Best things to do in Laos

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 13.05.2024

Often overlooked in favour of its better-known neighbours, landlocked Laos remains one of Southeast Asia’s most beguiling destinations. Caught in the middle of the two Indochina wars and long isolated from the rest of the world, the country retains a slow, rustic charm, and an incredibly laidback and friendly culture. Here is our pick of the best things to do in Laos.

The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Laos, your essential guide for visiting Laos.

1. A slow boat down the Mekong

The lifeline of this landlocked nation, the Mekong figures in every visit to Laos, supplying the fish for dinner, a stunning array of sunsets and a route to travel along. The world’s 11th-longest river is a vital transport artery for both Laos and Cambodia, while its relatively unpolluted waters are an important source of fish.

A slow boat trip on the Mekong River in Laos is one of the best things to do in Laos, allowing you to experience the country's spectacular natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. The trip usually starts in the northern town of Huaysai, close to the Thai border, and ends in the historic city of Luang Prabang, located in central Laos.

To better prepare for your upcoming trip to Laos read the Laos travel tips we've collected.

Mekong river, Luang Prabang port in Laos © i viewfinder/Shutterstock

Mekong river, Luang Prabang port in Laos © i viewfinder/Shutterstock

2. Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars is Xieng Khuang’s major attraction. Huge stone jar-shaped vessels are scattered over a dozen locations on the lonely plateau around Phonsavan, fascinating and mysterious. Three major sites are easily accessible from Phonsavan and have been cleared of unexploded American bombs (UXO), although it’s still best to stay on the main paths. Site 1.

Thong Hai Hin (Stone Jar Plain) is located 15km (9 miles) southwest of Phonsavan. This site has the biggest collection of jars, numbering over 250, and also the largest jar, which according to local lore is the victory cup of the legendary Lao king Khun Jeuam, who is said to have liberated the local people from an oppressive ruler.

The stone Plain of Jars dot Laos

Plain of Jars, Laos © Shutterstock

3. Waterfalls of the Bolaven Plateau

The lush Bolaven Plateau is known for its temperate climate and MonKhmer minority peoples. Indeed, the name Bolaven means “place of the Laven”, once the predominant ethnic group in the region. Other attractions include waterfalls, boat cruises and, for those so inclined, visits to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Hotels and travel agencies in Pakse offer a variety of guided tours to the region, ranging from day trips to three- to four-day itineraries. A good starting point for an exploration of the region is the Taat Lo (Lo Waterfall), 94km (58 miles) northeast of Pakse. The road is paved throughout, and the journey time is no more than two hours. The falls drop only a few metres but are wide and surrounded by lush vegetation.

Tad Paxuam Waterfall in Bolaven Plateau, Laos near the city of Pakse © worawut charoen/Shutterstock

Tad Paxuam waterfall, Bolaven plateau, Laos © worawut charoen/Shutterstock

4. Luang Prabang

The royal capital, Luang Prabang (Louangphabang) is one of the most intriguing, magical and romantic cities in Asia. One of the top things to do in Laos is to visit the city that has been recognized as Unesco's World Heritage Site. It is a treasure trove of fine old temples and boasts quiet streets lined with handsome colonial buildings.

In the centre of the city, between Mount Phu Si and the Mekong is the Royal Palace Museum which offers an insight into the history of the region. To the southwest of the Royal Palace is Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham. Dating from the early 19th century, this temple was once the residence of the Sangkhalat, the supreme patriarch of Buddhism in Laos.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang monk © gg-foto/Shutterstock

Luang Prabang monk © gg-foto/Shutterstock

5. Wat Xieng Thong

Spared wars, fires and overzealous restorations, the jewel of temple-rich Luang Prabang is as elegant as it is historic. Close to the tip of the peninsula, on the banks of the Mekong is Luang Prabang’s most renowned temple, Wat Xieng Thong. This temple, with its low sweeping roofsepitomising is built in the classic Luang Prabang style.

Inside the sim, the eight thick supporting pillars, richly stencilled in gold, guide the eye to the serene golden Buddha images at the rear, and upwards to the roof, which is covered in dhamma wheels. On the outside of the sim, at the back, is an elaborate mosaic of the Tree of Life set against a deep red background. Throughout, the combination of splendid gold and deep red gives this temple a captivatingly regal atmosphere.

Wat Xieng Thong buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, Laos © Shutterstock

Wat Xieng Thong, a Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, Laos© Shutterstock

6. Kuang Si Falls

One of the top things to do in Laos is to embark on a half-day or day excursion to explore the stunning Kuang Si Waterfalls located in the vicinity of Luang Prabang. About 30km (20 miles) south of the town are the multi-tiered Kuang Si Waterfalls, replete with beguiling limestone formations and crystal-clear pools.

Food vendors keep most of the local visitors at the lower level of the falls, which can be very crowded during holidays. Up a trail to the left of the lower cascade is a second fall with a pool which makes for good swimming and is generally quieter. The trail continues to the top of the falls, though after rain it can be dangerously slippery.

Turquoise water of Kuang Si waterfall, Luang Prabang, Laos © Ana Flasker/Shutterstock

Turquoise water of Kuang Si waterfall, Luang Prabang, Laos © Ana Flasker/Shutterstock

7. Lao food

Lao cuisine may be seen as the cooking tradition and style of the entire Lao ethnic group and is based on the consumption of sticky rice as a staple. Other essential ingredients include kha, or galangal (a ginger-like rhizome with a peppery flavour), and nam paa (fish sauce). Lao cuisine has numerous regional variations, but that of Vientiane, the capital is generally considered the most sophisticated.

Popular Lao dishes include tam som – the equivalent of Thai som tam – a spicy salad made of sliced green papaya mixed with chilli peppers, garlic, tomatoes, ground peanuts, crab, lime juice and fish sauce. Another standby is laap, a spicy dish of minced meat, poultry or fish mixed with lime juice, garlic, chilli pepper, onion and mint.

Prawn Amok is a major national culinary tradition in Cambodia, and also popular in Laos and Thailand © sakadaphoto/Shutterstock

Prawn Amok © sakadaphoto/Shutterstock

8. Vang Vieng

Located close to the midway point between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the tiny settlement of Vang Vieng is a convenient place to break the journey between these two towns in either direction. Set by the banks of the Nam Song, amidst a startlingly beautiful natural terrain of limestone karsts, Vang Vieng originally developed as a backpacker stopover.

It quickly developed a reputation as an anything-goes party town – complete with raucous full-moon parties, as though a Thai beach resort had been transported to landlocked Laos. Today the main attraction is the surrounding countryside, and the town has become an attractive, relaxed base for rock climbing, cycle tours, kayaking and other outdoor activities, with some excellent boutique accommodations and decent places to eat.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Vang Vieng


Vang Vieng © Iwanami Photos/Shutterstock

9. Tham Phu Kam Cave & Blue Lagoon

Tham Phu Kam, to the west of Vang Vieng, is sacred to local Buddhists, and thoroughly atmospheric. The main attractions here are Tham Phu Kam Cave and the Blue Lagoon. The cave is located on a limestone cliff and can be reached by a steep path. In the cave, visitors can explore its chambers and there is also a natural pool suitable for swimming. When planning a visit, it is recommended to hire a guide for safer exploration.

If you're looking for things to do in Laos, be sure to visit the breathtaking Blue Lagoon. This stunning natural pool, nestled in the heart of the jungle, boasts crystal-clear water that is simply spectacular to behold. Visitors can swim in the pool or chill out on the surrounding beach. There are also swings and a zip line for the more daring ones.

Tham Pou kham Cave is a Buddhist sanctuary and temple in a natural cave next to the Blue Lagoon, Vang Vieng, Laos © Shutterstock

Tham Phu Kham Cave is a Buddhist sanctuary and temple in a natural cave next to the Blue Lagoon, Vang Vieng, Laos © Shutterstock

10. Trekking

Rugged mountain forests set the scene for hikers seeking to explore the remote hill villages of the north. The countryside around the Mekong between Kratie and Stung Treng is crisscrossed by an extensive network of hiking and mountain biking trails, known collectively as the Mekong Discovery Trail. It was originally developed to bring sustainable tourism to rural communities.

There are village homestays available, and organised tours by bike or on foot can easily be arranged in Kratie or Stung Treng.

One of Southeast Asia’s lesser-known countries, Laos is definitely off the beaten track, but it has retained its culture, charm and traditional village life, wild jungle and stunning countryside. Come here for a tradition, mystery and a unique adventure with our tailor-made trip to Historical Laos.


Trekking through the countryside is one of the best things to do in Laos for enjoying the scenery © Pheerasak Jomnuy/Shutterstock

11. The Nam Ou

For many years, boats were a major form of long-haul passenger transport in Laos, not only on the mighty Mekong but also along large tributaries such as the Nam Ou. These days, a vastly improved road network, and an increasing number of hydroelectric dams blocking the rivers have reduced the importance of water transport.

The Nam Ou, a major tributary of the Mekong flows south from the mountains of China’s Yunnan province through the Lao provinces of Phongsali and Luang Prabang before reaching the Mekong upstream from Luang Prabang. It is possible to travel along various sections of the Ou between the new dam projects.


Nam Ou Nong Khiaw river, Laos © lkunl/Shutterstock

12. Nong Khiaw

Straddling the Nam Ou, Nong Khiaw is the perfect place to visit for a few days — relaxing in a hammock or exploring the surrounding area on foot or by kayak. Nong Khiaw is a large village set amid glorious karst scenery, which seems to owe its existence to a bridge that crosses the river here. This place has an increasing array of guesthouse accommodation and makes a wonderfully picturesque base in which to immerse yourself in the backwaters of Laos.

The aforementioned bridge is an important link in the Chinese-built Route 1, which travels from Luang Nam Tha province in the west to Xieng Khuang province in the east. If you choose not to travel further north on the Ou it is possible to secure public transport either towards Udomxai in the west or to Sam Neua in the east.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Nong Khiaw

Wonderful landscape of Nong Khiaw in Laos ©  taboga/Shutterstock

The wonderful landscape of Nong Khiaw in Laos © taboga/Shutterstock

13. Colonial shophouses

One of the most pleasant surprises awaiting the visitor to Vientiane is the French cultural influence surviving in the city. It is a pleasure to enjoy a breakfast of croissants and café au lait. This agreeable ambience aside, Vientiane’s most notable memorial to the French influence must be its architecture. There are numerous small residences, and not a few mansions, built in the style of the former colonial power.

Many of these may be found in the older part of the town, along the riverside appropriately designated Quai Fa Ngum. Here, as by the shaded boulevards in the vicinity of That Dam and along Lane Xang Avenue, the “Champs Élysées” of Vientiane, may be found fine examples of colonial French architecture, complete with shutters and red-tiled roofs.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Vientiane


Old house in colonial style in Laos © Gerardo C.Lerner/Shutterstock

14. That Luang

The country’s most important religious building is best seen at sunset when the golden stupa seems to glow in the fading light. That Luang is a striking sight, and of great spiritual significance for the Lao people, considered the symbol of Lao independence and sovereignty. It is a strange and exotic structure, combining the features of a Buddhist temple with the mundane requirements of a fortress.

Today the great edifice still retains a very fortress-like appearance. It is surrounded by a high-walled cloister, which is pierced by tiny windows, and access is by way of finely gilded red-lacquer doors which add to the impression of a medieval keep. Close up, however, the sacred character of the structure is unmistakable because of the abundant religious imagery.

Wat Phra That Luang, Vientiane ©  Gaid Kornsilapa/Shutterstock

Wat Phra That Luang, Vientiane © Gaid Kornsilapa/Shutterstock

15. Si Phan Don

One of the top things to do in Laos is to visit the islands of Si Phan Don, a natural attraction that offers visitors the chance to witness the stunning scenic beauty of the country and gain a glimpse into the life of its more remote rural population. Whether you're interested in cultural immersion or simply seeking breathtaking natural surroundings, Si Phan Don is a must-visit destination that won't disappoint.

The Mekong River is at its widest in Laos here, close to the Cambodian border: during the rainy season it is up to 12km (7.5 miles) across, and when the waters recede many small islands emerge. It is from this phenomenon that the Si Phan Don region takes its name, meaning “Four Thousand Islands”.

Fascinating and rewarding, Laos is a charming and traditional destination that is very much off the beaten track. With plenty of activities to appeal to everyone, from elephants and temples to jungles and waterfalls, it’s just the place for a great family adventure.

20 famous journeys around the world: Mekong River, Laos.

Mekong river, Laos © Shutterstock

16. Wat Phu

The most evocative Khmer ruin outside of Cambodia, this rambling mountainside complex dates from the sixth to twelfth centuries. Ancient and magnificent, the complex of Wat Phu – literally “Mountain Temple” – is located on a site which has been sacred to at least three cultures. What appears to have attracted the attention of all of these civilisations is an unusually shaped mountain behind the temple, Phu Pasak.

As you enter the complex you can see the remains of palaces built by Champasak royalty, towards the end of their dynasty, from which they viewed the annual festivities held on the full moon of the third lunar month. An east-west axial promenade passes between two rectangular baray or bathing ponds and leads to the base of the middle level.


Wat Phu Vat Phou, Laos © Shutterstock

17. Lao massage

Having a traditional massage at a Lao sauna is one of the best things to do in Laos to wind down and rejuvenate after a long trek. The herbal mixtures in the steam bath (and the tea) are jealously guarded secrets. In addition to the services of major hotels, good massage parlours can be found in major cities around the country. Traditional Lao massage can be quite rigorous, so be prepared to have every part of the body worked.


Massage session in Laos spa © Tong_stocker/Shutterstock

Looking for some more exotic destinations for your trip? Read our guide about the best things to do in the Philippines or explore the most exotic places to travel in the world.

Ready for a trip to Laos? Check out the snapshot of The Rough Guide to Laos.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Laos without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

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Top image: Wonderful landscape of Nong Khiaw in Laos © taboga/Shutterstock

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 13.05.2024

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