Set on a broad curve of the Mekong, Vientiane is perhaps Southeast Asia’s most modest capital city. Yet, although lacking the buzz of Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, Laos’s capital has been transformed since the 1990s, with a string of cosmopolitan restaurants and cafés to complement its charming rows of pale yellow French–Indochinese shophouses. Robbed of its more splendid temples in battles with Siam long ago, Vientiane is more a place for adjusting to the pace of Lao life, and indulging in herbal saunas and sunset drinks on the banks of the Mekong, than one for breakneck tours of monuments and museums. Few tourists passing through the capital miss a chance for a half-day journey out to Xieng Khuan, its riverside meadow filled with mammoth religious statues, one of Laos’s most arresting and bizarre sights.
From Vientiane, it makes sense to head north to Vang Vieng, a town set in a landscape of glimmering green paddies and sawtoothed karst hills. A great spot for caving, kayaking, rock climbing and long walks in the countryside, the town is best known for its wild tubing scene, and is undoubtedly the country’s party capital for young backpackers. From here the mountainous old Royal Road to Luang Prabang rollercoasters through some of Laos’s most stunning scenery. The more intrepid can indulge in a road-and-river expedition through Laos’s northwestern frontier, stopping off in the remote outpost of Sayaboury, home to a large portion of the country’s diminishing elephant population.
Despite the ravages of time, the gilded temples and weathered French–Indochinese shophouses of tiny, cultured Luang Prabang possess a spellbinding majesty that make this Laos’s most enticing destination. Though increasingly touristy, the dusty side streets, Mekong views and quiet mornings still lend the city plenty of charm. Most visitors combine a stay here with a couple of day-trips, to the sacred Pak Ou Caves, two riverside grottoes brimming with thousands of Buddha images, and to beautiful Kouang Si waterfall, the perfect spot for a refreshing dip on a hot day.
A few hours north up the emerald Nam Ou River from Luang Prabang is the quiet town of Nong Khiaw, picturesquely surrounded by towering limestone peaks and a great base for trekking and kayaking in the region. Just a little further up the river, and only accessible by boat, Muang Ngoi is a popular travellers’ spot, where it’s hard to drag yourself away from the temptation of spending your days soaking up the views from a hammock. Following the river even further north is one of the greatest highlights of a trip to Laos, passing through stunning scenery on resolutely local boats to get to Phongsali, from which you can explore further into the isolated far north, or join an overnight trek to local hill-tribe villages.
Improved roads means that it’s now a lot easier to explore the far north, an often spectacular region that is home to a patchwork of upland tribal groups. Luang Namtha and the easy-going village of Muang Sing are both centres for treks to nearby hill-tribe villages, while the former also offers kayaking opportunities. Downriver from here is Houayxai, on the Thai border, from where you can join a slow boat down the Mekong for the picturesque journey south to Luang Prabang.
Lost in the misty mountains of the far northeast, Hua Phan province was the nerve centre of communist Laos during the Second Indochina War, and remains well removed from the Mekong Valley centres of lowland Lao life. The provincial capital, Sam Neua, has a resolutely Vietnamese feel (hardly surprising when you consider its proximity to the border), and though it has a rather limited tourist infrastructure, there’s a certain charm about the place once you dig a little deeper. The main reason for a stay here is to visit Vieng Xai, where the communist Pathet Lao directed their resistance from deep within a vast cave complex, and where the last Lao king was exiled until his untimely demise. South along Route 6 from Hua Phan is Xieng Khuang province, the heartland of Laos’s Hmong population. Phonsavan, a dusty rather nondescript town, is the starting point for trips out to the mystical Plain of Jars.
To the south, the tail of Laos is squeezed between the formidable Annamite Mountains to the east and the Mekong River as it barrels towards Cambodia. Thakhek is a good base from which to visit the Mahaxai Caves and Khammouane Limestone NBCA, the highlight of which is Tham Lot Kong Lo, an underground river that can be navigated by canoe. Genial Savannakhet is the south’s most famous town, almost as culturally Vietnamese as it is Lao, a pleasant urban retreat with an architectural charm second only to Luang Prabang. The cool and fertile Bolaven Plateau, where most of Laos’s coffee is grown, makes a refreshing stop during the hot season, not least to try a cup of the famous brew. To the southwest lies diminutive Champasak, with its red-dirt streets and princely villas. The ruins of Wat Phou, the greatest of the Khmer temples outside Cambodia, perch on a forested hilltop nearby.
Anchoring the tail of Laos, the countless river islands of Si Phan Don lie scattered across the Mekong, swollen to 14km from bank to bank, all the way to the Cambodian border. One of the most significant wetlands in the country, Si Phan Don is the perfect spot to while away lazy days, and harbours scores of long-established fishing communities as well as centuries-old lowland Lao traditions.