Laos: Simply Beautiful
Laos is a beautiful country with a great deal to offer including elegant towns, excellent cuisine, a leisurely pace of life and a population which is probably the most welcoming and relaxed in Asia.
Often overlooked in favour of its better-known neighbours, landlocked Laos remains one of Southeast Asia’s most beguiling destinations. Pockets of pristine environment, a kaleidoscope of diverse cultures and quite possibly the most chilled-out people on earth have earned Laos cult status among travellers. Laos satisfies all the romantic images of perfumed frangipani trees, saffron-robed monks, rusty old bicycles and golden temples, all set amongst a rich tapestry of tropical river islands, ethnic minority villages, cascading waterfalls and vivid, green rice paddies. All bound together by the mighty Mekong River, the country’s lifeline.
The vernacular architecture that other countries have swept away in a maelstrom of redevelopment survives in Laos. Simple wooden village homes, colonial-era birch-and-stucco shophouses and gently mouldering monasteries mark Laos out as different. Traditional customs are also firmly intact: incense wafts out of streetside wats, monks collect arms at daybreak and the clickety-clack of looms weaving richly coloured silk can be heard in most villages.
As compelling as these sights and sounds are, the lasting impression for most visitors is of the people and their overwhelming friendliness. Many believe the best thing about Laos is the constant call of ‘Sabaidee’ by its people.
Life is simple in Laos but the people radiate an infectious joie de vivre that ensures that good food and great company are the pinnacle of enjoyment. If you’re seeking a relaxed pace of life and a warm welcome, you’ve come to the right place.
Most people visit the country as part of a wider trip in the region, often entering from Thailand and following the Mekong further south. However, Laos alone rewards further exploration, and with a little more time it’s not hard to feel like you’re visiting places where few Westerners venture. Stretching from the forest-clad mountains of the north to the islands of the far south, there’s enough here to keep you occupied for weeks, and still feel as though you’d barely scratched the surface.
Top Reasons to Visit Laos
For the traveller who wants organised adventure and roads less travelled, Laos delivers in spades.
For such a laid back kind of country, Laos has firmly established itself as one of the region’s premier outdoor tourism destinations, with a wide range of activities from trekking to rock climbing and kayaking. Adrenalin junkies can lose themselves in underground river caves, white-water rapids or jungle ziplines. Wildlife nuts can trek through some of Southeast Asia’s most pristine forests, still home to rare creatures.
Best places for outdoor adventures:
- Bolaven Plateau – waterfalls, elephant treks and zipline adventures
- Vang Vieng – river tubing, kayaking, caving, climbing and cycling
- Luang Namtha – trekking, cycling, kayaking and the Gibbon Experience
- Vieng Xai Caves – caving
- Phongsali Province – hill-tribe village treks
- Khammuan Province – mountain biking
From limestone mountains to enigmatic stone urns, the natural landscapes in Laos are among some of the best in the world.
Away from the cities, it’s easy to make a quick detour off the beaten track and end up in a fairytale landscape with jagged limestone cliffs, brooding jungle and the snaking Mekong River as a backdrop. Community-based trekking combines these spectacular natural attractions with the chance to experience the ‘real Laos’ with a village homestay. The Lao people are wonderfully welcoming hosts and there is no better way to get to know their culture than by sharing their lives.
Don’t miss these magical landscapes:
- Plain of Jars
- Vieng Xai Caves
- Mekong islands of Si Phan Don
- Vang Vieng
- Mekong River
Leisurely sailing down the Mekong River past staggeringly beautiful scenery is one of the top highlights of a trip to Laos.
With the mother Mekong defining the country’s contours, it is no surprise that river trips are a major feature. But this mother has many offspring coursing through the country and some of these smaller rivers offer spectacular scenery. A boat tour on the Mekong offers splendid views of the region’s striking karst limestone mountain slopes, pastoral life, and herds of wild elephants. Boat tours beginning in Huay Xai, the last border town before Thailand, are an ideal way to explore the area.
Not-to-be-missed river trips:
- Huay Xai to Luang Prabang
- Si Phan Don
- Tham Kong Lo
From old temples to memorable markets, Laos is steeped in ancient culture that is waiting to be explored.
Laos has some of the most beautiful wats (temples) in the region, particularly those dotted about the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang. The royal city is home to more than 30 gilded wats, including the soaring roofs of Wat Xieng Thong. Watch hundreds of monks snake through the streets each morning in search of alms; it’s one of the region’s iconic images.
Markets in Laos are a step back in time to an earlier Asia, before the advent of the super-sized shopping malls that characterise the region. Dig around for hill-tribe textiles, seek out unusual fruits or simply engage with the friendly stallholders. In Luang Prabang, there are night markets and day markets which come in every flavour, including the night-time handicraft market and an affordable food market.
Best places to experience Laos culture:
- Luang Prabang
- Muang Sing
Best Time to Visit Laos
The best time to travel is during the relatively cool and dry winter months from October/November to March when the temperature averages around 20°C. Not only is the weather more pleasant at this time of year but the roads are also in better shape. However, temperatures in upland areas, like the Plain of Jars and the Bolaven Plateau, can be surprisingly cold during these months, dropping as low as 8°C at night. In mountainous Xieng Khoung Province, temperatures can drop to freezing point in December and January.
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The second half of the dry season, from April through to the first rains in May or June, sees temperatures soar to up to 40°C in many lowland areas. In the north, it can be every hazy as smoke from burning off the secondary forest hangs in the air. This can cause itchiness of the eyes. What’s more, it means that views are restricted and sometimes flights are cancelled.
During the rainy season, from June through to September/October, the tropical lowlands receive an annual average rainfall of 1250 mm a year. Temperatures during these months are 30-40°C. Average rainfall in Vientiane is 1700 mm, although in Northern Laos and the highlands it is much wetter, with more than 3000 mm each year. From June or July, as the wet season wears on, unsurfaced roads begin to deteriorate and overland transport in some areas becomes difficult.
Where is Laos located?
Laos stretches through the centre of the Indochinese peninsula and borders Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, Vietnam to the east, and China and Myanmar to the north. Laos covers an area of about 90,700 sq miles (235,000 sq km) and supports a population of about six million people. The mighty Mekong River passes through the entire length of the country.