Whilst Thailand (for its beaches), Vietnam (for its history) and Cambodia (for its temples) have long been on the radar for travellers Laos, their less visited neighbour, has been happy to develop at a much slower pace. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly not backward in coming forward and it’s definitely on the radar in terms of chic boutique hotels. What’s different is that tourism hasn’t taken over; Laos’s cultural heritage has been allowed to shine and traditional life sits comfortably next to the new. And for those who want to escape the developed world, there are plenty of opportunities to do just that and to get a unique glimpse of a country that's hardly changed for over a century.
A slower way of life
When I (and the Hubby) visited Laos over 8 years ago, I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the country. Very soon after arriving however I completely got it. There’s a slowness to life which totally absorbs you and I seduced by the country's heady beauty. The French (Laos was a French colony) once compared Laos to its neighbours - “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grown and the Laotians listen to it grow.”
Luang Prabang – the jewel in the crown
My top tip for Laos is Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a place which really does hit all the right senses. Located at the foot of Mount Phousi with the Mekong River cutting through it, Luang Prabang was once the ancient capital of northern Laos and it’s a place that captivates you with its laid back vibe. Its life as part of French Indochina has left crumbling lemon coloured colonial houses, amazing bakeries and café au lait, which sit alongside a kaleidoscopic mass of beautifully gilded wats (temples) and saffron-robed monks at every corner.
Over the years Luang Prabang has grown beyond a backpacker haunt (as it was in my day) and now you get some of the most beautiful boutique hotels and a smattering of haute cuisine dining options; although don’t miss the Laos food which is a taste sensation. Luckily the increase in tourist numbers hasn’t compromised Luang Prabang’s appearance or its Indochine soul. What is has done is up the ante in terms of the types of clientele who venture here; those who want to experience something a little bit different but without compromising on comfort or style.
The early bird
Luang Prabang really is a place where it pays to rise early. In the mornings there’s an eerie feel as the wispy mist settles over the river and the rolling hills beyond. A must is to rise with the dawn and watch the monks meander through narrow streets as they collect alms from kneeling devotees.
For the rest of the day visit one of the 30 wats (try to visit the more popular ones around breakfast time), shop for local crafts and the most beautiful handmade paper or just sit and watch life, and many a monk, go by. I have to say your camera will certainly be well used on this trip.
As night time falls
Before you indulge in the wonderful food on offer, you can wander round the night market checking out paper lanterns and parasols, jewellery and maybe picking up the ubiquitous Beer Laos t-shirt (the Hubby’s is still going strong 8 years on). Most of the stalls are run by women from surrounding villages which means your tourist pennies benefit the locals. Another way to make a difference is to indulge in a massage at the Laos Red Cross - your pleasure or pain (it wasn’t as bad as a massage I had in Krabi) contributes towards relief activities and community support.
In the area
Around Luang Prabang there are many small minority villages to be explored. We ventured into the countryside and stumbled across one such village where the warmth and the friendliness of the villagers is still clear in my mind. They could not speak our language nor us theirs but, we communicated the language of smiles. We sipped tea and watched them pulverise grains by hand. Now friends, the ladies of the village were eager to show off their local costume, which they did proudly and which resulted in an impromptu photo shoot.
I’d definitely recommend taking a local boat 25km upstream to the Pak Ou Caves which house thousands of Buddha images. The boat trip also affords great views of the surrounding countryside. You can also visit the picturesque Kuang Si waterfalls 32km outside Luang Prabang or go to The Elephant Park Project where you can learn mahout skills before joining the elephants for bath time.
Elsewhere in Laos
I have to admit that personally I wasn’t that impressed with Laos’s capital Vientianne. If you have to pass through then it’s worth a night but, I wouldn’t make a special trip. Instead, I would recommend travelling up to the northeast of the country to the province of Xieng-Khouang, where you’ll find the puzzling “Plain of Jars”. Hundreds of giant stone urns, some as large as 3.25 metres high, are strewn all over the plateau, carved out of solid hunks of rock from surrounding mountains. No one really knows why they are there; some say to store wine, others dead bodies. It is here, amidst the bomb craters, where you’ll really get some perspective of the war torn history of Laos. It’s estimated that more bombs where dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 than during the whole of the Second World War.
You can fly to Laos from the UK via Bangkok.
When to go
The best time to travel is from November through to April when the weather is warm and dry with cool nights. Temperatures begin to rise in March, with the rains usually breaking sometime in May or June.
My top tip
Many people combine a trip to Laos with one to neighbouring countries (my trip was part of a longer one taking in Vietnam and Cambodia). My tip is that you really should give Laos the time it deserves to get under the skin of the country. You’ll be rewarded by its beautiful Buddhist tradition, fascinating heritage and incredibly friendly people.