Highlights of a visit to this mountainous region are the colorful markets and villages of more than 30 different ethnic groups, such as Hmong, Iko, Khmu, Lanten, Mien, Samtao, Thai Daeng, Thai Lu. Since the late 16th century, the small town of Muang Sing has been a traditional Thai cultural nexus as well as a trade center attracting a large variety of hill tribes. With a stunning unspoiled nature, Luang Nam Tha province is also home to the 2,224 square-kilometers Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area and to the UNESCO Lao Nam Ha Eco-tourism Project.
The Vieng Xai caves are an extensive network of caves that served as hidden city during the Vietnam War. The area was home to the Communist army, who were fighting the royalist forces based in Vientiane and was bombed by the US army. Up to 23,000 people lived in the caves, which contained a hospital, military barracks, bakeries, shops, and even a theater. The Lao government hopes to promote the caves as a tourism destination, similar to the Củ Chi tunnels in Vietnam.
LUANG PRABANG (390 km from Vientiane)
The crown jewel of Laos and former Lanexang, Luang Prabang, at the confluence of the Nam Kham and the Mekong River, is perhaps the best-preserved traditional city in Southeast Asia. Magical and charming, it has maintained its long-standing reputation as a stronghold of Lao culture with its delightful mountain encircled setting, the lovely Royal Palace and more than 30 half-millennium old temples such as Vat Xienthong, Vat Visoun, Vat May and Vat Sene. Nearby are the sacred Pak Ou Caves housing thousands of statues representing Lord Buddha. In 1995 UNESCO voted Luang Prabang as a World Heritage City.
PAK OU CAVES
The Pak Ou Caves are located north of Luang Prabang on the Mekong river and can be reached by road or river boat. The caves are famous for their miniature Buddha sculptures. Hundreds of very small and mostly damaged wooden Buddhist figures are laid out over the wall shelves. They take many different arrangements, including meditation, teaching, peace, rain, and reclining (nirvana).
Wat Phu (or Vat Phou) is a ruined Khmer temple complex located at the base of mount Phu Kao, in the Champasak province. The Hindu temple structures date from the 11th to 13th centuries. Wat Phu is small compared with the monumental Angkor-era sites in Cambodia but the tumbledown pavilions, enigmatic crocodile stone and tall trees that shroud much of the site give Wat Phu a mystical atmosphere. The temple is still in use as a Buddhist site today.
WAT XIENG THONG
Located near the northern tip of the peninsula formed by the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, Wat Xieng Thong is Luang Prabang’s most magnificent temple. It was built in 1560 by King Setthathirath and was under royal patronage during the Kingdom of Laos. Wat Xieng Thong contains a rare reclining Buddha statue that dates from the construction of the temple. In 1931, the image was taken to Paris and displayed at the Paris Exhibition, only to return to Luang Phrabang more than 30 years later.
NORTHERN MEKONG (approximately 450 km from Vientiane)
In the northwestern part of Laos, near the famous Golden Triangle, Houei Xay is a bustling trading port between Yunnan and Thailand. The region is famous for its precious stones (sapphires and rubies) and gold mining. Various hill-tribes’ villages can be visited from Houei Xay, including the colorful Lahu, Mien and Lanten. Houei Xay is a major entry point for visitors planning to travel down-river to Luang Prabang. Travelers usually stop overnight at Pak Beng, a rustic town-village that sits on a steep hillside with spectacular views over the Mekong River. An alternative option is to continue the cruise to the small port of Tha Suang and from there, to travel overland to Hong Sa, where Thai Lu villagers specialize in elephant breeding while women weave some of the most sumptuous Lao textiles. Elephant safaris to beautiful authentic Thai Lu villages and to the pristine White Elephant Forest can be organized.
PLAIN OF JARS (approximately 300 km from Vientiane)
Among the most enigmatic sites in Laos is the Plain of Jars, a large area extending around Phonesavanh city in Xieng Khouang province, where several hundreds of huge jars of unknown origin are scattered about in over a dozen of groupings. The jars, carved from solid stone, vary in shape and in size, the biggest one weighing as much as six tons. The area, which was heavily bombed during the Indochina and Vietnam Wars, is home to a large Hmong community. Xiengkhouang province is also known for the trekking tours and the home stay for the visit and discover the new plain of jars nearby the various minority villages.
VANG VIENG (160 km from Vientiane)
This small provincial town nestles along a scenic bend of the Nam Song River. The main attraction is the karst topography lining the west bank of the river with sugar loaf hills and dramatic cliffs covered by lush vegetation and peppered by caves and caverns, including the famous Tham Xang cave. During the 19th century, Tham Xang cave, with an underground spring and a stunning view over the valley, was used as a bunker in defense against marauding Yunnanese.
VIENTIANE CAPITAL & VIENTIANE PROVINCE
Vientiane is the capital of Laos. It is located on the bank of the Mekong river. Though the largest city in the country. Most travelers are fascinated by the city’s exotic Eurasian setting.
The confluence of several cultures has given Vientiane an appealing ambience. Tree-lined boulevards, French historical dwellings and Buddhists temples dominate the scene of central Vientiane and impart a unique character of timelessness.
Vientiane’s That Luang stupa is the most impressive and biggest stupa in Laos, featured on the Lao insignia. This stupa was constructed in 1566 by King Setthathirat. The Siamese damaged it badly during their invasion in 1828, but it was restored in the 1936s. In mid-November, religious rites as well as a fair are held here during the That Luang festival.
Vat Phra Keo was also constructed by King Setthathirat. It was rebuilt after the Siamese razed it during the Siamese-Lao war of 1828. The building had housed the Emerald Buddha until it was taken to Bangkok following a skirmish with the Lao in 1778. Vat Phra Keo still displays some of the finest Buddha sculptures found in the country.
The Patousay on Lane Xang Avenue is a large monument reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Its architecture incorporates typical Lao motifs. From the top one can have a panoramic view of the entire city.
Vat Sisaket is the oldest temple of Vientiane which has survived in its original form. Inside the main hall, and along the walls of the courtyard surrounding it, a total of 6840 Buddha images rest in small niches or on shelves. At Vat Ong Teu resides the Buddhist Institute where monks can study their religion under the guidance of senior instructors.
SAVANNAKHET (470 km from Vientiane)
Khanthabouly, the provincial capital of Savannakhet, is a busy market place for trade withnearby Thailand. Numerous examples of French architecture tell of the town’s importance during the colonial era. Khanthabouly’s main attractions are its noteworthy temples such as the beautiful Vat Saya Phoum and That Inghang. The latter is the holiest edifice in southern Laos, housing a hollow chamber with a distinguished collection of Buddha images.
Near Muang Phin, on the route to Vietnam, dinosaur remains are on display. They were discovered by a French scientist in the 1930s. Not as old as these prehistoric relicts, but of no less significance, is the northernmost example of Khmer art at Heuan Hin (stone house). The buildings were constructed between 553 AD and 700 AD. Today little more than unrestored ruins remain.
Visitors interested in the latest period of Lao history may want to visit the former Ho Chi Minh Trail, whose outer edges are next to Xepon, 170 km east of Khanthabouly. North and south along the trail, remnants of downed US helicopters, fighter planes and other war material can be seen.
PAKSE – CHAMPASSAK (approximately 700 km from Vientiane)
Pakse, the capital of the Champassak province, is located at the confluence of the Mekong and Sedone Rivers. It is the perfect gateway to the southern region and to the Boloven Plateau as well as an excellent starting point for excursions to the former royal capital of Champassak, situated 38 km from Pakse along the Mekong River. The pre-Angkorian Vat Phu Temple (6th-13th centuries), near Champassak, was listed as World Heritage by UNESCO in 2002 and the Vat Phu Archeological Museum opened doors in 2003 with more than 150 artifacts. Several Khmer sites associated with Vat Phu Temple can be found in the surroundings including Oum Moung Temple (9th century) on the opposite bank of the Mekong River. Nearby is Ban Khiat Ngong village with its enigmatic Phu Asa temple, which lies amidst the dense jungle of Xe Pien NBCA. Elephant riding through the forest to observe the abundant wildlife is a recommended option.
KHONG ISLAND (815 km from Vientiane)
Located at the southernmost point of Laos, next to the Cambodian border, the Siphandone region (Four Thousand Islands) is blessed by the most scenic section of the Mekong River and some impressive rapids including the magnificent Khone Phapheng Waterfall. Khong Island, with its lovely fishing villages, its serene monasteries and its lush vegetation offers a unique opportunity to experience the peaceful Lao way of life. In the dry season, when the river recedes, the Irrawaddy dolphins, one of the world’s rarest large mammal species, congregate at the base of rapids to hunt the fish that survive in the deep pools.
BOLOVEN PLATEAU , SARAVAN , SEKONG, ATTAPEU
(approximately 800 km from Vientiane)
The Boloven Plateau straddles Saravan, Sekong, Champassak and Attapeu provinces. This fertile volcanic plateau, especially the Paksong area, is one of the country’s most important agricultural areas with coffee, tea and spice plantations as well as fruit orchards. Neighboring Vietnam, the Boloven Plateau was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War and the flotsam of the Ho Chi Minh Trail can be seen in several locations. More than 13 ethnic groups of the Mon-Khmer family inhabit this remote region: Lavai, Laven, Alak, Nge, Katu, Katang … still maintain their centuries-old lifestyles, with several families living in huge longhouses, and practice a combination of animism and shamanism including buffalo sacrifices. Excursions to Tadlo or Tadfane Waterfalls offer visitors a glimpse into these ancestral ways of living. The area also boasts 50% natural forest cover. So far, only Phu Xieng Thong NBCA (about 40 km from Pakse) received protected status but the southeastern part of the plateau, rugged, wild and scenic, is home to pristine primary rainforests, abundant with wild life including rare species of birds and deer, tigers, elephants, leopards, monkeys and possibly even rhinos.