While Laos was not directly at war with the USA during the Vietnam War, it was a haven for Viet Cong and hence suffered bombing until peace was announced in 1975. Subsequently, this landlocked country in South East Asia has recovered and become an attractive tourist destination. It remains poor and the infrastructure is under-developed but there are plenty of things to do in Laos with a good Laos travel agent only too happy to provide help and advice.
In common with the rest of the region, the people are primarily Buddhist and that is evident to everyone travelling around Laos because some of its major attractions are the temples and ever-present orangerobed monks.
• Luang Prabang is at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. It is the old capital which has been recognised by being granted UNESCO World Heritage status. Temples are everywhere to enjoy and orange –robed monks are just as common. The traditional Laotian wooden houses intermingle with the temples and French colonial architecture. Haw Kham was once the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang but it is now a museum. Another attraction is Xieng Toung, an old monastery.
• The Pak Ou Caves are to the north of Luang Prabang on the banks of the Mekong River. There are hundreds of Buddhist statues, some in a poor state of repair but it is bad luck to throw them away.
• Kuang Si Falls arein the opposite direction, 30 km south of Luang Prabang. There are pools on the different levels but there are also the leeches in the water. This spectacular setting has plenty of tourist facilities with the place especially popular in the high season.
• That Luang, the Great Stupa, is in today’s capital, Vientiane. It is the national symbol of the country. Externally, it looks like a fortress but once you are inside, you will see two temples with golf leaf on top of the main stupa.
• Wat Sisaket in Vientiane is famous for thousands of small Buddhist images and the rows of seated Buddhas. The construction was between the 16th and 19th Centuries. They come in all shapes and sizes, wood, bronze or stone. Buddha Park in Vientiane has more than 200 religious statues. The most impressive is a 40-metre high reclining Buddha. It was only built in the incidentally.
• Vang Viengbetween Luang Prabang and Vientiane was just a place to break the journey but it is now regarded as the outdoor activity ‘’capital’’ of Laos. There are many activities including caving, rock climbing, kayaking, trekking and mountain biking.
• Pakse, the capital of Champasak in South Laos, is a transport hub for the wider region. It is not so crowded as Luang Prabang so it is the best place to visit to see the monk alms giving ceremony at Wat Luang.
• Bolaven Plateau also in the south sits at more than 1,000 metres above sea level. It is the most important coffee producing region in the country after the French realised it was an ideal place to grow it. Other agricultural products are grown as well in a region. Tad Fane Waterfall is the most impressive waterfall in Laos and arguably the whole of Indochina.
• Wat Phou is comparable to Angkor Wat and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is built on a hillside near Pakse and there are wonderful views over the immediate region and the Mekong River.
• The Plain of Jars has thousands of stone jars in various sizes right across the region close to Phonosavan. One of the theories of their origin is that they were Iron Age burial sites. The bombing during the Vietnam War damaged the Plain and there are unexplored bombs so take care if you are an independent traveller.
• That Ing Hang Stupa was built in the 16th Century. It is a lovely carving 9 metres high, located in Savannnaket the town famous as the birthplace of a former Laotian leader, Kaysone Phomvihane.
• Si Phan Don in the Mekong River in South Laos is 400 islands. There is no better place to relax in the whole of the country. There is no doubt that Laos lags behind some of its neighbours when it comes to development. That is really no disadvantage and in some ways, it is an advantage because it has yet to be changed by outside influences.
It is important to respect the people and its religion. In some ways, photographers tend to be intrusive at such things as the alms giving ceremony. While the country is still cheap, it tends to be more expensive than its neighbours; not enough to get upset if you are on a Laos family tour. A good Laos travel guide will include the best of the country and Laos tour packages will usually include the highlights.
There is the odd problem which is natural when a tourist is regarded as rich in a poor country but if you are on an organised itinerary, it is unlikely that you will be exposed to such problems. When it comes to the best and worst things about visiting Laos, there is little in the ‘’worst’’ category.
The climate of the whole of South East Asia includes a monsoon season. When you need to make a decision on the best time to visit Laos, you need to take this into account. It would be wrong to dismiss the rainy season completely but you have to recognise that transport is often more difficult during the monsoon months. They begin in May and last until the end of October. Rain is heavy but rarely constant. There will be many clear periods as well. There will be fewer tourists during this time, and prices usually fall. However, at times, the Mekong can flood, especially after a couple of months of the monsoons. It cools somewhat at the end of the rains and more tourists arrive but gradually it gets hotter as the rains approach once more.