Laos, the landlocked neighbor to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and China is undoubtedly one of the most underrated destinations in SouthEast Asia. Many people flock to the beaches in Thailand, the ancient structures of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and eat their way through Vietnam without ever stepping foot in Laos.
Those who do make it to Laos typically make a quick stop in the capital city, Vientiane, the UNESCO World Heritage Site and French Colonial town of Luang Prabang, or hit the popular tubing spot in Vang Vieng and leave.
Little do most know that Laos has so much more to offer and is the perfect getaway for any adventure-seeking traveler from caves and waterfalls to incredible mountains.
Motorbiking Your Way
One of the reasons Laos may not be as popular with travelers is that it takes time to get around. A seemingly short bus ride advertised as 4 hours could easily be upwards of 8 hours. We experienced this ourselves more than a few times. The infrastructure isn’t quite comparable to its neighboring countries, and therefore transport from place to place can take a lot longer. One of the most thrilling ways to get around the country would be to take it slow and motorbike your way from one end to the other. Along the way you will find some of the most beautiful remote places from thousands of tiny islands in the Mekong River, waterfalls galore, cave after cave, and beautiful remote villages with breathtaking views.
Visit the Many Caves of Thakhek
A great adventure awaits in central Laos from the small town Thakhek just along the Mekong River. The town itself doesn’t have much going on but having a motorbike and sense of adventure will lead you to an incredible day full of caves to explore. In just one day and just 12 kilometers out of town you can visit multiple different caves, an amazing swimming and picnic spot, and tons of gorgeous scenery and mountains to take in along the way. The view alone is worth the drive. Pack your swimsuit, head torch, and camera as you channel your inner Indiana Jones.
Each cave is completely different. I recommend starting at Tham Pa Fa, a religious site and cave that was newly discovered within the last decade or so by a local man who stumbled upon it and found tons of Buddha statues inside. Another would be Tham Xieng Liap, a large cave with water running through it and a beautiful spot for photos. Take a break at Falang, a beautiful spot along the water where you can swim and enjoy a packed lunch. Tham Sa Pha In is one of the less visited caves and also has religious significance to the locals with a Buddhist shrine inside. While you’re exploring the caves around Thakhek you cannot miss Tham Nang Aen. The entire cave is lit up with different colorful lights and you can ride a boat with a local on a two-hour journey through the river in the cave for the ultimate experience.
After checking out all these incredible caves, you can rest before hitting the most impressive cave in Laos, Konglor Cave. Getting here requires journeying 186 kilometers from Thakhek and again is best done on motorbike. The journey alone is absolutely breathtaking as you pass incredible scenery and dramatic cliffs. Once you arrive to the small village of Konglor you will be in awe of the beauty and tranquility of this place. The cave is massive with a river running all the way through it. A local guide will take you on a sliver of a canoe through the dark waterway through to the other end, rest, and come back.
There were times you will see with your tiny headlamp that the cave is wide and tall, then there will be times you feel like you are barely squeezing through. The entire experience is exhilarating and well worth the trip.
Witness the Magical Waterfalls of Laos
Would you believe that Laos is one of the best waterfall destinations on the planet? North to south, there are countless amounts of waterfalls in the country and only a handful of them are possible to explore.
I’d recommend checking out the Bolaven Plateau motorbike loop passing through village after village with waterfalls galore. The entire loop goes through the middle of the country at a higher altitude, cooler temperatures, and through the coffee plantations of the country.
Your first stop from starting your Bolaven Plateau loop in Pakse is Tat Lo. This laidback, sleepy town is one of those places you could easily just hang out at for a week. Most of the guesthouses and accommodation are situated right along the main waterfall, Tad Lo. You can spend your afternoons sipping on a cold Beer Lao on the balcony of your room listening and watching the water flow. From here you can also take a trek with a guide or on your own through different tribal villages and different waterfalls.
You’ll continue your journey to Attapeu for a night’s rest before making it to one of the most gorgeous places I have ever been, Tad Tayicseau. This spot is an almost unmarked destination and easily missed or skipped by passers-by. However, you will want to make sure you do not miss this majestic place. You will get to experience a unique homestay experience. The local woman who owns the land is keen on protecting it but also unselfishly shares the beauty with foreign travelers. There are 15 known waterfalls on her small slice of land, most of which can be visited within an hour-long trek. There are some that she will not give directions to as a local tiger population enjoys that spot and she wants to leave it just for them.
After one night without electricity or a shower (unless you’re willing to shower in the local river) you’ll make your way to Paksong. This is where the most impressive waterfalls in the country are. Enjoy the view of the giant double falls at Tad Fane, the tranquil Tad Champee drop and swimming area, the gorgeous water at Tad Yuang, and enjoy a great meal overlooking the falls at Tad E-tu.
After completing the Bolaven Plateau motorbiking loop you can still witness magical waterfalls throughout the country – one of the more popular being just outside Luang Prabang. Kuang Si Waterfall is famous for its series of cascading turquoise waterfalls and swimming pools. You will want to make sure you make a trip here to experience this place for yourself as it almost feels like it’s out of a fairytale, with butterflies fluttering around everywhere and one magical pool after another to bathe in. A bonus would be that these cascading pools are home to Dr. Fish, the famous fish who eat the dead skin cells off your body and a treatment people pay money for!
If you happen to stick around the backpacker paradise of 4000 Islands you can witness one of the more dangerous waterfalls in Laos right in the Mekong River. Watch the water rush at lightning speed and if you’re there during the right time at the right place you’ll even see local fishermen risking their lives to catch fish – you may have seen this on the BBC’s Human Planet.
Last but not least, you can enjoy the 100 waterfalls trek from the remote village of Nong Khiaw, just a few hours away from Luang Prabang.
Take in the Gorgeous Mountain Views
Another incredible perk about being an adventure seeker in Laos is that there are also tons of beautiful mountains to see. From riding a motorbike past the karst dramatic cliffs around Thakhek and Konglor, all the way up to gorgeous view point hikes in the remote village of Nong Khiaw – you won’t be disappointed.
I’d recommend visiting Vang Vieng, not for partying and tubing – while that’s all fun, this area is more impressive for the views. The mountains here are breathtaking and you can rent a motorbike and explore the area on your own while cooling off in the famous blue lagoons that have become wildly popular over the years.
Take a narrow wooden boat from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw where you will enjoy one of the quietest and most tranquil towns in Laos. There is an incredible view point hike here that takes around one and a half hours to hike. The view at the top is not only rewarding but one of the most beautiful vistas in the entire country. You might even find yourself falling in love with this place as much as I did and staying here a few extra days to just enjoy the slow life.
But Wait, There’s More
Didn’t think Laos could sound any more enticing? There are also more incredible places to visit like the unique Gibbon Experience in Bokeo Nature Reserve, a lesser known Angkor temple in Champasak, and the mysterious Stone Age Plain of Jars to explore. The entire country is full of hidden treasures and gems for any adventure seeker. You will need to give yourself some time to slowly travel and see all the wonders Laos has to offer. We spent two entire months working our way through this incredible country and still didn’t have enough time to see it all.
Have you ever been to Laos?
This is a guest post by Megan Indoe.