SOLEMN-FACED young monks in saron robes file quietly out of the temple gates in the early dawn of a Luang Prabang morning. It’s a daily ritual repeated in towns and villages around Laos, but it never loses its charm.
The former royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang is being ‘discovered’, largely by visitors who have already travelled extensively in other parts of Indochina. The World Heritage city sits on a small peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, at its heart the That Phousi temple, which is well worth the steep climb to the hilltop.
Temples, markets, day trips to the Kuang Si waterfalls and the Pak Ou caves are among the city’s attractions, but for most its appeal lies in the simple delight of wandering the streets or watching the fishermen cast their nets in the Mekong. Especially for first-time visitors, Luang Prabang should not be missed.
The modern capital of Laos, Vientiane, lies on the northern border of Thailand and is developing rapidly. Its main attraction is the golden Stupa That Luang, the largest and most ornate of Laos’ temple complexes. The Patuxay Monument – Vientiane’s answer to the Arc du Triomphe - is also worth a look.
Getting out of the city opens up rural Laos where farming villages oer the chance to see traditional life, albeit with modern amenities.
Young travellers flock to Vang Vieng, a tourist town about 150km north of Vientiane, on the road to Luang Prabang. Vang Vieng is renowned – and somewhat notorious - as a backpacker haunt where the main attraction is tubing on the Nam Song River.
Two of the most beautiful hotels in Vang Vieng are owned by Australian Rachel Dechaineux and her Laotian husband Somphanh Sisourath. With their two young children, the couple have created a family-friendly complex that is a world away from the backpacker bars.
The 31-room Elephant Crossing Hotel and its new sister property, the 40-room Silver Naga Hotel, both sit on the banks on the NamSong, looking across the river to dramatic red clis.
As well as kayaking, caving, rock climbing and trekking, this region is also a good one for bush-walking and cycling.
In the southern province of Champasak, near the Cambodian border, lies the World Heritage site of Wat Phu, a magnificent ancient temple rediscovered in 1914 and often compared to Angkor Wat. From here, it is not far to Si Pan Don (Four Thousand Islands). After a 20-minute boat ride to the island of Don Khong, we hire bikes for a few dollars and cycle around the island.
A narrow track weaves around the island, and we ride through villages and rice fields, past grazing bualo and fishermen. There are no cars, just scooters and bikes.
Traditional bamboo fish traps are set across the Mekong, and the extraordinary sight of death-defying fishermen working over the world’s widest waterfall is one you won’t soon forget. The Khone Phapheng waterfall stretches 14km across the Mekong.
We cycle on, intent on reaching another part of the river, where small boat operators take curious foreigners on a quest to spot the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins that live in the waters between here and Cambodia. After cruising for a while we are rewarded with flashes of fins as the dolphins break the surface – but we are not free to follow them across the invisible line that marks Cambodian waters.
Laos was once called The Kingdom of a Million Elephants. Sadly, the elephant population is much reduced, but it is still possible to take elephant treks with reputable companies like Elefant Asia in northern Laos. Tours can be organised from Luang Prabang, another reason to make this beautiful city your base. For a comprehensive travel guide and travel directory listing on Laos including hotels, tour operators, lodges and guest houses.