After years of war and isolation, Southeast Asia’s most pristine environment, intact cultures and quite possibly the most chilled-out people on earth mean destination Laos is fast earning cult status among travellers. It is developing quickly but still has much of the tradition that has sadly disappeared elsewhere in the region. Village life is refreshingly simple and even in Vientiane it’s hard to believe this sort of languid riverfront life exists in a national capital. Then, of course, there is the historic royal city of Luang Prabang, where watching as hundreds of saffron-robed monks move silently among centuries-old monasteries is as romantic a scene as you’ll experience anywhere in Asia.
Away from the cities, there is so much more to see; the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khuang Province, the forested mountains of Northern Laos, the gothic limestone karsts around the backpacker-haven Vang Vieng and in the deep south, past the market town Pakse, is Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands), where the mighty Mekong spreads out and all the hammocks are taken.
The Lao wilderness is drawing travellers looking for nature, adventure or both. Kayaking, rafting, rock-climbing and biking are all available, but it’s the community-based trekking that is most popular because it combines spectacular natural attractions with the chance to experience the ‘real Laos’ with a village homestay – while spending your money where it’s needed most.
There is undoubtedly a growing tourist trail in Laos, but that just means there’s plenty of roads off Rte 13 where you can make your own trail. After all, half the fun of travelling here is in the travel itself – the people you meet, chickens you share seats with, wrong turns you take and lào-láo you drink with the smiling family at the end of the road less travelled.
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Colour is the first of Luang Prabang’s virtues to greet travellers. Pearly frangipanis with their heady perfume, banks of overgrown trees peppered with scarlet flowers, the burnt sienna robes of hundreds of monks and their novices, and resplendent gold and claret wats. The scent of fresh coffee, river activity, produce markets and spicy food soon follows.