Laos, Asia away from it all

Although the term "off the beaten track" is often used, we have discovered that it applies to Laos. Laos is one of the least developed nations in Asia and has had little Western influence. It is worthwhile, even if you must give up a little luxury and have the patience to go slowly.

Our Indochina experts of My Way Travel have just returned from journeys visiting some of the most isolated areas of the nation. They reveal what they discovered.

Central and South Laos

On a map of Laos, no prominent landmarks exist in the nation's center. Only a small portion of the guidebooks' pages are dedicated to this area, and few people visit there. As I slowly entered Cambodia from the south, I set out to discover more about this remote region.

Kong Lor Caves

Stay in the Kong Lor Caves

Getting to central Laos is a challenging feat, but it's worth it. I flew into Vientiane, the laid-back capital, and then hit the road with my driver and guide for a seven-hour journey south to Kong Lor. The drive was scenic, with lush green mountains on both sides of the smooth road. We hardly saw any other vehicles along the way.

Kong Lor Caves is a stunning natural wonder in the Phu Hin Boun Conservation Area. It's a massive cave system that stretches for 7 km (4.3 miles) and has a river running through it. The river is a brilliant shade of turquoise and invites you to hop on a héua hăhng nyáo, a traditional longtail boat with a motor.

I strapped on my headlamp and boarded the boat, ready for an adventure. As we entered the cave, the darkness enveloped us, and the only sounds were the motor and the water. I used my headlamp to scan the walls and ceiling of the cave, marveling at the rock formations. After a while, we saw a glimmer of light ahead and emerged into another opening, where the river continued under the sun.

I stayed at Spring River Resort, a cozy place with a river view. The bungalows were simple but comfortable, and I didn't mind the lack of air conditioning. I enjoyed the free boat rides on the river and the refreshing dip in the natural spring pool.

Nam Theun National Biodiversity Conservation Area

Boat ride, Nam Theun National Biodiversity Conservation Area

How often do you get to be one of the first visitors to a place? I experienced that in the Nam Theun National Biodiversity Conservation Area, where only a handful of people have ever set foot. This park was a no-go zone until Amphai Mookchantai, a local entrepreneur, developed a way to let travelers explore it without harming its pristine nature. She teamed up with the park rangers and our friends in Laos to create a one-night camping adventure.

I drove from Kong Lor to the park's edge for three hours, where I met Amphai and prepared for my camping trip. She grew up visiting the park with her family, who run a nearby hotel and restaurant. She wants to share the beauty and tranquility of the park with responsible visitors, who can also support the local community and conservation efforts.

I hopped on a longtail boat and headed towards the park, which is only accessible by water. I passed by white tree trunks that had fossilized and stuck out of the lake. As the river narrowed, the forest leaned over the banks, creating a soft green light.

After a few hours, we found a sandy spot on the riverbank to pitch our tents. The tents were basic, and there was a toilet in the woods to leave no trace. We had rice, papaya salad, and grilled fish for dinner.

The wildlife here is shy, as they are not used to humans, but I heard a gibbon call in the morning. The park has six new gibbon conservation sites, expected to thrive in the coming years.

We packed our tents and cleaned up our campsite, then walked into the mixed evergreen and deciduous forest that covers most of the park's rugged terrain. When we reached daylight, we returned to the boat and sailed upriver.

Xe Bang Fai River Cave

Xe Bang Fai River Cave

If you're looking for a caving adventure, you can take advantage of the Xe Bang Fai River Cave. It's only an hour's drive from Nam Theun, and it's one of the world's longest river caves. The Xe Bang Fai runs for 11 kilometers (7 miles) and reaches 249 feet high. You'll need a longtail boat to get there, and you'll have the place to yourself, as only 300 people have visited it since 2008. When you reach the cave entrance, you can stay on the boat or switch to an inflatable kayak your guide will provide. Inside, it's pitch black. I felt like paddling in the night sky, as my headlamp couldn't reach the ceiling. Depending on how far you want to go, you'll have to get out of your kayak and carry it over five rapids. The boat can only go up to the first one. I stayed at Saiphouluong Resort, a basic but nice place nearby.


Pool at La Folie Lodge, Champasak

Champasak is a charming town on the banks of the Mekong, where you can feel the history and culture of Laos. It used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Champasak until the French took it over in 1945. The mix of French colonial buildings, traditional stilt houses, and cozy guest houses shows you. You may spend the night at Savannakhet, a little riverbank village on the other bank of Thailand that is too distant from Xe Bang Fai to go in one day. 

In Champasak, I stayed at La Folie Lodge, a luxurious resort with a pool and a bar overlooking the river. 

My local guide picked me up from the hotel and showed me around Champasak. We saw women making rice and bamboo baskets on wooden porches and selling them at the market. We saw kids on bikes going to school, chasing away chickens on the road. We saw fishing boats on the Mekong, mending their nets.

The tour ended at a family home, where I was invited to have lunch with them (my guide's sister was the host). They served me tam mak hung, a spicy papaya salad and jeow mak khua, a smoky eggplant dip. It was delicious.

Onward from Champasak

To continue on a lengthier journey, you may go over the border into Cambodia via land. If not, return to Siem Reap or Vientiane from the nearby Pakse airport for a flight home.

Northern Laos

Even though the northern city of Luang Prabang has long drawn visitors from outside due to its sparkling temples and saffron-robed monks, few people go into the surrounding haze of green mountains.

After landing at Luang Prabang International Airport (which has great connections to Bangkok), you may direct your driver north through the desolate roads as you travel to Vietnam via rural Laos.

Muang La

Muang La village

I left Luang Prabang and headed to the countryside, where the roads followed the old river beds that carved valleys between the limestone hills. The greenery was so thick that I could barely see the occasional houses along the way. Occasionally, I spotted rice fields on steep slopes or a farmer cutting through the bushes like a mountain goat.

Four hours later, I arrived at Muang La, a tiny town squeezed into a flat spot by a river bend surrounded by cliffs. Laos is not known for its luxury hotels, but Muang La Resort was a welcome oasis. I spent an afternoon relaxing in the infinity pool, watching water buffalo cross the river before me.

The next day, I decided to explore the hills around Muang La on foot, like most Laotians. I cheated a bit and took a 4x4 for part of the way to visit some more remote villages. I met different tribes, each with their customs and traditions. The Akha were shy and asked me not to take photos in their village, believing it would bring bad luck. The Lahu were more friendly and playful. I saw kids sliding down a hill on cardboard sheets. They offered me a cup of homemade rice wine and pulled me into their house.

Nong Khiaw

Beautiful limestone scenery surrounds the town of Nong Khiaw beside the Nam Ou River in the North Lao province of Luang Prabang.

Nong Khiaw is a beautiful destination, but the journey was even more amazing for me. I took a one-hour drive from Muang La, boarded a héua dooan, a wooden boat with a roof and a motor, and cruised the Nam Ou River for four hours.

I saw fishermen setting up their nets, kids splashing in the water, and mountains of different shades of green. The forest, the rice fields, and the limestone hills blended in a stunning landscape. As I approached Nong Khiaw, the hills became more jagged and towering, like giant spikes sticking out of the forest.

The best way to see Nong Khiaw is from above, on a cliff that overlooks the town. I hiked on a steep trail that cut through the red rock for an hour. The view was breathtaking. On one side, I saw the lush mountains. On the other side, I saw the town clinging to the river banks as the river sliced through the valley.

I stayed at Mandala Ou, a lovely place with a river view. I highly recommend the traditional herbal sauna. It was so relaxing.

Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area

Longtail boat on the Nern River

One hour's drive farther east lies the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area, an open forest and shrubland setting with the potential to view Laos species. The best option is to spend the night before at a low-cost hotel in Vieng Tong (Muang Hiem) or Sam Neua since no lodgings are near the park.

Longtail boats may be used to cross the Nern River, which runs through the park. While preparing dinner, I stopped by a river and helped build a fire. The sticky rice and larb dishes, which included spicy marinated chicken and fish, were presented on a chic banana leaf platter.

As it became darker, we returned to the boat and sped upriver. We came to a halt and turned off the engine. As my ears adapted, I heard rustling about us shortly after the initial silence. In the light of the torches, a sambar deer and an Asian golden cat made their way to the water's edge to drink. A larger, particularly fluffy bat with hairy wings circled the boat, grabbing insects and making wet raspberry sounds.

You are welcome to spend the night at a ranger station that the local community built and renovated. The furniture is completed with a comfortable bed, a mosquito net, a Western toilet, and a spotty shower.

You are welcome to go along with the on-site park rangers as they do daily checks to see what has been recorded on camera. Many times, video traps are set up. Even though a few tigers have lately been seen on camera traps, further proof is needed to show that Nam Et-Phou Louey still has a substantial tiger population under its protection.

When I left the bungalow the following morning, I was asked to write down every animal I had seen there. The personal bonuses given to park employees for each animal are intended to encourage them to support conservation initiatives rather than poaching.

Vieng Xai Caves

The Pathet Lao leadership hid from American air attacks during the Vietnam War in these natural tunnels deep into karsts.

A trip to northern Laos best ends at the Vieng Xai Caves, close to the Vietnamese border. The communist Pathet Lao leadership hid in the tunnels while fighting the Royal Lao Government, which received support from the US. Up to the 1973 cease-fire, more than 20,000 people resided in the caves during the intense shelling.

Huge caverns, formerly natural caves, were hand-chiseled and then demolished with explosives to create a confusing network of rooms and corridors. A local guide accompanies you between caves while giving you an audio guide when you take a booked tour.

The caves contained a hospital, a school, and a celebration area where weddings were celebrated. They were occupied for around ten years. We were sent to an observation area where security would watch for bombs; the skyline's scarring holes were still visible.

Onward from Vieng Xai

You may enter Vietnam (and its slick, well-built motorways) at a tiny border crossing after a few hours of driving. As I did when I went to Hanoi (with an overnight stay in Mai Chau on the way), you may extend your tour by making stops in other isolated Vietnamese locales.

Final Through

From the enigmatic depths of caves to the tranquil landscapes along the rivers, Laos unfurls its secrets to those who venture beyond the well-trodden paths. This Laos travel guide, curated by My Way Travel, invites you to embark on an unforgettable Asia tour. Discover the untouched allure of Laos, where history, culture, and nature converge in a harmonious symphony. So pack your bags and prepare to experience Laos, Asia away from it all.

Start planning your trip to Laos

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.