The south-east Asian nation of Laos is a dramatic, exotic and largely undiscovered jewel of the region, with its dreamy mountains, traditional culture and ornate temples
Virtually isolated from Western influences, Laos is a stunning location and offers travellers a unique insight into the traditional way of life in south-east Asia.
Laos, known officially as the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is a landlocked country in south-east Asia bordered to the north-west by Burma and China, to the east by Vietnam, to the south by Cambodia and Thailand to the west.
With its fertile lowlands along the Mekong River valley and its looming Annamite highland region, Laos offers masses of outstanding natural beauty.
The county holds the dubious title of the most bombed nation in history but it is fast emerging from this dark cloud thanks in part to a steadily growing ecotourism industry.
Things To See And Do
The Lao capital Vientiane is home to pretty cafes and shops, but has little in the way of tourist sites and museums. The second city, Louang Phabang, is more exotic, with its gold-tipped temples and historic buildings.
The rugged mountains in Laos are beautiful and the highest point in the country is found at Phou Bia, 2,817m above sea level. Thick forests grace large expanses of the country and provide an interesting destination for hikers, with rich flora and fauna and tiny hill tribe villages.
The Mekong River runs the length of Laos and is the heart of the country. Boat trips along the river are available and it is worth meandering along a section of it between destinations to see the rice fields, villages and misty mountains in the distance. The river islands of Si Phan Don have their own indigenous fishing villages and it is possible on such trips to spot the rare Irawaddy river dolphin.
There are a number of sites of interest dotted around Laos, including the cave complex of the Pathet Lao at Viang Xai, the expanse of bomb craters and ancient funerary urns, dubbed the Plain of Jars, the fascinating Pha That Luang monument, and the ruins of the Khmer temple of Wat Phou. The striking Pak Ou caves, full of images of Buddha, and the towering Khon Phapheng Falls on the Mekong River are also favourite haunts for tourists.
A highlight in the local calendar is the Lunar New Year which begins in mid-April. The whole country comes to a virtual standstill while houses are cleaned and offerings are made to deities.
Khone Phapheng is the largest waterfall by volume in south-east Asia and a great natural feature to visit. Located at the southern end of Si Phan Don, it is comprised of an intricate network of islets.
Laos produces some stunning gold and gemstone products and most tourists return with some ornate and inexpensive jewellery from a trip.
Traditions And Culture In Laos
Cultural traditions in Laos are significantly influenced by Theravada Buddhism - the oldest surviving Buddhist school. This branch of Buddhism is reflected in virtually all aspects of Laos culture including language, art, literature and the performing arts.
Music is Laos is extremely rich, vibrant and varied. One of the most distinctive musical instruments is the bamboo mouth organ, which is known locally as the khene. It was reportedly invented by a woman trying to imitate the calls of the garawek bird.
Lao folk music is known as Lam and typically involves extemporaneous singing accompanied by the khene.
The Lao classical orchestra can be divided into two parts: Sep Nyai (or Mahori) and Sep Noi. The Sep Nyai is ceremonial and formal music and includes two sets of gongs (kong vong), a xylophone (lanat), an oboe (pei or salai), two large kettle drums and two sets of cymbals (xing).
Cuisine in Lao is quite distinct from other south-east Asian culinary traditions. The local staple dish is sticky rice while Galangal, a plant similar to ginger, is also popularly used in Lao cooking, as is fish sauce.
Weather In Laos
Laos more or less has two basic seasons brought on by the annual monsoon cycle that affects most of south-east Asia.
The monsoon period lasts between May and November and is followed by a dry period which runs from November until the following May.
Temperatures are typically on the warm side with daytime highs from high 20s to mid 30s degrees C.
Destination Checklist For Laos
- Laos has a population of about 6.75 million.
- The official currency in use is the Lao kip.
- Lao is the official language spoken.
- The country is seven hours ahead of GMT.
- Laos uses the international dialling code +856.
- Incidents of banditry and unexploded military weapons are issues in rural Laos, so travellers should beware of this and seek further advice on the UK government website.