By Arlo Hansen
The nation of Laos, which is tightly wedged between Thailand, Burma, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam, is chock full of breathtaking scenery and a fascinating culture with a hint of French influence. It’s easy to fly there. When I first visited back in 2013, I flew from Guam to Hong Kong, then to Bangkok and finally to Vientiane. Getting into the country is fairly easy since anyone can acquire a visa on arrival. Even though the country is under communist rule, one would easily fail to notice this fact when being amongst the hospitable locals, the delicious food, and the bright and beautiful scenery in and out of Vientiane. I have spent quite a bit of time in Laos to get a good idea of what someone would do if they only had a short period of time visiting the country. This is my personal list of the best activities for a leisurely week in Laos.
One can’t fully experience Laos until they try its local delicacies. Perhaps one of the great things about Laos is its food, a blend of Thai and Vietnamese dishes with a sprinkle of French influence. If you’re looking for a dining experience with a little dash of adventure, I suggest the Than Gon Lao Derm Som Nguem Restaurant riverboat cruise. Once you get there, and depending on how many people you have with you in your party, you could be relaxing on the river in your own private boat. Once all your food and drinks are all on board from the main restaurant, you will venture up the river. According to your preference, you could rent the boat for a minimum of one hour. This truly relaxing experience that lets you enjoy local delicacies while marveling at the natural beauty of Laos.
If you’re in the mood for something more western, then Joma Cafe is a great place to pop a squat, take advantage of free WIFI, and refresh yourself with a tasty sandwich, pastry, coffee, or smoothie. With three locations throughout Laos, Joma Cafe is the Laotian equivalent to Starbucks. It’s the place to hang out with friends and have a quick bite before heading out into town again. On top of that, there are a lot of places on the street to grab a bite to eat in the heart of Vientiane. Despite the fact that there are no major American fast-food chains in Laos, it is not hard to find good places to eat.
Laos is first and foremost a Buddhist nation, so it comes as no surprise that one would see Buddhist Temples at almost every other street corner throughout Vientiane and beyond. However, it is an enriching experience to check out some of these temples, because they hold quite a bit of history and uniqueness. Ho Phra Keo has a particularly interesting history. Hundreds of years ago, the temple housed the famous Emerald Buddha that now is located in the temple, Wat Phra Keo, in Bangkok, Thailand. Other notable temples one can visit are Sisaket (across the street from Ho Phra Keo), That Luang (pictured above), and Wat Si Muang. It is easy to walk to each temple, but if your dogs are already barking, then a quick Tuk Tuk ride is in order.
Patuxay, the Vertical Runway
One of the more noticeable monuments in Vientiane, Patuxay (also spelled Patuxai) can easily be considered Asia’s very own Arc de Triomphe. Meaning Victory Gate, the origin of this monument is quite humorous, but one that will definitely not be forgotten. Cleverly nicknamed, the Vertical Runway, Patuxay was built utilizing American funds and cement that was originally intended for a new airport. It is located at the end of Lang Xang avenue opposite from the Presidential Palace. One can climb up to the top of the arch through a stairway inside the monument. There are multiple floors within, filled with stalls offering souvenirs, however the real treat of Patuxay is the view from the top. Once you reach the highest floor, you are granted a 360-degree view of Vientiane.
Night Market at Chao Anouvong Park
If you’re looking to buy some local wares, then the Night Market is the place for you. Every night starting at 7 p.m., the riverfront roadside at Chao Anouvong Park is closed to all motor vehicles and transformed into a pedestrian street with booths selling everything from local wares to clothes to movies, food, toys, and more. Haggling is common practice at the Night Market. It’s customary to offer half the original asking price!
At least two Zumba classes are held at the riverfront, which costs 3,000 kip (approximately 50 cents).
Twenty minutes down the road from the Friendship Bridge linking the borders of Laos and Thailand, is a wondrous place called Buddha Park. It is named so for the immense reclining Buddha statue. The park is filled with lots of other impressive sculptures reflecting Buddhist legends and local folklore. Sit in the back of the park and you just might hear the singing of an old monk sitting in a tree.
To get a bird’s eye view of the park, climb to the top of the pumpkin-like structure near the park’s entrance. It’s dark inside, so be sure you have sufficient lighting whether it’s a flashlight or your phone. Within, there is a chamber with statues surrounding the walls. From there it’s a narrow climb up the structure and outside onto the ledge. Don’t worry, climbing is permitted.
Four to five hours drive northwest of Vientiene is Vang Vieng, a small tourist-friendly town that has gorgeous scenic views of the Nam Song River and the karst mountainous landscapes surrounding the area. Vang Vieng has lodging ranging from guest houses for backpackers to high-end hotel resorts. Everything in town is within walking distance from wherever you’re staying. Restaurants are very plentiful and provide a mix of both western dishes and local delicacies – though I do highly suggest the latter. At nights, street-side stalls cook up delicious crepes to go. Besides the excellent natural views, Vang Vieng is great for outdoor activities like kayaking, swimming, hiking, and biking.
I highly recommend you visit the Blue Lagoon Swimming Hole. Yes it is actually blue! It is a great place for a group of friends to hang out and have a good time, but as long as they don’t smoke any weed, which they do stress quite a bit with a sense of humor. If swimming is not your cup of tea, then there is a calorie-busting hike/climb up to Phu Kham Cave, situated not too high up the mountainside. There is a fee to enter the cave, which is 10,000 kip (less than $2 USD). Depending on your speed, it is a steep 15 to 20 minute ascent to the cave. The cave itself is quite expansive, but the highlight is a golden Buddha statue at its very bottom. Consider this a must-do activity.
Situated in northern Laos, Luang Prabang is the former capital of the nation and the converging points of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It is listed as one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. There are a couple of ways to get to Luang Prabang from Vientiane. You could take a bus, which would take nine to ten hours. Or you could fly from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, which will take less than an hour. Like Vang Vieng, there are plenty of lodging options. Getting around Luang Prabang is fairly easy. Depending on where you stay, transportation can be arranged by the hotel to take you around town. Luang Prabang is not too big, so it never takes too long to reach a destination. Notable activities include a 100-meter hike up to the temple on top of Mount Phou Si, which gives you a grand view of Luang Prabang, and then a visit to the Royal Palace where the former King and Queen of Laos once ruled before the communist party overthrew the monarchy. The Luang Prabang Night Market is a great place to acquire quality Lao-made crafts and souvenirs for decent prices. Again, bargaining is a common practice here, so don’t be afraid to haggle!