An intoxicating union of Buddhist monasteries, ancient temples, colourful markets and vivid landscapes, Laos is an enigmatic destination for the adventurous.
Travelling to this Southeast Asian destination is at once exciting and meditative. One moment life moves mindfully, as you wander through incense-shrouded temples. The next you’re racing down a river or exploring wild terrain, home to around 50 ethnic groups.
There are a lot of highlights. If you don’t know where to start, Vacations & Travel shares the best things to do in Laos.
1. That Luang Stupa (Great Sacred Stupa)
If you’ve ever received a postcard of Laos, it’s likely That Luang (in the capital, Vientiane) was on it. The county’s national symbol is dazzling – quite literally – as the 45-metre stupa is clad entirely in pure gold leaf, and is said to contain a relic of the lord Buddha.
Even the gilded centrepiece of the stupa is significant, echoing the curve of an elongated lotus bud, this heart surrounded by 30 additional spire-like stupas. The fact that it dates back to 1566 makes it even more astounding.
2. Patouxai (Victory Monument)
Vientiane has its fair share of eye-catching attractions – look no further than That Luang above. But the capital’s memorial monument, Patuxai, is perhaps the most prominent landmark, dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France.
Inspired by the design of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the gate incorporates typical Lao motifs including Kinnaly, a mythical bird woman.
If you’re feeling energetic, climb to the top of the monument for stellar panoramic views over the city.
3. Hor Phra Keo Museum
While this temple was built back in 1565 by King Xayasetthathilath to house the Emerald Buddha, today it’s no longer a place of worship – instead, a museum that houses Laos’ most jaw-dropping collection of Buddhist sculptures and artefacts.
Head to the temple’s terrace for views overlooking the president’s palace (former Royal Palace) and manicured garden – from your vantage, pick out a shaded spot to relax after your explorations.
4. Si Saket Temple
There are more than 2,000 ceramic and silver Buddha images on a dramatic cloister wall at Wat Si Saket, Vientiane’s only ancient temple remaining intact after invasion by the Siamese empire in 1828.
And in total, this wonderous complex – with its distinctive five-tiered roof – houses some 6,830 Buddha images, tucked into nooks and atop shelves. See how many you can count.
5. Xiengkhouan Buddha Park
As you’d expect of an attraction named Buddha Park, there are more than a few Buddha sculptures and statues over the grounds of this complex on the outskirts of Vientiane – some 200 of them, in fact, including a 40-metre-high installation of a reclining Buddha.
Hot tip: to get the best overview (and photographs) of the park, head to the top of the giant pumpkin sculpture, replete with an entrance crafted to look like a demon’s mouth.
The fanciful estate was conceptualised in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a monk who studied both Buddhism and Hinduism – hence the union of Buddha images with Hindu gods, demons and animals from both beliefs, everything carved with detailed motifs.
6. Simuang Temple
Set your eyes on Simuang Temple, one of Vientiane’s most popular sites of worship. This gilded complex offers a fascinating insight into how traditional animist beliefs have blended seamlessly with Theravada Buddhism.
Every year in November, the very colourful Phasat Pheung (wax pavilion procession) attracts large crowds to the temple, the extravaganza held two days prior to the That Luang Festival. But the grounds are just as attractive on a daily basis, when Buddhist worshippers descend to be bestowed good luck – if you pray for something here (and simultaneously make a promise) your wish will be granted, or so the legend goes.
7. Vientiane Night Market
From arts and crafts to clothes, electronics and so much good food, the Vientiane Night Market is a clamorous (yet remarkably clean and orderly) affair. Proceedings commence at sunset, when a small army of sellers begin setting up their red-roofed stalls directly on the promenade of the Mekong River. It’s the ideal time to be here, with the evening’s cool breezes and fiery colours casting the Laotian capital aglow.
Yes, you can pick up knock-knacks at cheaper prices at other Laotian markets. But the ambiance here makes the mark-up worth it.
8. Nam Pien Yor La Pa
When it’s time to get back to nature, make a beeline for Nam Pien Yorla Pa, a glorious wilderness area on the outskirts of Vientiane. Spanning some 140 hectares of Nam Pien National Park, this place is a mecca for adrenaline-junkies.
Look forward to riding ATVs, screaming down the luge, rollercoaster rides, relaxing on spider net, walking the sky bridge, enjoying the canopy walk, splashing about in the water park, mountain trekking… or simply chilling at the camp base with barbecue.
9. Morning Market
Vientiane is not short of places to indulge in retail therapy. We recommend making your first stop Talat Sao (or Morning Market), where you can purchase everything from traditional handicrafts and fabrics to jewellery, clothing and souvenirs. Hot tip: if you love elephant motifs, you’ve come to the right place.
As with most markets in Laos, there are plenty of places to pick up snacks to refuel on.
This article was produced by Vacations & Travel in partnership with The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
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