From the wild depths of the Mekong river to awe-inspiring waterfalls, Laos is full of vibrant landscapes and steeped in history. Here we find out what Travel Consultant Clare got up to on this trip of a lifetime…
Throughout the years I have been fortunate enough to have visited the majority of Southeast Asia, but Laos was somewhere I had never explored. The chance to find out more about this unknown part of Indochina was something I wasn’t going to pass up. Full of surprises and glorious scenery, I fell in love with this extraordinary country, still very much untouched by tourism. As much of a cliché it is, you really do feel like you are off the beaten track.
The first stop on my trip was Vientiane, Laos’ capital city. This is a working city which is only now seeing more visits from tourists. Although busier than other parts of Laos, it retains its friendly, laid-back feel and I soon felt at home. There are several notable attractions in Vientiane worth visiting such as the Golden Temple, l’Arc de Triomphe and the interesting COPE museum which gives a thought-provoking insight into how much Laos was affected by the Vietnamese War. During my stay there was also great excitement among the locals preparing for the start of the boat festival. Here various teams race along the Mekong river and the town comes alive with lots of festivities to celebrate. Although not the highlight of my trip, Vientiane acts as a great stopover.
Next I boarded a little Laos Airlines propeller plane and flew up north to Oudemaxy (pronounced Oudemasay). After a 45-minute scenic drive, I found myself in a delightful local village with chickens, ducks, pigs, goats and water buffalo commanding the road space. I admittedly did start to wonder where I was going to be spending the night until we turned into – Muang La Resort, a beautiful boutique retreat. It was certainly a little bit of luxury hidden away in the village with just 10 rooms and the most outstanding river views flanked in dense jungle. I enjoyed probably the best meal of my stay in Laos there, enjoying a 7 course tasting menu. The following day, I was up early for what was to be a challenging trek through the mountains, local villages ending with a delicious picnic by a waterfall. I was greeted with some wonderful views en route, but visiting the village was definitely my highlight. Despite there being a huge language barrier I felt warmly welcomed and was fascinated by their resourcefulness in their daily lives.
From there I headed to Nong Khiaw, a town stretched along the riverbanks of the Nam Ou River best reached by a 5 hour journey by longboat. Although it takes a few hours to get there, you can while away the journey looking out as you pass through some beautiful changing scenery from paddy fields, mountains, local villages and into the limestone karsts of Nong Khiaw.
Upon reaching Nong Khiaw I noticed there were a few more tourists, but it still felt very local. As I strolled along the street in the early evening, I witnessed children doing their homework and playing, family meals being cooked and poultry wandering freely along the road. It was very touching to get an insight into local village life.
After another early start the next morning and a simple breakfast at Mandala Ou Resort by the misty river, we started to drive towards Luang Prabang. Along the way we stopped at the Pak Ou Caves filled with Buddha statues of various shapes and sizes. Afterwards we sat and enjoyed a long lunch at the restaurant opposite overlooking the Mekong River. We took a boat from the caves to Luang Prabang which was a rather special way to arrive at what is now my new favorite place in the Far East. The city is hidden away behind trees and other various foliage so is not visible from the river. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so it has retained a wonderful colonial charm. All the buildings are very easy on the eye and the hotels so beautiful; you’ll soon want to re-design your own home. Two nights here was not sufficient for me to explore this wonderful place, so I would recommend a minimum of 4 to really get to know the city and discover quirky side streets and the best places to eat.
I spent a morning at the Life Farm which was a great experience. I was a little dubious before going but I loved learning about how the farmers harvest the rice but it was the interactive nature of the visit that was a highlight, stepping into the mud and churning it with a buffalo is certainly an experience I’ll remember.
An early morning wake up to see the Kuang Si Waterfalls is also definitely worth it as they get quite busy during the day. We had the whole area to ourselves for over an hour and enjoyed a gourmet picnic breakfast which was rather special. Luang Prabang is very easy and I just loved getting a little lost in the back streets, stumbling upon quirky shops and tempting cafes and restaurants. However, it is more developed here and tourism is definitely more prominent than in other parts of Laos but this also means that the standard of accommodation and service is also higher, which is no bad thing.
My final stop was Champasak down in the south of the country. The terrain here is very different to that in the north – much flatter as this is where part of the Mekong Delta is found. You fly into Pakse town, there isn’t much to see here and it is only a short transfer to Champasak. I stayed at The River Resort which was sublime. As the name suggests, it is right on the banks of the Mekong River and is set amongst beautifully manicured gardens. A few nights here would be perfect – spend a day heading down to the 4000 islands, exploring them by boat, foot and bicycle and perhaps another day just lounging by the pool amongst the serene surroundings. The Bolevan Plateau isn’t too far away either and there are some good walks here for you keen walkers and some coffee and tea plantations which play a big part in the local industry.