Vivid nature, voluptuous landscapes and a vibrant culture collide with a painful past and optimistic future to make Laos an enigmatic experience for the adventurous.
An Authentic Asia
Laos cherishes many of the traditions that have disappeared in a frenzy of development elsewhere in the region. It's hard to believe somnolent Vientiane is an Asian capital, and there's a timeless quality to rural life, where stilt houses and paddy fields look like they are straight out of a movie set. Magical Luang Prabang bears witness to hundreds of saffron-robed monks gliding through the streets every morning in a call to alms, one of the region’s iconic images. Intrepid travelers will discover a country untainted by mass tourism and Asia in slow motion.
A Kaleidoscope of People
Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region, reflecting its geographic location as a crossroads of Asia. The hardy Hmong people live off the land in the remote mountains of the north, Kahu and Alak elders in the south still have traditional face tattoos, and the Katang villagers of central Laos sleep with forest spirits.
Fifty Shades of Green
With its dark and brooding forests, glowing emerald rice fields, and glistening tea leaves that blanket the mountains, the landscape in Laos changes shades of green like a chameleon. But it's not just the landscapes that are green: when it comes to ecotourism, Laos is leading the way in Southeast Asia. Protected areas blanket the landscape in many of the more remote areas of the country, and community-based trekking and cultural initiatives contribute to the local community and preserve the environment.
Travelers rave about Laos for a reason. Adventure seekers can lose themselves in underground river caves, on jungle ziplines or while climbing karsts. Nature enthusiasts can take a walk on the wild side and spot gibbons or elephants. Culture lovers can explore ancient temples and learn about Lao spiritual life. Foodies can spice up their lives with a Lao cooking class or go gourmand in the French-accented cities. And if all this sounds a little too strenuous, then unwind with a spa session or yoga class. Laos has something for everyone.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Laos.
Luang Prabang's best-known monastery is centred on a 1560 sǐm (ordination hall). Its roofs sweep low to the ground and there's a stunning 'tree of life' mosaic set on its western exterior wall. Close by are several stupas and three compact little chapel halls called hŏr. Hŏr Ɖąi, shaped like a tall tomb, houses a standing Buddha. The Hŏr Ɖąi Pha Sai-nyàat, dubbed La Chapelle Rouge – the Red Chapel – by the French, contains a rare reclining Buddha.
Joining a truly fascinating 18-point tour is the only way to see Vieng Xai's seven most important war-shelter cave complexes, set in beautiful gardens backed by fabulous karst scenery. A local guide unlocks each site while an audio guide gives a wealth of first-hand background information and historical context. The Kaysone Phomvihane Cave still has its air-circulation pump in working order and is the most memorable of the caves.
Bucolic Wat Phu sits in graceful decrepitude, and while it lacks the arresting enormity of Angkor in Cambodia, given its few visitors and more dramatic natural setting, these small Khmer ruins evoke a more soulful response. While some buildings are more than 1000 years old, most date from the 11th to 13th centuries. The site is divided into six terraces on three levels joined by a frangipani-bordered stairway ascending the mountain to the main shrine at the top.
Dominating the old city centre and a favourite with sunset junkies, the 100m-tall Phu Si (prepare your legs for a steep 329-step ascent) is crowned by a 24m gilded stupa called That Chomsi. Viewed from a distance, especially when floodlit at night, the structure seems to float in the hazy air like a chandelier. From the summit, however, the main attraction is the city views.
The most frequently used grounds in Vientiane are those of Wat Si Muang, the site of the lák méuang (city pillar), which is considered the home of the guardian spirit of Vientiane. The large sǐm (ordination hall; destroyed in 1828 and rebuilt in 1915) was constructed around the lák méuang, and consists of two halls.
The most impressive, and yet least visited, cave in Khammuan is the amazing Tham Lot Se Bang Fai. Located in Hin Namno NPA, the cave results from the Se Bang Fai river plunging 6.5km through a limestone mountain, leaving an underground trail of immense caverns, impressive rock formations, rapids and waterfalls that have been seen by only a handful of visitors.
Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country on earth, and although the American War in neighbouring Vietnam ended more than 40 years ago, unexploded ordnance (UXO) continues to wound and kill people. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. Its excellent Visitor Centre, part of the organisation's National Rehabilitation Centre, offers myriad interesting and informative multimedia exhibits about prosthetics and the UXO that sadly makes them necessary.
Svelte and golden Pha That Luang, located about 4km northeast of the city centre, is the most important national monument in Laos – a symbol of Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty. Legend has it that Ashokan missionaries from India erected a tâht (stupa) here to enclose a piece of Buddha's breastbone as early as the 3rd century BC.
More a glorified set of rapids than a waterfall, but oh, how glorious it is. The largest and by far the most awesome waterfall anywhere along the Mekong, Khon Phapheng is pure, unrestrained aggression, as millions of litres of water crash over the rocks. While pricier than the similar Tat Somphamit, this place, with its gardens and walking paths, is more attractive. You can also get down closer to the rapids.