Ornate temples, river adventures and laid-back charm
Often overlooked in favour of its better-known neighbours, landlocked Laos remains one of Southeast Asia’s most beguiling destinations. Caught in the middle of the two Indochina wars and long isolated from the rest of the world, the country retains a slow, rather old-fashioned charm, and its people – incredibly laidback and friendly, even by Asian standards – are undoubtedly one of the highlights of any visit.
Laos’s lifeline is the Mekong River, which runs the length of the country, at times bisecting it and at others serving as a boundary with Thailand; the rugged Annamite Mountains historically have acted as a buffer against Vietnam, with which Laos shares its eastern border. Most people visit the country as part of a wider trip in the region, often entering from Thailand and following the Mekong further south. However, Laos alone rewards further exploration, and with a little more time it’s not hard to feel like you’re visiting places where few Westerners venture. Stretching from the forest-clad mountains of the north to the islands of the far south, there’s enough here to keep you occupied for weeks, and still feel as though you’d barely scratched the surface.
For such a small country, Laos is surprisingly diverse in terms of its people. Colourfully dressed hill tribes populate the higher elevations, while in the lowland river valleys, coconut palms sway over the Buddhist monasteries of the ethnic Lao. The country also retains some of the French influence it absorbed during colonial days: the familiar smell of freshly baked bread and coffee mingles with exotic local aromas in morning markets, and many of the old shophouses of its larger towns now (appropriately) house French restaurants.
The effects of the wars, and of its communist government, are unmistakable – it remains completely inadvisable to strike out into the countryside without following paths for fear of UXO (unexploded ordnance) – and the country remains heavily dependent on its neighbours for all manner of products; indeed in some parts of the country, the local markets stock more Chinese and Vietnamese goods than Lao. However, whether you’re riding through the countryside on a rickety old bus crammed with sacks of rice, more people than seats, and blaring tinny Lao pop music, leisurely sailing down the Mekong past staggeringly beautiful scenery, or being dragged by a stranger to celebrate a birth over too much Beer Lao and lào-láo, it’s hard not to be won over by this utterly fascinating country and its people.
Planning your trip to Laos
Everything you need to plan where to go and what to do.
Travel offers; book through Rough Guides
Everything you need to know before you set off.
The Rough Guide to Laos
An in-depth, easy-to-use guide filled with expert advice.
The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.
16 captivating pictures of hill tribes in Laos
Professional travel photographer Tim Draper has shot images for 24 Rough Guides guidebooks, visiting far-flung corners around the world. Here he shares some of…26 Jan 2016 • Tim Draper insert_drive_file Article
6 special places to stay in Laos
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 disco…19 Dec 2014 • Site Editor insert_drive_file Article
20 fascinating second cities
Barcelona, Spain It's usually the capital cities that get all the attention, but what about a country's second city? These are twenty of our favourite second c…02 Oct 2014 • Rebecca Hallett camera_alt Gallery
After Laos, where next?
Check out Indonesia