Considered by many seasoned travellers to be the untapped gem of Southeast Asia, the diverse landlocked country of Laos is full of surprises. From the mountainous northern highlands to the 4,000 Islands of the Mekong, this nation of just six million has an incredibly diverse geography to match its colourful culture.
Buddhism is the dominant theme of this communist nation, followed closely by the animistic traditions of the hill tribes. These ethnic minorities are a big part of what makes Laos so unique. It takes a long time to travel from the north of the country to the south, where the lengthy Mekong River flows into Cambodia. However, thanks to the steady growth of national airline Laos Airways, many urban centres in Laos can be easily reached by plane.
Laos may still be in a state of development, but the friendly Lao people and their growing interest in the outside world has made it into one of the most enjoyable travel destinations in Asia. Conscientious eco-resorts dot the northern mountain tops, and hotspots like Luang Prabang offer quaint rooms and fine dining in restored French colonial mansions. The food here is also different from the surrounding countries. The French influence is evident in the ubiquitous fresh baguettes and the region’s finest beer, Beer Laos.
Some visitors to Laos come for the adventure of trekking into remote villages or kayaking along deserted highland rivers, while others are head for the UNESCO town of Luang Prabang to dine on excellent French cuisine and shop at the charming boutiques selling Lao handicrafts.
The capital Vientiane is so sleepy it hardly requires traffic lights. Venture south to the Bolaven Plateau and you’ll see some of the world’s tastiest yet largely unknown coffee being grown on the volcanic mesa. The 4,000 Islands of the Mekong are also nearby, where a burgeoning tourist scene is quickly.
Most international travellers come via Bangkok and then catch a short connecting flight, but there are some interesting overland routes too. Laos is still an adventurous place to visit with tourism still in its infant stages, but for some it is the undiscovered factor that is its largest appeal.
History Laos lies at the centre of Southeast Asia and is therefore something of a cultural, social and ethnic melting pot of all the nations that make up this region. Thais, Khmers, Chinese and local tribes have been migrating in and out of the Lao region for centuries. The first Lao principalities were formed together in reaction to a Mongol invasion in the 1200s. However, it wasn’t until the next century that Fa Ngum united a cluster of disorganised chiefdoms into his own kingdom near Luang Prabang to create Lan Xang, the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’.
The Lan Xang kingdom was the nucleus of the Laos nation that we know today. The kingdom was initially prosperous and stable, but internal fighting and pressure from bordering kingdoms eventually divided the area into three warring kingdoms: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak.
The Lao people fought among themselves until the 1820s, when all three Lao kingdoms fell to Thailand. However, by the end of the 19th century French Indochina had been created and the Thais were coerced into giving away their Laos territory.
Japan’s invasion of Indochina during WWII gave rise to opposition in the form of the Lao resistance group Lao Issara. In 1953, the country gained independence from France (who tried to resume control after the Japanese surrendered), but the country was internally divided between communists, royalists and neutralists.
Laos became embroiled in the Vietnam War in 1964, when the US began bombing the east of the country. The war split the nation into royalist and communist groups, who fought each other alongside their Vietnamese counterparts. By the end of war, Laos had earned itself the sad honour of being the most heavily bombed nation in the history of warfare.
The communist Pathet Lao party won control of the country in a peaceful coup in 1975. Laos maintained a close relationship with the communist party of Vietnam through the 1980s, until both nations began to open up to capitalism and a market economy. When Laos entered ASEAN in 1997, it was hailed as a major step forward. However, immediately after joining the country suffered from rampant inflation and currency devaluation.
Since 1997, the government has made a concerted effort to attract tourists to the country, and the future economic stability of Laos looks set to rely heavily on the tourist industry.
Weather Despite Laos stretching for hundreds of kilometres from north to south, the entire country has a monsoon tropical climate. The rainy season affects north and south from May to October, when rains regularly pound the hills and rice fields. Temperatures are warm during the monsoon, but afternoon thunderstorms can bring cooling winds and chilly rain. Showers are typically strong but brief, and the vegetation reaches its maximum hue of green.
The dry season runs from November to April, when the rains dissipate, the sky clears and the weather turns wonderfully cool. December and January are the best months to visit, as the whole country hits its lowest annual temperatures with day after day of blue skies. In the north of Laos, winter can be quite chilly at night, so bring a sweater. The south is much warmer, but still very pleasant. Most tourism happens during the winter, especially around New Year, when hotels in towns like Luang Prabang can become fully booked.
Visitors who arrive during the hottest, driest and haziest time of the year from March to April take relief in the water festival that takes place at Lao New Year in April. However, this is also when farmers burn their fields, and the skies are commonly hazy at this time.