Laos - Asia’s hottest new destination

Posted on: 14 December 2009 by Mark O'haire

Although still relatively unheard of, those who have been to Laos enthuse about its quiet charm, lovely people, lazy Mekong River cruises and fascinating heritage.

Laos is gaining increasing coverage as the new hot destination in SE Asia. Having recently returned from my third visit to Laos, where I travelled the full length and breadth of the country and left no stone unturned, I can fully understand why. Its infrastructure is still basic in places and tourism is in its infancy but this is part of its charm. It really is the ideal destination for people who want to be ahead of the crowds and visit a country before it is firmly part of the tourist trail.

Soothing, spiritual and still relatively undiscovered Laos borders Burma, Thailand, China, Cambodia and Vietnam, with the Mekong River running its length. It has been protected from external influences by its natural borders meaning many of its ancient charms have remained largely intact. Whilst it does not have the cultural intensity of Vietnam or Cambodia, it has an almost palpable sense of serenity. Combined with breathtaking landscapes, it feels as I can only imagine Eden must have felt like. Rich in natural features such as tumbling waterfalls and lush rainforests, it is best described by its geographic divisions: the mountainous north, the flat plains in the centre, and the water-filled south. The best time to visit Laos is from November to February/March when it is cool and dry.

Don't Miss

  • Luang Prabang – The sleepy, spiritual capital of the country is probably Laos' biggest draw, with its beautiful colonial houses, colourful river life, Buddhist monasteries, elegant temples and markets making it one of the most delightful towns in southeast Asia. It is perfect for exploring on foot and has an unexpectedly sophisticated restaurant and café culture. Any visit to Laos should include a few nights in one of Luang Prabang’s gorgeous boutique hotels. The Amantaka, is the newest and smartest and is only a few minutes walk from Luang Prabang's UNESCO World heritage town centre.
  • Muang La Resort - Travelling north from Luang Prabang through river valleys, lush forest covered hills and past H'mong and Khamu villages arrive at the small village of Muang and home to the delightful Muang La Resort. It’s the perfect spot for cycling through bright green paddy fields, day treks to remote villages and relaxing in the natural hot springs.
  • La Folie Lodge and Southern Laos – The range of hotels in the south is limited; my recommendation is to use one of La Folie’s simple and cosy cabins as your base. From La Folie it is a short boat journey to the dramatically situated pre Angkorian temple of Wat Pho, and an hour’s drive to Si Phan Done where the mighty Mekong unravels into a mass of waterfalls and cascades surrounding the palm fringed ‘4,000 islands’ that give the area its name.

Can Miss...

  • The long round trip to see the Plain of the Jars – I loved the idea of them as they piqued my curiosity. However having seen them I am not sure it was worth the 8 hour drive there and back on twisty mountain roads. If you would like to see the Jars, visit in peak season when daily flight operate from Vientiane, in low season this flight is often cancelled. Otherwise I would say that your time would be better spent in other locations.
  • The Luang Say Cruise in peak season – In the low season (April – October), this 2 day cruise from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Prabang is a relaxing and thoroughly fitting introduction to Laos and few people travel on it. However in peak season (November-March) with up to 40 other passengers sitting cheek by jowl, is a much less enjoyable experience. In Peak season I would recommend doing this journey in a private long tailed boat.

Good To Know...

  • The Baci Ceremony – a charming traditional ritual celebrating a special event, whether a marriage, homecoming, a welcome, a birth, or one of the annual festivals. Visit a local village house in the late afternoon and take part in this sociable ceremony (lasting about an hour) which involves protection prayers, chanting, traditional singing and dancing and finishes with the securing of white threads around visitors’ wrists. If you would like to include a Baci ceremony in your trip, I would recommend adding it in Luang Prabang.
  • Laos Textiles – Ock Pop Tok is a textile gallery and weaving centre in Luang Prabang. Founded by a local weaver and an English photographer in 2000, the business provides sustainable employment to rural residents through the production and marketing of traditional textiles. The centre offers different classes in the traditional methods of silk production from the breeding of silk worms, spinning the threads to dying and weaving of the fabric. A class at Ock Pop Tok is included on the Cultural Gems of Laos tour.
  • Festivals - if you happen to be in Laos during one the many festivals, you are sure to get caught up in the lively atmosphere! Pii Mai, Lao New Year falls in mid April and the celebrations include parades and water fights. The That Luang Festival falls in November and thousands of people and monks travel from remote villages to the capital of Vientiane to make offerings at temples for this religious celebration. Several times a year towns along the Mekong have boat racing competitions, where long wooden boats are raced up and down the river. We can arrange itineraries to include any one of these festivals.
  • The Royal Ballet – banned in 1975 under the Communist regime, the Royal Ballet Theatre has been reviving traditional Lao dance and music with the help of old Master Artists since 2002. The troupe perform the Phra-Lak Phra-Lam, a Lao version of the Ramayana, in the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang 4 times a week.

Best Time To Travel

The chief variations in climate are between lowlands and highlands in Laos; in the low country, temperatures are pleasant - with quite chilly evenings - from November to February, when the temperature begins to climb before the rains, which usually last from May to September.

Getting There

Numerous international airlines fly directly into Wattay Airport, Vientiane. Overland crossings are possible from China, Thailand, Vietnam and, unofficially, from Cambodia. The government airline, Lao Aviation, is the only domestic carrier, and it is common to rent cars and drivers

Winning Combinations

A trip to Laos combines very well with Cambodia, Thailand and the Mekong River. Our Meandering down the Mekong and Gems of Angkor and Luang Prabang itineraries are the perfect way to experience these countries.

By Pippa Currie 

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