Laos is a small country that borders Thailand and Cambodia. It's further off the beaten track for those who want a new adventure, but not so far off as to be intimidating. The country is mainly rural with 90% of its geography covered with tropical rainforest, which means it's an excellent country for nature lovers. Lao people mix animist traditions with Buddhism. Spirit houses are dotted around at temples and in front of businesses to appease land spirits.
The difficulty of traveling within Laos compared to its neighboring Thailand, and Vietnam can put tourists off visiting. Sometimes the slow pace of its transportation makes journeying through Laos feel like an adventure. Due to the steep hillsides and poor roads frequently blocked by landslides, the best ways to travel around Laos is along the Mekong River. This is how most locals get around. Most boats are slow moving, but there is a fast boat from Huay Xai on the Thai border to Luang Prabang which takes 7 hours. However, the slower option is a more delightful experience watching the ever-changing view of the Mekong. The slower boat can take up to 40 hours so the best option is to divide trip up by stopping at Pakbeng Village for a night, where you can sample the local delicacies like a Pakbeng sandwich.
Primary rainforest is an area of trees and plant life which has never been cut down or replanted. These virginal forests are rich in wildlife and in some places you can easily imagine you are in the Amazon. Rainforests are surprisingly dark on the ground, due to all the dense plant life blocking the light. However, you will hear monkeys, birds, and the calls of insects. If you watch carefully you may see these animals too. Make the most of a visit to a Laos rainforest and arrange a trip to meet tribal people living with nature in the forests.
Laos might not have many people, with a population of 6,802,000, but the populatoin is really diverse. There are animist tribes who leave offerings to nature spirits, and many other fascinating cultures unique to Laos. Lao Loum makes up two-thirds of the population. They are Buddhist and trace their ancestry back to China. Lao Theung, make up a quarter of the population and includes groups like the Katu. The Lao Sung account for around 10% and include groups such as the Hmong. In the towns and cities, Laos people are famous for being friendly but in a rather quiet and shy way. Take the time to say hello and they will be happy to welcome you.
Lao cooking focuses on fresh, local ingredients with delicate flavors. Some Laos staples to try are the papaya salad, sticky rice baskets, and fish wrapped in banana leaves steamed over charcoal. Dishes can be spicy, so be sure to ask to reduce the heat if chillis are not your thing. The array of street food choices at the night markets is extraordinary. The best markets are in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet where the grills meats, fresh fruit, and noodles will be a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. French cafe culture is everywhere in Laos, but especially in Luang Prabang where cafes serve Parisian quality treats at low Laos prices.
Along with Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos was part of France's Indochina territories from the late 1800s to 1949. Because of this history, French-style colonial architecture is everywhere in the larger cities especially Luang Prabang. Look at buildings that would be at home in Paris such as shops, apartment complexes, government buildings. Although the French architecture is old; they have been well looked after and painted cheerful colors like yellow, orange and pink. It's easy to spend a pleasant sunny morning wandering along tree-lined boulevards.
Laos has hundreds of options for people who love the outdoors. There are caves to explore, dirt bike tracks to ride and waterfalls to swim in. While you can bring your own equipment, it's easier and safer to take part in outdoor adventures with a local company - there are plenty to chose between. Try a zipline that whizzes through a rainforest, or go rafting and kayaking down the Mekong river. There's also tubing, trekking, cycling, rock climbing and more. Vang Vieng is a good base for people who love the outdoors. There are the soothing waters of the Blue Lagoon with waterfalls, and nearby is Tham Phu Kham. This cave contains thousands of Buddhist images and statues. Bring shoes with good grip as it is a slippery walk to the cave.
There is a natural beauty in Laos. The majority of the country is either forest or farmland, so a trip to the country will be filled with encounters with farm animals. Water buffalo graze peacefully in rice paddies or are driven confidently into fields by small boys. Fishermen head out at dusk with their almost tame cormorants as the sun sets over the river. There are mountain trails with shy animals like the sun and moon bears. Asian elephants, gibbons, and other rare creatures live in the forests of Laos.
Your daily travel expense will be around $25 USD a person. This includes travel, accommodation, food and occasional entrance fees. Because tourists may seem flushed with money from the viewpoint of the Laos people, you may fear that holidaymakers would be a target for unsavory types. And yet Laos is a very safe country to travel and enjoy. There are few reported scams, and most locals are keen to encourage more visitors and not frighten future tourists away.
The Laos city of Luang Prabang is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site. The town has a unique atmosphere with an abundance of beautiful temples, preserved buildings, and places of interest. Spending a day meandering around the streets of Luang Prabang - looking at shrines, trying local foods or pooping into markets to find the perfect gift - is a day well spent.
When traveling around Asia, it's easy to get temple fatigue. You may think you've seen enough temples for a lifetime. But temples in Laos are special. Laos seems to have a temple for every taste. At one end of the spectrum there are ancient Hindu temples of crumbling stone, and at the other Royal Temple covered bright gold glitz and mosaics. There are also temples in caves, at waterfalls, and up mountains. Buddhist temples in Laos are in constant use as places of worship, study, and reflection. Many people give offerings to the orange robed monks. If you choose to visit, make sure you dress respectfully and cover bare arms and legs.