While Thailand led the way on tourist numbers once long haul flights became widely available, the other countries in South East Asia have been catching up. Vietnam is now growing each year and while Laos is still some way behind them, the country is at peace and more than happy to welcome overseas tourists wanting a Laos holiday. A travel agent experienced in putting together Laos travel packages can offer a variety of experiences in the country, and is more than happy to discuss the highlights in Laos with those that are unfamiliar with this part of Indochina.
The infrastructure in the country may still need some development but in many ways, this is part of the charm of the country. While it is still a one-party state, the fall of the USSR resulted in a gradual opening up of Laos and it is now a member of the World Trade Organisation. The economy has grown and tourism is playing its part in that. If you decide to travel in Laos, you may be frustrated at times, but much more of the time, you will enjoy the many great sites, the natural environment and of course the people. The majority are Lao though with the country bordered by many others, there is an elememnt of Vietnamese and Chinese as well, and these countries have had an influence on things such as the local cuisine.
When it comes to the best time to visit Laos, the summer rains finish in September leading to the dry season right around until April. Laos is a landlocked country so there is no coastal influences like in the other countries of South East Asia. During the rains, some of the roads in remote regions may be unpassable at times, but travellers will still enjoy Laos even during those months of rain. As the monsoon season starts, there may just be showers rather than persistent heavy rain, and even in July and August, rain may come through the night with plenty of clear skies during the day. The other advantage of low season is less people, and hence sometimes better bargains.
Laos is largely rural with as many as 75% of the people living off the land. The most fertile region is the Mekong Valley while in mountainous areas, the land offers no more than a subsistence living. If you really want to get to know Laos, you must ask that your Laos tour package includes visiting the mountains; it is likely that a good travel agency will do that anyway, unless specifically asked not to.
The majority of the population lives in the south with mountains dominating the rest of the country. It used to be called the ‘’ Land of a Million Elephants’’ and though the natural environment has survived very well, the elephant population is nowhere near that these days.
Religion plays an important role in Lao life with several festivals around the year commemorating and worshipping Buddha. Early in the calendar year there is Pha Wet and
Magha Puja commemorating his life and his teachings. Visitors will enjoy watching the festivities while around that time, but varying in the exact date each year, there is the Vietnamese and Chinese New Year (Tet). Other festivals in the year celebrate the harvest, seek rain for the crops and pay respect to the Dead. If you are travelling in Laos when one of these festivals is taking place, make sure you go to watch the festivities.
In terms of tourism, Laos breaks down into sections, each of which should be included in a Laos travel itinerary:
• Cities. Even though Vientiane is the capital of Laos, Luang Prabang is the city where you are likely to spend most time. It is a mix of French colonial architecture, temples, traditional Lao wooden houses and there are monks at every turn. You can get a view across the whole region on Phou Si Hill which looks down on Luang Prabang. It is a climb, but well worth it, especially to see the sunset. The Mekong waterfront attracts crowds, especially as the sun sets and you are looking for a restaurant. Not far away there is Vat XiengToung, an old and most beautiful monastery. Haw Kham was formerly the royal palace but it is now a museum offering further insight into Laos. The National Museum is actually in Vientiane, one of several in the capital. There are also two very important temples, That Luang which is seen as the symbol of the country and Wat Sisaket with its thousands of Buddha images.
• Out of Town. Laos is famous for its waterfalls. Kuang Si south of Luang Prabang is probably the most famous; its one several levels and you are allowed to bathe though there are leeches. There are lovely gardens nearby full of orchids and well as one full of butterflies. Perhaps another set of falls to visit is Tad Sae? To the north of Luang Prabang on the Mekong, there are the Pak Ou Caves which are full of images of Buddha in various states of repair; it is unlucky to throw anything away so the numbers keep growing. Bolaven Plateau is an interesting region; the French identified it as ideal for growing coffee and that remains important today. The Plain of Jars is here, a huge number collected in groups of different sizes, thought to be some kind of burial areas.
• People. No holiday in a country like Laos is complete without mingling with the locals, even if it is only in the market. The Lao are naturally hospitable and tolerant people; you will always see a smile even if life is often hard. They are skilled weavers and produce colourful costumes for special events and festivals. In the remote areas, life has changed little over generations; the Hmong live close to the borders with Vietnam and China and you should try to include their region in your Laos holiday if at all possible.