We rode in the bed of a pickup through Northern Laos. Music echoed between buildings, punctuated with noises of partygoers. The streets were flooded, both with people and with the water being flung, sprayed and shot at anyone in range. The whole country had broken out in a giant water fight in celebration of Laos New Year, and we had nothing to protect against the onslaught.
Despite sharing borders with Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, Laos offers a much different experience for those looking to add some outdoor excitement to their Southeast Asia trip. We visited Central and Northeastern Laos in April, long after the December – January peak but before the start of rainy season. This is a great time for a trip if you would rather trade the crowds for a touch of steamy Asian heat. These are the eight most memorable things which we found to do in Laos during low season.
1.) Laos New Year: Everywhere in Laos
Songkran, or New Years in Laos and Thailand, is celebrated mid April and is a time for spiritual cleansing and a fresh start. Originating from Buddhist teachings, it is considered good luck to bathe Buddha images at the temples, although it has morphed into a chance for Laotians to wet each other for luck. It is officially a three day event but may well drag out over the entire week. It is common for the town to awaken early to play loud music, drink and dance in the streets. Most groups are equipped with a hose and a barrel full of water, along with several bowls and squirt guns. Anyone passing on the street is liable to get doused. It is typical for celebrators to stop traffic to ensure everyone gets their share of water, including those not dressed for the occasion. Unlike the Songkran celebrations in Thailand, this nationwide water party has not turned into a tourist centric event and is celebrated almost exclusively by locals.
2.) COPE Museum (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise): Vientiane
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world, per capita. During the Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s, the country sustained years of secret bombings by the US in an attempt to interrupt North Vietnamese supply lines, despite being neutral. Additionally, any unused bombs were discarded over the country before planes returned to base to ensure a safe landing. Many of the ordinances were cluster bombs of which 30% did not explode on impact. Today, the landscape still has around 80 million unexploded bombs littered around farms, hills and villages which have killed 20,000 people since the war ended. Several hundred citizens are still dying each year from encounters with UXOs. COPE is an organization which assists those affected by a physical disability including UXO injuries, vehicular accidents, as well as congenital abnormalities. They provide customized prosthetics and orthotics and facilitate rehabilitation for little to no cost to patients in need. There is a very moving museum in Vientiane which explains the impact on the population, economy and future of Laos. This place is a must while in town. Our visit started with a short tearjerking documentary, Surviving the Peace. The museum and movie are free, but you’ll certainly be moved to donate for the cause.
3.) Hiking and Kayaking: Nong Khiaw
Nong Khiaw is a calmer and more authentic town to base outdoor activities than the popular Vang Vieng. It is located on the Nam Ou River and surrounded by lush mountains, making it a great destination for hiking, mountain biking and kayaking. We did a self guided hike to the Phadeng Peak / Nong Khiaw Viewpoint, which routes safely through an area with many UXOs. We also rented kayaks and took an evening trip upriver, passing rural countryside with villagers farming and fishing using traditional methods. There are multi day treks available which go deeper into the jungle. We only saw a handful of travelers in town so most of the trails and restaurants were empty. Of note, it was burning season during our visit and the air got pretty thick with smoke and ash at times.
4.) Alms Ceremony, Alternate Location: Luang Prabang
Monks in Laos follow a daily ritual which includes the morning Alms Giving Ceremony. Departing at sunrise, monks travel through the streets, collecting alms for their daily meal in exchange for a blessing. There is a very popular ceremony frequented by many tourists which takes place in the old town section of Luang Prabang. This one tends to get crowded with uninformed and thoughtless photographers. However, monks perform these rituals around town and we witnessed a non-touristed version across the bamboo bridge on the opposite side of the Nam Khan River. We participated with a few locals, offering portions of sticky rice as a hundred monks made their morning rounds. The daily ceremony begins at 6:00am and lasts until around 6:30am. Your guesthouse should be able to assist with purchase of appropriate offerings and guidelines. If you attend this procession, be sure to dress modestly (covered legs and shoulders), be respectful and stand back at least three meters for photographs.
5.) Gibbon Experience: Huay Xai / Nam Kan National Park
Zip lining through the Nam Kan jungle, sleeping in the world’s highest treehouses and waking up to misty views over the Luang Prabang Mountain Range. This sounds like a childhood fantasy, but is actually a real activity in Northwestern Laos with a serious purpose. The Gibbon Experience is a tourism based conservation project which employs over a hundred local people and works to conserve the dwindling forest. “Illegal logging, commercial cropping, excessive slash-and-burn practices, overall pressure on land and mismanagement combined are rapidly eradicating tropical forests.” This organization promotes sustainable agriculture, reforestation and alternate income sources while providing a really fun activity. This is one of the pricier things to do in Laos, but your money goes to a good cause. We did a three day trek, which included days spent on dozens of high flying zip lines and nights in giant treehouses above the tree canopy.
6.) Kuang Si Waterfalls: Luang Prabang
This stunning waterfall is one of the top places to visit around Luang Prabang. Dissolved limestone from the surrounding mountains gives the water a milky blue color and has formed unusual tiers similar to those found in underground caves. There are several pools where you can swim and relax to soak up the natural minerals. The falls span a large area and keep getting more impressive as you hike further. The top of the waterfall is reachable by a steep climb which many people overlook. Here you will find a view, additional walking paths and a small wooden raft waiting to take you to the source. These falls are normally a busy tourist attraction, but there are far less visitors outside of peak season. It is reachable by tuk tuk or scooter 45 minutes outside of town, and the route passes through some very picturesque landscapes. Go early to best avoid the crowds.
7.) Jungle Trek: Nam Ha National Conservation Area
Northern Laos is filled with mountains and jungle, making it an ideal location for those interested in outdoor adventures away from the “Banana Pancake Trail” tourist cities further south. There are several towns acting as hubs for those wanting to trek, bike or kayak in remote areas, including Nong Khiaw, Luang Namtha and Muang Sing. We set up a two day jungle camping trek from Luang Namtha in the Nam Ha National Conservation Area. This trip offered a great taste of local food and forest living. The hike took us deep into the jungle, where our two guides built our tent using bamboo with a ratan and banana leaf roof. Food was prepared the traditional way with mostly foraged ingredients boiled in sections of bamboo over the campfire. With so few visitors at this time of year, we were the only two on this excursion. During the dry season, kayaking options may be limited due to water levels. The price for these trips depends on the number of people and your negotiation skills.
8.) Ethnic Villages: Muang Sing
Muang Sing is a small town located way off the beaten path near the borders of Myanmar and China’s Yunnan province. The surrounding landscape is predominantly mountainous and home to nine different minority ethnic groups. At one point, a German NGO had set up the town for eco-tourism, but left a few years back and it never materialized. It is now visited by only a few adventurous travelers, making it the perfect off track cultural destination. There are many options which include 1-3 day jungle treks, village visits and home stays. A trip to this town is important because it sends a message to the inhabitants that an intact forest is more valuable than a clear cut one.
We took a side trip from Luang Namtha and did one night in this town. After finding bikes for rent at the only rental shop, Tiger Man across from the Tourism Office, we spent the day exploring the surrounding villages. For those interested in local handicrafts, these villages have some of the most authentic and beautiful on offer. Riding through the neighboring Nong Boua, Tai Dam women can be seen working on looms underneath their stilted homes, making many types of fabrics, scarfs, clothes and bags from hand spun and dyed thread. Hysterically persistent Akha ethnic women sell their products in the morning market and around town, and they will be sure to find you.
Those are the eight best things we found to do in Laos during our low season visit. Feel free to Contact Us if you have any questions about our logistics through the country. We hope that you enjoy your trip!
If you have plans to add China to your Southeast Asia, trip be sure to read our post on How to Apply for a China Visa in Vientiane, Laos. To read more about Luang Prabang, visit our more detailed post.
You can see other posts from our adventures including our trek through Nepal, Great Ocean Road trip and South African safari. They are sure to inspire your lust for travel! And take a look at our Adventure Gallery where you can see our pictures from all around the world.
Do you have an interest in long term travel? Check out our Trip Planning posts, where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others.