If you ask many travellers on the South East Asian circuit, they will tell you that the time to visit Laos is now. Those who have visited often speak of this beautiful country with a combination of enthusiasm and urgency. They speak of the wondrous natural beauty, and the infectious simplicity of much of the traditional way of life. But there is the feeling that it will not always be this way. There are indeed many awe-inspiring wildernesses to be found throughout Laos, and countless opportunities for ecotourism, which is really taking hold in the country. But Laos- a landlocked state, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam- is rapidly opening up to the outside world.
It’s opening up its borders as an exotic and cheap backpacker destination. There are more and more guesthouses, tourist-friendly cafes and other facilities, meaning more and more mainstream travellers. Laos is losing its isolation and therefore risking its charm. There seems to be a common perception that the pure wonder of Laos’ rich cultural heritage will soon be transformed by the onslaught of backpackers who desire to experience it. This is not to mention the external demand for resources such as timber, and hydroelectric power projects.
But for the moment, once you are immersed in the country, enveloped in its peace and tranquillity, all seems well. There are opportunities to get into nature, hiking and kayaking in isolated, sleepy mountain villages. Most travellers’ blissed-out experience of Laos stands in stark contrast to some of its more recent history.
Laos’ history- to give a quick overview- goes back to the kingdom of Lan Xang, which means ‘Land of a Million Elephants.’ This kingdom, established in the fourteenth century, was one of the largest in SE Asia, and was comprised of Lao and Thai people, together with a vibrant mix of various other hill tribes.
After it split apart at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Laos was claimed as a French protectorate, and the French asserted Vientiane as the capital of the unified state. Independence was declared in 1945, but it took a few years before this was made a reality. You don’t have to look far to see hints of French influence, such as locals enjoying their morning coffee, or visiting chic tailor shops in cosmopolitan towns and cities along the Mekong River.
Getting caught up in the Vietnam War lead to the almost continual bombing of Laos from 1964 to 1973. It is said that US bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos during this time than was dropped in total during the entire duration of World War Two. For this reason Laos is infamously suspected to hold the title of most bombed country in the world, in relation to its population.
After 1975, when communists overthrew the government, the country was renamed the ‘Lao People’s Democratic Republic.’ Vietnam held a lot of influence over the country until its emergence into ASEAN. To this day, Laos remains a socialist republic; a single-party communist state.
Despite the history, Laos exudes a presence as an incredibly peaceful country. That’s the experience that most people who visit tend to have. When you arrive in Laos and experience it for yourself, the history is brought to life through the context of your experience. The politics fades away as nature surrounds and envelops you with an authentic and primitive sense of wonder. Immersed in the natural world, most travellers find that being in Laos is all about establishing a connection to the perennial, rather than the pushing and pulling of political activity. It is a calming and humbling experience to stand amidst such pure and unassuming timeless natural beauty. It brings people back to themselves, and the whole country beckons with exploration and adventure. Maybe this is why trekking and other low-impact forms of eco-travel are so popular here, with stunning mountain valley views.
There is plenty to do in Laos. In the north- on the mightily tranquil Mekong River- is Luang Prabang, just over 400kms north of Vientiane. As the former royal capital and seat of government in Laos, Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It exudes the atmosphere and charm of Indochina. This city, much of which feels like an extended town, is the perfect illustration of the intermingling and coming together of 19th and 20th century colonial European influences, Lao urbanity and traditional architectural structures. There are so many ancient temples to explore in this relatively small area, demonstrating the rich cultural heritage that many fear will be changed by the increase in visitor numbers. It is here you can find remarkable, typically Laotian sweeping roofs that look like golden-white ski slopes. Beautiful handcrafted tapestries are on offer in the street markets, with intricate designs and vibrant colours threaded into the material. Catch a glimpse of the cheerful embroidery of the Hmong (Miao) minority people, one of the many minority cultures of Lao.
There is the fear that tourism- although encouraged in Laos- is displacing locals and turning too many colonial buildings into hotel complexes. The reverence of Buddhist ceremonies has been affected too, since they start to turn into cultural shows for the benefit of tourists with digital cameras. There is clearly a need for tourists to be aware of the impact they have, and for us to visit special places like Laos with respect.
Heading south, tracing the Mekong on the map, we come to the capital, Vientiane. This is also Laos’ largest city. The city developed due to a dependence on river transportation, and the fertility of surrounding farmland, where rice and corn are still grown, and livestock slowly roam the land. As you meet and greet at the temples, with shrines to Buddha never far away, monks might be seen reading or mindfully pacing under the shade of trees.
Between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and slightly east, is the region known as the Plain of Jars. Giant stone jars, about 2,000 years old and up to three metres high, are strewn across the landscape in surreal clusters. Local legend claims that a race of giants once lived in this area, but there is also much evidence to suggest that the jars mark an old trade route.
Located in north-western Laos, the Nam Tha, or Tha River, is just one of the twelve main tributaries of the Mekong. Enjoy the views of stunning limestone cliffs and patches of forest passing by as you travel the calm, wide, mountain-flanked rivers in a simple wooden longtail boat. Traditional villages and some of the least disturbed ecosystems in SE Asia can be seen while journeying at a relaxed pace down the Nam Tha.
Hill tribe village treks can be made throughout Laos, just one example of which is from Luang Nam Tha (the area around the river). The suburbs of this Laotian city have watery green rice fields and wooden houses on stilts, made with bamboo and reeds for roofs. If you are fortunate enough to explore inside, you will find a dusty, shady, yet simple and homely interior. Set amidst the landscape of Palm trees, greenery and wooden shacks, cockerels and barking dogs wake you up for the splendour of the day at dawn. It is in Laos’ hills and villages that the mountain tribes practice animism and spirit worship, which exists in harmony with Laos’ majority Buddhist population.
Trekking through the Nam Ha National Protected Area- an ASEAN Heritage Park- is well worth the effort. There are over 220,000 hectares of land, comprising everything from lowlands to 2,000-metre peaks- some of the largest and most important wilderness areas in Laos. Evergreen forests, broadleaf woodlands, clear water streams and rivers are all well represented. Animals in the area include elephants, leopards and tigers! The Protected Area has demonstrated environmentally sustainable success and serves as a model for elsewhere.
In the south, not far from Cambodia, is Champasak. This small town has riverside guesthouses, which cater to travellers who want to explore the nearby Wat Phu temple ruins, reminiscent of Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat.
Amidst the nooks and crannies of Laos’ countryside can be found limestone formations and small natural cave networks. Vieng Xai boasts a whole cave city. Alternatively, Pak Ou is an amazing location for cave hiking- negotiating the caves full of buddhas- and rock climbing too. Then there is the area named Si Phan Don, or ‘Four Thousands Islands.’ Here, relaxed farming and fishing communities spread across the sleepy river archipelago. If you’re lucky, you may even see a rare type of freshwater dolphin.
If water is your thing, boat trips can be arranged, as can trips to the Bolaven Plateau waterfalls. You can Kayak the Khammuan, gazing at the caves in the limestone on the way. River tubing is a popular pursuit too, but be warned- Vang Vieng, a centre of this activity, is known to be full of drunken foreign tourists. It’s not everyone’s scene, but clearly many people’s, judging by the numbers of visitors.
Briefly, other highlights include riding an elephant through the mountainous forests of Hongsa, or being carried up Phu Asa by elephant. Whatever you end up doing, be sure to experience an open air ride in a Lao pick-up-style tuc-tuc truck on the dusty, bumpy dirt tracks. Sure, rickety buses connect the major cities, but there’s bound to be someone willing to give you a ride- Lao people are very hospitable and friendly. Perhaps you will even get offered some food- sticky rice, meat wrapped in banana leaves, chillies, or spicy, leafy vegetables. Don’t be afraid to tuck in- meals are often eaten with your fingers, Lao style!
Maybe you’ll even be around for a national festival. Most of them are based around Theravada Buddhism or the cycles of the moon. Festivals showcase dances, poems, parades, theatre and puppet shows. One particularly interesting one is Boun Bang Fai, or the rocket festival. On the eve of the planting season, firing rockets into the air is supposed to encourage the rain to fall, and there are competitions for the best rocket decoration and performance! And try to catch Maw lam too- the traditional musical drama of the countryside. This roughly translates to ‘master of dance’ and is a folk tradition of Laos.
So dig in and enjoy the quiet natural beauty of Laos. It’s a serene backpacker’s paradise, and you should go there before mass tourism takes hold. Get off the beaten track, and avoid wearing-in the standard routes too heavily- it will be well worth it!