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.
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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.
Facts about Laos
- The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, whose capital is Vientiane, is Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country. Modern Laos covers more than 236,000 square kilometres, yet has a population of just under 7 million.
- A constitutional monarchy until 1976, Laos is today a one-party dictatorship and one of the world’s last official communist states. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries, heavily reliant on aid.
- Life expectancy is a rather paltry 57 years, and there’s a young population, with the average age just 19.5 years.
- Lowland Lao (Lao Loum) comprise approximately seventy percent of the population, upland Lao (Lao Theung) and highland Lao (Lao Soung) roughly twenty and ten percent respectively; within these broad definitions, there are many smaller divisions. Chinese and Vietnamese are a small but economically significant portion of the population.
- The national language is Lao, a tonal language closely related to Thai, although the written scripts differ. English is the most spoken European language.
- Laos is a predominately Buddhist country and follows the Theravadan school of Buddhism, in common with neighbouring Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. Around thirty percent of the population, particularly those in the highlands, follow animist beliefs.
Where to go in Laos
Set on a broad curve of the Mekong, Vientiane is perhaps Southeast Asia’s most modest capital city. Yet, although lacking the buzz of Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, Laos’s capital has been transformed since the 1990s, with a string of cosmopolitan restaurants and cafés to complement its charming rows of pale yellow French–Indochinese shophouses. Robbed of its more splendid temples in battles with Siam long ago, Vientiane is more a place for adjusting to the pace of Lao life, and indulging in herbal saunas and sunset drinks on the banks of the Mekong, than one for breakneck tours of monuments and museums. Few tourists passing through the capital miss a chance for a half-day journey out to Xieng Khuan, its riverside meadow filled with mammoth religious statues, one of Laos’s most arresting and bizarre sights.
From Vientiane, it makes sense to head north to Vang Vieng, a town set in a landscape of glimmering green paddies and sawtoothed karst hills. A great spot for caving, kayaking, rock climbing and long walks in the countryside, the town is best known for its wild tubing scene, and is undoubtedly the country’s party capital for young backpackers. From here the mountainous old Royal Road to Luang Prabang rollercoasters through some of Laos’s most stunning scenery. The more intrepid can indulge in a road-and-river expedition through Laos’s northwestern frontier, stopping off in the remote outpost of Sayaboury, home to a large portion of the country’s diminishing elephant population.
Despite the ravages of time, the gilded temples and weathered French–Indochinese shophouses of tiny, cultured Luang Prabang possess a spellbinding majesty that make this Laos’s most enticing destination. Though increasingly touristy, the dusty side streets, Mekong views and quiet mornings still lend the city plenty of charm. Most visitors combine a stay here with a couple of day-trips, to the sacred Pak Ou Caves, two riverside grottoes brimming with thousands of Buddha images, and to beautiful Kouang Si waterfall, the perfect spot for a refreshing dip on a hot day.
A few hours north up the emerald Nam Ou River from Luang Prabang is the quiet town of Nong Khiaw, picturesquely surrounded by towering limestone peaks and a great base for trekking and kayaking in the region. Just a little further up the river, and only accessible by boat, Muang Ngoi is a popular travellers’ spot, where it’s hard to drag yourself away from the temptation of spending your days soaking up the views from a hammock. Following the river even further north is one of the greatest highlights of a trip to Laos, passing through stunning scenery on resolutely local boats to get to Phongsali, from which you can explore further into the isolated far north, or join an overnight trek to local hill-tribe villages.
Improved roads means that it’s now a lot easier to explore the far north, an often spectacular region that is home to a patchwork of upland tribal groups. Luang Namtha and the easy-going village of Muang Sing are both centres for treks to nearby hill-tribe villages, while the former also offers kayaking opportunities. Downriver from here is Houayxai, on the Thai border, from where you can join a slow boat down the Mekong for the picturesque journey south to Luang Prabang.
Lost in the misty mountains of the far northeast, Hua Phan province was the nerve centre of communist Laos during the Second Indochina War, and remains well removed from the Mekong Valley centres of lowland Lao life. The provincial capital, Sam Neua, has a resolutely Vietnamese feel (hardly surprising when you consider its proximity to the border), and though it has a rather limited tourist infrastructure, there’s a certain charm about the place once you dig a little deeper. The main reason for a stay here is to visit Vieng Xai, where the communist Pathet Lao directed their resistance from deep within a vast cave complex, and where the last Lao king was exiled until his untimely demise. South along Route 6 from Hua Phan is Xieng Khuang province, the heartland of Laos’s Hmong population. Phonsavan, a dusty rather nondescript town, is the starting point for trips out to the mystical Plain of Jars.
To the south, the tail of Laos is squeezed between the formidable Annamite Mountains to the east and the Mekong River as it barrels towards Cambodia. Thakhek is a good base from which to visit the Mahaxai Caves and Khammouane Limestone NBCA, the highlight of which is Tham Lot Kong Lo, an underground river that can be navigated by canoe. Genial Savannakhet is the south’s most famous town, almost as culturally Vietnamese as it is Lao, a pleasant urban retreat with an architectural charm second only to Luang Prabang. The cool and fertile Bolaven Plateau, where most of Laos’s coffee is grown, makes a refreshing stop during the hot season, not least to try a cup of the famous brew. To the southwest lies diminutive Champasak, with its red-dirt streets and princely villas. The ruins of Wat Phou, the greatest of the Khmer temples outside Cambodia, perch on a forested hilltop nearby.
Anchoring the tail of Laos, the countless river islands of Si Phan Don lie scattered across the Mekong, swollen to 14km from bank to bank, all the way to the Cambodian border. One of the most significant wetlands in the country, Si Phan Don is the perfect spot to while away lazy days, and harbours scores of long-established fishing communities as well as centuries-old lowland Lao traditions.
Outdoor activities in Laos
Laos is one of the better outdoor-adventure destinations in Southeast Asia: there are excellent trekking opportunities, vast cave systems to be explored and crashing whitewater rivers to be rafted. With the emergence of a number of specialized travel companies offering inexpensive, organized, adventure tours in previously remote reaches, it’s now easier than ever to experience the wild side of Laos.
Over seventy percent of the country comprises high terrain, with chains of mountains reaching heights of over 2800m running its entire length. Covering many of these ranges are expanses of virgin rainforest. And from these highlands run steep, narrow valleys through which rivers rush down from the mountain heights to join the “Mother of Waters”, the mighty Mekong River, which flows the entire length of Laos.
The easiest and most popular adventure sport in Laos is trekking, with new routes opening up across the country all the time. Trekking is rapidly becoming a major money-earner for Laos, with a range of one- to five-day treks (usually with an environmentally conscious twist) attracting visitors from around the world.
The far north has mountain scenery, forest areas and colourful ethnic hill tribes living in traditional villages. There are excellent tourist facilities available in many northern towns, and Guide Service Offices are gradually being opened throughout the north to support tourists who want to take part in guided treks that are both environmentally friendly and have a low impact on the local peoples.
For visitors interested in hill tribes and organized trekking, the best towns to head for are Luang Namtha, Muang Sing, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, all of which have developed programmes for travellers wanting to make a series of day-trips based out of town or take part in multi-day treks involving camping and village stays.
If you want to take a more independent, DIY approach, other towns highly suitable for independent trekking opportunities using self-hired local guides include Muang Long, Xieng Kok, Houayxai, Vieng Phoukha, Muang Khoua and Nong Khiaw, all of which have guesthouses and are close to tribal areas.
In South Central Laos, new companies have been set up to allow visitors to discover sacred lakes, trek through ancient forests and interact with diverse local tribes. The tours have been built to foster development and improve the lives of local people without destroying the region’s natural beauty.
NBCAs and eco-tours
A handful of Lao companies organize eco-tours to wilderness areas featuring rare and exotic flora and fauna. Here, nature lovers and birdwatchers will find some of the rarest species on the planet and vast forest canopies. Although Laos does not have any national parks in the Western sense, since 1993 the government has established twenty National Biodiversity Conservation Areas (NBCAs), many still with villagers and hill tribes living within their boundaries. Unfortunately, though NBCA status means government recognition of their biodiversity, this status has not conferred any real protection (see Southern Laos).
The NBCAs are scattered around the country, often in remote border areas without roads. While many of the parks are inaccessible short of mounting a professional expedition, several have been developed for eco-tourism and have visitor centres and guided walks. The best developed NBCAs for tourists are Phou Khao Khouay, Nam Ha and Phou Hin Poun, all of which can be reached by road.
While most river-journey enthusiasts are satisfied with a slow boat down the Mekong between Houayxai and Luang Prabang, many opportunities exist for exploring Laos’s faster waterways. Several companies offer whitewater-rafting trips out of Luang Prabang on a number of northern rivers, including the Nam Ou, the Nam Xuang and the Nam Ming.
Even more popular are river-kayaking adventures ranging from easy day-trips for beginners to multi-day adventures down rivers with grade 5 rapids. Professional guided kayaking tours are currently operated on a regular basis on eight northern rivers as well as the Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir (near the capital) and in Si Phan Don. The best bases for kayaking tours are Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha. Another fantastic region for kayaking is the Khammouane Limestone NBCA. Among other scenic wonders, this NBCA features a 7km-long natural river-tunnel through the heart of a mountain, and is becoming popular for organized tours out of Vientiane.
Caves and rock climbing
With its great forests of limestone karst scenery receding into the distance like an image in a Chinese scroll painting, Laos is a great destination for cave exploring, spelunking and rock-climbing. Prime areas for limestone karst scenery in Laos include Vang Vieng, Kasi, Thakhet and Vieng Xai. For most tourists, cave exploring is limited to climbing up to and wandering around in caves that are fairly touristy and have clearly defined pathways. Serious spelunkers can find vast cave and tunnel systems to explore in the Khammouane Limestone NBCA and the Hin Nam No NBCA, but should seek local permission before launching any major expeditions as many caves have yet to have archeological surveys done. With so many awesome unclimbed and unnamed peaks, rock climbing is one sport that seems to have a huge future in Laos. At present the sport is still in its infancy, but new routes continue to be opened up around Vang Vieng.
With some of the best untamed scenery in Southeast Asia, many unpaved roads, and little traffic, Laos is becoming a very hot destination for cross-country mountain-bike touring. A lot of independent travellers do self-organized mountain-bike touring in northern Laos, bringing their bikes with them from home. Route 13 from Luang Prabang to Vientiane seems to be the most popular route, but be warned that despite the beautiful scenery, the route is also extremely mountainous, crossing several large ranges before reaching the Vientiane Plain. There are much better routes in Houa Phan and Xieng Khuang provinces where you’ll find fantastic landscapes, plenty of remote villages and paved roads with very few vehicles on them.
It’s a good idea to plan carefully. What appear to be very short distances on the map can often take many hours, even in a vehicle. One good thing about bicycle touring in Laos is that should things get too difficult, you can always flag down a passing sawngthaew and throw the bike on the roof. Another alternative is to join an organized cycling tour. There are plenty to choose from but London-based Red Spokes (t020/7502 7252, www.redspokes.co.uk)runs a popular two-week tour that takes in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane, as well as some rural stretches with spectacular scenery.
Boules and blood sports
One of the quirkiest legacies of French colonial rule is surely petang – a form of boules you’ll see being played in dusty front yards and side streets right around the country.
Like boules, the aim is to throw a small wooden ball, or cochonnet, into the centre of a hard gravel court, and then take it in turns to toss larger metal balls towards it. Players are awarded a point for each time their ball lands nearer to the cochonnet than their opponent’s, and the game ends when one of the players scores thirteen points.
Official rules state petang should be played in teams of two or three, but in practice it’s usually a casual affair, giving people the chance to chat and while away an afternoon.
Team sports aren’t played too often in Laos, simply because equipment is prohibitively expensive. The honourable exception is kataw. Played with a grapefruit-sized woven wicker ball, it‘s thought to have originated in the Malay Archipelago, but is also quite popular in Thailand. Kataw is a hands-free hotchpotch of volleyball, football and tennis, played both with and without a net. Players have to use their feet, legs, chests and heads to keep the ball aloft, and the acrobatics involved are simply astounding. Games are played just about anywhere, but are commonly seen in schoolyards or in monastery grounds.
Another sport you might encounter in Laos is Muay Lao, also known as Lao boxing, which sees fighters striking each other with their fists, knees, elbows and feet. The sport is essentially the same as Muay Thai kickboxing, Thailand’s national sport, but in Laos professional bouts are held fairly infrequently.
As with the rest of Southeast Asia, cockfighting is a celebrated diversion in Laos – no surprise, as the blood sport originated in this region. Betting is, of course, the whole point. Cockfights take place on Sundays and the local cockpit can usually be found by wandering around and listening for the exuberant cheers of the spectators. Unlike in some Southeast Asian countries, knives are not attached to the rooster’s legs in Laos, which means that cockfights last much longer and the birds don’t usually die in the ring.
Another sport that relies on a wager to sharpen excitement is rhinoceros beetle fighting. Although it is difficult to say just how far back the tradition of beetle fighting goes, it is known to be popular among ethnic Tai peoples from the Shan States to northern Vietnam. The walnut-sized beetles hiss alarmingly when angered and it doesn’t require much goading to get them to do battle. Pincer-like horns are used by the beetles to seize and lift an opponent, and the fight is considered finished when one of the two beetles breaks and runs. The fighting season is during the rains when the insects breed. They are sometimes peddled in markets tethered to pieces of sugar cane.