Laos is a country of many rivers that traverse dense jungle, deep gorges and cavernous caves; they are the lifeline of most rural communities. Many rivers run where roads don’t, so as you pass through the country’s lowland valleys you will see undisturbed rainforest, tribesmen fishing with their hands and coconut palms swaying over the distant views of temples.
Many travelers tend to stick to northern central Laos because it’s easier to reach, but head further north and you’ll find a wonderfully undeveloped and culturally diverse area, home to over 30 different ethnicities, karst limestone cliffs, mountains and lush jungle. Put the extra work in to get there and you’ll reap the rewards - it’s unlikely to be long before Laos’s best-kept secret gets out.
Laos might not have Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or Thailand’s beaches, but that’s what makes it special – a trip to Laos isn’t about ticking must-dos off an itinerary, it’s about experiencing the culture and getting into the laid back vibe of local life. Staggeringly uncomplicated, the Laotian lifestyle will have you throwing away your watch and judging time by daylight or darkness in no time.
Sitting beside the mighty Mekong in Vientiane is the COPE Centre, an organisation dedicated to helping Laotian people who have been injured or affected by the country’s devastating amount of unexploded ordnance. You can learn about the problem and discover more about the work undertaken by COPE via an eye-opening interactive exhibition.
Luang Prabang is one of the most magical shores along the Mekong; it’s gleaming architectural treasures are all protected sites and shine below the tropical sky like beacons against a beautifully faded French colonial backdrop. It’s a firm fixture on Laos’s tourist map, but its old world charm is undiminished and the tourist pound seems only to have provided a welcome polish.
Laos’s most important resource and the greatest river in the whole of Southeast Asia, it’s almost impossible to reference the Mekong without using every known superlative. It brings life to millions, not least those in Laos, the country that will finally fulfil the Mekong of your imagination – lapping water, hazy skies, lush thick jungle and a low, burning sun silhouetting the distant mountains.
There’s a lot to see in Southeast Asia alongside Laos: Bangkok’s Grand Palace; the stunning limestone seascape of Halong Bay; Saigon’s sophisticated swagger – the country’s landlocked position screams out for an adventure combining its intriguing neighbours and you can spend up to an entire month exploring the wonders of them all.
The lackadaisical approach to life that Laotians see to have nailed is nowhere more felt than in Vientiane, the Lao capital and an irresistible blend of tumbledown ruins all hugging the middle Mekong. It needs little other than Wat Si Sisket, a collection of black and gold columned cloisters that house hundreds of terracotta Buddhas; it is the most beautiful temple you will ever see.
The classic jungle experience: swaying through nature atop a well-trained elephant, guided by a mahout. Sadly, the processes required to train an elephant are somewhat less idyllic. Only visit sanctuaries that don’t offer rides or performances – elephants do not naturally paint, dance or make music, and supporting this condones keeping captive elephants for tourists’ entertainment
Buddha Park, a religious sculpture park with a reclining 40-metre Buddha for its centerpiece is like marmite: you either love it or you hate it. A monk built it, but that’s about as authentic as it gets. It’s popular because it’s something to do for a few hours in Vientiane, but it’s not something that people go to Vientiane for.
Despite claims that the exotic lotions and potions sold in Laos under the umbrella heading ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ can cure all ills, the animal parts used in them such as bear bile, tiger bones and rhino horn, involves inhumane treatment of thousands of endangered species. Plus, they don’t work. Two very good reasons to steer well clear.
Put politely, Vang Vieng’s appeal is subjective - over the years it’s gone from being a very quiet riverside town to a backpacker mecca, which is great if you’re a backpacker, but is hugely at odds with its serene karst river scenery. As a result, it’s become somewhere that travelers who used to love staying there now swerve and is sadly far more techno and tubing than reading and romance.