Phonsavan

Phonsavan is the last major eastern town/city in Laos before reaching the Vietnamese border. The city is a rural hub, mostly consisting of farmers and those who sell to farmers. The city is also the closest location to the Plain of Jars which will be covered in my next article. I felt that Phonsavan deserved its own separate article. You can find stunning scenery, traditional culture and cuisine and amazing history in the part of Laos. Spread throughout the region are countless craters from US bombing rounds, as well as countless unexploded bombs and grenades. The locals have made an industry of converting this war era scrap metal into useful items and sellable wares through smelting. You should definitely try to visit one such workshop if you can and watch the locals meltdown bombs to create everything from keychains to silverware, to jewelry, all of which is available for purchase. The scenery alone should attract you, with rolling hills covered in and surrounded by rice fields and water buffalo. Make sure to spend at least a day here, especially if you are passing through on your way to North Western Vietnam. Prices here are also extremely low as it is not a tourism based town. The Plain of Jars is, in my opinion, an ancient wonder of the world and is not to be missed.

 

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Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a famous temple town in the northern mountainous area of Laos. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its historical and cultural importance. You will not find anywhere else quite like this city. The city is known not just for its temples, but also its large population of monks who can be seen streaming through the streets in the early morning to collect food from the town’s people. I highly suggest spending a few days relaxing in Luang Prabang, exploring the town, the surrounding areas, relaxing on the river, soaking in the culture and getting more of a vibe of what Laos historically has been. The small city is also famous for its night market, which takes place down the main street of town, in front of the highly iconic temple, Wat Xieng Thong. If you get a chance, I highly recommend trying the local rice wine or scorpion/snake/lizard infused whiskey. The city has a fantastic communal pool, with a built in bar, so on those hot days that is where you are going to want to relax and unwind. Make sure to climb the hill in the center of town for some stunning views, while there is a small cost to climb it, it is definitely worth paying. Also be sure to visit the towns ethnographic museum to be able to learn about local unique cultural and ethnic groups living in Northern Laos. Make sure to also wake up early enough to be able to buy and give food to the local monks as it is a crucial part of the whole experience and almost feels like something that you need to do.

 

Vientiane

Vientiane is the capital city of Laos and is definitely the largest in the country by far, but still does not feel like a capital city. The city and surrounding area has between 500,000 and 750,00 residents depending on which survey ou trust. The pace of the city is so slow for a metropolitan area, especially after visiting other such areas in neighbouring countries. The city has an interesting blend of Laotian and French culture, which an be found in its food, architecture, and way of life. Throughout the city, you will find Buddhist temples, located between French colonial buildings. The cuisine in the city is a very definite mix of French fine dining and bakeries and traditional Laotian cuisine serving restaurants and food carts. Located in the center of the city, at its heart is Pha That Luang, a grand historical monument, central to the identity of Laos itself. This is a large golden Buddhist tower, which sadly I couldn’t get close to during my visit for unknown security reasons. The city has some fantastic museums, mixing pre-European Laotian history with French colonial history, as well as Vietnam War and Indochinese War history. If you have a few days in the city make sure to enjoy the cuisine, visit the night markets and soak up the unique atmosphere found only in Vientiane. I still don’t believe that I’ve been anywhere with quite the same culture.

 

Pakse

Pakse is a small city in the south of Laos and makes a great stopping point if traveling from the 4000 Islands to Vientiane. While there isn’t much to do in the city, it makes a relaxing rest stop and gives you a glimpse into everyday life in Laos. In the city, you will find some fantastic temples and a very large market complex that stocks everything from watches, phones, and clothes to snacks and hot food. Outside of the city, you will find peaceful country roads and small towns to visit for some fresh produce. Also located near the city is a hike up to a large golden Buddha statue, which overlooks the city and the surrounding area. There are also plenty of great restaurants located throughout the city where you can get cheap but delicious traditional Laotian food. If you are making the trip North or South, then I advise spending a day in Pakse, just to unwind and split up your travel time.

 

Four Thousand Islands/Don Det

 

The Four Thousand Islands is a large island group located in the Mekong River near the Laotian border. These islands primarily house farmland and small villages but are also home to some fantastic hostels and bars. I suggest spending at least a day or two on these islands, the largest and most tourist-friendly of which is Don Det. There are several places to eat and some great bars in the main town area on the island. My favourite of all of these was Adam’s Bar, a restaurant/ bar where you can spend the day relaxing, watching the latest pirated movies or playing Xbox, or watching turtles swim in their encolsure. The bar was also famous for selling other, non-standard edible and smokable items. The two main things worth doing on the island are cycling around and between islands, and tubing. Sadly for me tubing was not possible a the time of year that I visited, due to the water levels of the Mekong being dangerously high. As far as the cycling side of it goes, I suggest just renting a bicycle and going off down one of the island paths ad seeing where they take you, you will find some very cool locations. Just make sure to relax, enjoy and explore the natural beauty of the islands and the relatively cheap cost of everything compared to the larger cities.

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g1082249-d4354676-Reviews-Adam_s-Don_Det_Champasak_Province.html

 

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the tourist hub of Cambodia for a number of reasons. Firstly, the city is the located just outside of the ancient city of Angkor Wat. Secondly, the city houses amazing markets, nightclubs, restaurants and cultural performance centers.  Thirdly and finally, the city is located right near Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. I would personally recommend spending a couple of days in the city, as there is plenty to see and do. There are several evening shows in town including the Cambodian Circus and Cambodian traditional dance show. You will need many hours to fully explore the night markets and day markets located throughout the city. Take a day and visit Tonlé Sap to see an entirely different culture living upon the lake. There are also beautiful parks and temples to explore.

 

 

Tonlé Sap

Tonlé Sap is the largest inland lake in Southeast Asia and supports countless lake-based communities, several of which are built on the lake itself. These are either on stilts on the water’s edge or floating on the lake itself. I highly suggest taking a boat tour of the lake and the village including a crocodile farm. When I was in on of the lake villages, I spent several hours teaching English to local village children, which was actually a lot more fun than I had expected. If this is something that you would like to do, then get in touch with a local tour guide when in one of the villages.

http://www.tourismcambodia.com/travelguides/provinces/siem-reap/what-to-see/76_the-great-lake-tonle-sap-floating-village.htm

 

Nightlife

Siem Reap has one of the best night-lives in SE Asia. The city has entire streets containing just pubs and clubs. If you get a chance, make sure to do a pub crawl through the city as you will visit some amazing hidden bars. There are also numerous amazing night markets, selling exotic foods such as tarantula, scorpion, snake, crickets, frogs, etc, all of which I suggest trying as they are delicious and a unique experience. For anyone who is a fan of Hard Rock Cafes, there is a fantastic one in the city with some great memorabilia. Finally, I suggest going to a cultural dance show, as it is a great experience and teaches you a bit about Cambodian culture and dining.

 

http://www.cambodianlivingarts.org/experience/see-a-show/

https://www.canbypublications.com/phnompenh/ppnight.htm

 

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a very interesting city, having such a dark history in the past several decades. The city was the center of the Khmer Rouges reign and saw the brunt of the genocide and atrocities that occurred in the country under Pol Pot. At the same time, modern Phnom Penh is very much full of life and has a culture all of its own. The city is a must visit in anyone’s lifetime. I can’t think of many other places where you can visit bustling markets, shoot an AK47 or RPG, visit a genocide museum, hit the clubbing scene and visit a silkworm farm all in one day. In saying that, I suggest spending a few days exploring the city. The center city evening food market is an amazing experience and will allow you to try all aspects of Khmer cuisine, all while enjoying a seat on the ground and listening to local live music. One of any of the city’s shooting ranges is worth visiting to be able to use weapons that most other countries will not allow.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng is the location that prisoners were taken, interogated, tortured and often killed before being taken to the mass killing and burial sites throughout the city. The most notorious of these sites is Choeung Ek. I highly recommend visiting the prison complex/museum before the mass graves, both in order to fully understand what occurred in the city and to prepare yourself for what is to come. If you are faint of heart, then you may struggle with both locations, as graphic images are present at the museum, along with the photos and clothes of those killed, including men women and children.