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LAOS HIGHLIGHT DESTINATIONS

A landlocked mountainous country, studded with temples, covered with jungles. The laidback feel of Laos and the relative lack of westernized development make it an attractive for many visitors; it is probably the most ‘authentic’ of the Indochinese nations.

Away from the cities, there is so much more to see; the historic royal city of Luang Prabang, where watching as hundreds of saffron-robed monks move silently among centuries-old monasteries, the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khuang Province, the forested mountains of Northern Laos, the gothic limestone karsts around the backpacker-haven Vang Vieng and in the deep south, past the market town Pakse, is Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands), where the mighty Mekong spreads out and all the hammocks are taken.

Most people come to Laos and make a brief tour of Vientiane and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang (which with its monasteries, colourful markets, and traditional architecture remains one of Asia’s most beautiful cities) with perhaps a brief detour to the mysterious Plain of Jars. But those who make the effort to explore further afield will be well rewarded with luscious landscapes, friendly people and unique glimpses of a country hardly changed for over a century. 

VIENTIANE

Vientiane is Southeast Asia’s smallest capital city with a population of just over half a million inhabitants. Located along a bend of the Mekong River, the city exudes a laidback atmosphere and old world charm with its mix of Chinese shop houses and French colonial architecture. The tree-lined boulevards and low traffic density makes the city an ideal place for walking and exploring ancient temples and pagodas including Wat Ho Phakeo, a former royal temple, and Wat Sisaket, one of the capital's oldest temples which houses hundreds of small Buddha images. Apart from sight seeing, there are also excellent shopping for silver jewelry and hand-woven textiles which can be found at the Morning Market and a number of boutique shops. A visit to Vientiane is not complete without a relaxing sundowner at one of the many riverside bars along the Mekong River to enjoy a spectacular sunset view.

Getting here: Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport is the gateway to most domestic destinations. There are daily flights to/from Luang Prabang. 

VANG VIENG

The small town of Vang Vieng is located 150km north of the Vientiane Capital. This is a place of a dreamlike landscape of bizarre limestone mountain peaks and scenic cliffs with the Nam Song (Song River) bisecting the town. At the base of the town’s limestone mountains are a network of caves. Formerly a pit stop between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, now Vang Vieng has become a destination for those keen to enjoy adventure activities such as kayaking, caving and rock climbing. The main attraction is the spectacular landscape and towering limestone rock formations riddled with caves, Vang Vieng also offer some peaceful places like several 16th and 17th century monasteries and the small Hmong villages.

Just off of route 13 north are two of Vientiane Province’s well known attractions: a small man-made reservoir known as Nong Nok near Ban Sivilay which is a great bird watching site; and the ancient Vang Xang Buddha images and sculptures that are carved into the side of a sandstone escarpment.

Getting here: From Vientiane it is a 2 - 3 hours drive and Luang Prabang 6-7 hours drive. 

LUANG PRABANG

Situated in the centre of northern Laos, formerly as capital in the 14th century, the King Fa Ngum founded the first Lao Kingdom, Lane Xang, here in Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang remained the capital of Lane Xang until 1565 when the capital was moved to Vientiaine. It remained to serve as the country’s spiritual and religious centre. It now considered as the center of Lao culture, the city offers a fascinating glimpse into the Buddhist religious practice and traditional lifestyle of the various hill-tribe groups in this northern region. The town is endowed with a picturesque landscape of palm lined riverbanks, ornate golden temples, and ancient monuments amongst the backdrop of the towering Mt. Phousi. It is no wonder that UNESCO declared Luang Prabang as a World Heritage Site in 1995 describing it as an "outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries."

Visitors to Luang Prabang are charmed by the friendly atmosphere of this small town. The town itself offers several unique insights into the history of the region, through excellently preserved Buddhist temples, museum and a variety of Lao, Tai-Lue, Burmese, Chinese and Taui architecture Night Market. Nearby attractions include Pak Ou Caves which houses thousands of Buddha images, Kuangsi Waterfall and several cotton-silk weaving villages. Luang Prabang also sells a large variety of traditional goods; the town is famous for its unique textiles and beautiful mulberry paper. Famous foods are “Aur Lam” (a thick stew made with the forst herb “Sakhan”, meat and eggplants), “Jaew Bong”, a sauce made with hot chillies and buffalo skin and “khai Pan” dried river weed lightly fried with sesame seeds and garlic.

Getting here: There are direct international flights from Bangkok, Hanoi, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, Kunming. There are daily domestic flights (40 minutes) from Vientiane. By road, it is a 9 - 10 hour drive from Vientiane and 6-7 hours from Vang Vieng.

PHONSAVAN, XIENG KHUANG (PLAIN OF JARS)

The small dusty town of Phonsavan is the capital of Xieng Khuang province and gateway to the Plain of Jars. This region was one of the most heavily bombed in Laos and today is still littered with half a million tones of unexploded ordinance (UXO) and the evidence is everywhere. Bomb casings and other war remnants are used for every purpose imaginable such as fences, tools, and house decoration. Infrastructure in the town is still basic and accommodation consists of guesthouses and simple hotels.

The main attraction to this region is the Plain of Jars. The gigantic stone jars are to Laos as Stonehenge is to England – an enigma. While there are many theories, nobody really knows why hundreds of huge stone jars are scattered across several sites on a barren Laotian plain. They are between 2500 and 3000 years old, and again no one knows why they were built. Carved from solid rock, most of these containers weigh from 600kg to one tonne a piece; the largest weighs six tonnes. The jars are set amongst beautiful scenery of rolling hills which are covered with green grass and a smattering of pine trees during the wet season.

Getting here: There are flights from Vientiane on Lao Airlines. The flight takes 30 minutes. 

PAKSE

Situated in southern Laos, near the Thai border, Pakse is the capital of Champasak province. The town itself features Franco-Chinese style architecture and a colorful market stocked with fresh produce grown in the nearby Bolaven Plateau, a highland region inhabited by a number of ethnic minority groups. The main attraction in Pakse is the Khmer archeological ruin of Wat Phu Champasak which was built by the founder of the first Khmer empire, Jayavarman II. It is much smaller than Angkor but still a rival to that ancient empire. Visitors to the complex should take note that some temples have very steep steps, as many as 70 steps, which can be difficult to climb. Although the tourism infrastructure is less developed than the popular north, the government has made efforts into promoting the region as an ecological friendly destination and improving the reliability of services. Other attractions in the Champasak region include the 4,000 islands of Si Phan Don near the Cambodian border; elephant trekking in Ban Khiet Ngong; Southeast Asia's highest waterfall, Khong Phapeng; and insight into authentic, traditional Laotian life on the islands of Don Kho near Pakse and Don Deng near Champasak Town.

Getting here: There are daily flights to Pakse from Vientiane (1hr 15mins) and 3 flights a week from Luang Prabang (1hr 50mins) on Lao Airlines.

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