Travel guide to Laos
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), commonly referred to as Laos, is the only land-locked country in Southeast Asia. It shares its northern border with China and Vietnam, its eastern border with Vietnam, its southern border with Cambodia, its western border with Thailand, and its northwestern border with Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Laos encompasses almost 240,000 square km), or just under 92,000 square miles, of rugged hills, dense jungle, meandering rivers, and shifting lakes. The capital of Laos is Vientiane, a relatively small city on the Mekong River, just across the border (via the Friendship Bridge) from Thailand.
Laos is one of those almost-undiscovered travel destinations that is too quickly becoming a stop on the main tourist trail. It’s a land of incredible contrasts – beautiful scenery, raging rivers, poor infrastructure, great food, fabulous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and incredibly poor people. The country is slowly awakening to the possibilities of adventure and eco-tourism, but there is still a long way to go.
Despite its high economic growth rate, Laos remains a country with a primitive infrastructure; it has no railroads, a rudimentary road system, and limited external and internal telecommunications. Travel times are long – plan on a top speed of 40-50 km per hour/25-30 mph on most roads. Public transport is often primitive – rattletrap buses with people sitting on cement bags down the aisle. There are no trains. Lao Aviation flies to most places in the country, and fares are reasonable.
Still, Laos is a country not to be missed. You can see waterfalls that pass more water than Niagara Falls (in the rainy season), cycle around islands in the Mekong where life is almost unchanged from 50-100 years ago, visit hundreds of Buddhist temples and thousands of saffron-robed monks, trek into the hill tribe areas and ride elephants, kayak in the many rivers, visit former royal palaces that are now living history museums, and so much more.
There are no true beaches – Laos is a landlocked country – but there are miles of rivers that are as big as lakes after the rains fall. There’s not much wildlife anymore, but the diversity of plants almost makes up for that. The population is very diverse. Despite the wide variety of ethnic groups the undercurrent is one of cooperation and friendliness. People genuinely want you to see and enjoy their country.
Unlike several of its neighbors, the Laotian people seem incredibly honest. Even single women walking around can feel pretty safe, although caution at night is never a bad idea. Still, it pays to watch your stuff – especially your shoes!
Laos was controlled by Thailand from the late 18th century until the late 19th century, when it became part of French Indochina. The Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907 defined the current Lao border with Thailand. In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao took control of the government, ending a sixcentury-old monarchy. Initial closer ties to Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private enterprise, a liberalization of foreign investment laws, and the admission into ASEAN in 1997. The communist government of Laos makes the country one of the few remaining officially communist states. It began decentralizing control and encouraging private enterprise in 1986. The results, starting from an extremely low base, were striking, with growth averaging 7% in 1988-2001, except during the short-lived drop caused by the Asian financial crisis in 1997.
If you only have one week to spend in Laos, plan on seeing just one-third of the country. In the northern third it is easy to spend an entire week in Luang Prabang and nearby areas. The Luang Prabang area is by far the best developed in terms of eco-travel and adventure/active travel.
It also has the greatest concentration of temples and other cultural sights. You can spend some time hiking and mountain biking, ride an elephant, raft or boat the Mekong, and visit scores of temples (wats) in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can take time for a massage or two, shop the night market for wonderful silks and silver jewelry, tour the former royal residence (can you say “art-deco”?) and escape the worries of the rest of the world.
In two weeks you can explore Luang Prabang and add a trip to the Plain of Jars, plus take the private tourist bus to Vientiane to see the world’s sleepiest international capital and fill up on baguettes and French coffee.
You can do all of the above, and add a trip to Pakse and Champasak to see the fabulous ruins, then on to the Mekong’s 4,000 islands and Don Khong Island for some boating, hiking, and freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin viewing.