Laos is a stunning country nestled between Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Formerly occupied as "French Indochina" until 1945, and previously controlled by communists, the country hadn't opened up to tourism until the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating some truly gorgeous and well-preserved natural and cultural sights. Possessing the largest Francophone population in Southeast Asia, Laos is the perfect place to practice The rich history of the Laotian people and the lush nature of the environment engender an excellent opportunity to take in the sights of Laos, whether you're tracing the Banana Pancake Trail or throwing back some lao lao in your bungalow. Here are the top five cities in which to wile your time away.

Five Places Worth Exploring In Laos

1. Old Quarter Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, formerly the capital of Laos, is located centrally in the northern half of the country. The obvious architectural and cultural influences of French colonialism and Buddhism abound, which is one of the reasons it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Monks traverse the streets morning collecting their daily alms, which they then use for food. This is a very kid-friendly city, where visitors can hop from the Golden City Temple to Kuang Si Butterfly Park. For the pachyderm lovers among you, stop by the Elephant Village, where you and your loved ones can feed and ride the elephants, get mahout lessons, and give your elephant a bath in the Nam Khan river while sitting on your howdah. At the end, plop yourself down in the traditional Laotian long boat and take a turn by the Tad Sae Waterfall. If your kids (or you!) enjoy using their hands, sign up for a lesson is rice growth and production at The Living Land Company. If none of these activities tire you out, swing by the night market and prepare to haggle.

2. Vientiane

Vientiane, the current capital of Laos, is popular among visitors because of it's breathtaking religious art and architecture as well as it's historical significance. For history buffs, the COPE Visitor Center is a must-see in order the understand the cultural turmoil and beauty of Laos. Wander through the city and keep sight of it's many pagodas. Wat Si Saket and the Grand Sacred Stupa with a giant Buddha sculpture are intricate and massive. Buddha Park (or Xieng Khuan, "Spirit City") is a highlight as well. Built by a monk who was both Hindu and Buddhist, the gardens are peppered with over 200 statues emphasizing Buddha, Hindu gods, and demons.

3. Old Quarter Luang Prabang

Vang Vieng is a city south of Luang Prabang and is well-known for it's popularity among young backpackers due to it's incredibly active nightlife. Though its reputation may not be as sparkling as that of some other cities, Vang Vieng certainly has the most to do in the outdoors. Exploring the jungle, zip lining, ATVing, hot air ballooning, rock climbing, river rafting, tubing, and motorcycle rides are all common adventure activities for people of any age. Vang Vieng is also known for it's spelunking opportunities. Popular caves (often attached to pools and waterfalls ) are Tham Chang cave, Tham Nam water cave, Tham Sang elephant cave, and Tham Phu Kam cave and blue lagoon.

4. Old Quarter Luang Prabang

Si Phan Don is an archipelago located in southern Laos in the province of Champasak. Surrounded by the Mekong River, many of these islands appear and disappear and the Mekong floods and recedes. It's main appeal is it's phenomenally cheap prices and elusive opportunities for viewing the vulnerable dolphin species Irrawaddy from your kayak. If water sports aren't your thing, bicycling around the islands is a common activity. If you get the itch to explore, the Li Phi waterfall and Khone Phapheng waterfall are always available to visit.

5. Old Quarter Luang Prabang

Also located in Champasak Province and as the most southern city representative on this list for the nation of Laos, Pakse contains a plethora of nature hikes and excursions to gorges and waterfalls. Visitors love Tad Fane Waterfall and gorge and stopping over in the village of Tad Lo, which has lots of opportunities to catch an auto rickshaw, or "tuk tuk." Day trips to Don Kho and Ban Saphai are common, and taking a motorbike over the Bolaven Plateau offers some hidden sights for the curious traveler. For intrepid super-hikers, a multi-day trek to the volcanic lake of Nong Fa could be just the thing for you. Of course, if staying in town is more your style, check out the ever-popular Wat Luang Temple.

This article was written by Lindy Tolbert.