More effort needs to be made by travellers to make sure they get the full experience of Laos, including all of its many natural attractions in the south, such as Pre-Angkorian temples and the largest waterfall in Asia. It is only this way that you will see Laos as God intended. Luang Prabang in the north is a nice town, but very much a tourist trap these days, and the once notorious town of Vang Vieng should also be avoided unless you are intent on adventure tourism in admittedly stunning scenery, but there is a very young crowd there, most of whom want to river raft and get drunk on Beer Lao!
Vientiane is the capital of Laos and can be reached by international flights from most ASEAN countries. Vientiane is roughly a 9 hour bus ride from Luang Prabang (via Vang Vieng), but this journey is rougher than the Siem Reap to Phnom Penh route in Cambodia, which is only 30km shorter yet takes 4 hours less! When you make it Vientiane, though, it’s not all about Buddhist temples and monks, as there are a couple of good museums, important markets, and major sights like Patuaxi, which is kind of like the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or India Gate in Delhi.
You will be even more rewarded if you head further south beyond Vientiane. The journey is long and pretty painful if you go by road, but you should certainly make sleepy Champasak a stop on your itinerary, and from here day trips to Si Phan Don and the epic Khone Phapheng Falls are a no-brainer!
Si Phan Don is otherwise known as the “1000 Islands”, as during the dry season the water levels of the Mekong get so low that literally 1000 (don’t know if I believe that…) islands pop up out of nowhere and are dotted all around the river’s course at this particular area. The islands are obviously uninhabited, but some birdlife or small mammals may be found nesting on them, which makes for an adventurous long boat trip on the Mekong to get up close to some of the largest of these islands. Khone Phapheng Falls is right nearby (you may even hear it’s roar) and this is known to be the largest waterfall in Asia. It looks suitably epic in the wet season when the water levels of the Mekong are higher than usual (even if in the wet season you probably won’t see the splendour of the 1000 Islands).
Rural Champasak is a town that has not yet been spoiled by tourism, and you can really spend a few days here and try to live like a local. Villagers farming, school children frolicking carelessly, and the obligatory monks collecting alms in the mornings all provide a nice backdrop for your stay here. From Champasak, a calming bike ride out of town to the mountains will get you to Wat Phou (not to be confused with the temple of the same name in Bangkok). Wat Phou is a ruined Khmer temple complex, that actually pre-dates the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap.
When you’re done there, head back to Champasak for some Lao food at dinnertime. The town has a similarly sleepy vibe to Luang Prabang and great scenery like Vang Vieng, yet without the mass tourism. I guess most people haven’t yet realised that.