcycles can be bought from the fuel stations in most of the towns, though it is advisable to tank up the vessel in bigger cities. While there are indigenous of buying from drums or Beerlao bottles in villages across the country, but the quality of fuel quality of fuel could be questionable. Spare parts for four-wheeled vehicles are expensive and difficult to find in Laos, even in the larger cities.
Hiring a Vehicle
Bike rentals for a day range between 6$ to 12 $ for a 110cc bike. Do check the condition and vintage of the bike at the time of hiring. 250 cc good quality bikes would cost around $25 to $50. It is critical to rent a good quality bike given the road conditions in Laos. Self-drive cars typically cost between $50 to $100 per day, but it is far more convenient and enjoyable to get a car with a driver as the cost differential is not much and the local driver would know all the routes and would take care of the vehicle repair etc . Vientiane-based Avis is a reliable option for car hire. Or if you are booking a packaged tour the car would be provided for. When it comes to motorbikes, try Drivenbyadventure or Fuark Motorcycle Hire in Vientiane.
Car-hire companies will provide insurance, but be sure to check exactly what is covered. Note that most travel-insurance policies don’t cover use of motorcycles.
Road Conditions & road rules
While the overall condition of roads is poor, the main cities do have surfaced roads. In other places roads get washed away during rains or are extremely dusty during the dry season. Laos is a mountainous terrain and travel time is high even for shorter distances. Always budget for time towards any kind of breakdown or slowdown. While the roads are comparatively free during the day, they get crowded by dusk with loads of cattle, hens and people heading back home. As per rule Laos is a right side drive, but there would be a lot of people flouting the rule
Some of the must haves are sunscreen, hat, raincoat and sunglasses. The roads are dusty and not always in good condition. A helmet is essential and carrying a basic medical kit will come in handy during the trip. The other things to be carried along are the phone nos of local contact/ hospitals/ vehicle repair shops etc .
Now, this sounds like a long list and I am yet to talk about other things in Laos.