Four unique ways to explore the waterways, wilderness, wildlife, temples and hidden treasure of South-East Asia's hippest destination
Long overshadowed by tourist-friendly Thailand and for decades shuttered behind the bamboo curtain of a xenophobic regime, tiny, landlocked Laos has witnessed a remarkable surge in tourism in the past 15 years. Remarkable, yes – but hardly surprising for a country of sleepy, temple-rich towns, untamed mountain wildernesses and easy-going people. Isolated after the Communist takeover in 1975, Laos suddenly finds itself a hot destination for adventure travel and ecotourism.
A trip to Laos now is a far cry from the early 1990s when travellers were so happy just to be able to get into the country that they didn’t mind the severe travel restrictions that kept them from wandering freely outside the capital. Ah, but now, some snivel, it’s all over: Laos has been discovered.
To those who say it’s overrun we must wonder – do you really miss waiting two hours in a restaurant while the waitress chases the chicken for your dinner?
The beauty of travelling to Laos today is that, at last, you have options. Rock climbing? Check. Drifting down the Mekong on a luxury rice barge? Got it. Want to wander into a village where they look at you as if you’re from Mars? Can do.
What’s more, you can do it all for a fraction of the cost of Thailand – whether it’s £1 for a night in a bare-bones guesthouse or a fine French meal for £5, Laos is one of the least expensive countries in the region to visit.
So there's no reason to ignore Laos any longer. It's time to allow Laos to do the talking. Here are four travel itineraries that will help you get the best out of your Asian adventure.
Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng & Vientiane (two - three weeks)
Cross from northern Thailand and cast off for a two-day cruise down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Soak up the spellbinding atmosphere of the old royal city, with its red-roofed temples and weathered French-Indochinese architecture, and visit Wat Xieng Thong, the country’s finest temple, and the former royal palace. Don’t miss the climb up Phu Si to catch the sunset. Make the pilgrimage to the Pak Ou Buddha Caves or savour a soak beneath Kuang Si waterfall.
Then it’s off for a wild, 170km ride along the old Royal Road to Vang Vieng, with headlong views of rugged valleys and remote mountains. Vang Vieng offers activities from kayaking to exploring the caves hidden in the craggy karsts that give the town its breathtaking backdrop. Wrap it all up with two days in the capital, haggling over textiles in Talat Sao (the Morning Market), admiring the golden spire of Pha That Luang and watching the sun set over the Mekong while sipping a cold Beerlao.
Savannakhet, Wat Phu & the Four Thousand Islands (ten days)
Wander amid the architectural heirlooms of the French in Savannakhet, then head south to follow the Mekong to Si Phan Don for a taste of Lao-style island life. Pick up a boat in Pakse and hop off at serene Champasak, the launching point for visits to Wat Phu, the finest Khmer ruins outside Cambodia.
Back on board, make for the tail end of the Si Phan Don island chain, where rustic lodging awaits on Don Det and Don Khon, a pair of tropical islands fringed with swaying coconut palms and inhabited by easygoing, sarong-clad villagers. Short hikes take in the rusting locomotive that once hauled French goods and passengers across the islands; Somphamit Falls, where fishermen negotiate rickety bamboo catwalks above a jagged gorge; and the village of Ban Hang Khon, from where boat trips depart to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphin that inhabits this pocket of the Mekong.
Luang Nam Tha & around (seven to ten days)
A small circuit through the rugged mountains of north-west Laos puts you in the heart of untamed wilderness – prime trekking territory. Crossing from Thailand to Huay Xai, push north-east on one of the country’s roughest roads to Luang Nam Tha, a hot spot for trekking, mountain biking and rafting in the nearby Nam Ha National Protected area. Nam Ha is home to 37 species of large mammals, including Asian elephant, clouded leopard and tiger, and nearly 300 species of birds.
Head 60km north-west from Luang Nam Tha and you’ve crossed into the Golden Triangle, where the village of Muang Sing is famed for the colourfully dressed vendors and shoppers who descend upon its market. Visit a few of the many hilltribe settlements – among them Akha, Mien, Hmong, Thai Dam – in the nearby valley and mountains. Back in Luang Nam Tha, catch a boat for the two-day trip down the Tha River before catching a speedboat for the final 40km push back to Huay Xai.
Nam Ou, the Pathet Lao caves & the Plain of Jars (ten days)
The remote north-east offers striking mountain scenery and rustic villages. From Luang Prabang follow the Ou River north to Nong Khiaw and detour further upriver to the chilled-out haven of Muang Ngoi Neua. Loop back to pick up the highway east across the spine of the Annamite Mountains into remote Hua Phan province, the heartland of the Communist revolution. Hire a vehicle to get to the hot springs and waterfalls surrounding provincial capital Sam Neua, and visit the former Pathet Lao caves that honeycomb the karst formations in Vieng Xai and the spooky, empty streets of the town that was to be the centre of a new socialist nation.
Head south through the hills of Xieng Khuang province tothe Plain of Jars. Ringed by dramatic mountains, this area was coveted in the war and resembles a moonscape of bomb craters. In the foothills stand the fields of ancient urns, their makers and purpose still unknown.