Cruising down the Nam Ou River on a wooden boat, swimming on an elephant's back, wandering through the backstreets of Luang Prabang and hiking to hill tribes are our picks for can't-miss experiences in Laos.
It's not for nothing that Laos was once called Lan Sang – the Land of a Million Elephants. Today, there are only a handful of elephants left and their original use for work can be seen in only a few villages. Nevertheless, Laos is still one of the best countries to ride an elephant or even learn how to train them. The ideal opportunity is around the town of Luang Prabang, where there are plenty of campsites where local mahouts keep the friendly thick-skinned elephants and offer tourists one- to four-day training and riding programs. Perhaps the best experience is definitely swimming in the river on the backs of these largest land mammals!
The once sleepy town of Vang Vieng is now the most touristy place in Laos and the country's outdoor centre. Many foreigners head for the so-called tubing, or soul cruising. Local entrepreneurs with this slightly adrenaline-fuelled pastime take their clients upriver a few kilometres outside the city. The thrill-seeking young "party people" get on a big inflatable ring and ride back into town on the river. There are plenty of stops at bars equipped with various slides and cable cars. Drugs, alcohol and the not very deep river have already taken their toll and many young people have lost their lives here, so you need to have plenty of responsibility in your blood!
Trying to circle a four-kilometre or so stretch of river is definitely worth it, but Vang Vieng abounds with plenty of other activities too. For the soul, you can take an organised float through the nearby caves, rent a kayak or try your hand at sport climbing on the surrounding limestone cliffs.
The incredibly green landscape of Laos is perhaps most beautiful around the town of Thakhek, where the dense vegetation is interrupted in many places by limestone domes hiding beautiful karst caves within their bowels. If you really must rent a motorbike somewhere, it's here. Chasing between the rocks, stopping at remarkable caves and discovering your own nooks and crannies is definitely worth it. Moreover, some of the caves belonging to the Khammouane Limestone Reserve can be explored by kayak.
It wasn't until the early nineteenth century that ethnic groups from China arrived in Laos' mountainous regions and established hill tribe villages. The Hmong, Akha, Mien and Lahu tribes are some of the most colourfully dressed ethnic groups in the country (perhaps even the world), and to visit them you definitely need enough time to travel deeper into the northern region of Laos. An ideal starting point, for example, is the province of Phongsali with its eponymous capital. When trekking in the surrounding mountains, it's not entirely out of place to pay for your own guide, not so much for orientation but for the chance to talk to the locals and learn about them.
As you wander the streets of Luang Prabang, you'll feel like you've been transported to France, at least for a while. The only thing that will "spoil the impression" are the Buddhist temples scattered haphazardly among the perfectly maintained colonial houses. However, if you want to dine in one of the many restaurants, your budget will go up considerably. The almost snobbish atmosphere is easily offset by the village of Xieng Men, located on the other side of the river. By the time you step off the ferry and buy a grilled fish stuffed with lemongrass, you'll be back in Laos again.
Life beyond Luang Prabang is a bit of a different world. Get on a long, rickety boat here and venture up the Nam Ou River deeper into the jungle. Make your first stop in Nong Khiawu, set amidst limestone mountains, then continue on to the tiny village of Muang Ngoi, where you can't get anywhere else but by boat, then sail to the town of Muang Khoua and from there onto Hat Sa and the aforementioned Phongsali. Such a trip will take you several long days, even with stops, but the scenery around the river will more than make up for the "lost" hours.
Grilled snake coiled on a bamboo stick, fragrant freshly caught fish, black millennium eggs, sticky rice, stuffed bat or a plethora of tropical fruits. These are all part of the Laotian diet, and few places in the world have such a varied cuisine. But sometimes it's hard to know what you're actually ordering. In remote restaurants you won’t understand the menu, English is definitely not spoken here and sign language is quite useless when explaining the preparation and content of the food.