Laos’ isolation from foreign influence offers travellers an unparalleled glimpse of traditional southeast Asian life. From the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River valley to the rugged Annamite highlands, Laos is the highlight of southeast Asia.
This is the least developed and most enigmatic of the three former French Indochinese states. A ruinous sequence of colonial domination, internecine conflict and dogmatic socialism finally brought the country to its knees in the 1970s, and almost 10% of the population left the country.
Now, after two decades of isolation from the outside world, this landlocked, sparsely populated country is enjoying peace, stabilizing its political and economic structures, and admitting foreign visitors – albeit in limited numbers, owing to a general lack of infrastructure.
The capital city and seat of government sits on a bend in the Mekong River amid fertile alluvial plains. Despite its chequered past, Vientiane (pronounced ‘Wieng Chan’ by the locals) is a laid-back city with a number of interesting wats and lively markets. The most important national monument in Laos is Pha That Luang (the Great Sacred Stupa), which is a symbol of both Buddhism and Lao sovereignty. Other sights of interest include Wat Pha Kaew, a former royal temple which is now a museum, and Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in Vientiane. Xieng Khuan is a collection of compelling Buddhist and Hindu sculptures located in a meadow, 24km (15mi) south of Vientiane.
Vientiane has around 10 top-end hotels and as many guesthouses – many of them are moderately expensive, but plenty of lower-priced rooms have become available in the last few years. Most of the accommodation is in central Vientiane. You can eat at cafes, street stalls, beer halls or restaurants that offer everything from rice noodles to filet mignon. For good Lao meals, try the Dong Palan Night Market on the east bank of the Nong Chan ponds.
Vientiane is not the illicit entertainment palace it was in the early 1970s: brothels are now prohibited, the marijuana stands have disappeared from the markets, and beer has replaced opium as the nightly drug of choice. Entertainment ranges from live music and discos – usually electrified Lao folk music or Western pop – to Thai, Chinese, Indian and even Bulgarian films. Tribal crafts, fabrics, jewellery and furniture are all good buys in Vientiane.
Although travel in Laos is generally hassle-free, travellers should be aware of the risk of rural banditry, unexploded ordnance and sporadic violence in and around Vientiane. Travellers have been inadvertently targeted in several attacks on buses travelling to and from the capital.
Ask around in Vientiane or Luang Prabang to check security before travelling the western portion of Rte 7 in Xieng Khuang Province, between Muang Phu Khun and Phonsavan, or Rte 13 between Vangviang north to Muang Phu Khun through to south of Luang Prabang.
Small bombings and attempted bombings in Vientiane continue sporadically. The Saisombun Special Zone, considered a ‘troubled’ area, is definitely not safe. Permits, required for all visits to the zone, are not being issued.
This ‘city’ is just barely waking from a long slumber brought on by decades of war and revolution. Luang Prabang has only 16,000 residents and few concessions to 20th-century living, save for infrequent electricity and a few cars and trucks. Rush hour occurs when school students are let out and the streets fill with bicycles.Its main tourist attractions are its historic temples – 32 of the original 66 built before French colonisation still stand – and its lovely setting encircled by mountains at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong rivers. Sights include the Royal Palace Museum, Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Wisunlat. Just 25km (15.5mi) along the Mekong River are the famous Pak Ou caves, some of which are filled with Buddha images, while 29km (18mi) south of the town are the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls.
Plain of Jars
The mysterious Plain of Jars is an undeveloped area near Phonsavan in Xieng Khuang Province where huge jars of unknown origin are scattered, the biggest weighing as much as six tonnes (6.6 tons). The jars have been fashioned from solid stone, which doesn’t seem to have come from the area. Many of the smaller jars have been taken away by collectors, but there are still several hundred in the five major groups. Thong Hai Hin, the biggest and most accessible site, has two pavilions and restrooms as well as the largest jar on the plain.
Ho Chi Minh Trail
For those interested in war history, the Ho Chi Minh Trail is a network of dirt paths and gravel roads running parallel to the Laos-Vietnam border. The trail was used by the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War and by the Viet Minh against the French in the 1950s. Although the North Vietnamese denied the existence of the trail, and the USA denied bombing it, 1.1 million tons of explosives were dropped on the area between 1965 and ’69, as well as massive quantities of herbicides. The trail is fairly remote, so there’s been little in the way of tidying up: you’ll see helicopters, fighter planes and a whole heap of other war junk. The closest town is Sepon, about 600km (370mi) south-east of Vientiane. Sepon was flattened during the war, and its now little more than a collection of shacks. You can get there by bus from Savannakhet.
The Bolaven Plateau is a fertile area where Laven tribespeople grow some of the most highly-regarded coffee in the world. Fruit, cardamom and rattan are also grown here. The plateau is a centre of Mon-Khmer culture, with Alak, Katu, Ta-oy and Suay villages in the area. Katu and Alak groups live in circles of thatched houses and are known for their yearly buffalo sacrifice, the centrepiece of some pretty spectacular ceremonies. Alak, Katu and Lawae women traditionally tattooed their faces, but this custom is dying out. The plateau also has some lovely waterfalls: Tat Lo plunges into a large pool which is gorgeous for swimming.