Country guides Asia
Laos Travel Guide
The mountainous, landlocked country of Laos is one of Southeast Asia's greatest tourist destinations. Though not as developed or established on the global tourism scene as its neighbours Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, its friendliness, natural beauty and cultural sites make it well worth visiting.
The sleepy, languid nature of Laos' capital Vientiane is symbolic of the easy-going, relaxed atmosphere that permeates the entire country. Beautifully situated on the banks of the Mekong River, Vientiane is a thoroughly atypical Southeast Asian capital city, eschewing the modern trend of overdevelopment and westernisation. Unmissable tourist sites include Pha That Luang, a gorgeous Buddhist temple, and Buddha Park, which houses a wonderfully bizarre collection of Buddhist and Hindu religious sculptures.
All things considered, though, the number one tourist stop in Laos remains the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. Visitors will encounter solemn monks strolling past a curious mix of traditional wooden houses and French colonial architecture, all while a bustling cafe culture plays out on the banks of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.
Adventurous travellers should also see Laos' countryside, where they can enjoy a seemingly endless selection of hiking trails, and explore dense forests and pristine waterfalls. Friendly villages make for perfect camp sites.
Best time to visit Laos
Laos has a tropical climate, characterised by high temperatures all year round. The Monsoon Season (May to October) is slightly cooler, but very wet. The best time to visit is between November and March, although this is high tourist season and accommodation prices may be higher than they are at other times of the year. Between March and May Laos experiences a very hot season, with daytime temperatures often reaching 104°F (40°C).
What to see in Laos
-Vientiane's beautiful temple of Pha That Luang is Laos' national symbol.
-The deeply mysterious Plain of Jars (Phonsavan), a field scattered with hundreds of huge stone jars, is a fascinating day-trip from Luang Prabang.
-Buddha Park is an interesting open-air museum showcasing Buddhist and Hindu temples and statues.
-The Golden City Temple (Wat Xieng Thong) is one of the most impressive monasteries in Laos.
What to do in Laos
-Take part in the Morning Alms Ceremony in Luang Prabang, where monks in saffron-coloured robes walk down the main street of the village collecting alms for their daily consumption.
-Shop for bargains at the Morning Market (Talat Sao) in Vientiane.
-Strike out from Luang Prabang to the gorgeous Kuang Si Falls.
-Visit the charming town of Vang Vieng and the impressive limestone cave complexes in the nearby hills.
Getting to Laos
Cheap flights to Laos are easy to find from the US and UK, though direct flights aren't plentiful; most flights to Vientiane's Wattay International Airport are indirect flights.
The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill
Sabaidee Luang Prabang (2008)
Try the national dish known as laap, a mixture of minced meat, herbs, spices, lime juice and chilli; as well as tam maak hoong, a spicy green papaya salad dressed with fermented crab and a strong fish sauce called pa daek.
Beer Lao, which is made from Laotian jasmine rice and is one of Laos' few beverage exports, and lao-lao, a cheap (and effective) rice spirit. Laotian coffee is also very good.
What to buy
The best souvenirs from Laos are silk garments and traditional Laotian cloth, which can be tailored to make dresses and shirts very cheaply.
What to pack
Lightweight clothing, effective insect repellent and plenty of sunscreen should be packed for a holiday in Laos. Tourists should also have a small backpack for day excursions, containing a rain-slicker and bottled water.
What's on in Laos
Buddha's Birthday (Visakha Busa) takes place on the first full moon in May, and is celebrated in towns and villages across the country. Lao New Year (known as Bpee Mai or Songkan) is held in April, just before the Monsoon season, and is the most exuberant celebration of the year. Laos National Day (2 December) celebrates the proletariat's victory over the monarchy in 1975, and is commemorated by banners, parades and processions through the streets of Vientiane.
Did you know?
-There are more Laotians living outside of Laos than inside the country.
-The stone jars found in Laos's mysterious Plain of Jars can weigh as much as three cars, 272 lbs (123kgs).
-The Khone Waterfall, on the border of Laos and Cambodia, is the largest waterfall in southeast Asia.
A final word
A quiet land, refreshingly bereft of modern bells and whistles, Laos is a wonderful destination for adventurous travellers looking to take a slow, rewarding trip through the best of what Southeast Asia has to offer.