Until the 1990s, Laos remained shut off from the outside world, and largely unknown to Western travellers. Since then, more and more visitors have come to discover that this landlocked country offers some of Southeast Asia’s most enchanting natural landscapes and a fascinating diversity of cultures.
Although Laos still much less developed than neighbouring Thailand, the country's accommodation options have expanded considerably in recent years, whether you want to splash out on a plush resort or discover a peaceful budget getaway. To celebrate the release of the new Rough Guide to Laos, we're sharing six of our favourites.
Set on a broad curve of the Mekong, Vientiane, the low-rise capital of Laos is a quaint and easy-going place. In the two decades since Laos became accessible to foreign visitors, the city has evolved remarkably quickly. Today, with foreign investment continuing to pour in, Vientiane is growing fast. And along with new shopping malls and luxurious high-rise developments, the city has some excellent places to stay. The Settha Palace Hotel, a palatial 1932 building close to the centre of Vientiane, is our pick. This carefully restored relic of the colonial-era is filled with French period furniture. Its 29 rooms have all the mod cons, including mini-bar and safe, while outside you’ll find an outstanding pool and beautiful landscaped gardens.
Head 50km northeast of the capital, Vientiane, and you’ll reach Ban Pako, where the rustic Ban Pako Eco Lodge is atmospherically sited on a curve in the Nam Ngum River. Opened in 1993, they claim to be the first eco-lodge in the country. There’s room for just 22 guests here, but if you manage to bag a bed, you could easily while away a couple of days soaking up the laidback atmosphere. Besides lounging in your detached river-view bungalow or in the open-air restaurant overlooking the river, there are a slew of outdoor activities: tubing, swimming, birdwatching and hiking to nearby villages to name a few. Self-guided nature trails also fan out from the resort, on one of which is a herbal sauna near a refreshingly cool spring.
Wat Mixai, Vientiane © Marco Taliani de Marchio/Shutterstock
Intersected by the mighty Mekong and Khan rivers and surrounded by lofty mountains, UNESCO-listed Luang Prabang is northern Laos’s major tourist draw for good reason. Yet for all its undeniable beauty and charm, there’s no doubt that Luang Prabang has been transformed by its ever-growing popularity with Western visitors, with almost every property in the historic centre now serving the travel industry in some form or another. Venture just to the south of the centre to find respite. Here this exquisite luxury hotel is set in gorgeous colonial-style villas amid palm and banana-leaf gardens, summoning all the spirit and exotic mystery of imperial Indochina – despite only dating back to 2010. The huge, light suites, with columns and big bay windows, are irresistibly decadent, and highlights include top-class French cuisine at the Belle-Epoque restaurant and afternoon tea in the Henri Mouhot-dedicated 1861 Bar.
Set in lush tropical gardens in a peerless position by the Nam Phak River in Muang La, this blissful retreat is one of the most luxurious places to stay in northern Laos. The huge, naga-themed suites, in half-timbered villas, are exquisitely furnished and feature acres of polished wood. Guests can soak up the river views from private hot tubs, drawn from the 43°C local hot springs and raised off the ground. Most visitors stay as part of a two- or three-night package, which includes a choice of well-thought-out activities and trips.
The charming small town of Champasak is a popular base for touring the atmospheric ruins of Wat Phou, one of the most important Khmer temples outside Cambodia. And for a luxury base from which to visit the sites, this riverside hideaway is without rival in southern Laos. The twenty lao–Japanese-style rooms, with outdoor showers and fan-cooled terraces, occupy an incredibly serene stretch of the Mekong’s western edge, and are separated from one another by lush gardens of banana plants, organic rice paddies and majestically tall trees. The resort even has its own spa and a panoramic restaurant overseen by a Thai chef.
Vat Phou or Wat Phu © LeQuangNhut/Shutterstock
The tropical islands of Don Khon and Don Det, 15km downstream from Don Khong and planted with jade- and emerald-coloured rice paddies, are a picturesque haven for backpackers who come here in ever-increasing numbers. Yet despite the explosion of travellers’ cafés, parts of Don Det still maintain a rustic charm. On the west side of the island, around 750m from town, is this self-styled travellers’ community started by a former banker from the UK. Thatched wigwams sleeping two to four people are set around a sociable garden that’s home to a fire pit and an open-air cinema, and the organic herbs and vegetables grown on site are used in communal meals each night.
Bungalows on the Don Det island © Jakub Czajkowski/Shutterstock
Top image © Mongkolchon Akesin/Shutterstock