Why go backpacking in Laos?
With a variety of opportunities, from the buzzing bar scene in Vientiane to the majestic serenity of the Vieng Xai caves, backpacking in Laos has all the makings of a fantastic gap year adventure. Laos is often forgotten amongst the other incredible destinations in South East Asia, but its lush landscapes and distinct cultural roots visible in the art and architecture deem it worthy of similar status.
Laos may not have the same popular sights as neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, but it has an identity and beauty all of its own, and without quite the same level of crowds. It also has similar volunteering opportunities.
A gap year spent backpacking in Laos will give you access to the several layers of ancient ruins at Wat Phu Champasak, offer you a visit to the Royal Palace to see the Pha Bang Buddha (Laos’ greatest historical treasures), and bring you to the shores of Si Phan Don, Laos’ scenic islands, famous for their beautiful landscapes.
Cities in Laos
Vientiane, Laos’ capital, showcases signs of Laos’ religious and cultural roots, alongside its history under French rule in the form of river serpent statues in contrast with noteworthy Gallic cuisine. The city holds options for high-end travellers, with restaurants located in renovated French villas and classy boutiques, as well as colourful street markets as an alternative for those who are looking to spend a little less. For those interested in the indigenous culture, Vientiane is also home to many significant Laotian cultural sites, such as Pha That Luang, the Great Sacred Stupa, which is a famous pilgrimage site for Laotian and Thai Hindus and Buddhists.
For a deeper dive into history, look no further than Savannakhet, whose architecture displays 20th century styles in its plasterwork villas. In addition, That Ing Hang, Savannakhet’s 16th century temple boasts significance as a past resting place for the Buddha. It even hosts a relic of Buddha’s spine inside. Now a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is renowned for its mellow pace, beautiful boutiques, and picturesque waterfalls. Feel free to hire a bike, or just take a stroll to take it all in!
Countryside in Laos
Laos is also known for its natural beauty. On the eastern shore of the Mekong, you can visit the Khon Phapeng Falls, one of Laos’ most intense and most spectacular waterfalls. Phongsali, an eclectic town atop a plateau in the extreme north of Laos, which offers visitors a lovely panoramic view and a chance to take in the Phu Fa, or ‘Sky Mountain.’
Huay Xai, near the Thailand border, serves as the headquarters for Gibbons Experience, a conservation project which allows visitors to immerse themselves in nature through spending two or three days with a guide, zip lining through the jungle and sleeping in huts nestled in the tree canopy. Also make sure to visit Phu Hin Bun NPA, one of Laos’ most breathtaking areas, populated by crystalline streams and vibrant forests, as well as various rare and endangered species, including the douc langur and François’ langur.
Top Experiences in Laos
Tham Kong Lor
Tham Kong Lor is a 7.5 long river cave in Phu Hin Bun NPA which runs beneath a colossal limestone mountain. In order to see it, you can take an hour-long boat ride which will first catapult you into darkness and then bring you into a naturally lit inlet, in which you can explore the various stalactite and stalagmite pillars inside the cave. Definitely be sure to bring along a torch and appropriate footwear, as you’ll probably want to wade through certain parts.
If you’re in search of a great hill, Phu Si is a favourite amongst sunset lovers and city view seekers. And if you’re willing to sweat a bit, up 329 steps, you can find Phu Si’s crowning glory, the dazzling That Chomsi Stupa. Wat Pa Huak, the oldest wooden wat (temple) in the city is also accessible from the northern side of Phu Si. You can offer the attendant a tip to open the door, allowing you to browse the 19th century murals inside. Other paths to Phu Si also provide Buddhist relics along the journey.
Otherwise known as Li Phi, which translates to ‘Spirit Trap,’ this set of raging rapids is said to be a trap for bad spirits as they wash down the river. The speed of the current isn’t conducive to swimming (it’s actually fairly dangerous), but it’s still an incredible sight. If you absolutely need to go for a swim, there’s a much safer spot about a kilometre away at Xai Kong Nyai Beach, where you can also find restaurants in close proximity, or just stay to watch the sunset.
Shadow Puppet Theatre and Cinema Tutuk
For theatre lovers, this unique spot run by Yves Bernard uses the ancient art of shadow puppets to tell the epic of Ramayana. On Wednesday and Saturday nights, the theatre screens Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, a 1972 Academy Award-nominated silent film that was shot in the jungles of Thailand by Merion C. Cooper and E.B. Schoedsack, the directors of the original Hollywood classic King Kong. To add to the excitement, a live band provides the soundtrack to the film.
Wat Xieng Thong
Luang Prabang’s best-known monastery, Wat Xieng Thong, sits atop an ordination hall. The building is covered in ornate decorations, most notably the ‘tree of life’ mosaic, located on the western exterior wall. Once you’re done soaking in the serenity, you can visit the other several stupas and chapel halls nearby. The Red Chapel by the French, located close by, showcases a rare reclining Buddha.