Mostly bordered by the mighty Mekong River, Laos is a landlocked, limestone wonderland of mountains and caves, richly decorated temples, and ruins. Once ruled by kings, and more recently by the French, it has been governed by the communist Pathet Lao since 1975. The culture is heavily infused by Theravada Buddhism and by animism. There are important rules to be observed: not touching monks’ robes, not touching heads, removing shoes before entering a private home or the ordination hall (sim) of a wat. Clothing should cover the entire body and visitors need to wear a sarong if bathing in public.
Vientiane, the small but growing capital of Laos, unfurls along the middle Mekong River. It’s a low-slung city of gilded temples, giant mahogany trees, technicolour tuk tuks, winsome French colonial buildings, and modern, glassy builds.
Formerly Vieng Chan (city of sandalwood), the Lao capital’s top things to do include visiting its holy sites, silk shops, patisseries, and acclaimed restaurants. Wander the quieter streets, still home to antique Lao homes, and enjoy the river breeze at sunset on the new Mekong Riverside promenade, followed by a visit to the night market.
Things to do in Vientiane include visiting its most dominant structures – the dazzling, golden-spired That Luang, holiest Buddhist site in Laos, and the Patuxai Victory Monument, a huge war memorial. Enclosed in a garden of palms and flowers, the early-19th-century Wat Sisaket temple is one of the top sites in Vientiane. This beautiful complex of gold-leaf embellished cloisters is lined with more than 2,000 ceramic and silver Buddha statues. Opposite stands Hor Phra Kaew, which lavishly decorated former temple houses an enthralling museum of religious art and antiquities.
Hail a tuk-tuk and head east to Wat Si Muang, home of Vientiane’s 1563 foundation pillar. In the city centre, Wat Ong Teu is a temple with deeply sloping roofs topped with golden finials. Along with a 10,000 kg Buddha, the temple houses a monks’ community guiding hundreds of novices. You can talk to the monks when you visit.
Other places near Vientiane include the Buddha Park, an extraordinary concrete collection of outsized statues of Buddha and Hindu deities.
After sightseeing, treat yourself to Lao coffee and French pastries at one of the laid-back cafés in the quieter downtown streets. Shopping in Vientiane includes browsing antique shops, and searching for richly detailed silk wares at Carol Cassidy Lao Textiles, or at the Lao Textile Museum.
Elegant Luang Prabang is a former royal capital. This tiny spiritual settlement, 339 km north of Vientiane, sits between the caramel waters of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, in the northern mountains. The peninsular town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an alluring mix of golden temples, shuttered French colonial buildings, and traditional Lao homes. Its holy monuments, working temples, laid-back vibe, and buzzy restaurants draw many visitors.
Cradled in the mountains between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the town of Vang Vieng lies by the emerald-hued Nam Song River, backdropped by stunning limestone pinnacles. It’s known as Laos’ adventure capital with plenty of sporting and relaxation activities, plus restaurants and bars. The distance between Vientiane and Vang Vieng is 156 km.
French-built Pakse, the largest city in southern Laos, is the gateway to the charming UNESCO-crowned Khmer ruins of Wat Phou; the palm-fringed 4,000 islands of the Si Phan Don archipelago, which lie sun-baked in the lower Mekong; the coffee plantations and waterfalls of the cooler Bolaven Plateau; and the elephants and birds of the Xe Pian wetlands. The distance between Vientiane and Pakse is 670 km.