Temples, treehouses, cruises along the Mekong Delta and tours of the markets in Luang Prabang: some of the reasons why Laos is a hidden chill-out gem
It’s a country often described as “sleepy” but don’t let that description fool you. Laos may be delightfully chilled and, compared to its neighbours reasonably untouched by mass tourism, but it has a character and charm that sees it punch above its weight in a quest to claim the affections of travellers to South East Asia.
It’s a short journey from Chiang Rai in Thailand to the north-eastern corner of Laos – and to a border crossing that evokes the days before the onslaught of soulless airports and mega brand domination.
Landlocked, serene, almost shy, Laos is largely overshadowed by Thailand’s beaches and islands, Vietnam’s hill tribe villages and lime karst nautical landscapes, and Cambodia’s iconic temples.
But what is it that makes Laos unique? That’s probably best summed up by experts on the region who say the country continues to offer exactly the type of travel experience that saw so many fall in love with south-east Asia 20 or more years ago.
Eco holidays in Laos
Those who head for Asia can overlook this land of tropical forests, waterfalls, mountains, Khmer ruins and deeply ingrained Buddhist traditions in favour of its more established regional counterparts.
Before joining our boat for the two-day journey east to Luang Prabang we spend a couple of days at the Gibbon Experience, an eco tourism project set deep in forest terrain where we reach our accommodation via a network of zip line cables.
Afterwards, we tuck into a traditional home cooked meal of green papaya salad, vegetables and barbecued meat, and explore the Bokeo Nature Reserve in search of the illusive black gibbon.
Zip line adventure in Loas
All we managed to spot was a small bunch of this endangered species from a distance but it is the jungle experience, tree house living and breathtaking views (which may be slightly scary for some, to start with at least) of cloud-draped mountains and deep valleys as you zip line through the sky that are the selling point.
Mekong River trips
It is cruising the Mekong River – that also takes in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia – where Laos is at her most alluring.
As our boat (a rather inauspicious but perfectly functional vessel) sets sail, the landscape transforms from industrious to barren and back again. Fishermen cast nets, villagers bathe, and on the banks, locals go about daily rituals in a way that has remained undisturbed for generations.
For the most part the scenery is captivating: mountains swathed in green appear on the horizon, days start and end with hazy sunrises and burnt orange sunsets, and palm trees lean from shore providing a canopy over small sections of the world’s 12th longest river.
In truth there isn’t much to do here but that’s really the point – this is about taking in the views, soaking up the atmosphere and seriously reducing the pace of your western lifestyle.
Laos boasts more ethnic minorities than any of its neighbours, making it one of the most diverse countries in south-east Asia.
The village (it’s more of a commune to be honest) we visit is typical of those dotted along the Mekong – wooden houses perched on stilts, discs of palm sugar sit on bamboo sheets drying in the mid-day sun, and school children head home eager to meet strange pale-skinned visitors bearing gifts of pens and note pads.
As the sun sets, our base for the night appears on the horizon. Docking at Luang Say has a certain feel of entering a frontier town. There is a hive of activity as a group of eager porters arrive to collect our luggage and escort us to a lodge nestling at the top of a steep bank.
Our accommodation is in one of 20 bungalows tastefully crafted in traditional Laotian style and come complete with hot showers and large, comfortable beds. After dinner overlooking the Mekong, and with the help no doubt of a glass or two of Ban Baw whiskey, it’s a peaceful night’s sleep.
The following morning we tour the vibrant Pakbeng market with its unrecognisable vegetables, exotic fruit, and brightly coloured, hand-made bags, purses and sandals, and then it’s back on board for the final leg of our journey.
Temples in Luang Prabang
Later that day we dock at Luang Prabang. There was a time it was almost obligatory to dub this small city “sleepy”. That was in the days when backpackers descended and time was spent exploring temples, heading to the top of Mount Phou Si simply to gaze at the views and soaking up the chilled atmosphere.
When to go to Luang Prabang
The climb to the top is still worth it for the spectacular views but sunsets are now considerably more crowded and noisy than when I first visited, so set the alarm and head there for sunrise or travel in the low season (May to September).
The Royal Palace, built in 1904 during the French colonial era for King Sisavang Vong and his family, and Luang Prabang’s portfolio of wat (temples) ensure there is plenty to keep you occupied for a few days.
Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City) is one of the most important monasteries in Laos and remains a significant monument to the country’s spirit of religion, past royal patronage and traditional art. If your schedule allows then you should also check out Wat Sen and Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham.
Hotels, food and dining in Laos
Apart from a brief occupation by the Japanese towards the end of World War II, Laos was in the hands of the French from 1893 until it gained independence in 1954. And that influence can still be felt today with the smell of freshly baked bread never too far away.
As you sip on a fine cup of coffee and tuck into a fresh out-of-the-oven croissant, children in crisp white shirts and neatly pressed shorts pass by en-route to school; Buddhist monks in signature saffron-robes serenely parade down the main street, and locals begin preparing for the day ahead.
It would be wrong to suggest this is a place untouched by tourism. When it comes to dining there is now considerably more choice than when I first visited in 2001. Then it was mostly a limited, locally-run selection; now it’s grown to encompass wine bars, high-end dining and cozy, romantic corners.
Luang Prabang has also expanded to accommodate a growing selection of hotels, some are seriously high-end but it’s not difficult to find smaller, atmospheric places to stay.
But as you take that breakfast in one of its cafés (if a pain au chocolate is too much like a Sunday morning at home, opt for a noodle soup or fried Chinese doughnut) you instantly feel life’s speedometer decrease and your general sense that all will be fine with the world heightened.
That’s Laos. Not so much sleepy as wonderfully relaxing. Whether you’re a Far East novice or a veteran, it’s a country whose charm largely rests in the fact it so often gets overlooked in favour of its bigger, brasher neighbours.
Top things to do in Laos
Champasak: A good base in southern Laos for exploring Khmer ruins and visiting Wat Phou (a Khmer Hindu temple complex) and the 4000 islands (see below).
Bolaven Plateau and Tad Fan Waterfalls: A jeep safari is a great way to discover this area.
Plain of Jars: In the north-east this makes for a mysterious diversion into one of Laos’ least-visited regions. It can also be easily combined with a trip across the border into Vietnam.
4,000 Islands: An archipelago in the southern part of the country. Located within the Mekong River, the area is characterised by numerous islands, many of which are submerged when the river floods.
Vang Vieng: The hordes of backpackers have lessened so this is a good spot in which to spend some time. The karst hill landscapes that provide a backdrop to the town are one of its defining features.
Khammoune: Located in central Laos and noted for its forested mountainous terrain, this is another lesser-explored part; great for cycling and exploring caves.