04 Sep Top backpacking destinations in Laos
With no beaches in sight, landlocked Laos has avoided the large-scale popularity seen in neighbouring Thailand– and is all the more charming for it. Don’t get me wrong – I love Thailand. But if you fancy a break from Full Moon Partying, the wonderful chaos of Bangkok, or the well-trodden jungle treks around Chiang Mai, head for Laos for a laid-back week or two. Alongside top city destinations such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang, rural Laos is incredibly beautiful, home to bright green paddy fields, forested mountains, rocky limestone outcrops and gushing waterfalls.
In fact if you close your eyes and picture Thailand a hundred or so years ago, before it became a mainstream destination, you could almost be imagining sleepy Laos.
Arriving in the capital, Vientiane, the first thing that strikes you is how quiet it is. You’d never guess it was a capital city if you didn’t already know, and there are few sights to keep you there for long. It’s a pleasant place to spend a couple of days, though – dotted with crumbling French colonial villas, Buddhist temples, French restaurants and riverside bars where you can watch the world go by on the immense Mekong River.
One of the main attractions in Laos, however, is its natural beauty and potential for adventure sports and activities. Whether you’re into climbing, kayaking, rafting or river tubing, there’s plenty to keep you busy on the rivers and up the mountains. One of the country’s main ‘centres’ for outdoor activities is the pleasant riverside town of Vang Vieng, which is surrounded by awesome, rocky limestone Karsts that point skywards, filled with deep caves and caverns. Hordes of travellers flock here and often find themselves staying longer than planned, seduced by the beautiful scenery and laid-back backpacker atmosphere. There are lots of places o visit from the town, including waterfalls and rural villages, and it’s well worth hiring a bike to explore independently if you have a map or a GPS (or just a very good memory!).
Another of the country’s most famous attractions is the mysterious Plain of Jars in Xieng Khuang province, a vast area dotted with hundreds of huge stone ‘jars’ of unknown origin. There are five popular sites to visit, all within reach of the town of Phonsavan, serving up some completely unique photo opportunities.
Perhaps the most memorable place of all in Laos, however, is the gorgeous northern capital of Luang Prabang. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed city is completely captivating, with a small town feel and some great backpacker hostels and cafÃ©s. The oldest part of the city is perched on a tiny peninsula created by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, surrounded by misty mountains – climb to the top of Sacred Hill (Phou Si) to watch the sun set for some spectacular views. The city’s best-known sights include the ancient Golden City Monastery (Wat Xiang Thong) and the Royal Palace Museum, but most enjoyable of all is just soaking up the lazy atmosphere, taking in the lovely French provincial-style architecture from colonial times, and enjoying freshly baked bread and coffee in one of the many backpacker cafÃ©s.