Header image courtesy of @todd_wassel_author
For most people, a trip to Southeast Asia means a pilgrimage to some of the world’s most famous sites; Vietnam’s Halong Bay, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the electrifying city of Bangkok, and, of course, Thailand’s stunning beaches. Alongside these bucket-list behemoths, how could sleepy Laos even compare? Few people even know where it is, tucked away beyond the north of Cambodia and sandwiched between the thin spine of Vietnam to the east and Thailand’s famous Golden Triangle to the west.
Sleepy it may be, but the fascinating history of Laos packs a cultural punch strong enough to stun even the most well-travelled. Laos was besieged by more than two million tonnes of ordnance during the Second World War, the equivalent of one planeload of bombs being dropped every eight minutes over the course of nine consecutive years, according to Al Jazeera. This greatly hindered Laos’ development as a tourist destination compared to its Southeast Asian counterparts.
However, the situation is not without merit. Those who love getting off the beaten track will adore Laos, with its friendly locals, rich history, and French colonial architecture that bring a touch of European flair to a profoundly oriental setting.
In Vientiane, Laos’ riverside capital, you will find tree-lined boulevards, crumbling patisseries, and coffee shops, and a remarkably familiar-looking Triumphal Arch. With a relatively large international airport, Vientiane is easily reached via global hubs such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Seoul, as well as offering easy connections with neighbouring towns in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Without doubt, the jewel in Laos’ crown is Luang Prabang. This quiet mountain town has been a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, and it’s easy to see why. Despite being the capital of Laos until as recently as 1975, Luang Prabang maintains a dreamy and nonchalant quality, with low-roofed wooden temples and winding cobblestone lanes. The peaceful streets are almost devoid of vehicles, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of other Asian cities. The only traffic you’ll find are lines of saffron-robed monks meandering alongside the river, and locals on bicycles, trundling to and from the markets at a leisurely pace.
At dawn, people gather in the streets to offer alms, the daily food offering for the hundreds of monks who silently file out of their temples into the morning light. The symbiotic relationship between Lao people and their spiritual representatives is perhaps the reason why Luang Prabang has remained such an untouched gem in a rapidly developing world.
Although Luang Prabang may be remote, you can still travel in comfort and style. With a huge selection of boutique and international hotels, including the world-famous Aman brand’s offering in the area, Amantaka, Luang Prabang certainly offers a little something for everyone, whether you’re staying for a while or just passing through.
For those wishing to get thoroughly off the grid, northern Laos offers some of the most pristine and stunning natural scenery in southeast Asia. Travel by plane, boat, and car to reach Oudomxay, Nong Khiaw, and Muang La, home to remote hill tribes, dramatic landscapes, and truly authentic experiences. Hike, bike, drive, or float between local villages as you learn about the astonishing variety of Laotian tribes, numbering over 200 distinct ethnic groups, each with their own dialect, religion, and traditional costume.
In the south you’ll find the province of Champasak, bordering Cambodia and marking the start of the Khmer road, an ancient ritual highway which centuries ago linked the little-known temple of Wat Phou with its flashy big brother, Angkor Wat. Escape the tourist crowds of the Angkor temples with a trip instead around this lesser-known but equally impressive site. While in Champasak, explore the awe-inspiring 4,000 Islands scattered amongst the white waters of the Mekong, or venture up onto the Bolevan plateau, cross-hatched with rivers and waterfalls.
A Southeast Asian adventure doesn’t need to follow the same well-trodden trail. For those looking for culture, excitement, activity, history, new cuisines, and new experiences, Laos is not to be sniffed at. With increasing foreign investment and infrastructure development in the area and a growing appetite and capacity for visitors, now is the time to explore this hidden gem before the first high-rise hotel beats you to it.
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