Most Laos travel guides will provide you with a check-list of world-famous tourist sites, museums, and monuments. An ancient and intricately carved temple, a whispering forest river, another bustling night market. Yet these places are more than just beautiful; they are alive with significance to the busy locals who hike, work, meet and relax among them. Have you ever felt like you want to scratch beneath the images of Laos on social media and find the real authentic culture inside? In this blog post, we will share the best of local Laos, show you how to avoid the tourist traps, and help you put together a unique Laos travel itinerary!
1) See Laos through the eyes of a local tour guide
Did you get on a plane for nine-plus hours just to eat spicy food and go swimming? No. You could have done that at home! You picked Laos because it has so many unique local travel experiences you can’t find anywhere else. Here is another way of life to experience with emerald plants, exotic animals, and local people waiting to share their stories with you. There are alternatives to generic Laos walking tours that make you feel like a tourist.
Travel in Laos truly comes alive with a local tour guide. And who better to draft your Laos travel itinerary than someone who has lived in the country all their life? Time is limited, and you want to get the most out of your adventurous travels as possible. You may wonder what can you do in Laos in 3 days, for instance. There’s no shame in wanting to see world-famous landmarks. But the key is not to make that heritage place become the end goal.
Why not start in Luang Prabang and experience the turquoise allure of the Kuang Si waterfalls tour through the eyes of a Laos local. Continue on to an ethical bear sanctuary as you take a leisurely hike to your eco bungalow in the tiny settlement of Long Lao Mai. Discover new friends far away from home who will show you what to do in Laos to feel like a local.
2) Spend time in a region of Laos that few travelers visit
In Laos, Vientiane and Luang Prabang grab the lion’s share of the limelight, as there are well-known travel routes overland from Thailand to reach them. But travel options have diversified hugely and so much more of the country is accessible than many realize. Do you know how many airports are in Laos? There are ten!
Laos is renowned for its ancient jungles and incredibly diverse tropical plants. If you are done with playing it safe by walking around the crowded tourism sites, itching instead to get closer to the wild, the northwestern province of Luang Namtha is your best bet. We recommend this part of Laos to do some hiking – it’s just so off the beaten path that it’s rarely the first place to come to mind for the majority of travelers. Besides, there’s nothing more refreshing than to get out and do what you never normally get the chance to.
Laos local tour guide Khamkeo is a seasoned jungle expert with an intimate knowledge of the trails that time forgot. He hikes every day and is waiting to take you with him. Remember to pack some tough boots, because over two days, fearless Khamkeo will hike with you among trees that are centuries old and explain his personal connection with the forest during his Luang Namtha Jungle Trek Tour. Laos tours do not get much better than this. Watch your step as you scale grassy ridges and try to count how many monkeys you spot. As you round the trail between Nam Ha River and Ban Nalan, history reveals itself: an Indochina War gunnery lies hidden in the jungle. After some unforgettable forest escapades, you will rest up at the village, where Khamkeo will open your eyes to the Khmu and Lanten cultures. Soothing sunset views over your Khmu lodge will top off a phenomenal immersion into the local life of Laos.
Friends may come back from holiday with postcards and sun tans, but none will have a story quite as special as this one.
3) Spend a few days with a Laotian host family
There must be something more to visiting another country. What if you could meet the locals on their own terms, learning skills from them, sharing moments of joy, not just “seeing” culture but immersing yourself in it?
If you are an adventurous traveler then you are probably looking for hidden gems in your Laos travel itinerary, such as an off-the-beaten-track village where genuine interactions and authentic culture and cuisine lay in wait.
During my recent travels through Laos, I met Kham, a local Laos tour guide. Kham wants to share Laos’ local culture as she knows it, not as the guidebooks say it should be on her Laos community-based village experience. Born and raised in Luang Prabang Province in northern Laos, nature-loving Kham adores showing off her home village to small groups of foreign visitors. While many of the locals do not speak much English, Kham will gladly translate for the intrepid traveler who is willing to travel off-the-beaten-path. The two-hour journey, taken partly by boat, is a mini-adventure in itself. Following forest tracks unseen by the naked eye, it is an exciting feeling to forget Google Maps and trust navigation to the wisdom of a local tour guide. Though you cannot catch sight of it yet, a warm welcome awaits you at the rural village where Khamu and Lao Loum ethnic groups live. Friendly faces will greet you at your cozy homestay; try to remember names because this is your new family in Laos! Eager to show you their way of life, a villager will surely accompany you to the cool evening river should you wish to bathe like a local. As you criss-cross the village, breathe in the forest-purified air and watch out for chickens darting suddenly across your path. Take a rest as you spend time around the campfire with the locals. And, best of all, savor the home-cooked meal of fresh flavorsome vegetables, roots and plenty of rice. Soon you will feel like part of the family; ideal for those who want to find the non-touristy things to do in Laos.
4) Instead of buying ready-made souvenirs, make one yourself
Be honest. Which of these is more appealing as a memento from your international adventures: a pair of elephant-print pants identical to a million others the world over or a silk scarf you made yourself using the Chok weaving method, also known as ‘embroidery on the loom’ at a Luang Prabang art workshop led by a Laotian local?
It’s one thing to buy a handmade basket in the lobby of a hotel. It is yet another thing entirely to sit with a keen-eyed Laotian woman holding strips of naturally-dyed bamboo in your hands, learning to weave while exchanging stories. So why not include a self-made souvenir weaving workshop in your Laos travel itinerary?
Feel the smooth, fresh-cut and air-dried flexible wood, a staple material of southeast Asian homes, tools, clothing, and cuisine. Spend a relaxing couple of hours trying your hand at a traditional Laotian craft beside the gently flowing Mekong, then enjoy a freshly prepared lunch as you take in the beautiful riverside view. Tame the heat for the rest of your travels using the self-made bamboo fan you created.
Local Laos culture off the beaten track doesn’t get more authentic than a couple of days spent among local artisans like Mrs. Khongkham, who first learned to weave beside her mother at the age of 13. A full-time weaver now, the skilled teacher and mother-of-two relishes the chance to share her craft with a beginner, as in her own words, she hopes “to further develop our weaving techniques and designs so that newer generations can carry on these traditions”. If you crave more creative craft, stay a while longer and forage for ingredients made by mother nature, then chop and stew them under the guidance of the local Laotian artisan and dye silk in the traditional way in this immersive Luang Prabang workshop.
5) Immerse yourself in the local way of life
Nobody is empowered by the meaningless consumption of culture. There is another way to travel; how about swapping laptops and notebooks for a sunhat and threshing tool? Truly soulful havens of rural beauty lie undiscovered just off the beaten track. Like its neighbor Vietnam, Laos devotes much of its agricultural space to rice growing. As I’m born and raised in Europe, a metropolis of non-stop activity, pollution and stress, my most poignant times traveling were simply standing in amongst countryside life, watching wide-eyed as chickens darted around and cows gazed sleepily around. Local people in Luang Prabang are the friendliest you could ever hope to meet, particularly those at this community-based travel experience offering the chance to live as a rice farmer for a day.
If you’re struggling with the diversity of options on where to go in Laos and what to do, you could do a lot worse than adding, ‘Live like a local’ to your Laos travel itinerary. When will you get the chance to do this again? It’s absolutely possible to Google all that historic information you could get on commercial Laos travel experiences and tours. But as for me, I know I will not likely come across expansive wet rice paddies back in my hometown!