We didn’t know too much about Laos before visiting, but soon after crossing the Thai border we were enamored with the friendly people, laid-back way of life and stunning natural landscapes. This sparsely populated country is a great place to explore the outdoors – we’ve written about a few of our favourite locations.
We crossed into Laos from Chiang Rai in northern Thailand at a small town named Huay Xai. Over the next three and a half weeks we made our way down to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane and eventually Don Det. We could have spent much longer and will have to come back to explore the far north of Laos, which we heard was fantastic.
Here are some of the best spots that we found along the way.
Kuang Si Waterfall, Luang Prabang
The Kuang Si Waterfalls are about a 45-minute drive along a slow, scenic road leading out of Luang Prabang. There are plenty of tuk-tuk’s that have been booked by a group that cruise around looking for extra passengers on the way out of town. There’s no need to book an expensive tour – just wander into town and hop on one these – it will cost about 30,000 LKR return per person.
We arrived and were dropped in a large parking lot surrounded by food stalls. We arranged where to meet the driver later in the afternoon and grabbed a couple of fresh coconuts to quench our thirst. You buy entry tickets at the gate (20,000 LKR) and then have a short walk along the path toward the pools at the bottom of the falls.
There’s a sanctuary for injured Asian Black Bears (also known as Moon Bears) on the way to the pools, which has plenty of great information about the bears, their habitat and their struggles. It’s well worth spending a bit of time wandering around and reading about these beautiful animals.
There are a number of large pools at the bottom of the falls that are a great place to swim and cool off. The water is crystal clear and absolutely mesmerising. The pools range in colour from emerald green to deep jade to shimmering turquoise and change regularly depending on the movement of the sun. There are a number of small falls and gorgeous pools to explore here.
The water is very fresh, a welcome relief from the muggy humidity and the kind of bracing cold that feels like a cleansing of the soul as well of the skin. It’s not only the temperature that keeps you moving; if you stay in one spot for too long you’ll be nipped by some curious fish who consider tourist flesh a delicacy.
Further along the path there is another set of larger falls and deeper pools with wooden walkways and bridges. This marks the bottom of the steep climb to the top of the falls.
It takes about 20 minutes to ascend to the ponds overlooking the waterfalls. It was much less crowded up here, as most visitors don’t make it all the way to the summit. At the top a languid river feeds into a number of small ponds that empty over the edge of the cliff and down into the pools below. The drop off is about 15m and you can walk through the water right to the edge to take in the magnificent views over the falls.
There’s a rope swing and man selling ice cold Beer Lao so it’s a nice place to have a paddle and enjoy the tranquility. A small boat runs up and down the river so you can head right to the source of the falls if you’d like.
It started to rain while we were at the top and the descent became extremely challenging. The path became a muddy slip and slide while the bamboo handrails offered no support when wet. We managed to make it down with just a few grazes but there were a lot of hairy moments.
The falls were definitely worth the visit and were a great place to learn about the Moon bears, have a nice swim and an adventurous climb.
Pha Ngern, Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng may be known as the town where tubing went too far, but it also enjoys one of the most spectacular settings you could ever imagine. The village straddles the river in the middle of a large valley surrounded by towering limestone karsts that dominate the horizon in whichever direction you look.
We headed a short distance out of town to climb Pha Ngern (also known as Pha Nguen). The walk is short but extremely steep and unrelenting. You gain elevation quickly and the near vertical stairs will have you sputtering on the heavy, humid air in no time.
Take plenty of water and sturdy shoes – the path is well maintained but in parts very rocky. It should take between 30 and 60 minutes and should be avoided in the heat of the day. I felt every one of the beers we’d had at Gary’s Irish Bar the previous evening as we ascended at around 4:30 in the afternoon.
It is absolutely worth the effort though. When you finally reach the top there’s a small hut where you can strip off and wring out your sodden clothes. Once you have your breath back it will be taken away again by the stunning 360-degree views. You can dangle your legs out over the patchwork quilt of green fields and small villages.
On the way back down you can take a bit longer to appreciate vistas looking back over the river and the town of Vang Vieng. The descent can be treacherous so head the advice of the ‘Sunscreen Song’ and be kind to your knees. At the bottom there are a couple of small shacks selling fruit, snacks and drinks.
Kaeng Nyui Waterfall, Vang Vieng
This was an unexpected gem about 7km out of Vang Vieng and away from the more popular tubing and blue lagoon attractions. The road itself is a picturesque track out through small agricultural villages and across a beautiful stream to the now familiar collection of lean-to’s selling beer and soft drink at the bottom of the waterfall.
Entry is free and you wander along a small track over a couple of bridges and then follow the falls up to the top. The walk is not strenuous and was really relaxing in the morning sun. We saw just three other tourists during our time there and appreciated the peace and quiet.
There are a number of small lagoons and swimming holes along the way, we decided to push on straight to the top first. The walk is through lush jungle and there are remnants of an abandoned zip line course strewn along the path. Everywhere you look you see verdant green, even the tallest trees are covered in leafy climbing vines.
At the top is a 10 or 15m high waterfall that crashes into a small shallow pond that is a great place to cool off and enjoy some high-pressure water. It’s nice and fresh and mostly shaded. Not far below that is a deeper pool in the sun that is great for bathing in.
If you’re looking for somewhere a bit more relaxed than the usually bustling blue lagoon, this is a fantastic alternative.
There are a number of places to rent some fun four-wheel dune buggies in Vang Vieng. Our looked like something out of mad max but was easy to drive and a great option of exploring some of the sights outside of town. There are also plenty of places to rent scooters, but double-check you are covered by travel insurance before you do – we’ve seen a number of accidents on our trip so far.