Laos took us by surprise. From the moment we set foot outside the airplane at the most picturesque airport I’ve ever seen we were bewitched. We were expecting lush jungle and a charming French colonial vibe but weren’t prepared for Laos’ raw, unspoilt beauty. Outside the main tourist spots the land of a million elephants is still relatively undeveloped compared to its neighbours, making it a traveller’s dream destination.
We arrived late to find our hostel had no record of our booking – perhaps the one downside to the Lao people’s incredibly laid back attitude to life. Luckily we found room at the inn nextdoor and that small blip melted away in a happy daze which hung over us during our time in Laos.
The first thing to say is five days is not nearly enough time to fully appreciate this fascinating country and we will definitely be going back. However, we were short on time during this trip so had to be selective. Here’s how we spent our five days in Laos.
Day 1: Temples, cake and sunset in Luang Prabang
Pastries. Mmmmm the pastries… UNESCO protected Luang Prabang has it all. The ancient city is home to 33 temples, beautiful buildings and scores of French bakeries selling mouth watering cakes and pastries. Did I mention the pastries? Oh and the mighty Mekong river runs right through it too.
We spent our first day exploring the peaceful city on foot armed with a fresh fruit smoothie (90p from the central market) and a pastry, of course! Entry to the temples costs around £1- £2 so Luang Prabang is also a great place to be if you’re travelling on a budget. Be sure to cross the bamboo bridge which is only resident for six months of the year until the river washes it away and observe the colourful monks going about their daily chores.
In the evening make your way up Phu Si, the 100m hill in the old city centre which is crowned by a 24m gilded stupa, for incredible sunset views across the city and river. Just be sure to get there early (about an hour before sunset) to claim a good spot as it gets crowded!
Day 2: Learning to speak ‘elephant’
We couldn’t go to the land of a million elephants without seeing these magnificent creatures up close, but with so much malpractice around we wanted to be sure we visited a place where they were well treated. Luckily we found the Elephant Village Sanctuary and Resort 15km outside of Luang Prabang. The sanctuary rescues injured and mistreated elephants and is one of the best places in Laos to closely interact with these beautiful creatures in a responsible way.
We did the ‘1 day mahout experience’ which began with a lesson in the voice commands used by the mahouts to control the elephants, followed by a 1km trek bareback on our own personal elephant incorporating a dip in the river. We then took a boat ride to the Tad Sae Waterfall. It was a magical day, but didn’t come cheap at £75. But for a once-in-a-lifetime experience we were happy to splurge.
Day 3: Observing the monks ‘giving alms’ and changing a tyre in the Lao mountains
Seeing the monks giving alms involves a painfully early start (5.30am) but was one of my favourite experiences in Laos. The ceremony involves the monks from all 33 temples in Luang Prabang walking through the city streets at sunrise collecting religious offerings from the local people.
So while Rich slept (he’s not a 5.30am kinda guy!) I crept out into the night to join a hushed gathering of people waiting to observe the age old tradition. There are a couple of rules which must be followed when watching the ceremony. Observers should remain a respectful distance from the monks and those making offerings, and while taking photos is allowed the flash should be turned off. Sadly a few tourists abused these rules, which was disappointing to see, so try and find a quiet spot away from the crowds for a more peaceful and authentic experience.
When it’s all over (the whole thing takes around 15 minutes) fight the urge to rush straight back to bed. Most tourists disappear as soon as the monks have passed through so you’ll have the dawn streets all to yourself and can observe the monks early morning activities as the sun comes up.
After alms giving we jumped on a bus headed to Vang Vieng, the home of that quintessential, not to be missed traveller experience – tubing! The journey takes about 4 hours travelling south by air conditioned minivan and costs about £8 each way. The scenery is awesome crossing up and over a towering mountain range through a tapestry of lush jungle and villages. Just be sure to pack your toolkit as the vans seem to break down frequently! Our van blew a tyre as we descended, triggering a team effort to prop the van up with rocks to prevent it from rolling off the edge of cliff! Best not to think about it too much…
Day 4: Tubing and partying on the Nam Song river
We may be a decade older than most of the revellers on the Nam Song river but we still know how to party and boy, have they got it good in Vang Vieng! A session on the Nam Song river involves floating along in an old tracror inner tube, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery until you reach one of the riverside bars where the staff will cast a rope out and haul you in for cheap drinks. Sounds pretty perfect, right?
Tubing cost us £12 each which includes transport to the start point on the river. Make sure you take a dry bag for your camera and money!
Day 5: Travel back to Luang Prabang
With slightly sore heads we reluctantly boarded our minivan back to Luang Prabang. Vang Vieng was the one place on our trip so far where we felt we hadn’t spent enough time. The town is known predominantly for tubing, but what many don’t realise is it’s surrounded by outstanding natural beauty and world-class rock climbing and hiking. Having shaken off its reputation as a party town, Vang Vieng is rebuilding itself as an adventure capital and there are scores of other outdoor activities you can do from mountain biking to waterfall walks.
We could have easily spent several more days here, however instead we bought ourselves a final conciliatory pastry in Luang Prabang before catching our flight out that evening.
So there’s our pick of the best things to see and do with five days in Laos! With a few more days we’d have continued south from Vang Vieng to Vientiane which is often described as one of the most laid back capital cities in South East Asia. Further north it’s possible to take a slow boat along the Mekong to Huay Xai for the highly acclaimed Gibbon Experience. So plenty left to see and do on our next visit!