From its sleepy tuk-tuk drivers to its cafe society and affordable spas, this former French trading post is languid to say the least. Eminently walkable, the historic old quarter of Vientiane beguiles with tree-lined boulevards crowded with frangipani and tamarind, glittering temples, wandering Buddhist monks and lunging naga (dragon) statues.
Whether it's for trekking, cycling, kayaking, ziplining or a family homestay, a visit to northern Laos is for many the highlight of their trip. Dotted about are unfettered, dense forests still home to tigers, gibbons and a cornucopia of animals, with a well-established ecotourism infrastructure to take you into their very heart.
Languid and lovely Luang Prabang (ຫລວງພະບາງ) is one of the most alluring places in Southeast Asia. Nowhere else can lay claim to the city's old-world romance of 33 gilded wats, saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas and exquisite Gallic cuisine. It's a unique place where time seems to stand still amid the breakneck pace of the surrounding region.
Near the Cambodian border, the Mekong awakes from its slumber, slams into Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) and disintegrates into a series of churning rapids. Downstream, a dwindling pod of rare Irrawaddy dolphins seek solace in a peaceful eddy. Upstream, an expanding pod of travellers find their own solace in the hammock-strewn bungalows of Don Det and Don Khon.
Ever since Tha Khaek opened its French colonial petals to travellers a few years back and the dramatic 7km-long underworld of Tham Kong Lo became a must-see fixture on itineraries, Central Laos with its honeycomb of caves and dragon-green jungle, has been enticing you to visit.
Northern Udomxai and Luang Namtha provinces form a mountainous tapestry of rivers, forests and traditional villages that are home to almost 40 classified ethnicities. Luang Namtha is the most developed of several traveller-friendly towns ranged around the 2224-sq-km Nam Ha NPA with hiking, biking, kayaking and boating adventures all easily arranged at short notice.
The Middle Mekong
The mighty Mekong threads together the provinces of Bokeo and Sainyabuli, along with Pak Beng in southern Udomxai. For many tourists the region is seen merely in passing between Thailand and Luang Prabang – typically on the two-day slowboat route from Huay Xai via Pak Beng – but there's plenty to interest the more adventurous traveller.
Pakse (ປາກເຊ້), the gateway to southern Laos, sits at the confluence of the Mekong River and the Se Don (Don River). The city retains the sort of Mekong River–town lethargy found in Savannakhet and Tha Khaek further north. Fewer colonial-era buildings remain, but do look for the grandiose, Franco-Chinese-style Chinese Society building in the centre of town.
Xieng Khuang & Hua Phan Provinces
Long and winding roads run in seemingly endless ribbons across these green, sparsely populated northeastern provinces towards the mysterious Plain of Jars and the fascinating Vieng Xai caves. Both are truly intriguing places to visit if you're en route to or from Vietnam. Those with the time can add stops in Nong Khiaw and Vieng Thong.
Bolikhamsai & Khammuan Provinces
Bolikhamsai and Khammuan straddle the narrow, central 'waist' of the country. Physically the land climbs steadily from the Mekong River valley towards the north and east, eventually reaching the Annamite Chain bordering Vietnam, via an area of moderately high but often spectacular mountains. Laid-back Tha Khaek is the logical base.
Savannakhet is the country's most populous province and is home to about 15% of all Lao citizens. Stretching between the Mekong and Thailand in the west and the Annamite mountains and Vietnam in the east, it has in recent years become an increasingly important trade corridor between these two bigger neighbours.
Bolaven Plateau Region
Spreading across the northeast of Champasak Province into the southeastern Salavan, Sekong and Attapeu provinces, the fertile Bolaven Plateau (ພູພຽງບໍລະເວນ; known in Lao as Phu Phieng Bolaven) is famous for its cool climate, dramatic waterfalls, fertile soil and high-grade coffee plantations.