Few people know much about Laos, or even where to locate it on a map. Laos is a landlocked country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam with China looming to the North and Cambodia to the south. Laos has a fascinating history with influences from the ancient Khmer empire of Cambodia, which brought Theraveda Buddhism, and Chinese linguistic influences on minority groups such as the Lanten people. Laos was colonized by the French in 1893 and their influence can still be seen in the cafes of Luang Prabang. Despite its long history of foreign interference, the remoteness of many villages has helped to preserve the unique ethnic minority traditions that make up this small yet diverse Asian nation.
Laos only became open to tourism in the 1980s, and it is now a regular stop on the Southeast Asian backpacker circuit. Laos people have traditionally used boat travel to navigate the lush tropical landscape that makes up much of the country. Taking a cruise along the mighty Mekong is one of the best ways to explore, although opportunities are becoming fewer as China builds more damns along the Mekong River. There has been a push towards developing eco-tourism, with local companies, such as Green Discovery, offering one day or multi-day kayaking, trekking, and bike tours. Many overnight treks offer a chance to see authentic village life during a homestay. As tourism in this small country of just 6.6 million people grows, opportunities for true cultural exchanges diminish. If you want to experience the real Laos don't wait, go now!
If traveling from Thailand you can cross the border via land from Chiang Khong, Thailand. You will need to get a visa on arrival which costs around $35 USD for United States citizens. Many travelers continue on to Luang Nam Tha for a jungle trek and community homestay. After exploring the northern jungles, check out the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. With meandering streets perched at the convergence of the Mekong and Nam Ha Rivers, Luang Prabang is the perfect spot for a luxurious vacation on a backpacker budget. The small city is smattered with beautiful Buddhist temples, French cafes, and stores selling textiles woven in traditional patterns. Luang Prabang is the destination for relaxation in Southeast Asia. After enjoying a delicious breakfast of Lao coffee and pan au chocolate at Cafe Banneton rent a bicycle and explore some of the historical temples or check out the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center near Dara Market to learn about ethnic minorities. It is small, but well curated and the museum shop has high quality fair trade handicrafts for sale at reasonable prices. Grab lunch at Cafe Ban Vat Sene and escape the afternoon heat with a relaxing massage. Just before sunset stroll by some of the larger temples to hear the monks' rhythmic chanting. Later explore the night market, and try street food for dinner. I recommend fried dumplings and spicy noodle soup on the walking street near the post office.
Wake up early the next morning to see the procession of the alms, where local Buddhists offer food to robed monks. Please remember to be respectful by dressing modestly with shoulders and knees covered. While it may be tempting to participate, it is best to hang back and observe, taking pictures without getting too close and corrupting the ritual. Later catch a Tuk Tuk to Kuang Si waterfall, bring a picnic lunch with you. In the evening try one of the riverside restaurants for a delicious dinner of traditional Laos food, or enjoy some French fusion food at Tangor.
From Luang Prabang you can catch a flight to your next Southeast Asian destination or take a bus or minivan headed south to Vang Vieng for a day of outdoor adventure in this backpacker dominated riverside town before continuing on to Vientiane. If you make it as far south as Vientiane I highly recommend visiting the Cope Center to learn about the history of land mines in Laos.
Laos is an incredible country with diverse people, delicious food, and beautiful landscapes to discover. Whether you are looking for adventure or just want to be pampered, Laos has something for everyone. Before you visit be sure to learn a bit about the nation's history and issues facing contemporary Laos people.