It’s been nearly twenty-five years since Lionel, one of the founding members of the Selective Asia team, first visited Laos. Although he’s been back many times since, he maintains that he’s still as bowled over by its complex history, stunning scenery, hospitable charm and fresh, flavourful food with a French twist as ever. UNESCO-recognised Luang Prabang has undeniably gained a higher international profile since those early visits, but venture slightly off the main routes and life in timeless Laos continues much as it has always done.
So, what does Lionel’s ideal journey through Laos look like? From the capital Vientiane, he recommends heading to the sights of the enigmatic north and east, including the extraordinary ‘Plain of Jars’, where thousands of huge stone urns can be found bewilderingly scattered across the plateau. Mountainous San Neua and the Vieng Xai caves - evidence of the country’s complicated and sometimes heart-breaking past - are also must-sees, along with far-flung Nam Et National Park, and drifting along the Nam Ou River to strikingly picturesque Nong Khiaw. Take a sojourn in Luang Prabang followed by, in Lionel’s words, some ‘proper R&R’ in the south, exploring the lush Bolaven Plateau and island hopping through picturesque Si Phan Don, the 4,000 islands.
The Laotian capital, Vientiane, is one of those places where it can be tempting to focus, rather unfairly, on what it’s not. With a population of less than a million, it certainly isn’t Bangkok, or any of Asia’s other mega-capitals, and closer to home it’ll never equal Luang Prabang as a historical and cultural centre. Nevertheless, this distinctive ‘village city’ has a character all of its own and is a great place to start your love affair with Laos. Stroll down streets where French-Colonial architecture rests side-by-side with gilded temples. Begin contemplating Laos’ tragic past at the COPE exhibition centre, which highlights the country’s day-to-day struggle with unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War era. Take artsy photos at the quirky Buddha Park, and have your first sin dat (a communal, Lao-style on-table BBQ) in the night market, all without having to dodge endless streams of tourists along the way.
One of Asia’s most enigmatic sites, the UNESCO listed ‘Plain of Jars’ is certainly aptly named. This plateau, where thousands of mysterious stone jars lie scattered, is thought by many to be over 2,500 years old, and the largest jar stands, staggeringly, almost 10ft high. It’s certainly not the easiest place to reach, but our top tip is to take a flight from Vientiane to nearby Phonsavan, then stay for a couple of days in the relatively simple accommodation available in the area. Spend plenty of time marvelling at the jars themselves (and coming up with your own theories!), visit the MAG (Mine Advisory Group) Centre to learn more about the crucial work of clearing the country's thousands of undetected mines and unexploded ordnance, and learn about the inspirational Lone Buffalo community education project.
Your experienced Selective Asia driver will ensure that you wend your way leisurely, and carefully, along the roads to remote Sam Neua. The drive might be long, but the views of the mountains and glimpses of traditional life are extraordinary, and elements that few visitors to Laos ever hear of, let alone see. The town itself has local shops and markets aplenty, but the real attractions lie in its surroundings. Traditional villages of minority communities, such as the Hmong and Khmu; enigmatic menhirs, or standing stones, in the village of Hintang; and the Vieng Xai caves, in whose eerily atmospheric hollows an incredible 23,000 Laotians sheltered during nine years of aerial bombardment from the Vietnam War era. The history is undeniably poignant, perhaps even more so when juxtaposed with the serene limestone karst scenery.
Another remote part of little-known Laos, the Nam Et-Phou Louey Protected Area is the largest area of its kind within the country. This is a region of high biodiversity, home to clouded leopards, golden cats, gibbons, countless species of reptiles, and an array of birdlife, not to mention a notable population of tigers. Whilst many of the larger inhabitants tend to stay hidden in areas of almost impenetrable jungle, there is still always plenty to see. Slightly counterintuitively, the best time to ‘see’ wildlife is often after dark. As you float down the river on a night safari, under a star-bedecked sky, your local Khmu guide and boatmen, armed with only their sharp eyes and a spotlight, will reveal an array of nocturnal creatures. Sleeping arrangements are basic, and it’s definitely not a ‘glamping’ situation, but you can enjoy dinner around the campfire before being gently lulled to sleep by the jungle soundscape.
Leaving Nam Et, it’s time to head towards the Nam Ou! Laos’ rivers tend to meander through some of the country’s most breathtaking terrain, and the Nam Ou is certainly no exception. This wide, blue-brown waterway bends itself between jagged mountains covered with dense vegetation and sprinkled with clouds as it flows towards Nong Khiaw, a remote town with just the right mixture of sleepiness and bustle. Cruise sedately up and downstream, passing isolated rural communities, then pause at the small fishing settlement of Muang Noi to enjoy a simple lunch, whilst soaking up yet more peaceful, pastoral scenes. Back on dry land, Nong Khiaw also lends itself to walking, from gentle strolls to viewpoint hikes, or simply relaxing on the riverbanks with a plate of delicious laab - a salad of fresh herbs and finely ground meats - and a cool drink in hand.
Continue by car via rolling hills, rice paddies and the Pak Ou Caves, to Luang Prabang. This is a city that, despite its prominent position atop the lists of Asia’s most striking destinations, still encapsulates so much of what we love about Laos. In much of Luang Prabang, time seems to have stood still. Almost every street juxtaposes traditional Laotian architecture with more recent Colonial-style buildings meaning that history is always on show. Life in the labyrinthine backstreets remains largely quiet, traditional, and underpinned by the daily rituals of monastic life. Yet the city has undeniably jumped forwards, with visitors staying in beautiful hotels, eating in any number of restaurants, and experiencing the slightly more rowdy joys of live music and a Beer Lao (possibly the greatest Asian beer) down by the river. We’d recommend three, four or even five days to give you time to take it all in. Our guides will be available to show you everything their city has to offer, and can even take you for a typical Laos evening out, including a game of petanque - a favourite national pastime following years of French colonisation.
A sandy beach in a completely landlocked country? Whilst we wouldn’t suggest Laos for those looking for a more traditional sun and sand holiday, there are few better places than Si Phan Don (also known as the 4000 Islands) to relax at the end of a Laos escapade. These islands are dotted throughout a lush river delta, home to rural hamlets and incredible microhabitats for birds and wildlife. The occasional small sandy beaches are ripe for leisurely exploration, and easily reached by boat, on foot or by bicycle. En route to or from this tranquil region, visit the evocative pre-Angkor ruins of UNESCO-listed Wat Phou, one of South-East Asia’s more dramatically situated temple sites, or explore the Bolaven Plateau, a picturesque bubble of intersecting rivers, steep waterfalls and tumbling hills. Navigate these routes away from the well-trodden trail from the passenger seat of a 1960’s-era Army jeep.
The guide price of £3,390US$3,890 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 2 nights in Vientiane, 2 nights in Phonsavan, 2 nights in Sam Neua, 1 night at Nam Et, 2 nights in Nong Khiaw, 3 nights in Luang Prabang and 3 nights at the 4000 Islands; all in our favourite mid-range hotels. How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.
Nestled peacefully on a remote corner of northern Laos, the small village of Muang La is one of those places that you’ll always want to stay an extra day… This journey honours slow travel at its best, balancing time in Laos’ main cities with a relaxed stay in Muang La.