A secluded Southeast Asian country with an old world charm, Laos presents some of the most beautiful forest clad mountains and refreshingly simple village life. It is for this and other reasons that Laos is fast earning a cult status among travelers.
Many who have not been to Laos might give a questioning look when someone talks about Laos and pronounces it as 'Lao'. There is an ongoing debate among many travelers on how to pronounce ‘Laos’; the local people simply call their land 'Lao', rhyming to cow. But the friendly people in this region would also not correct you if you call the place Laos. The people and the place have an incredibly laidback air about them.
But for such a small country, Laos is surprisingly diverse in terms of its people. And although it is developing quickly, it still has much of the tradition intact. Colorfully dressed hill tribes populate the higher elevations, while in the Lowland River valleys, coconut palms sway over the Buddhist monasteries of the ethnic Lao.
Know your Wat and That: The ‘wat’, or Buddhist monastery, is the centerpiece of most villages populated by ethnic Lao. A contingent of monks and novices lives in each wat, providing the laypeople with an outlet for merit-making. The wat also serves as a hub for social gatherings and, during annual festivals and Buddhist holy days, a venue for entertainment.
The ‘that’, or stupa, is generally a pyramid or bell-shaped structure which contains holy relics, usually a cache of small Buddhas. Occasionally, a ‘that’ will be the reputed repository of a splinter of bone belonging to the historic Buddha himself, while miniature stupas, or ‘that kaduk’, contain the ashes of deceased adherents.
Modest Vientiane: Set on a broad curve of the Mekong, Vientiane is perhaps Southeast Asia’s most modest capital city. Why modest? Vientiane, because it cannot compete with the buzz of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City or Thailand’s Bangkok, nevertheless has a complimenting string of restaurants and cafes against its charming rows of pale French-Indochinese shop-houses.
Places to visit in Vientiane include Wat Sisaket, the city’s oldest temple; That Luang, Laos’s most important religious building, best viewed at sundown when its golden surface glows like a lamp; and the Socialist-era Lao National Museum. A half-day journey out to Xieng Khuan, its riverside meadow filled with mammoth religious statues, is one of Laos’s most arresting and bizarre sights.
Morning markets of Laos: The country also retains some of the French influence it absorbed during colonial days: the familiar smell of freshly baked bread and coffee mingles with exotic local aromas in morning markets, and many of the old shop-houses of its larger towns now appropriately house French restaurants.
Markets remain a mainstay of daily life in Laos, crammed full of stalls selling everything from pigs’ heads, congealed blood and pungent pa dàek to bamboo baskets for sticky rice and imported toiletries from Vietnam. They are also a great place for a quick meal – even in the smallest you will be able to find someone selling fõe (Vietnamese-style noodles) – though you will generally need to get there early to see the best of them.
Luang Prabang: The historical royal city where watching hundreds of saffron-robed monks move silently among centuries-old monasteries is as romantic a scene as you’ll experience anywhere in Asia.
Despite the ravages of time, the gilded temples and weathered French–Indochinese shop-houses of tiny, cultured Luang Prabang possess a spellbinding majesty that makes this Laos’s most enticing destination.
Most visitors combine a stay here with a couple of day-trips, to the sacred Pak Ou Caves, two riverside grottoes brimming with thousands of Buddha images, and to beautiful Kouang Si waterfall, the perfect spot for a refreshing dip on a hot day.
Vang Vieng: A backpacker’s party capital, Vang Vieng is a town set in a landscape of glimmering green paddies and saw-toothed karsts hills. A great spot for caving, kayaking, rock climbing and long walks in the countryside, the town is best known for its wild tubing scene.
Muang Ngoi: A popular traveler’s spot, Muang Ngoi is where it is hard to drag yourself away from the temptation of spending your days soaking up the views from a hammock. However, the more intrepid can indulge in a road-and-river expedition through Laos’s northwestern frontier, stopping off in the remote outpost of Sayaboury, home to a large portion of the country’s diminishing elephant population.
A few hours north up the emerald Nam Ou River from Luang Prabang is the quiet town of Nong Khiaw, picturesquely surrounded by towering limestone peaks and a great base for trekking and kayaking in the region. Following the river even further north is one of the greatest highlights of a trip to Laos, passing through stunning scenery on resolutely local boats to get to Phongsali, from where you can explore further into the isolated far north, or join an overnight trek to local hill-tribe villages.
Misty Mountains of Hua Phan Province: The provincial capital, Sam Neua, has a resolutely Vietnamese feel (hardly surprising when you consider its proximity to the border), and though it has a rather limited tourist infrastructure, there is a certain charm about the place once you dig a little deeper.
The main reason for a stay here is to visit Vieng Xai, where the communist Pathet Lao directed their resistance from deep within a vast cave complex, and where the last Lao king was exiled until his untimely demise.
South along Route 6 from Hua Phan is Xieng Khuang Province, the heartland of Laos’s Hmong population. Phonsavan, a dusty rather nondescript town, is the starting point for trips out to the mystical Plain of Jars.
Plain of Jars: The Xieng Khouang plateau, at the northern end of the Annamese Cordillera, the principal mountain range of Indochina, is a megalithic archaeological landscape across which are scattered thousands of megalithic jars. These stone jars, associated with prehistoric burial practices, appear in clusters, ranging from a single or a few to several hundred jars at lower foothills surrounding the central plain and upland valleys.
The tail of Laos: To the south, Laos is squeezed between the formidable Annamite Mountains to the east and the Mekong River as it barrels towards Cambodia.
However, whether you are riding through the countryside on a rickety old bus crammed with sacks of rice, more people than seats, and blaring tinny Lao pop music, leisurely sailing down the Mekong past staggeringly beautiful scenery, or being dragged by a stranger to celebrate a birth over too much Beer Lao and lào-láo, it is hard not to be won over by this utterly fascinating country and its people. Look for indulging in herbal saunas and sunset drinks on the banks of the Mekong.