Laos retains an enviably laid-back and distinctly old-fashioned charm, its architecture vying between stilted wooden huts of shabby riverside settlements, decaying colonial piles, and impeccably preserved French-Indochinese temples. The pace of life here is slow, but opt for a lie-in and you’ll miss spellbinding scenes. With the dawn come shuffling lines of monks in robes of bright burned orange, while the riverbanks, lapped at by the lazy waves of the Mekong River and cradled by a protective ring of mist-shrouded mountains, come alive with the day-to-day lives of its gentle people. Our Laos travel guide has more details.
Our top Laos holidays
Best time to go to Laos
The weather system in Laos is pretty straightforward when compared to the rest of Asia, and has two distinct periods – the dry season (November to April) and the wet season (May to October). The period between March and June is the hottest of the year. While considering when to go, be aware that the northern, central and eastern regions are at a higher altitude than those in the south, where humidity is high and temperatures can be in excess of 35°C in March and April. Find out more about the best time to visit Laos.
Map & highlightsEverything feels laid-back in Laos, and that extends to travel – even short journeys can take several hours, which is why many trips go by river instead of road. Luang Prabang, with its magnificent architecture and chanting monks, is on the Mekong River, as is sleepy Vientiane, the capital. In the far south, many of the smaller islands in the Si Phan Don archipelago disappear during high tide, and travellers scuttle back to Don Khong, the largest. The Kuang Si Waterfall – a must for photographers – is just beyond Luang Prabang, as is the vast and mysterious Plain of Jars just outside Phonsavan.
1. Don Khong
Don Khong is the largest island in an area of southern Laos known as Si Phan Don, or 4,000 Islands. It measures 18km by 8km at its widest point and is best explored by bike along the road that loops the island encircling a perfect snapshot of local riverside life. It’s known for little more than freshly cooked river fish and being very laid back: stroll around and soak it up or read a book by the river.
Kuang Si Waterfall
2. Kuang Si Waterfall
The road that leads to the phenomenal Kuang Si waterfall, a paved route through verdant jungle that screams vibrancy and life at every turn, is a thing of beauty anyway, but the waterfall itself, a three-tier cascade of tumbling turquoise water that collects in numerous jade-coloured pools as it flows downstream is quite possibly one of the most spectacular and serene natural settings in the world.
3. Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is not Laos’s capital, but it is the jewel in the country’s crown, a heady mix of burnt orange colonial houses flanked in frangipani, enrobed monks chanting in the morning mist, and a UNESCO-worthy collection of delicate French-Indochinese architecture. The whole city is a World Heritage Site and has a modest air of grandeur unparalleled across the country.
4. Mekong River
Laos’s lifeline, the Mekong, is a mammoth river that winds its way 4,909km through six countries. Cruising the Mekong gives you little choice but to shelve any impatience and surrender to your surroundings, a rolling scenery of forested hillsides, plots of papaya and swirling whirlpools created by granite outcroppings that punctuate the water like rocks in a Japanese Zen garden.
Phonsavan itself is a pretty uninspiring modern recreation of the original town that blitzed by bombs during Vietnam, but its back roads and traditional villages are a nod to its cultural past. The ace in its pack is the Plain of Jars, a fascinating series of giant stone jars perched on hills over hundreds of sqkm around the town, the ancient origin of which is entirely unknown.
Unlike the frenetic push for power and profit that characterises other Asian capitals, Vientiane is relatively quaint. Inevitable and welcome change since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has brought about growth, but it has a small town feel and a host of beautiful sights. That Luang is the country’s national symbol, a Buddhist stupa topped with gold that glows warmly at sundown.
Ask anyone who has travelled Laos and they’ll tell you that the one place you mustn’t miss is Luang Prabang, set at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and rated by UNESCO ‘the best-preserved city in Southeast Asia’. Considered the cradle of Laotian culture, notable for its handsomely faded Indochinese architecture and many temples, Luang Prabang enjoys a relaxed atmosphere. From here you can easily reach the Pak Ou Caves, Kuang Si Waterfall, the Plain of Jars and many riverside wats. Do skip the elephant rides though, which are unfortunately common here – the animals are often abused to ensure docility.
Vientiane sometimes feels sleepy enough to slip into the Mekong. Relatively untouched by modernisation, though you can’t miss the ever-present rumbling of tuk tuks, Vientiane has a distinctly French feel to it – it was rebuilt by colonists after being almost destroyed in the 19th century. Key landmarks include the striking Pha That Luang, a golden stupa said to contain Buddha’s breastbone, and the Victory Gate, bearing a strong resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe. But for many visitors the most fun to be had here is simply strolling the riverside to browse quiet markets and watch monks go about their business.
Plain of Jars
Pleasant, if nondescript, the town of Phonsavan is notable mainly as the gateway to the Plain of Jars. Shrouded in mystery and carpeted in ordinance dropped by US forces during the Laotian Civil War, this (actually quite hilly) expanse contains thousands of large stone jars of unknown origin. Theories behind them range from fermenting the fearsome Laotian rice wine, to ancient burial rites, to leftovers from the celebrations of a mythical giant king after victory in battle. Local guides expound on these ideas while leading you around the few trails that have been safely cleared of unexploded bombs.
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More about Laos
Family holidays in Laos are best suited to kids around age eight and up. There can be long, bumpy road journeys involved and healthcare is patchy. For adventurous families, however, there is much to enjoy: tubing on the river from backpacker town Vang Vieng; swimming under waterfalls; exploring huge underground cave systems; peaceful cycling trips; and cookery classes where you can encourage the kids to tackle a little extra spice with every dish. Our Laos travel experts have given their take on what makes the country special for families, and what you need to be aware of before booking your trip.
Southeast Asia tours
Sharing borders with Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, Laos can easily form part of wider Southeast Asia tours. To do so is to explore four very different, but at the same time entirely complementary countries. The hill tribes, hospitality and hedonism of Thailand, the frenetic cities and peaceful countryside of Vietnam with its grim but fascinating 20th-century history, and Cambodia, with enticing cuisine, open-armed Khmer people and the magnificent Angkor Wat. Expert tour operators can master all the logistics on Southeast Asia holidays, equipping you with local guides throughout while you enjoy the adventure.
Types of holiday
Whether cruising lazily down the Mekong or bumping along dirt tracks in a tuk tuk, your Laos journey will be all the more enjoyable as part of a small group holiday. It’s not only about the like-minded companionship, but about knowing your trip has been curated by people with years of knowledge and experience of travelling in Laos, ensuring you make the most of your time. Not everyone wants to follow a fixed itinerary, and if that’s you then consider tailor made holidays instead. These allow you to craft a Laos itinerary according to your preferred travel dates, activities and types of accommodation.
If you'd like to chat about Laos or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.