Historically the epicentre of Lao culture and history, Northern Laos is centred on the country’s two most significant cities. Sophisticated Luang Prabang has a rich heritage, while Vientiane, by far the largest city in Laos, strides boldly into the future, bridging the gap between traditional Laotian life and cosmopolitan modernity.
Temples are everywhere in Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang, the beating heart of Laos for most of its history, makes its royal heritage immediately obvious. Practically littered with temples, monasteries and palaces, there is no shortage of cultural history to take in. The clear highlights among its many temples are Phu Si hill, offering stunning sunset views of the city in its entirety, and the Royal Palace, home to the last Laotian kings.
Luang Prabang also has plenty of offer in terms of natural sights and excursions, just outside its city limits. First among these are the Kuangsi Falls, a stunning turquoise waterfall that cascades down several tiers. Here you can plan a picnic by the pools and allow your guests to cool down in the sparkling waters. Those seeking a peaceful experience can make the climb to the top, where the crowds are far smaller. There is also a fantastic bear sanctuary located here, and watching the endangered Asiatic Black Bears play in their enclosure is almost as enjoyable as the waterfall itself.
The Kuangsi Falls are among the most beautiful natural sights anywhere in the world.
Another great sight just outside the city are the Pak Ou Caves. These two caves can be reached by road or a half-day kayaking trip, and houses thousands upon thousands of Buddha statues, sure to impart a mystical and spiritual feeling to all that visit.
The huge number of Buddha Statues in Pak Ou give the caves a spiritual air.
Vientiane, due to its much bigger size, feels decidedly more cosmopolitan than its regal cousin Luang Prabang. Like everywhere in Laos, there are of course a plethora of temples to see. Most important and interesting among these is Wat Si Muang, housing the “City Pillar”, said to be the home of Vientiane’s guardian spirit. Another monument, though political rather than religious in nature, is Patuxai. The monument is essentially the Laotian version of the famous “Arc de Triomphe”, and celebrates those that gave their lives for Laotian independence.
Wat Si Muang, home of the City Pillar.
The Kaysone Phomivan Memorial also stands as a reminder of the nation’s past. Formerly the home of Laos’ greatest national hero and leader, it stands remarkably undisturbed, in order to preserve the living conditions of the man who led the country through turbulent times. Part of the complex also serves as a museum commemorating the man’s life and achievements.
Reachable by motorbike or bicycle, Buddha Park provides an experience you’re unlikely to find an equivalent of anywhere else. Here, the park’s founder has erected a forest of both Hindu and Buddhist iconography, creating a fascinating environment to walk around.
Eclectic Buddha Park.
Both cities host fantastic cultural perforamnces, whether its traditional Laotian storytelling set to live music at Garavek Storytelling in Luang Prabang, or various art, dance, music and film performances at The Centre Culturel et de Cooperation in Vientiane.
Great food is also easy to find, both authentic Laotian fare and cuisine from all corners of the earth. The nightlife in either city is also probably the best in the country, with most nights finishing in the Bowling Alleys, a typical spot for a night out among younger Laotians.
The streets turn into a warzone as Lao New Year arrives.
The most unforgettable time to go to either city is undoubtedly during Pi Mai, or Lao New Year, held in mid April. During this time the streets explode in activity as locals and foreigners alike take part in what is essentially a three day long water-fight. Get yourself a water-gun (or a bucket!), fill it with water and join in on the fun, as it’s an experience you are sure to remember.
In short, Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the two great cities of Laos, and no trip to the country is complete without them, even for the most city-averse traveller.