Travel in Laos: An introduction
A country that so often feels like the land that time forgot; Laos is nothing short of a travel paradise. If you are happy to forgo the beach, then it's the complete package.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR), one of the world's few remaining communist states, is one South East Asia's poorest countries. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Lao has struggled to find its position within a fast-changing political and economic landscape. To make matters worse, during the Asian currency crisis the Laos kip lost nine-tenths of its value in a matter of months.
Laos is a landlocked, mountainous country, widely covered by largely unspoilt tropical forest. Less than 5% of the land is suitable for subsistence agriculture, which nevertheless provides around 80% of employment.
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Quite simply, Laos is Asia’s ‘sleeping beauty’ – vastly untapped travel potential, eco-awareness, deep cultural heritage and some of the friendliest people on the planet all combine to make any visit to Laos an outstanding experience.
Where to travel in Laos?
Many people will associate Laos with just one destination – Luang Prabang. This incredible UNESCO protected city has won numerous travel awards and is certainly worthy of every accolade (and the many more that will undoubtedly follow). However anyone considering a holiday in Laos of more than three of four days should be looking to venture beyond just one city, as incredible as it is. With a little research you will soon discover that Laos has a whole lot more to offer. Along with the dreamy southern islands of Si Phan Done, the mysterious Plain of Jars and the numerous temples to be discovered across the land, Laos also offers some of the finest trekking and light-adventure opportunities in all Asia.
Whilst travellers have been visiting for a number of years, tourism is still very much in its infancy and it's refreshing to find such a responsible approach being taken by the Lao authorities.
In addition to this, the vastly improved infrastructure in Laos has meant that a 12 days + holiday in Laos can now easily include four or five destinations whilst only needing one or two internal flights. In the main it is the improved roads that have made the biggest difference with some journeys times being cut by as much 25%.
So where to start, many will fly into Luang Prabang, spending three or four days exploring it’s incredible temples and enjoying the wonderfully relaxed pace of life. It really is like stepping back in time. There are a number of hotel options to consider ranging from delight, boutique guesthouses in the centre of the Old Town, to the luxurious 5* hotels housed in former palaces or grand Colonial-era buildings.
In the immediate area of Luang Prabang there are a number of destinations and activities to consider such as a night at the wonderful Kamu Eco Lodge, set on the banks of the Mekong River, or make the river cruise to Nong Khiaw passing the famous Pak Ou Caves en route.
Away from Luang Prabang it is better to split the country into three sections when planning your Laos holiday – north, central and south. We’ll start in north and work down however you are likely to exclude some of the following destinations in order to fit your time frame.
As well as flying into Laos you can enter the country through one of its land and river borders such as Huay Xai in the far north west, exiting Thailand at Chiang Khong. From Huay Xai you can either start a two day river journey south to Luang Prabang via Pakbeng onboard the Luang Say Cruise, or you can travel directly east via Muang Sing (a trekkers delight) to the Luang Namtha Region. Base yourself at the wonderful Boatlanding Guest House and explore the surrounding area on foot or bike, visiting local Akha communities. In the far eastern corner of Laos is the little visited region of Phongsali, rewarding the more intrepid traveller with one of the finest rural travelling and trekking experiences in Asia.
Travelling south you can reach Luang Prabang in a days travel however you should consider breaking the journey at the Muang La Resort near Udomxai or the Riverside Lodge in Nong Khiaw.
Having spent time in Luang Prabang, for those with the time and a willingness to make long drives there is the mysterious Plain of Jars, a full days drive from Luang Prabang. Certainly one of Laos’s best kept treasures due to its remoteness, you can base yourself at the atmospheric Auberge du Jarres whilst you visit the sites and explore the abundant countryside that surrounds it. You are also just a days travel from Vietnam and it is possible to reach Hanoi in two, breaking the journey close to the border at Na Meo where the recently open and fascinating Viang Xai Caves (war caves) may prove to be worth the journey alone.
To the south of Luang Prabang is Vang Vieng. Up until recently the town was somewhat overrun by the 18-25 year old backpacker brigade living it up on the river banks all day. However, following a government clampdown, the visitor focus has happily returned to Vang Vieng’s extraordinary natural setting and the opportunities for great caving, kayaing and trekking.
Then the big question for many is Vientiane and whether to visit, with plenty being been put off by its ‘inferior' status to Luang Prabang. Amongst our UK sales team we all agree it’s definitely worth a night or two if you have the time. It’s a remarkable capital city and a visit helps you truly understand what makes Laos ticks…London at rush- hour this is not!
Most people travelling to the far south of Laos will then board a flight to Pakse (you can also fly directly from Luang Prabang or Vientiane) with only the more intrepid travelling by road, passing through Savannakhet and visiting such sites as the recently discovered 'Buddha caves'. Pakse is considered the gateway to southern Laos, an area that has only recently come onto the tourist map. The list of highlights is long and impressive, ranging from Si Phan Done, or the 4000 Islands to Wat Phou and Champasak and lying further east Tad Lo and the Bolaven Plateau. In our opinion to make the journey worthwhile you need to allow three of four days in this southern region staying at such gems as La Folie or the Kingfisher Eco Lodge (or both!) .
Having completed your journey in the south (or you may decide to start here and travel north), you can cross the Cambodian border at Don Kralor or fly from Pakse to Bangkok.