If you peek out the window of the airplane just before you land in Laos (hopefully you have a window seat), you'll notice the country boasts some of the most interesting landscapes across the globe.
This was the first observation I made about this hidden Southeast Asian gem, and the country's stunning landscapes were a foreshadow of how the rest of my trip turned out. I would soon discover that these breathtaking landscapes seen from above were home to endless cascading waterfalls, covert caves, and a unique culture teeming with some of the best Asian markets, religious monasteries, and, most importantly, friendly and welcoming locals.
For a more in-depth look into the unparalleled beauty of this extraordinary nation, check out the following 12 amazing things to see in Laos.
Translating to "Great Sacred Stupa," Pha That Luang is Laos' most important national monument, representing both the Buddhist religion and Laos sovereignty.
Located in the nation's capital, Vientiane, Pha That Luang is alleged to have been built in the 3rd century, measuring 85 meters on each side, and erecting a majestic statue of Jayavarman VII, the Angkor-era king who converted the state religion of the Khmer empire to Buddhism, according to Lonely Planet.
Pha That Luang is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Entrance costs approximately $1.17 USD (10,000 LAK), and skirts are available for rent for $0.58 (5,000 LAK) for those whose knees are uncovered.
Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang is yet another incredibly significant monastery in Laos, dedicated to the spirit of religion, royalty, and traditional art.
Also referred to as the "Golden Tree Monastery," Wat Xieng Thong is reminiscent of the Luang Prabang style, featuring a renowned tree of life mosaic, intricately decorated walls, rare Buddhist deities, and a 36-foot high funeral carriage. On any given day, young Laotian boys on their way to monkhood can be seen praying inside the wat, as seen in the image below.
Wat Xieng Thong is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., situated in a picturesque garden on the banks of the Mekong River right off of Sakkaline Road.
For a taste of something slightly different than your typical Buddhist temple, Buddha Park is a sculpture park located just 15 miles southeast of Vientiane in a meadow along the Mekong.
Buddha Park boasts more than 200 religious statues, including an enormous 120-foot high reclining Buddha image. The park was built in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a monk who studied both Buddhism and Hinduism, hence why the park is filled with both Buddha images and sculptures of Hindu gods.
Kuang Si Falls is without a doubt the most awe-inspiring waterfall in Laos. This three-tiered waterfall begins in shallow pools atop a steep hillside, leading to the tallest and most dramatic of the waterfalls, demonstrated in the picture below. Kuang Si Falls is situated about 18 miles from Luang Prabang, making it a popular day trip for visiting tourists.
The best way to reach Kuang Si Falls is by renting a motorbike, which costs about $10 USD/day. Travelers can also head to the center of town in Luang Prabang and take a tuk-tuk to the falls. Tuk-tuks will depart at any time and will cost between $3.50-$4.70 USD (30-40,000 LAK).
Located in Champasak Province on the Mekong River in southern Laos, Khone Phapheng Falls are the largest falls in Southeast Asia, and they remain the sole reason the Mekong is not fully navigable into China.
One of Laos' most beautiful natural attractions, this series of cascading waterfalls and rapids in the Mekong River are situated in an area called Si Phan Don, translating literally to "four thousand islands."
It's best to visit Khone Falls during the dry season in Laos (Nov.-Apr.), for high water levels during the country's wet season make many of the rapids and falls disappear.
Another fantastic place to chase waterfalls in the previously mentioned Champasak Province of southern Laos, Bolaven Plateau is an elevated region known for its coffee plantations, traditional villages, and--you guessed it--giant waterfalls.
Bolaven Plateau holds a great amount of historical significance; the region has been affected by the French colonization of the region, the Phu Mi Bun Revolt, and the Vietnam War.
Bolaven Plateau's most famous waterfalls are the twin cascades of the Tat Fan Waterfall, with adjacent streams bursting out and tumbling down more than 360 feet.
Nam Hin Bun River flows into Tham Kong Lo, a karst limestone cave in Phu Hin Bun National Park, situated in Laos' Khammouane Province.
One of Southeast Asia's most spectacular geological wonders, Tham Kong Lo is only accessible by small wooden boat, where visitors are taken by native guides through the eerie darkness of the cave. Vibrant lights donated by a French organization bounce off the walls, creating a dramatic light show throughout the cave.
In order to explore the cave, travelers must hire a motorized boat from Ban Kong Lo Village. Boats typically cost around $6 USD.
A picturesque cave with a natural spring, Tham Chang can only be accessed via a bridge that crosses Sam Song River.
Tham Chang is considered by many Laotian locals to be Vang Vieng's most important cave. Historically, the cave became a home for migraters who settled near the town's Meuang Xong village to grow vegetables.
Boasting spectacular views of Vang Vieng, Tham Chang is easily accessible by bike or a short walk from the city center, and entrance costs approximately $1.17 USD (10,000 LAK). Note that visitors will have to climb about 150 steps to enter the cave, so make sure to bring your walking shoes!
Comprising two caves--Tham Ting and Tham Theung--Pak Ou Caves overlook the Mekong River and are located just about 15 miles north of Luang Prabang.
Pak Ou Caves are deemed as being one of the most respected holy sites in Laos, with a history dating back thousands of years. The walls of the caves are covered with more than 4,000 Buddha icons, set up as a shrine to the river spirit and Lord Buddha. The caves are a popular pilgrim site for locals, becoming busier each year in April when the Laos New Year goes into effect.
Tham Ting is situated 50 feet above the water and some light filters in, whereas Tham Theung must be navigated by torch due to its absolute darkness.
Starting bright and early around eight o' clock in the morning, Luang Prabang's Morning Market is filled with locals both buying and selling products, with bizarre and exotic items such as oxblood, an array of grilled insects (worms, grasshoppers, crickets), snakes, bats, and caramelized pork heads.
Forewarning that this popular morning market may be a bit of a culture shock to Western travelers!
During the evening, Luang Prabang Night Market sets up for a vibrant and exhilarating shopping affair, selling both local food and goods along various streets in the city center.
Walking up and down Luang Prabang Night Market will involve some haggling, with an array of trinkets and souvenirs being sold, such as artwork, jewelry, fabrics, and other knickknacks.
From sunset onwards, Vangthong Evening Food Market is the place to be in Vientiane.
Vangthong Evening Food Market offers scrumptious and authentic Laotian dishes, with some of the most popular being bing gai (grilled chicken) and bing moo (pork on skewers).
The best way to experience Vangthong Evening Food Market (or any Asian market for that matter), is by strolling up and down the stalls and ordering small portions of any food that looks appetizing, in order to get a little taste of everything!