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Essential Laos

VISIT THE MUST SEE SPOTS

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If this is your first Laos travel experience, there are some iconic cities, sites and destinations located throughout the country that are simply a must-see for first-time travel to Laos, which include Luang Prabang and its environs, and the capital Vientiane. If this is your second trip to Laos or you prefer to get off the beaten path, explore our Extended Laos travel page.

Luang Prabang

With its calm, quaint feel, meandering streets, glittering temples, smiling locals and lush surrounding hills, Luang Prabang is one of Asia's most alluring locales and an absolutely essential Laos travel destination. Its small scale and intimate feel make it a perfect place to wander-from temples to handicraft shops, from the banks of the Mekong to a charming fountain-side café.

French colonial, art-deco and northern Lanna Thai structures comprise an exquisite and well-preserved architectural legacy: the town itself has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Outstanding temple architecture abounds, and stumbling upon a small shrine tucked away in an alley is one of the joys of this town. The most imposing temples are Wat Wisounalat, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, and Wat Xieng Thong, an exquisite 400-year-old royal monastery complex. Be sure to visit the former Royal Palace, now the National Museum. The Lao royal family lived here until 1975. Its collection includes lovely murals-in shimmering mosaics and in oil-of Lao life, and gifts from heads of state, including a moon rock from Richard Nixon, given in 1972 (ironically about the same time U.S. bombing of Laos reached its peak).

For a truly extraordinary Laos travel experience, rise before dawn for a chance to witness a moving ritual that embodies the essence of Old Southeast Asia: as long lines of barefoot monks walk silently along the streets on their morning alms rounds, watch locals offer alms. This represents a symbiosis in which rice sustains the monks' bodies, while the monks' prayers nourish the spirit of those giving the rice.

Note: please observe a respectful distance and silence while witnessing this ancient, sacred ceremony.

After a day of exploring, ascend the steps up Phu Si Hill to view the sunset over the Mekong. After dinner, wander through the bustling Night Market.

Pak Ou Caves

This mystical pilgrimage site is an easy day trip from Luang Prabang. Travel up the Mekong River by motorboat to access the caves. Through the centuries, kings, merchants and farmers have come here to worship, leaving behind more than 3,000 statues of the Buddha in homage. A spiritual vibe emanates from this nature-made shrine.

Numerous small villages may be accessed by boat en route to or from the caves. Stop at a tranquil hamlet inhabited by the traditional Khamu people. Visit the village of Ban Phanom, famous for its silk textiles and handmade mulberry paper. A highlight of any trip to Laos is partaking in a traditional baci ceremony, in which villagers gently tie sacred strings of friendship and good fortune around the wrists of visitors.

Vientiane

With its gentle pace, sunny inhabitants, gleaming temples, whirring tuk-tuks (motorcycle rickshaws) and the charms of the winding Mekong, Vientiane is a delightful city to explore during your Laos tour. Eastern and western cultures converge to form an interesting architectural legacy that bears witness to Chinese, Thai, French and Soviet-era influences.

Of special interest are Wat Si Saket with its thousands of Buddha images, and Haw Pha Kaew, which is a museum of Lao antiquities. But the pièce de résistance is the gleaming gold Pha That Luang, at once a greatly revered Buddhist shrine and the national symbol of Laos. The morning market offers fine hand-loomed textiles and crafts as well as a colorful array of trinkets. Serious shoppers should visit Carol Cassidy's silk gallery. Stroll through the temple grounds by the Mekong, down the narrow streets lined with crumbling colonial buildings and have a sunset drink at one of the little bars overlooking the great river.