Laos See And Do
High above the Mekong River Valley, the natural citadel of the Bolaven Plateau is a cool escape from the oppressive heat below. Coffee and tea are the main crops: Be sure to sample the local varieties. Rivers run off the high plateau in all directions and then plunge from dense forests along the escarpment in a series of spectacular waterfalls, including Tad Fan, a 400-foot drop. There are few specific sights: Simply explore the countryside and tiny ethnic-minority villages.
Champasak province contains Wat Phou, one of the grandest Khmer ruins outside Cambodia. Though this site doesn't measure up to Angkor Wat, the tumble-down pavilions beneath sacred Phou Kao Mountain are impressive and picturesque. The mile-long temple complex ascends a series of frangipani-lined stone staircases to a sanctuary with panoramic views of the Mekong and the Bolaven Plateau. Wat Phou rests a few miles south of the charming riverside town of Champasak, the former royal seat of a long-vanished Lao kingdom of the same name. Visit during the Wat Phou Festival, on the full moon of the third lunar month (usually early February) to enjoy elephant races and traditional music and dance.
Laos is largely comprised of lush mountains cut by fast-flowing rivers, and inhabited by lowland Lao and several dozen ethnic highland tribes. It's a perfect landscape for eco-tourism (and, unfortunately, loggers, poachers, and hydroelectric power companies). Natural and cultural attractions abound, yet few draw crowds. Thailand-based North by North East mounts expeditions to four-wheel the Ho Chi Minh Trail or paddle kayaks along subterranean rivers in the southern panhandle (66-42-513-572; www.north-by-north-east.com). Green Discovery offers programs throughout the country, including multiday kayak trips on the Mekong (856-21-264-528; www.greendiscoverylaos.com). Ten miles east of Luang Prabang, Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures operates a small elephant camp and "Fair Trek'' hikes that generate income for hill-tribe villages (856-71-252-655; www.laos-adventures.com). Clients who don't want to rough it with a Hmong homestay can lounge at Lao Spirit Resort, a collection of antique homes that have been converted into five rustic bungalows and a small lodge overlooking the Nam Khan River (856-30-514-111; www.lao-spirit.com).
The former royal capital of Laos, lovely Luang Prabang has an air of faded grandeur, with French colonial buildings jostling ancient red-roofed Theravada Buddhist temples and stupas with gold spires beneath Mount Phousi. A narrow, mile-long peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers holds the historic district, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Considered the best preserved city in Southeast Asia, it's packed with gracious homes, shophouses, and temples, including gorgeous 16th-century Wat Xiang Thong. Inside the temple, gold-stenciled wooden pillars support a ceiling decorated with dharma wheels. Outside, the layered roofs swoop almost to ground level, while the rear wall gleams with a masterful Tree of Life mosaic. Every dawn, hundreds of monks gather at Wat Xiang Thong and other temples for tak bat, a 6 am walk through the misted streets to gather alms.
Another highlight is the former Royal Palace. Built in 1904 and now a national museum, it displays antique howdahs, lacquered manuscript boxes—and a bit of moon rock collected by Apollo 17 (a gift from President Nixon). The museum's prized possession is the Pra Bang, the town's eponymous standing Buddha image, reckoned to be 90 percent gold and revered as a source of spiritual protection for Laos. Exhibits at a new cultural museum, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, document the country's rich ethnic mosaic (856-71-253-364; www.taeclaos.org).
The mighty Mekong, which courses the country's length, is a reliable route for transport, commerce—and adventure. The Luang Suay, a 100-foot-long steel-hulled river boat operated by Asian Oasis, makes two-day cruises through majestic mountain scenery from Ban Houay Xai, a Golden Triangle border town, to Luang Prabang (856-71-252-553; www.asian-oasis.com). A sister boat, Vat Phou, steams on three-day trips from Pakse to Si Phun Don archipelago, the "4,000 Islands'' of southern Laos. Every tour operator in Luang Prabang sells a trip to the Caves of Pak Ou, where devout pilgrims have placed 4,000 Buddha images inside a spectacular limestone mountain at the confluence of the Mekong and Ou rivers, 20 miles north of the city. The caverns quickly become loud and cramped when the tour boats arrive about 9 am; spend $35 ($25 in low season) and charter your own fast boat with Siphan Thong to beat the mobs (856-71-212-910).
Southeast Asia's most enigmatic tourist attraction, the Plain of Jars is named for the hundreds of enormous stone containers scattered over a few square miles there. Historians are baffled as to their origin and purpose. One theory is that they were created by an Iron Age civilization, possibly as funerary urns for cremated remains. The jars are not made from local stone and weigh several tons, so it's a mystery as to how they were transported here. You can hire a car and guide at nearby Phonsavan, the provincial seat. In the countryside, do not stray from designated paths, because there's a risk of encountering unexploded ordnance.
Vientiane is a sleepy town, though hectic by comparison with the rest of tranquil Laos. Noodle shops, gilded temples, and rice paddies are interspersed with French colonial buildings (Laos became a French colony in 1893 and only gained independence in 1954). Unsurprisingly in a country where 60 percent of the population are practicing Buddhists, most of the sights here are religious buildings: the monastery, Wat Sisaket, with over 6,800 Buddha images; Wat Simuang, the city's most popular temple and monastery; and That Louang, Laos' most important religious building, best seen at sundown when the light reflects off its golden surface.