Tipping Point: Travel Guide Laos

Laos. It’s a throwback to Thailand or Cambodia 20-30 years ago. I don’t see it changing much from an economic or social perspective. But from a tourism perspective, it already is. 

I quietly cheer for countries at this stage. I hope they don’t overdose on tourism, losing what makes them unique. Because Laos is a special place. It’s at a tipping point.

Here’s a guide for your visit.


The First Kingdom

Start in the capital of the first Laos kingdom, Luang Prabang. Several airlines offer daily flights from major cities like Bangkok and Hanoi. From the international airport (LPQ), it’s a 50,000 kip ($6 USD) ride to city center.

Leafy streets of Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang sits at the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The city was a crumbling hamlet when Laos re-opened to tourism in 1989. The historic timber homes and colonial mansions on a long peninsula were transformed into quaint guest houses and restaurants. Sidewalks were added to leafy streets and alleys were cleaned. By 1995, the entire city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While larger high-end hotels are increasingly available, choose one of the hundreds of guest houses. I enjoyed MyLaoHome, which offers an array of room choices across nine buildings in the quaint alleys near the Royal Palace Museum and Night Market. Having dropped your bags, you’ll be lured by the city’s breezy pace and the surrounding mountains begging to be explored. Where to start?

First, Let’s Eat

Saffron coffee near MyLaoHome

Luang Prabang is a food lover’s paradise. There’s buffalo cheese, coconut pancakes, and cappuccinos; everything from fish to grilled bee honeycomb to noodles comes wrapped in banana leaves. Don’t leave without trying local favorites Mok Pa (steamed herb-marinated tilapia in banana leaf) and Oua Si Khai (lemongrass stuffed with minced pork). 

Start your day at one of two locations of Saffron Coffee and be reminded that business and social solutions are a tasty mix. Unable to effectively grow traditional crops, Northern Laos’ Hmong and Khmu hill tribes had turned to growing opium until the government banned the practice. Fortunately, the mountainous terrain was found to be perfect for coffee. Saffron buys all their beans from these regional producers, and funnels 95% of profits to their growth. Go beyond sipping and take a Saffron Coffee Tour.

Laos Buffalo Dairy-co-founder, Rachel O’Shea

Speaking of social businesses, don’t miss Laos Buffalo Dairy. The Australian and American founders were floored to learn that Lao farmers were unaware that buffalo could be milked; most locals didn’t even know where dairy came from. Laos now produces outstanding Lao buffalo milk cheese and ice cream. Farmers earn more income and raise healthier animals; Laos’ high-end restaurants no longer need to import, and the company now exports to high-end markets like Japan. A visit to the farm (located 22km outside of town, near Kuang Si Falls) is a must-do experience.

Luang Prabang offers a bustling daily Morning Market and Night Market, offering a host of delicious, cheap, must-try offerings. Favorites at the Night Market are grilled sausages, Lao noodle soup, fruit shakes, and coconut pancakes—just nibble your way to a full meal!

Manda de Laos at dusk

Another Luang Prabang tradition? Happy Hour. While the times and offerings vary, they are a great way to escape the late afternoon heat and became our evening meal. Our favorite spot? 3 Nagas Restaurant where we feasted on exquisite Lao cuisine and cocktails on their leafy front courtyard at half-price.

That allowed for a last-night splurge at the stunning Manda de Laos. Set around a UNESCO-classified lily pond, you’ll immerse in a tropical paradise and be cared for by a thoughtful staff while enjoying specialties from all regions of Laos.

Explore In Town 

If you are jet lagged and awake anyway, begin your Luang Prabang explorations at dawn. Don’t miss Luang Prabang’s Alms Giving Ceremony (Tak Bat), a daily ritual where locals dot the streets before sunrise to offer food (typically sticky rice) to monks for their blessings. It takes place around 5:30am in summer and 6:30am in winter.

Monks taking alms outside Wat Mai

This beautiful Buddhist ritual is unfortunately an example of Luang Prabang tipping the wrong direction. There are places where tourists not only participate but dominate the alms giving. Avoid the down-peninsula areas, and anywhere you might see a row of colored plastic chairs awaiting bus loads of tourists. This article and map is helpful.

Early morning is also the best time to climb Mount Phou Si, the highest point in Luang Prabang and home of Wat Chom Si. While many suggest a sunset climb, dusk comes with a conga line of people climbing up and down one of two narrow 300+ step staircases. Meanwhile, the experience at dawn is peaceful and meditative. Note there is a 20,000 kip ($2.5 USD) entry fee.

A traditional Lao cooking class is a delicious way to continue the day. Offered by several restaurants, they follow a similar format. Morning classes (about 10am-3pm) typically include a visit to the Morning Market; afternoon classes (about 3pm-7pm ) end with dinner. Tamnak Lao and Tamarind are among most recommended, but here’s a cooking class list.

At Wat Xieng Thong

The best Luang Prabang days are those without plan. Wander through some of the 34 wats (temples) spread across town. Most can be entered without a fee—just dress accordingly (knees and shoulders coved, remove hats and shoes). While you won’t find guides onsite, learn firsthand about Buddhism with a former monk through Orange Robe Tours. In dry season, cross the Bamboo Bridge over the Nam Khan river. Finally, admire the textiles, artistry and story behind Ock Pop Tok (choose from three Luang Prabang locations) and find a keepsake to bring home.

The fun continues after dark. Enjoy an hour of English-language traditional Laos storytelling with Gavarek (6:30pm) or grab a drink and enjoy a free outdoor movie at the Victoria Xiengthong Palace (7pm).

Out of Town

There’s no shortage of tour operators and tuk-tuk drivers begging to take you to Luang Prabang’s most famed out-of-town locations—Kuang Si Falls and Pak Ou Caves. Even if you choose to tuk-tuk on your own, you’ll fold into the hordes of tourists and buses once you arrive at these beautiful natural wonders.

Starting our hike at a Hmong village

A better option? Hire a personal guide. Referred by a friend, we met Fong Her, who grew up in the Hmong tribe, briefly studied as a Buddhist monk, and worked as a guide for several years. He led us on a day-long hike, starting in Lao and Hmong villages, continuing through local farms, and ending at Kuang Si Falls.

Fong dissuaded us from joining the hoards at the Pan Ou caves, instead taking us across the Mekong via local ferry to the Chomphet District. Walking a paved path through local villages, we felt a world away. We climbed to Wat Chomphet and took in views of Luang Prabang, and continued along the path to Wat Tam Sackkalin and Tham Sackkalin, an ancient 100-meter limestone cave housing several old Buddha.

With Luang Prabang guide, Fong Her

With more time, we would have planned a multi-day adventure, even a homestay in a local village. I highly recommend Fong ([email protected]). You’ll pay a fraction of the what you’d pay to a larger tour company, know your money is going to the guide, and have a more intimate, enjoyable experience.

Finally, we chose to avoid elephant riding, but if you wish to see elephants, I recommend the elephant sanctuaries MandaLao or Elephant Village.

The Capital Vientiane

Vientiane is a short flight from Luang Prabang, and a good connecting point to other cities across Southeast Asia. From the international airport (VTE), travel to the city center by booking a fixed price taxi (56,000 kip, or $7 USD) as you leave the airport.

Half-completed Vientiane New World

As the capital, Vientiane visibly displays Laos’ rising middle class and ties to its Asian neighbors. Thailand is seen just across the Mekong River; Japan funded the airport. But China’s presence is most dominant. While red lanterns and Mandarin signage in front of restaurants and stores is commonplace, much bolder examples lie in the Chinese-funded complexes like Vientiane Center, the 50 fully-furnished riverside mansions at ASEM Villa, and the city-within-a-city that is Vientiane New World.

Biking the capital city Vientiane

Chinese businessmen and tourists are not the only patrons; for wealthier Laotians, frequenting Chinese restaurants and shops is a sign of sophistication. Expect China’s influence to grow exponentially, with the China-Laos Railway connecting Kunming and Vientiane set to open in 2020. Seventy-percent funded by the Chinese government, the railway will forever impact commerce and tourism in Laos. Looking for clues as to how China’s “Belt and Road” impacts Laos is a key part of visiting Vientiane.

While most hotels and guest houses are found in the city center, new boutique hotels are popping up outside of the tourist mecca. We enjoyed the new S2 Boutique Hotel, just 1km away. The best first day activity? Get up early, rent a bike ($2/day from hotel) and explore the city. 

Weaver at Lao Textiles

With limited time in Vientiane, we followed a suggested bike itinerary. Explore the riverfront from the tourist center to Vientiane New World further east. Among the must-visit wats are Wat Sisaket and  Wat Ho Phra Kaew. Whether on bike or otherwise, don’t miss these three Vientiane favorites.

  1. COPE Visitor Centre. Laos is the most heavily bombed country (per capita) in history; between 1964-1973, the US army dropped over two million tons of ordnance on Laos. Many “bombies” failed to explode on impact, leaving rural mine fields that continue to kill and injure civilians. The visitor center is a thoughtful education on recent history and a continued reality.
  2. Lao Textiles. Housed in an old French mansion, Lao Textiles was founded by American master weaver Carol Cassidy in 1990. While they primarily supply the top interior designers in New York and Paris, they happily provide a brief tour through the silk weavers’ workshop.
  3. Buddha Park. An open-air sculpture park with over 200 giant sculptures of Buddha and Hindu deities, this quirky park is located 25km southeast of Vientiane, but was an unexpected treat.
Buddhist & Hindu statues at Buddha Park

When to Go

Temperatures in Laos are most pleasant November through February, though the “shoulder months” (we visited in March) have fewer tourists, albeit higher temperatures. The biggest festival of the year is Laos New Year (mid-April). While any time in Laos is better than none at all, if you can spend several weeks, enjoy these additional Laos recommendations from Travelfish.

In short, go to Laos soon. It’s at a tipping point. May it tip in the right direction.


Want to see more videos and photos of Laos travel? Don’t miss my travel album Laos 2019. Subscribe to JodiMorris.co to receive early notice of future Venture Travel.


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