Also known as the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’, Laos is the only landlocked country in southeast Asia. But what it lacks in beaches it more than makes up for with its beautiful waterfalls, breathtaking mountainous landscape and fascinating hill tribe settlements. Find out more about what Laos has to offer.
Luang Prabang – the ancient capital and former seat of the Lao Royal Family – sits pretty at the confluence of the mighty Mekong and Nam Kham rivers, in the heart of Laos’ mountainous north. Gently unfurling on a narrow lick of peninsula less than a kilometre long, the ancient centre is steeped in old-world charm, and it is thanks to its UNESCO-protected status that is has resisted modern development. Each morning, monks in burnt orange robes shuffle through the misty streets collecting alms, while French colonial architecture jostles for attention alongside majestic Buddhist temples, royal palaces and the enchanting Wat Xieng Thong monastery. Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang’s geographical and spiritual centre, offers the best vantage point from which to soak up views of the city and jungly outskirts beyond, while a boat trip upstream to marvel at the thousands of Buddha statues lining the Pak Ou caves is not to be missed.
The absolute antithesis to every other southeast Asian capital, go-slow Vientiane’s small-town vibe perfectly complements Laos’ lackadaisical attitude that contributes so heavily to its charm. As a result of six decades under French colonial rule, French influences are woven throughout the fabric of the city, from the wide, bougainvillea-lined boulevards to the piles of freshly baked baguettes and flaky croissants in bakery windows and Vientiane’s thriving pavement café culture. There are just a handful of big-ticket sites in Vientiane: the extraordinarily beautiful Wa Si Saket temple, glittering That Luang (which reputedly houses Buddha’s breastbone) and the COPE Visitor Centre – a sobering insight into Laos’ more recent past in the crossfires of the Indo-China Wars. But the best way to really get under the skin of Vientiane is simply by heading down to the river at sundown, and cracking open a cold beer with the delightfully hospitable locals.
Just off the main tourist trail, life moves at a languid pace in Champasak, Laos’ most picturesque region on the fringes of the Thai and Cambodian borders. Wat Phou is the main draw of this pocket of the country, a colossal Khmer temple that many believe provided some of the blueprint for Angkor Wat, but it’s well worth spending a day or two admiring the faded grandeur of Champasak town, and taking a boat trip along the calm waters of the Mekong. Nearby, the Bolaven Plateau is best-known for its cascading waterfalls and coffee plantations, thanks to the rich volcanic soils and comparatively cool climate. To the south sits Si Phan Don, an archipelago of 4,000 tiny islands and sandbars ringed by traditional villages with free roaming livestock – and the best place to visit to try and spot the desperately endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.