Discovering Laos: The Hidden beauty of an often overlooked travel destination – by Antonia Eiser & Patricia Fromkorth (Team XII)

Activity time, All Posts, Culture, Laos, Personal highlight, Traveling in Laos, VEDI

Sharing our experience of traveling in Laos

Greetings, fellow adventurers! We are Patricia and Antonia, passionate volunteers currently immersed in the vibrant tapestry of Laos through our work at the Vocational Education Development Institute (VEDI). Our journey here goes beyond the conventional, as we strive to unveil the hidden beauty of Laos, a destination often overlooked by many. Join us as we share our discoveries, from the serene landscapes to the rich cultural tapestry, offering you a glimpse into the soulful essence of this enchanting country. Come along on this exploration with us, your guides to the hidden gems of Laos!

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is frequently underestimated as a destination in Southeast Asia. Its status as the sole landlocked country in the region may contribute to it being overlooked by many travelers. However, Laos stands out for its delectable cuisine, warm and hospitable locals, favorable climate, and captivating history. Moreover, it offers a varied landscape characterized by stunning scenery and attractions. The nation covers an approximate area of 236,800 square kilometers and has a population of 7.7 million. Despite the busy atmosphere of their capital, Vientiane, the majority of Laotians, approximately 80%, live in rural areas, primarily engaged in agriculture (cf. BBC, 2023). Laos exhibits a highly varied topography, featuring mountains, verdant valleys, the pervasive Mekong River flowing along the nation, and expanses of rice fields and dense forests. Below, we will provide additional reasons for not overlooking Laos during a Southeast Asia trip. 

  1. Northern Laos: Luang Prabang
  2. Northern Laos: Vang Vieng
  3. Northern/Western Laos: Vientiane
  4. Southern Laos: Pakse/Champasak

Northern Laos: Luang Prabang

Commencing in the northern region of Laos, one of its most renowned destinations is the city of Luang Prabang. Situated in the northern part of the country, Luang Prabang is a town surrounded by mountains, nestled on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan River. Originally known as Muang Sua and Xieng Thong, it served as the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom from the 14th to the 16th century (cf. UNESCO, n.d.). Following the establishment of the French Protectorate in 1893, it assumed the role of the royal and religious capital until 1946. The town’s charm lies in its distinctive combination of traditional Lao and colonial architecture, featuring wooden houses and stone temples. Noteworthy is Wat Xieng Thong, a temple dating back to the 16th century (ibid). Luang Prabang’s architectural diversity seamlessly blends with its natural environment, encompassing Mount Phousi, the Mekong, and Nam Khan rivers. The town’s cultural heritage is actively preserved through ceremonies, religious practices, and the incorporation of natural spaces. 

Luang Prabang is perhaps best known for its stunning Kuang Si waterfall. Situated about an hour away from the city center, it can be easily reached by Tuk-Tuks. However, it is common for many people to opt for a tour organized by their hotel or hostel, a choice we would advise against due to the potential for large groups during peak tourist times. Instead, we opted to arrange our own Tuk-Tuk driver, who picked us up at 7 am. Since there were four of us, we each pitched in 100,000 LAK for our personal driver, which works out to about 4.40 EUR. He did not just drop us off at our destination; he also stuck around to make sure we got back home safely. This allowed us to arrive at the opening time of 8 am, providing a fantastic opportunity to experience the beauty of Kuang Si with minimal crowds. The admission cost for non-native visitors at Kung Si stands at approximately 20,000 Lao Kip, equivalent to roughly 1 EUR. Luckily, we were able to enjoy the extraordinary scenery undisturbed and even had the chance to swim in the captivating surroundings. Nevertheless, exploring Kuang Si during the dry season is discouraged due to the diminished water flow at the waterfalls. For additional insights regarding Kuang Si and its aesthetic appeal, individuals are advised to refer to the official website.

The city is renowned for its daily alms-giving ceremony, held each morning. Various locations in the city witness Buddhist monks walking to receive offerings, predominantly consisting of food such as sticky rice. To ensure you visit the appropriate locations, you can inquire with the staff at your hostel or hotel. They are familiar with the nearest sites and the accurate timing, as it is not entirely predictable, but one can use the dawn as a reference point. The essence of almsgiving lies in the mutual benefits between those giving and receiving alms. Monks reciprocate by offering spiritual merit for the provided food. If you wish to partake in the ceremony, it is advisable to familiarize yourself with proper conduct beforehand. This also applies if you plan to solely observe the ceremony. Key considerations include observing silently, avoiding obstruction of the monks’ path by maintaining a reasonable distance, keeping your phone on silent, dressing appropriately meaning the covering of shoulders, knees, and, for women, the concealment of cleavage, as well as refraining from using flash when taking pictures or videos.

Following the almsgiving ceremony, you have the option to stroll through the morning market. Morning markets provide valuable insights into local culture, focusing primarily on food items such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish. In contrast, night markets typically offer handicraft items and souvenirs, catering to a different aspect of cultural exploration. Furthermore, one can engage in a brisk workout by climbing the stairs to Phousi Hill. From there, you can enjoy a breathtaking view of Luang Prabang. This is recommended due to the favorable morning temperature. Additionally, there are fewer people in the morning to witness the sunrise compared to the sunset. Although the sunrise was obscured by fog during our ascent, the experience was still rewarding.

To witness breathtaking sunsets in a more secluded setting, you have the option to reserve a Mekong River Cruise. While in Vientiane, we spotted a flyer for a sunset cruise that caught our interest. We booked the tour through a WhatsApp chat with Senglao River Cruise. Payment was made in cash the day before we set sail. The cruise started at 5 p.m. on a Friday, with everyone asked to arrive about half an hour earlier. The staff on the boat were really friendly and competent, which added to the fun atmosphere. The tour was priced at 20 USD, and encompassed a welcome drink, snacks, and traditional Lao music and performances. The duration is approximately 1 1/2 hours, offering a worthwhile experience for the cost.

Cruising along the Mekong River on a tranquil evening in Luang Prabang was nothing short of enchanting. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the sky transformed into a canvas of soft pastels. The boat gently glided past lush green riverbanks dotted with golden temples, each one illuminated in the fading light. Onboard, the atmosphere was relaxed, with fellow travelers sharing stories and marveling at the stunning scenery. This river cruise was not just a journey; it was a magical experience that captured the essence of Luang Prabang’s serene beauty and left lasting memories of a perfect evening on the Mekong.


Northern Laos: Vang Vieng

In addition to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng serves as another popular destination for travelers in Laos. While Luang Prabang may be culturally more compelling, we found that Vang Vieng offers plenty of opportunities for adventurous pursuits. Vang Vieng boasts several lagoons, with the most advertised being lagoon 1 through 3. Various tourist information points facilitate the booking of tours to these lagoons, either within a group or by engaging a Tuk-Tuk driver for a personalized excursion.

During our stay in Vang Vieng, we opted to visit lagoon 2. Like the other lagoons, it provided a semblance of paradise, offering a serene retreat from the urban life experienced in Vientiane. Beyond the lagoons, activities such as cave diving, kayaking, and river tubing are also available, although we did not partake in these adventures. Another renowned attraction in Vang Vieng is the Nam Xay Viewpoint. The Nam Xay Viewpoint affords a picturesque panorama of Vang Vieng, notably showcasing its mountainous terrain. Numerous visitors opt to capture photographs atop a motorcycle strategically positioned at the viewpoint, against the backdrop of the hills. Additionally, a Lao flag is made available, frequently incorporated by tourists seeking to enhance their photographic compositions.

Regrettably, we did not visit Nam Xay due to the hot season mid November and time constraints. It is advisable to consider visiting Vang Vieng during the months of December or January, as these periods typically experience reduced temperatures. Additionally, Vang Vieng is renowned for its affordably priced hot air balloon rides, which were a particular goal for us and were successfully experienced. The cost of the ride, approximately $135 per person, stands as a remarkable bargain compared to European prices. If the opportunity arises, embarking on this adventure is highly recommended.

For more details on things to do in Vang Vieng, you can refer to the blog post titled “The Vang Vieng Challenge” by Fabian Stober.

Northern/Western Laos: Vientiane

Vientiane constituted the primary location of our residence during our work at the VEDI. While we did not perceive Vientiane itself as particularly distinctive compared to the aforementioned locations, it offers a range of activities for those seeking diversion. The renowned Night Markets in Vientiane are notable, providing an opportunity to peruse and purchase souvenirs, clothing, or partake in dining experiences. The central district of the city hosts a variety of bars and restaurants, offering a delightful chance to explore diverse culinary options and enjoy vibrant nightlife. Given its proximity to the Mekong River, an idyllic suggestion is to procure some Beer Lao, leisurely sit along the riverside, and engage in pleasant conversations, an activity we indulged in multiple times. 

It is highly recommended to utilize the public bus when heading to the Buddha Park in Vientiane. (For more details on transportation in Laos, we will shortly also upload a blog post about this topic, so stay tuned!)

Buddha Park is a prominent tourist destination in Vientiane, featuring an array of statues displayed in a well kept garden. When visiting the Buddha Park in Laos, it is important to approach the religious aspects with respect and reverence. To treat religion respectfully at the Buddha Park, consider to maintain a respectful demeanor throughout your visit. Avoid loud noises, disruptive behavior, or disrespectful gestures. Dress modestly out of respect for the religious significance of the site. Avoid wearing revealing clothing or attire that may be considered inappropriate. Observe and follow any specific customs or rules set by the park or local guides. This might include removing shoes before entering certain areas or refraining from certain behaviors.

Buddha Park was created by the mystic and artist Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat in 1958. It features over 200 sculptures, many of which are enormous in size, showcasing a blend of Buddhist and Hindu iconography. The most prominent sculpture is a massive reclining Buddha that stretches over 40 meters in length. The park’s sculptures are a mix of Buddhist and Hindu symbolism, reflecting the artist’s vision of unifying the two religions. Visitors can explore intricately designed statues of gods, demons, and animals, each representing different aspects of Buddhist or Hindu cosmology. The Buddha Park is not only a cultural landmark but also a serene and contemplative space where visitors can learn about the region’s religious traditions and enjoy the peaceful ambiance of the Mekong riverside setting. Among these statues is a climbable monument that offers a panoramic view of the park from its summit. However, exercise caution and mind your head while ascending, as the ceilings are not particularly high and could pose a risk of injury.

Vientiane features two prominent malls: Vientiane Center and Parkson Mall. The Vientiane Center encompasses a cinema, bowling center, and an arcade area, fostering enjoyable evenings. English-language movies are available, yet we recommend experimenting with watching a Thai movie with English subtitles for an intriguing experience. Exploring a Lao/Thai-produced movie offers an entirely new perspective. The city also houses the Lao Textile Museum, a serene space worth dedicating a day to; detailed insights are available in a subsequent blog post written by our companion Marie Pogerth.

For those with an affinity for animals, numerous shelters and veterinarians welcome any assistance, even if only to play with and socialise with the animals in preparation for adoption. We personally conducted a visit to the Vimaan Suan Foundation Animal Recovery Centre, under the guidance of a Singaporean man. During our visit, we were introduced to a selection of disabled dogs and cats, including individuals affected by blindness, deafness, or physical impairments. Our host conveyed that numerous animals, following involvement in accidents, are relinquished by their owners due to cultural beliefs attributing such incidents to harbinger of ill fortune for the family. As a result, his primary objective entails facilitating the rehoming process for these animals.

Vientiane also features a variety of temples and museums, including the Pha That Luang temple, the Cope Visitor Museum and the Lao National Museum, providing rich cultural experiences. For those who are interested one can find a detailed implementation written by Team VIII in the following blog article “Cultural landmarks in Vientiane – manifestations of Lao history

Southern Laos: Pakse/Champasak

Our most recent travel destination encompassed the southern region of Laos, specifically Pakse and Champasak. The director of the VEDI school extended an invitation for us to accompany him on the journey to the southern part of Laos. An opportunity for which we are immensely grateful. While air travel presents a more relaxed option, given the often challenging conditions of Laotian roads, our chosen mode of transportation was by car, a 14-hour journey from Vientiane to Pakse. Alternatively, one can traverse through Thailand, a route taking only 9 hours, as per the advice of local Laotian residents, due to the better road conditions. However, visa restrictions from our side compelled us to take the road through Laos. Despite the extended travel time, this decision afforded us a unique opportunity to witness the picturesque Laotian countryside, featuring captivating views of rice fields, palm trees, and the Mekong River. Another transport option is the sleeping bus, but passengers should be prepared for a potentially bumpy ride. 

Pakse is renowned for its stunning waterfalls, and we had the privilege of visiting two of them: Tad Fane and Tad Yuang. Tad Fane waterfall offers an exhilarating ziplining experience over the canyon, providing an adrenaline rush for thrill-seekers. Tad Yuang waterfall, on the other hand, captivates with its pristine natural surroundings, resembling a paradisiacal gem. The accompanying pictures aptly convey the beauty of the location. Another notable destination in Champasak, situated near the Cambodian border, is Siphandone, which translates to “4000 islands” in English. Positioned at one of the widest points of the Mekong River, the area is home to approximately 4000 small islands, accounting for the name. Our companions had previously visited Siphandone many years ago, expressing a degree of disappointment due to lower water levels that affected the overall view. Nonetheless, we appreciated the scenery and were pleased to witness Siphandone. To gain further information on activities, you may want to check out the blog post titled “Bolaven Plateau Loop,” where previous volunteers explored the southern region of Laos on bicycles.


Our travel companions, seasoned with multiple visits to the southern region, proved invaluable, guiding us to localities that we might not have discovered independently. This included savoring delightful Lao cuisine like a breakfast rice soup of which the specific appellation eludes our memory, indulging in coffee from Pakse, which ranked among the best we have ever had, and enjoying meals in places boasting arguably the most beautiful views in Laos. Lao meals typically consist of a variety of dishes that reflect the country’s rich culinary heritage. Common elements found in Lao cuisine include sticky rice, fresh herbs and vegeatbles, different kind of fish (mostly fish out of the Mekong River), chicken, pork and of course seasoning and spices e.g. chilis.

Some of the most famous Lao dishes are Laap which is a minced meat salad typically made with chicken, pork, or fish, mixed with fresh herbs, lime juice, fish sauce, and toasted rice powder. Laap is a flavorful and aromatic dish often served with sticky rice. The word “laab” (also spelled “laap” or “larb”) in Lao means “luck” or “fortune.” This name underscores the dish’s cultural significance in Laos, where it is often associated with good luck and is traditionally prepared for celebratory events and special occasions. Tam Mak Hoong which is mostly called Papaya Salad, is a spicy salad made from shredded green papaya, tomatoes, lime juice, chili peppers, fish sauce, and sometimes fermented fish. It’s a refreshing and zesty dish commonly eaten as a side or appetizer. Lao cuisine is known for its fresh ingredients, bold flavors, and emphasis on communal dining. Meals are typically served family-style, encouraging sharing and enjoyment of multiple dishes together. The combination of aromatic herbs, spicy elements, and unique textures make Lao cuisine a delightful culinary experience.

In conclusion, our journey through Laos has been nothing short of a revelation, uncovering the hidden beauty of a destination often overlooked by travelers. From the tranquil temples of Luang Prabang to the adventurous landscapes of Vang Vieng and the cultural richness of Vientiane, Laos offers a unique tapestry of experiences. The warmth and hospitality of the Laotian people have left an indelible mark on our hearts, making this journey not just a physical exploration but a soulful discovery. As we reflect on the serene Mekong River, the lush landscapes, and the vibrant local culture, it becomes evident that Laos is a gem waiting to be explored. The untouched authenticity of this destination is a treasure for those seeking a genuine and immersive travel experience. So, next time you plan your adventure, consider Laos – a destination that quietly beckons with its hidden wonders and invites you to unravel its secrets.


Text by A. Eiser & P. Fromkorth

Photos by A. Eiser & P. Fromkorth



BBC News. (2023, April 18). Laos country profile. BBC News.

UNESCO. (n.d.). Town of Luang Prabang. World Heritage Centre.

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