For reasons unexplained, I had never had a strong desire to go to Laos. However, after being convinced otherwise and finding myself engulfed in natural beauty from the moment I stepped off the plane, I’m glad I didn’t trust my instincts on this occasion.
Similar to Vietnam, the first decision to make is whether to travel up or down Laos. I chose to travel down, mainly due to travel costs and ease.
As decided, one day at a time, my route was as followed:
Luang Prabang –> Vang Vieng –> Vientiane –> Pakse –> 4000 islands
I began in Luang Prabang and was instantly captivated by its adorable compact charm. The main attraction in Luang Prabang is Kuang Si falls. This layered natural wonder gets more impressive with every ascent you make, even when you think it can’t be possible. This waterfall alone makes a visit to Laos worthwhile. It can get quite crowded so the earlier you get there the better, however, there is enough stunning scenery to go around without being spoilt by crowds.
Luang Prabang sits upon the Mekong river and certainly adopts its peaceful flow. This little town is teeming with lazy coffee shops and local cuisine – served from both street stalls and restaurants – and in abundance at the daily night markets, which are not to be missed.
Night-life in Luang Prabang begins in Utopia, a well-named bar in this tranquil town. It is a mystery where all the people seem to appear from but it’s clearly the place to be. After enjoying a cocktail (or several) on the cushioned interior, everyone is convinced to take a tuk-tuk to the local bowling alley, which somehow is the norm here and goes without question.
From Luang Prabang, I arranged a bus from my hostel (Vongprachan backpackers) to take me to Vang Vieng, the next main stop on the popular travel trail.
Vang Vieng used to be renowned for its party culture, particularly due to the tubing that takes place down the Nam Song river. However, after numerous fatal incidents in previous years, the town is beginning to shift its tourism focus to promote its beautiful location for adventurous activities such as trekking, bike riding, kayaking and even hot air balloon rides.
Lots of people still come to Vang Vieng to experience the tubing, myself included. However, it does feel like a very tame and somewhat disappointing version of its former self. The atmosphere is missing (as are half the bars along the way…) and the shallow river and calm current in April make for more of an arm workout than anything else.
Keen to explore what else Vang Vieng had to offer I rented a bicycle and cycled through picturesque fields towards the Blue Lagoon 1. There are several in this region, with Blue Lagoon 3 rumoured to be the best, but equally the furthest to get to. The Blue Lagoon 1 was certainly blue but also very busy, making it a scenic pit stop rather than a day destination. There are a number of viewpoints to stop off at (and in some cases, climb to) along the way, which validate the skew towards promoting Vang Vieng’s scenic scope and spirit for adventure rather than its former purely party persona.
That said, you can still experience the nightlife on offer here, with free alcohol provided at many of the bars – feasible when a litre of whiskey costs the equivalent of 80p – which also explains the horrendous hangover!
Next stop on my journey was Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Apart from a lot of humidity I did not find a lot going on in this Laotian city.
If stuck for things to do here I would recommend taking a taxi/local bus to the Buddha Park located just outside the city. Here stands an impressive collection of statues to look at/walk around and in some cases even go inside. There is also a good night market located next to the river selling a wide array of items if you need to replenish, buy more souvenirs, or equally just to browse.
From Vientiane, I arranged a night bus from my hostel (Avalon B&B) to take me to Pakse, where I stayed for one night before making my way down to the 4000 islands of the Mekong River that make up Southern Laos.
Despite having to share a somewhat debatable double bed with a complete stranger, this 13 hour journey went almost as fast as the driver and I arrived in Pakse in the early hours feeling surprisingly fresh. I stayed at FoRest Hotel in Pakse which was conveniently located just a short walking distance to the bus station and was for exactly that, for rest, to break up the long journey to the islands.
Pakse sits on the Bolaven Plateau which is a popular multi-day bike loop and is home to multiple waterfalls and amazing viewpoints. As I only had one full day here I opted to go by tuk-tuk to several of these waterfalls. After visiting Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang I was slightly sceptical that anything could compare to, let alone top these. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that each waterfall we visited was just as impressive in its own right, especially when the afternoon sun teamed with the falling water to provide a picture-perfect rainbow display, unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
My next and final destination in Laos took me to the 4000 Islands. There are three main tourist islands to visit here – Don Khong, Don Khon and Don Det. As I understood, Don Khong was the biggest and least populated/tourist-centric. Don Khon was the quieter neighbour of Don Det, and Don Det was the liveliest of the three, being likened to the new Vang Vieng.
After a short bus and boat ride from Pakse, I found myself nestled into nature on the island of Don Khon. I stayed in my own private bungalow here as there are yet to be any hostels – no complaints. My experience on Don Khon was very peaceful and relaxed, it is a tranquil island with almost a honeymoon feel, not ideal for solo travellers but equally enjoyable.
There are numerous restaurants/cafes with a great selection of fresh local dishes and drinks. If you’re feeling more adventurous bicycles are readily available to rent to explore what the island inhabits, or venture further afield to Don Det which can be accessed via a short connecting bridge over the river.
Two lazy days later I moved to Don Det which was equally as peaceful and relaxed as Don Khon but did have a bit of a younger feel to it. Bars run by expats are slowly beginning to establish themselves here, and whilst it doesn’t have the party atmosphere of Vang Vieng, you could certainly see it heading in that direction.
For me, four days on the 4000 Islands was enough so I didn’t end up making it to Don Khong. Having said that, I could easily have watched four thousand sunsets here.
Life in Laos is slow and very easy-going. It has yet to be overtaken by the party scene found in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, but this is no bad thing. The abundance of incredible natural surroundings you find yourself submerged in here are well worth remembering over many nights you may well forget.
What experiences would you add if you’re planning on or have travelled to this part of the world?